Food systems work is messy, but what do we see when we mentally construct the food system? How do we make sense of this mess? Do we think in terms of complex ebbs and flows of agricultural products from producers to consumers? Or in terms of systems of human-made excess that are destabilizing ecological systems? Or maybe it is a series of morally unacceptable injustices borne by the most vulnerable people in our communities?
There is a multiplicity of ways to see the systems that create our food. Over the past 5 years, it has become clear in the AFP work that we all hold different understandings of the food system, and that these understandings are in a constant state of change. While a wide diversity of food system understandings are very important for an ecology of food system changes, they also introduce a layer of complexity that is not only difficult to negotiate, but also places parameters and conditions on the worlds that we think are possible.
For the AFP the question has been and is: How do we embrace the potential in this multiplicity of perspectives without getting mired in the complexities?
In this report we draw upon the concept of anti-essentialism, to suggest a possible way forward. Anti-essentialism is the idea that things (be it people, ideas, worldviews) do not have stable essences. They are at any moment in time results of an ecology or web of ideas and things. At any one time, we are only seeing and making sense of the tip of an iceberg, when most of the substance lies below.
For example, we have seen the tensions between ideas and groups that have been put into oppositional/binary relationships.
Food security vs. local food.
Alternative food systems vs. the emergency food system
Food security vs. farm security
Faith-based vs. Secular
Organic vs. Conventional
Rather than seeking complete alignment or consensus between concepts in these relationships, anti-essentialism teaches us to look for resonances--for spaces where the relationships can be productive. This means viewing food security and local food as unfinished concepts with fluid meanings.
How can we look for resonances between these different ways of making sense of food systems work? How can we look for fruitful resonances below the tips of these icebergs?
From complexity theorists and organismal biologists, we also learn that the border areas between differences are often the most fertile and fecund areas for creativity and responsiveness to new stimuli. As food system practitioners, how are we nurturing these border areas between ideas and ways of seeing the system that seem incompatible? How can we seek resonances and potential alliances of thought, value, and action in the midst of seemingly contradictory framings?
II. Examples from Regional Work
In addition to the Outputs covered in Section IV, the AFP has generated relevant findings for engaging with questions like those posed, just above. These examples are gathered from our experiences working together as multi-state team for several years, across a variety of different positionalities--non-profit, university, extension, activist, value-chain developer, farmer advocate, researcher, soil scientist, economist, anthropologist, etc. Our examples offer a bounded picture, but they point toward the recommendations lined out the final segment of this section.
Developing means for gathering voices. Over the course of nearly five years, the AFP has involved a wide-range of participants with a wide-range of experience, knowledge, and realities. Creating and sustaining the means for gathering this wide range of voices has been critical to the cohesion of our regional work. As we learned through our early work, it was not enough to only hold space (i.e. conferences, etc.) but we needed ways for continued engagement and involvement in decision-making processes.
Developing consent instead of consensus. To facilitate the gathering and sustaining of diverse voice and knowledges, the AFP has employed a governance structure, derived from sociocracy, called Circle Forward. The process focuses on gathering and soliciting a diversity of voices and then focusing on spaces of resonance, rather than total agreement. Participants are not asked to agree with the totality of ideas, but to consent to ideas that are within their “range of tolerance.”
Valuing trust-building. The process of collaboration over a multi-year period made it possible to create alignments and alliances that were not possible at the outset of the project. This has been enabled by a wide range of factors, but consistently, members of the AFP have referred to the value of investing in trust-building. The presence of trust has allowed for deeper alignment and commitments to longer-term engagement around issues of community food security.
III. Spaces and Recommendations
Based on our experiences working in the region, we recommend the cultivation of the followings spaces, concepts, and ideas.
- Creating spaces for experimental innovative relationships. Nurture spaces at the intersection of the oppositional relationships. These spaces could be face-to-face, virtual. The spaces could, and perhaps should, be secondary to another aim. I.e. building alliances and resonances between organic and conventional farmers through food hubs; or between faith-based groups and others, through cooperative grocery stores and emergency food activists.
- In the created spaces value the time it take to build and sustain trust among stakeholders in these spaces.
- Make and take time to formalize some alignments. Tools like the Whole Measures for Community Food Systems, or Whole Measures for Whole Communities are designed to allow for strategic planning around value alignment.
- Building relationships and trust provide a critical foundation for dealing with complexities. For more on Trust see Creating Spaces for Transformation