by Katie Navarra
Putting MOVE in the Movement. Effecting change. That was the theme of the 2015 Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (NESAWG) annual conference, which took place Nov. 12-14.
Prominent activists and advocates Shirley Sherrod, the executive director of the Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education, and Andy Bichlbaum, of the YES MEN, offered conference attendees insight into diverse strategies that have been successfully used to influence change.
“Shirley has a long history in both the civil rights movement and as an advocate for small-scale farmers in the South. She offered us valuable lessons on how she fought for racial justice in food and ag work,” said Tracy Lerman, NESAWG communications manager.
Held at the Hilton in Saratoga Springs, NY, nearly 300 farm and food systems professionals from 12 neighboring, northeast states joined in three-days of work groups, plenaries and keynote sessions. A handful of participants traveled from as far as Minnesota and Colorado to participate.
“The conference offers high-level discussion about the injustices of the food system and offers diverse perspectives on how to address the issues,” said Theresa Snow, executive director, Salvation Farms in Morrisville, VT.
Individuals who attended the annual conference represent a wide range of agricultural businesses, government agencies, non-profit organizations and academic institutions. All those who attend share a common goal of discussing and proposing workable solutions for addressing labor, trade, production, distribution, environmental, food justice, food systems planning, etc. to bring the region towards a sustainable and just food system.
As a movement building and convening organization, a core part of the organization’s role is to hold a space for people across food and farming work to come together and contribute their ideas to strengthening the movement and ultimately creating a sustainable food system. “So really, every conference is about Putting MOVE in the Movement,” said Lerman.
“This year, we specifically chose to focus on race and equity issues as a major sub-theme of the conference because we believe that any movement focused on sustainability must address that issue — the human side of sustainability,” she added.
To encourage discussion, conference organizers provided prompts for addressing race and equity in the food system. “Among the questions discussed and paraphrased here included (asked) How can farmers who barely earn a living, pay their farmworkers a better, living wage? Policy solutions may be in order,” said Ruth Katz, executive director of NESAWG.
Working groups tackled a broad range of topics from diet, geography, access and public health to food safety, food systems planning, food censorship and misinformation and more. Before the conference concluded, each work group presented on the key topics discussed and proposed plans for action throughout the coming year.
“We want people to understand that the conference isn’t just about talk; the people in the room go-in-depth on topics, learn from one another, and then use the information, brainstorming, strategy sessions and lessons learned to take action when they go home,” added Katz.
In 2016 the regional conference will return to Saratoga Springs and in 2017 it will move to Baltimore. Although dates are not yet confirmed, details will be available on the group’s website nesawg.org.
NESAWG was formed in 1992 by Kathy Ruhf, now a Senior Fellow for the group, and a team of people that includes current Steering Committee Members Michael Rozyne and Kathy Lawrence. “At the time, supermarket executives had no idea what we meant by ‘local’ food and had no interest in ‘organics’,” Katz explained, “(it) was an early stage very NESAWGian activity to bring people together for new, ground-breaking conversations, to explore solutions to farm and food challenges of the day.”
In addition to the annual conference, the organization strives to provide in-person, on-line and other communications means to foster effective collaborations among its more than 500 member organizations, individuals and policy makers.
“NESAWG has been a venue of particular importance to the growth of Food Hubs and Farm-to-Institution efforts. These kinds of programs are helping our region’s farmers find additional marketing opportunities so they can survive, and thrive,” Katz concluded.
To learn more about the organization visit nesawg.org .