A Review: Food Tank’s First Summit
in the PNW

Food Tank Summit in Seattle, 2018

2018 Food Tank’s First Summit
in the Pacific Northwest: Growing Food Policy

Have you ever attended a conference and walked away super inspired, then wondered a week later if anything stuck?

I wasn’t sure what to expect of Food Tank’s first summit held in the Pacific Northwest. In the end, it was a net positive. Having taken time to mull things over, there are even some unexpected learnings which will stick with me and help me grow going forward. Writing this review actually helped me process some of it, so thanks, Dear Reader!* I’m hoping the food-interested folks reading this, and the others who participated will help keep this learning going.

To skip the narrative storytelling portion, skip to the actual review part.
 

The Actual Review Part | Speakers NotedAudio/Visual NoteI Just Want Videos!Left Coast is the Best CoastLessons Learned | More Event Opportunities

Objectives

1) to learn some great gems on local food policy and activism going on
2) to get a sense of what kind of nonprofit Food Tank is
I’d seen their activities from afar online, and read some of their media output for the last couple years. You never know for sure what a group is like until you’ve seen it with your own eyes, so I was curious to see them in action. At first glance, they reminded me of a small urban planning nonprofit I worked for in D.C. 10+ years ago, which was modestly-sized but scrappy, and good at leveraging coalition work across states for advocacy.

Assumptions & Biases

What Kind of Policy Debate-Speed Dating Is This?
My hypothesis was that the crowd and speakers would turn out to be a mix of commercial folks and local bureaucrats, sprinkled in with local superstar celebs (like Renee Erickson!) who may or may not get the tools in this space to bridge the gap. I felt some skepticism when I saw the roster of speakers: more than two dozen names for an eight hour event! A glance at sponsors indicated some industry players too, like the Barilla Center for Nutrition & Health.
It’s important to acknowledge from a decade of policy and nonprofit advocacy work, my own bias sits with policy academics, career bureaucrats, minority voices, and being skeptical of private sector spokespeople and their ability to remain objective. See: the history of the sugar lobby. They also warned us back in grad school to maintain objectivity as policy professionals by being careful around associations with commercial entities.
That said, I recently heard this interesting bit of wisdom:
The challenges in our food system are too big for one person to solve, so it stands to reason that it will require folks from all the parts working together.
Sounds pretty practical to me!

Full Disclosure: I Got in by Volunteering

Yup. They were sold out, I didn’t really have $199 in my budget to spend on a one-day event, they were looking for volunteers, and most shifts were 3-4 hours. What a unique perspective, to participate differently for a portion of it, and still take time to really be present and hear the discussion going on.

Professional Development Pro-Tip: If ever you want to attend an event but don’t have the budget, some ‘sweat equity’ is always worth considering.

See #4 of Lessons Learned below, hahha.

Conclusion: a Net Benefit

Fun fact: Did you know that Renee Erickson’s restaurant was the second to shift to a no tipping policy alongside Ivar’s in Seattle? File under “Ways to Vote with your Wallet.” Read more on the true cost of tipping at OpenTable

In the end, I walked away having heard from actors in different parts of the food system and their current efforts, especially some exciting grassroots and foundation-driven efforts to look into more. I’m excited to see how the folks from different perspectives proceed going forward, and have some hope and optimism for the future thanks to the way the conversations went. The policy and issue discussion wasn’t a mile deep or anything, and I’m still waiting to see what takeaways, if any, will surface from this, but I still consider it a net benefit. After writing this article, I realize it also got me to re-examine my own biases for who speaks on policy issues, so hopefully in the future I’ll be even more able to step outside my own academic/policy/social justice comfort zone to hear ideas from private industry in the name of the greater good.

Food Tank appears to be mainly a convener. Perhaps also a media news clearinghouse kind of think tank, I’m not sure what else, based on the very full multi-continental event listings on their site, and a look at their 990 (nonprofit tax statement) They were very sharp on giving people a solid platform to share their messages and start some dialogue, also very smooth on audio/visual recording, more on this later.

Speakers Who Caught My Attention

  • Melony Edwards, Farmer, Willowood Farm of Ebey’s Prairie – one of the few young farmers represented on stage, who impressively also did not come from a farming family. The interview link above has some great tips if you are a passionate about farming and looking for resources, and also her great points on issues we should tackle therein: the lack of racial diversity in land ownership and access, especially in Black America, and the notion that one farming practice is better than another farming practice.

“We need to stop underwriting the costs of cheap food that is harming our health, our agricultural communities, and our environment on so many levels, and we need to encourage a shift to fairly priced food.  With that said, it will not be an easy conversion to have, and this sort of change will take time. We need to find ways to make good, healthy food accessible for lower-income communities. Oftentimes, the very farmers growing our food can’t afford to buy it.” – Melony Edwards

“We care about them and they’re our family and we want them to be happy.” – Renee Erickson

On Community Gardens:
“The potential that I see in these places is that you can also customize and culturalize the kind of foods that you grow in those locations. You’re not only being localized in terms of your food production, you’re also bringing the cultural access to your community garden. […] That’s one of the things I’d like to see more exposure and scaling in other climates.”
-Ernesto Fonseca, CEO, Hacienda Community Development Corporation

Midday Panel Video: hear Sharon Lerman speak to Fresh Bucks’ amplifying buying power of low-income folks’ to buy fruits and vegetables, Ernesto Fonseca on his learnings from Phoenix and community development in Phoenix and others at the midday panel.

Honorable Mention

  • Claire Cummings, Waste Programs Manager, Bon Appetit Management Company (the first waste project manager at BA, who helped save 3 million lbs of deliciously imperfect produce) – Portland
  • Katie Rains, Executive Director, Garden-Raised Bounty (GRuB) – interesting stuff going on in Olympia, there.
  • Whitney Ellersick, Sr Director, Nutrition Services, Portland Public Schools – she also spoke policy wonk! Very good about talking trade-offs and nutrition-related planning, provided some truly actionable suggestions to an audience member asking about procurement challenges.
  • Ben Friedman, Co-Founder and Co-CEO, Homegrown – I enjoy hearing entrepreneurs get the term “value proposition” into a policy/do-gooder discussion. Also, I admit I was kind of hungry for sandwiches and Homegrown makes really tasty ones.
  • Steve Cohen, Manager of Food Policy and Programs, City of Portland Bureau of Planning & Sustainability – actually acknowledged and called out the legacy of institutional racism and the need for “guys like him” who’ve been around for ever needing to make space for more folks -bonus props for work as an Ally.

Smooth Audio/Visual Media

an Underrated Skill in the Nonprofit World
The team in charge of a/v was really smooth. As a volunteer I felt mildly intimidated by their style, which reminded me a bit of what I imagine an old-school circus or Hollywood set was like, but it was definitely a cut above any of the annual events I’d seen in my early nonprofit days. That said, I heard the Facebook live feed had issues. But..they had a Facebook live feed! Lots of folks in public sector can be so scared of litigation they won’t even consider it.
Even better than this: while I suspect they were somewhat proprietary of the summit attendee list, there is now a clear online “paper trail” of the discussion, and the speakers highlighted

30+ Food Leaders to Discuss Food Policy in Seattle (Food Tank article)

2018 Food Tank Summit (Seattle): Growing Food Policy (Videos!)

Left Coast Is the Best Coast! A Little Parochial Jab

I heard some complaints about it feeling like a town hall when audience members spoke at length during Q&A with speakers. This may be a learning process for East Coast folks, but from my decade in local government, I can say this is reflective of the decision-making process in the PNW, where everybody likes to have their say and feel heard. This can be useful for consensus building –or delay decision-making if an overwhelming quorum is needed and the group doesn’t collectively feel like moving forward– but it can also really move good, inclusive policy if you get the right people at the table at the right time.

FWW Rating Recap

Trial Event Rating: 4 of 5. Net good, not too much harm.
Novelty Rating: 4 of 5.
 Interestingly diverse mix of speakers, good for more thought outside the “Ivory tower” of academia or bureaucrat-ese.
Likelihood of Repeat: 50% See below for other prospects.
Lessons Learned:
  1. Always. Bring. Snacks! Even a food issue summit can run out of food (compliments of Bon Appetit). I missed the front of the line due to other bio needs, so was a little loopy most of the day from running mostly on breakfast, and coffee fumes. Shame on me for not packing that environment-draining packet of almonds in my purse…?
  2. When you go to a food systems conference, you might spend your next grocery trip agonizing about the poor animals and low-wage workers trapped in the system and how none of the meat you want to buy is likely to have been raised responsibly, but you don’t want to spend more money, and when are you turning vegan. You’ve been warned.
  3. Progressive policy issues in the PNW attract grandstanding. The parts I most enjoyed were the conversational parts, especially when there was a panel, and also the fireside chat with Renee Erickson. Those were times when it felt like real discussion was taking place, and some learning’ was happenin’. Some of the Q&A with audience spurred insightful answers too. A small minority of participants and speakers took it as an opportunity to grandstand. There was definitely some not-so-veiled liberal progressive dog whistling from one speaker, which I personally could’ve done without. Perhaps s/he felt comfortable including Trump baiting in the liberal bastion that is Seattle, but I don’t find that kind of thing truly collaborative for moving policy decisions forward with the general populace. Moving on…
  4. Volunteering: can you remain objective if you got in by volunteering? Um, no. I found myself torn on how to characterize this, and wanting to be more gentle with my words about the nonprofit lest they be offended and take some ill recourse on me for having volunteered. hmm.
  5. Assumptions & Biases: the speakers may have been experts from government, academics, nonprofit, producers and commercial industry, but the crowd surprised me mildly. Stating my bias for career bureaucrats earlier also shed light on my gut feeling to link to the more academic institutions and omit those to, say, Barilla –but what trumped this was my core value and disposition for a collaborative orientation, so, link-mania it is. I ran into some of my colleagues in nonprofit, academics, and public sector, but I was initially surprised to see the crowd appeared to skew toward early-career folks –purely based on my limited visual observations. Public sector’s median employee age tends to the 40+, so I may just be used to seeing that, but this gives me hope for the future of food systems, if the attendees take what was discussed and run with it.

How’d They Pack All Those Speakers In?

I’m still not sure. In the end, it was indeed a LARGE mix of speakers. Yet, those chosen as moderators did an impressive job of giving different speakers their air time, even including the people of color. They appeared mindful of the power differences between policymakers and other folks such as farmers, and worker advocates. As some one who’s sometimes extra sensitive to this sort of thing, I was pretty happy about the relative mindfulness of the moderators, even while trying to keep on schedule. I can tell you I would’ve had a hard time doing as well. In trying to write this, I found it tempting to mention at least a dozen speakers, so now I understand the temptation. They were all so interesting, and it brought together so many perspectives!

Stay tuned for upcoming listings of food and social justice events.

*Special thanks to Kylie, James who introduced us, Abby, Susan, Esther, Ashley, and Arianna for their various parts in motivating me around this event.

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