Lessons on Community Food Systems from Burlington, Vermont

Last week I traveled to Burlington, Vermont to participate in a program called Breakthrough Leaders in Sustainable Food Systems. This program brought together 20 participants from across the country to discuss the social, environmental, economic, diet, and health impacts of our food system. While in Vermont we toured several food businesses and organizations and spent time engaging these issues with leaders from a wide range of disciplines and viewpoints. This gave us a deeper understanding of the climate of the local food system in Vermont and got us thinking through the lens of different stakeholders. In order to relay some of the insights I gained during the program, I wanted to share some key takeaways that we can use when approaching food systems here in West Michigan.

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Find Your Voice

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    Leadership is about the capacity of people and communities to shape the futures they desire. To create change in our own lives and throughout our communities, we must first identify our individual strengths and passions and then find ways to act on them.

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Understand Your Assets

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    All of our farmers, stores, restaurants, and community centers can be considered assets in our food system regardless of their current practices. As consumers, we have the ability to shape these practices as long as we build relationships with these entities and articulate our needs and desires.

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Cultivate Support Through Relationship Building

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    To make a positive impact on our community, we need to be present during all of our interactions and meet people where they are at. We should create space and time for the purpose of listening and understanding one another in order to gain insights on how we can best serve our community.

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Establish the Vocabulary

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    We have yet to establish widely accepted definitions for terms like local and sustainable. With fluid definitions, it is easy for these terms to become co-opted. We need to define these terms in order to encourage businesses to be transparent about their practices.

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Make an Impact

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    It is important to listen and be open to ideas that conflict with our own. We should strive to be holistically conscientious of how our privilege and power play into our role in the food system and use our leverage points to amplify the voices of those who do not have a voice in our food system.

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So, how can we create change here in West Michigan?

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There are many ways to help create a more equitable food system. You can join a CSA, buy from one of our many farmers markets, support local grocery stores, grow your own garden, support the restaurants that support our farmers, and simply connect with neighbors to gain a deeper understanding of one another. We have a beautiful community here in West Michigan and supporting our local food system is our opportunity to strengthen this community by creating a more resilient local economy while ensuring that we have meaningful, honest jobs available to our residents.

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