Rebuilding the Foodshed by Philip Ackerman-Leist is the latest in Post Carbon Institute's series of Community Resilience Guides published by Chelsea Green. The book is currently available at a special Friends of PCI discount. To take advantage buy here and enter the code: EVDEBS.
Foreword by Deborah Madison
My first editor, years ago, used to warn me, “Whatever you do, don’t look at the big picture! You’ll just get overwhelmed.”
The big picture for me at that time started with a national book tour—a terrifying experience for a former monastic—then went onto rebuilding my life, starting with where to live and what to do. I did get overwhelmed when I tried to wrap my mind around the entirety of my future, but later I was able, bit by bit, to walk into the big picture.
Today I’m not sure we have time for an amble when it comes to reshaping food systems (nor am I sure my editor’s advice was entirely right, though perhaps it was appropriate at the time). I’ve come to see that while we all work in our own areas, we accomplish more when we work in concert with others, which brings me to Rebuilding the Foodshed.
This is definitely a big-picture book, one that requires us to dig in and look deeply at all aspects of the food system and to examine assumptions we might not even realize we held. Thinking and writing about what brings which foods to whose plates at what costs is a tall order. As I read through, I found myself asking many questions, realizing how important systems thinking is to our food future, and wondering just how one finds their place in the food web. It can be overwhelming, but also oh so necessary.
Imagine a piece of cloth and go to a point on its edge, a corner maybe, if it has one. Let’s call that Local Food. Now, as we continue to cast our eyes along the edge, imagine finding several different definitions of local food printed there: definitions that might or might not be sound; definitions related to distance, for example, or definitions that expose flaws not noticed before but inherent in various models. But that’s just the beginning.
Pick up the cloth by that local food corner, and now with the whole cloth in view we can begin to make out some more words—among them carbon sequestration, rotational grazing, land reclamation, waste streams, landscape, synthetic nitrogen, peak phosphorous, food insecurity, heat-recovery systems, community gardens, prisons and food, dead zones, soil fertility, poverty and health, food sovereignty, farmers. And that’s just for starters. All of these words link to complex topics that have some relationship to “local.” It’s essential to understand those relationships in order to begin to build an understanding of our food system and how it might be changed for the betterment of people, health, animals, and environment.
As our cloth becomes increasingly covered with words and arrows linking one topic to another, with graphs and stories both good and appalling, it becomes obvious that rebuilding our food system is going to be far more complex than we may have imagined. It’s not really surprising that Philip Ackerman-Leist is an academic, an activist, a farmer, and, I strongly suspect, a good cook, a good talker, a fine listener, and a thinker who can delve into all the aspects of this ungainly challenge and take them on one at a time in order to describe what rebuilding our food system actually entails.
Thinking like a system requires one to be courageous and unflinching, because we have to look at each segment and partial piece and consider its role thoroughly and carefully, even those parts we don’t like. Like Walmart. Or pesticides. Reading Rebuilding the Foodshed required diligence and a willingness to find the flaws in my own thinking. I know what I’ve valued in food: local and organic, farming that builds soil, landscape and sense of place, and the farm as habitat are all incredibly important to me, as are school gardens, biodiversity, community gardens, and my own backyard efforts. These are all areas I’ve worked in, cared about, written about, and funneled into my life as a cook, chef, and food writer. But how do they connect to other parts in the larger picture? Could they connect better and more deeply? Is connection necessary? (It is.)
In the rural community where I live in Northern New Mexico, a rather typical American sentiment is sometimes expressed. People like to feel that they are rugged individuals—independent people. I’ve even heard one of my neighbors proudly describe herself with those very words. But of course we aren’t, not really. We might be artists, writers, and independent thinkers and creative types, and we might compost our waste and grow some food, but we all get in our cars and drive to the farmers’ market or Whole Foods with the greatest of ease, unless the road happens to be icy. And even if we were rugged individuals, where does that get us? I recall how, in the novel Independent People by Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness, the burning desire for independence ultimately enslaved the protagonist, the rigidly autonomous Bjartu. So fierce was his dream of self-sufficiency and freedom that he failed to cultivate connections to others, and that became his downfall.
What especially impressed me in Rebuilding the Foodshed (though I could easily have tagged each page with a sticky note or more) is that Ackerman-Leist stresses the importance of being in a conversation with others, including those who are not necessarily like-minded, if change is to take place. Communities that manage to survive and prevail display a resilience that is ultimately based on the ability to have those conversations, to listen and speak and reason.
Indeed, the last part of the book shows that what’s common to highly effective movements seeking to change the food system is not necessarily a bright new idea but rather the conversation—the ability to meet with and work with other groups most likely doing different things but together aspiring to rebuilding the foodshed. It makes sense that the most impressive efforts are often not national in scope, but regional. They work in the context of their place and on behalf of the people who live there, and who have a stake in what happens. That’s what gives them the power to be effective.
This encouraged me to take a closer look at my own community. I saw more clearly how different parts of our complex culture are in dialogue, from the farmers’ market to foodbanks; from policy committees to childrens’ programs; from the community visioning group “Dreaming New Mexico” to the water-management organization Acequia Association; from some very good agricultural extension agents to a group of young gardeners who meet once a month for a potluck and information sharing. It’s essential to take part in a larger conversation, whether you are a farmers’ market manager, a member of Slow Food, the head of an agricultural think tank, a native farmer, or even a cookbook writer. It takes all of us to rebuild the foodshed, that’s for sure, and this remarkable book is a most timely guide.
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Foreword—Rebuilding the Foodshed by Post Carbon Institute