Catalyst Newsletter

Catalyst Newsletter

The Catalyst is the FSLN’s monthly newsletter that brings network members a highly curated treasure trove of opportunities and resources from across the good food movement.  

In addition to grant opportunities, tools for leadership and organizational development, and information timely from the FSLN, The Catalyst is a central platform for amplifying the stories of the many leaders and organizations that are working tirelessly to strengthen their communities and transform the food system.

Catalyst Sign Up

  • The FSLN is facilitated by the Wallace Center. Let us know if you’d like to receive quarterly updates on other Wallace Center happenings!

Featured Members
Learn more about the individuals and organizations in this network through the Featured Leader and Featured Organization interviews. Through these pieces, we learn about members’ journeys into food systems work and advice they have learned along the way, and organization’s best practices and tricks of the trade. Explore these features here.

Reflection Pool
Read up on the ideas and reflections shared by fellow FSLN members.

Reflection Pool: Food Stories as Food Justice by Jenny Breen

The kitchen is a place often overlooked and underutilized in food systems change. Through collective experiences-cooking, learning, eating, sharing in the kitchen, we can address justice and inequity. By nourishing others, we are also nourished, and this leads to transformation inside and outside the kitchen. I am a chef and a nutritionist working to prevent the loss of the wisdom and stories behind food and eating, and how they are woven into caring for ourselves, our communities and the land.

Cooking food together is a powerful tool for personal and community healing. I work with cooks to revolutionize school lunch, collaborate with and train community organizers to use cooking as a tool for organizational change, and develop cooking based trainings in an Agricultural food hub for folks on SNAP, farmers, teachers and civic leaders. With a Doctor, I help current and future health professionals understand in their bodies and spirits that food is medicine. Together, we explore the symbiotic role of cooking in human, community and environmental health.

We all have a food story. The memories, experiences, tastes and people that formed who we are and what we know in relationship with food. These stories inspire and inform the process of building a culinary revolution among the inequities of social and institutional racism. For me, food is deeply intertwined with my Jewish identity through the story of my immigrant grandparents. It is both symbolic and literal in its connection to “Tikkun Olam”, the ‘repair of the world’, a foundation of Judaism. The pursuit of justice exists in my genes. Understanding someone’s context is critical before healing can happen. I trust that our stories hold us up, lead us to and through our struggles, and feed us. I am working on cultural humility, where my heritage, and identity is linked with, and dependent on others’, and together we create the possibility, and the reality of a healthy and just food system.  It is at this messy, and delicious intersection-of food, culture, community and health that I believe change happens.

This work is never done.

My fellow food system activists recognize that food and cooking are about community and health and sustaining ourselves and our planet.  Whether chef, or teacher or farmer or cleaner, they take advantage of their place in the food system to take a stand or change a mind, while also highlighting the deliciousness that comes from and through their own hands. We can help people who eat, choose to invest in this system and recognize the important role of a real, good meal in building and sustaining one another.

“We all do better when we all do better” said our late Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone.  This theme, of sharing the burden of improving lives by being in the struggle together is fundamental. The more we share our tools, ideas, and ourselves, the more each of us benefits, and we’re likely go on to improve others’ lives too.  Such is the way that change works. 

About Jenny:
Jenny Breen is a professional chef, professor, and consultant working at the intersection of food, health, sustainable agriculture, and justice. She has spent over half of her career in the food and farming community, building networks, and honing the tools necessary to procure and prepare healthy food to help families, institutional teams, students, and professionals transform their work and lives with simple, accessible, experiential learning.

Reflection Pool: The Hardest Job I’ve Ever Done, Times Two, by Tracy Lerman

At a board staff retreat three years ago, one of my board members, who had recently become a mom and also is an Executive Director, reflected on her role in parenting while running an organization. “Two years ago, I never thought either of these things would happen, and I am so happy that they both did,” she said, and then paused. “But it is so…incredibly…hard.” At the time, I remember thinking, “I’m sure it’s hard, but you’re still here, your baby seems fine, so I guess you just figure it out.”

Shortly before that retreat, I had just become the Executive Director of NESAWG, the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group – NESAWG supports sustainable food systems movement building in the Northeast by convening food systems practitioners for co-learning, collaboration, and policy advocacy. To be honest, I never had Executive Director on my bucket list. Career-wise, I wanted to feel passionate about the issues I worked on, challenged (in a good way), and have autonomy and freedom to implement my ideas, but ED? That sounded like a lot more work than I was interested in taking on. Yet, when the opportunity unexpectedly presented itself at the end of 2016, I surprised myself by jumping at the opportunity.
By the end of 2017, I could honestly say that it was the hardest job I had ever had at the time. While I had energy and vision, I had never fundraised, managed staff aside from interns, or oversaw a board. I spent many sleepless nights worrying about how I was going to bring in enough funds to cover the following year’s budget gap, which candidate to choose for a job opening, how was I going to clear off the million tasks on my plate, and what the heck it even meant to be a leader, anyway?
Then, in early 2018, just as I was starting to feel like I kinda got this whole ED thing, I became pregnant with my daughter. I don’t really remember the details of the nine months that followed, but I do remember that I made a huge list of things I wanted to get done before I went on maternity leave, to tie things up in a tidy package for my staff and interim director. My daughter had other plans and came a week early, and that initial introduction into parenthood has been an important lesson about being a mom – you can’t do everything, so you better learn how to aggressively prioritize. (Spoiler alert, I’m still figuring out that one.)
I was lucky enough to have three blissful months of maternity leave with baby Iyla, but re-entry back into the working world was excruciating. I was sleep deprived, hormonal, still figuring out breastfeeding, scrambling to find childcare, and just really wanted to be with my baby all the time. I also now did not have the luxury or the wherewithal to work all the extra hours I did prior to having a baby – not only because when childcare left, I was done working until bedtime, but also because when Iyla went to bed, I was completely wiped out. Hence the aggressively prioritizing, as well as learning to let go of tasks, delegate, and quit my addiction to perfectionism (which I’m also still working on.) But it wasn’t just the practical matter of needing to take care of my baby or being too tired that has forced my hand on these skills. I care deeply about my work, but even more so, the most important job for me is to be a good parent to my daughter. I don’t want to ever look back at my life and feel like I chose my work over her. It feels scary to put those thoughts into words on a website that other people can read, especially as a female ED who wants to be taken seriously as a leader in this work. But I also think it’s something that parents shouldn’t have to hide, and it doesn’t mean that we’re bad at our jobs or don’t care about the issues we work on any more.
In fact, in many ways, working on these issues, has become even more important since I’ve had a child. We all know that the food system impacts so much more than what we eat every day – it affects environmental sustainability, economic livelihoods, and basic human rights. It touches all of the critical issues of our times: climate change, immigrant justice, land control, public health, cultural survival, and basic democracy. When I go to work every day, I am motivated to create a just and sustainable food system for her and all the other young people inheriting the world we leave them. And the fact that I get to lead some small part of this work as the ED of NESAWG is intimidating but also a tremendous privilege.
So now, three years later, I can deeply relate to my board member’s words. I am so happy to have the opportunity to lead NESAWG, and so grateful to be a parent, and it is so unbelievably hard. But also, I am still here, my baby’s doing fine, and I am figuring it out.

Reflection Pool: Takeaways from Two Food Systems Conferences by Annalina Kazickas

Racial Equity, Ownership, Relationships and Language: Takeaways from Two Food Systems Conferences

In addition to supporting the Food Systems Leadership Network, a central part of my job at the Wallace Center is to connect the dots between local, regional, and national-level conversations, and to be a conduit for information, ideas, and inspiration to travel through. What are food systems leaders across the country excited about? What are they challenged by? Where is there momentum? Where should there be momentum? One way to stay abreast of the trends, challenges, and hot topics faced by leaders is by attending conferences.
In the past two months, I’ve been privileged enough to attend two food-focused conferences – the 26th Annual Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group Conference in Jersey City, New Jersey (NESAWG) and the Community Food Systems Conference in Savannah, Georgia (CFS).

It’s hard to distill five days of Conference sessions into a few tangible themes – there were so many important insights and discussions taking place. Folks shared programmatic success stories and lessons shared around topics like institutional procurement, securing alternate sources of capital, nuanced farmers markets that empowered the community and producers, and more. Looking back at it all, though, two macro-trends and two actions stood out to me and felt particularly relevant to the work that Food Systems Leadership Network members are engaged in.


Racial Equity: While part of me has been fearful that ‘racial equity’ may become another misused buzz word coopted in order to appear woke, it was encouraging, educational, and important to be part of genuine conversations centered around racial equity at both conferences. On an individual level, there seemed to be a growing desire by white people to move from being a passive bystander to an ally to an accomplice, while organizationally, a number of discussions, questions, and experiences were shared around shifting white-led organizations (including the often hard work of bringing organizational leaders on the journey) so they more fully represent their communities. Both individuals and organizations were focused on truly walking the talk. Together, this has the power to result in real systems change.

Ownership: The second trend I noticed was around ownership. Ownership of land, assets, monies, and, importantly, decision making was a core part of  the discussions on resource allocation, land reparations, and gentrification. In multiple conversations, attention was brought to whose land we were on, how it became colonized, and steps to take towards reparations. All of these topics are intricately linked to racial equity, and I’m glad that conference attendees are genuinely and humbly leaning into these conversations. It was also exciting to hear how organizations in cities like Newark, NJ were addressing and overcoming these issues through community advocacy trainings and sustainability projects.

Participants at both conferences seemed ready to engage around the uncomfortable realization that local food systems can play a role both in perpetuating and fighting gentrification. As a panelist during the Solidarity Economy and the Food System workshop at NESAWG lamented, “community gardens can be an effective way of resisting land acquisition – they’re a venue for organizing and community building – but they can also be an invitation for gentrification and displacement.” One development strategy that I was excited to learn more about as it actively addressed this presumed Catch-22, was the evolving Equitable Food Oriented Development (EFOD) paradigm. EFOD is a development strategy that organizations across the country have been practicing – it “explicitly seeks to build community assets, pride, and power by and with historically marginalized communities,” as described during the Community Control Through Food: The Emerging Field of Equitable Food Oriented Development at CFS. During this session, I was inspired by organizations like Liberty’s Kitchen and Sankofa Community Development Corporation in New Orleans that have been practicing EFOD and shared how their projects are resulting in more equitable community ownership.

I’ll admit, I am not the most patient person and can be prone to pessimism, so at times I wonder if the system we’re up against is just too powerful; but having candid conversations around gentrification, racial equity, and ownership, and hearing the fire in the voices of food systems leaders across the country as they shared their experiences, perspectives, and program innovations, left me with a renewed inspiration for the impact of this work moving forward.

Relationships: If you ever thought relationships were not key to food systems development… think again. Speakers reiterated time and again the importance of developing and investing in deep, intentional relationships to advance systems change, both interpersonally and inter-organizationally for better collaborations and greater impact. When, during a lunch panel at NESAWG, a youth in the audience responded to this sentiment by directly asking to connect with one of the panelists, also from his neighborhood, I was reminded that mentorship, and the exchange of knowledge between elders and youth, is just as important as a community organization’s relationship with city council. While this may not be a significantly new insight, other relationships, especially the relationships we have with ourselves as well as between the self and land, culture, heritage, and community offered particularly thought-provoking considerations that brought a nuanced sense of humanity and connection into the food systems conversations. Ultimately, these more subtle relationships form the foundation upon which inter-organizational relationships can be strengthened.  

Language: At CFS, culinary historian and Keynote Speaker Michael Twitty, dissected the word “yum,” a relatively well-known American English word commonly used to describe an appreciation of food. Upon further investigation, “yum” means “food” in some West African languages including Fulani and Wolof, has similar connotation in Jamaican Patwa (and even in Cambodia as an attendee commented). “Yum” was brought to the United States by enslaved peoples, passed along by enslaved women who became nannies to slaveholder children. But the history and evolution of that word is rarely told. Whether intentional or not, we so often craft narratives to match our world view. Language and words have immense power – and history – to them; and we have a great responsibility to understand them as well. Whether you’re at a place-based or a national organization, it is essential that we think critically about the narratives we create, share, and perpetuate, and recognize the lasting impact they can have. Being at a national organization, I have come to learn just how profound this responsibility is. We must continue to ask ourselves what stories, and whose stories, are being told or not being told and who’s telling those stories. And as we develop and pass down narratives, we can’t assume we’re all on the same page – taking the time to develop a shared understanding of what may appear to be commonly understood words, and to ensure that inclusive, unintimidating, and anti-racist language are used, are necessary first steps.

I’m certain that I have not included all the key trends that emerged and specific industry statistics that were shared during the CFS and NESAWG Conferences. But I am convinced that the above four topics – racial equity, ownership, relationships, and language – will continue to be intentionally interwoven in many of the conversations, programmatic innovations, and policy decisions in the coming years. They’re too important, and the movement is too loud, to let them go by the wayside.

As a first time attendee at CFS and NESAWG, it was an absolute honor to be among so many intelligent, passionate, and dedicated people. I’m grateful for the opportunities to hear from excellent panelists, converse with food systems leaders, and challenge myself to better understand the past, present, and future of this good food movement.

PS. A few more of my favorite quotes from food systems leaders at these conferences:
“One of the best ways to heal oppression is to celebrate who you are.” – Michael Twitty, CFS Evening Keynote
 “Cities aren’t developed with people in mind.” –Migration, Displacement, Organizing and Resilience: Building and Protecting Community Food Systems in the Face of Gentrification with Brandy Brooks, Tobias Fox, Mark Winston Griffith, and Kele Nkhereanye, NESAWG Opening Plenary
 “Equitable Food Oriented Development explicitly seeks to build community assets, pride, and power by and with historically marginalized communities.” –
 “Seek out the outliers; the stories that show we could’ve been better.” – Michael Twitty, CFS Evening Keynote
“We all have connections to colonial ruptures, don’t skip over the ancestors who caused harm.” – Migration, Displacement, Organizing and Resilience: Dispossession, Restoration, and Reparations with Heber Brown III, Stephanie Morningstar, and Chief Vincent Mann, NESAWG Afternoon Plenary
 “We were struggling with attendance at our Food Policy Council meetings so rather than calling them Food Policy Council meetings, we started calling them Food Council meetings and more people started showing up. Food Council is softer and more inclusive wording.” – Culture Shift Through Multi-Sectoral Teams: Policies, Procedures, and Tools for Success, CFS EXT

Reflection Pool: The Value of Uncertainty by Andrew Carberry

The Wallace Center’s Andrew Carberry reflects on taking an adaptive approach to event planning.

Making, and sticking, to detailed plans has its perks– you have a clear path forward, you can stay on top of your goals, and you can make contingencies. There’s also huge value in being flexible and adapting the plan as you go, even if that scares you, unsettles you, and isn’t always the easiest (and quickest) way forward.

I recently experienced all of that when I was fortunate enough to serve as logistics point for the Wallace Center’s Equitable Food Oriented Development learning journey to Minneapolis, MN: what had been identified as a “cultural foods site visit” in our workplan a year ago evolved into an “EFOD learning journey” as the date for the event approached. How did that happen and what did that mean?

It meant that, not only was I going to have to wait to nail down many of the logistics, but I’d need to start learning about EFOD, finance, and – perhaps most importantly – how to let go of a workplan and trust the shift would result in a richer and more dynamic experience. And it did.

You see, this event began as a ‘cultural foods site visit’ in our workplan about a year ago. We had heard an interest from our partners in visiting the Hmong American Farmers Association, Asian Economic Development Association, and others in the Twin Cities area. In our conversations with partners along the way, as we learned about their sophisticated initiatives to build equity and community wealth through food systems, the topic morphed to focus on EFOD, and a set of partners emerged as content experts to guide the way. What a great opportunity! I was going to get time with the leaders in this arena! In going through the pre-journey readings shared by our partners, I realized there was a long history here that I was not familiar with and I was excited to spend time with experts and learn from their extensive experience.

This new opportunity came with some consequences. As the logistics point, this morphing agenda and timeline was unsettling. When planning an event like this, I always try to think of what information I would want to know as a participant, and when. But, with these last-minute changes, I was worried our participants would feel unsettled or uncertain, so we did our best to openly present our adaptive agenda: we had the core agenda of Equitable Food Oriented Development Learning Journey, the dates, and hotel set well in advance – sharing this ensured that participants could plan accordingly.

Even so, as the date approached, our agenda and participant list were not finalized per the workplan! In addition to the normal cancellations and other last-minute items come with event planning, our conversations with partners on the ground and EFOD experts meant that we were still tweaking the agenda two weeks before the event. As unsettling as this was to me, when the final agenda came through a week before the event, it was at an appropriate time for participants to see it and start grounding themselves for the journey.

One of the rewards of this adaptive approach was that as we reached out to organizations in Minneapolis/St Paul to discuss them being stops along the learning journey, everyone said yes! The topic and focus of our conversations seemed timely and relevant to partners on the ground. When we finally convened our group in MN for the journey, the conversations were very lively, and it felt like we made the right decision in adapting after our initial idea. During the closing session of the journey, people were defining themselves as part of this group, and pushing each other to carry the work forward after returning home. This ownership of the work and drive to continue working together after the journey made my heart swell!

As an emerging leader myself, this was a valuable learning experience in keeping my ear to the ground and shifting the roadmap accordingly. If we had stuck to the original workplan and timeline, this would not have been nearly as dynamic of a journey. The credit for this waiting, listening and adapting goes to Susan Schempf, our Program Officer, and after experiencing it myself I hope to embrace this style of leadership in the future.

Through this event I learned that we don’t have to have all the details set months in advance. Workplans are just *plans* and need to be kept in check with reality. In the end, we received excellent feedback from the group, with a few suggestions for improvement on the next journey. I appreciated that everyone embraced the journey with us and held us accountable where we can improve. This one event represents the overall approach I hope we are taking with Food Systems Leadership Network. We listen, think of ways we can support what is happening, and adapt those ideas based on more feedback before we implement.

This approach complicates the planning process and does not always line up with our projected workplans. Having seen the value in waiting, I am prepared to stick it out and get more comfortable with uncertainty until we land on the right plan.

Reflection Pool: White Supremacy Culture in the Workplace by Susan Lightfoot Schempf

As I read through the “Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture,” I felt an unease growing in the pit of my stomach. The anxiety and stress that I’ve experienced over the past year, the nights I laid awake listing out all the things that still needed to get done, the overwhelm that I sensed within our team and in myself as we planned our next steps — suddenly these feelings and dynamics that I had previously accepted as part of the gig began to take a different form in my heart and my mind. They became suspect, symptoms of something deceptive and malignant deep in my subconscious that I hadn’t noticed or named before. Am I, through the norms and standards I’ve set for my team and our work, simultaneously perpetuating and suffering from white supremacy culture? 

I’ve been wrestling with this question for the past several weeks and, as difficult as it is to reckon with this, I admit that I am indeed implicated in maintaining a work culture that is damaging to the well-being of my colleagues, our partners, and myself. Despite my sincere and lifelong commitment to dismantling racism, the pervasive ideas, expectations, and values of white dominant workplace culture are deeply ingrained in me and the way I see and move in the professional world. As I dug deeper into resources and writings on white supremacy culture via the SURJ network (Showing Up for Racial Justice), I was reminded that “the longer you swim in a culture, the more invisible it becomes.” Here I was, always on the lookout for overtly racist behaviors to call out, while blindly swimming in a sea of oppressive behaviors, beliefs, and values that I accepted as ‘normal’. Realizing this is incredibly painful and shameful, and at the same time I feel a peculiar sense of relief at having my blindspots brought into the light. There is power in naming something—we have to see something and name it before we can do anything about it. And with that realization comes a great responsibility to do something about it.

I share these reflections with you, our friends and colleagues in the Food Systems Leadership Network, because I want to ask for your help. I know we’re not the only ones seriously examining our own assumptions, norms, and practices, to do our part in breaking down the dominant culture that reinforces white privilege while oppressing and harming people of color, in our communities and in our workplaces. Have you identified these and the other characteristics of white supremacy culture in your own lives and organizations? Can you share with us how you’ve dismantled it and reconstructed more inclusive teams and organizational cultures? What resources have you leaned on for guidance along this journey? We invite your ideas, suggestions, and encouragement, and also ask you to hold us accountable as we go about resetting our expectations, shifting our practices, and creating a workplace culture that is rooted in equity. If/when you see us perpetuating white supremacy culture through our role as facilitators of this community of practice, please let us know. 

I’m deeply grateful for and honored to be a part of this community, and want to give particular appreciation and a deep bow to the leaders of color who have been extremely generous with their time and expertise to help guide this work while teaching me about equity, sovereignty, and resistance. Thank you for the opportunity and the privilege to share this journey with you. 

In solidarity and service,
Susan Lightfoot Schempf

As the Wallace Center’s Program Officer in Community-based Food Systems, Susan provides leadership for the Center’s programs and initiatives in support of community-based organizations using food systems as their platform for positive social change. She can be reached at [email protected] or (501)313-7405.

Reflections from Wallace Center’s ED: The Value of Feedback

2019 arrived with a bang. For what can be a slower part of the year for some organizations, after a rush of post-holiday campaigns, end of year fundraisers, and fiscal year close-outs, the reality was quite different at the Wallace Center. As soon as January arrived, our teams launched into strategic planning prep and dispersed all over the country to facilitate trainings, attend conferences, and participate in working group meetings.

As part of the new year, we also engaged in a familiar process- the annual review. Our team at Wallace takes this process very seriously. We review previous year’s goals, asses them, and rank our outcomes. Before we jump into planning for the new year, we also have a relatively new practice called the “multi-rater”. This practice involves inviting individuals other than direct supervisors to provide us with 360 degree feedback on our performance in several key areas, including a ranking of said areas. This process is voluntary and anonymous, wherein the rater we invite to assess us sends their feedback to the supervisor of the person who requested the review. Sounds a bit nerve wracking, no?

This year, as Wallace Center’s new Executive Director (having been Wallace’s Program Director the prior two years), I decided to invite the full Wallace Center team to assess my performance and rate me. This included my peer, staff who report to me, as well as staff who don’t report to me but interact with me in a variety of ways. Having worked with everyone on the team before but being in a new role, I wanted to seek frank and constructive feedback on my strengths and things I do that the team finds valuable, as well as areas I could improve in or modify.

Since the multi-rater process is both voluntary and can be time-consuming, I wasn’t sure what to expect- I assumed that a handful of staff would take me up; probably the folks that work with me directly every day. What resulted, however, was the majority of the team taking me up on my ask. When all reviews were collected and aggregated by category, I received an eleven page, single-spaced document. My heart skipped a beat… Being confronted with that volume of feedback, a mix of concern and anxiety flushed through me. I quickly opened up the document of staff feedback and dove in.

You may be wondering what the feedback was and how I reacted to it. I’ll say this- it was honest and constructive. There was praise if it was due, along with reflections on my work, how it affected each team member differently, areas where I could improve, and things the team wanted me to examine in the new year. Although the exact nature of the feedback may be less relevant to a broader audience, I believe the value of the process and the outcomes would be meaningful for anyone, regardless of position.  

Here are some of the key things I learned from a 360 degree, anonymous review process, open to anyone who wished to participate:

1) Receiving feedback is a gift. This may sound corny to some but it’s very true. There is no greater opportunity for a deep self-examination and learning than having individuals who interact with you, in all sorts of different capacities, tell you what you do well and share what you could be doing better.

2) The team’s feedback revealed a number of trends, both positive and ones I should work on. Learning things that come up numerous times is a signal of what to prioritize and pay particular attention to.

3) The feedback also addressed and affirmed things that I’ve been reflecting on privately towards the end of 2018 and planned on modifying in my new role. This was gratifying in that I sensed that I needed to change my focus from a few core things and activities to several new ones. The feedback not only affirmed my thinking of needing to make certain shifts; it also provided me with specific examples of what the team found find most useful and valuable.

4) Although there was feedback that I either expected or didn’t find surprising, there was some feedback that I didn’t anticipate- which uncovered a couple of not so insignificant blind spots. More than anything, receiving feedback on something that you’re unaware of can be pretty raw— and at the same time powerful. After the initial flush of emotion, which quickly subsides, stepping outside of yourself to reflect on the information and examine the intent with which it was given, a bigger picture emerges. And along with it, a quiet but deep appreciation for receiving something that will help you become a better version of yourself.

5) Finally, the 360 review process affirmed something that we’ve recently been working on at the Wallace Center- that being the creation of a culture wherein feedback is shared regularly, at all levels, and in the spirit of solidarity and growth. It’s not always easy to give or receive feedback, but after learning how to do it with honesty, humility, and grace, it’s incredibly powerful and everyone is better off for it.

Reflection Pool: Connecting to Farms, Land and People by Chelsea Frisbee

For the past seven years, I’ve worked at the Intervale Center, a leader in the community food revolution that has pioneered game-changing initiatives like community-supported agriculture, large-scale composting, food hubs and farm incubators over the past 30 years. Working as part of a development team responsible for joyfully procuring resources to support this work, I’ve had the privilege to connect with thousands of people who come to eat, work, play, learn, and volunteer at this unique community hub for agriculture, conservation and recreation in Burlington, VT.

My most vibrant memories from the past seven years are moments of connection:

· Helping a volunteer group harvest carrot “seconds” from our neighbors at Intervale Community Farm that would otherwise be plowed in, instead destined for the plates of food-insecure Vermonters.

· Sitting with hundreds of happy families gathered on the lawn to listen to live music and eat local food at Summervale, our weekly summer community Event.

· Learning about the 20 different varieties of heirloom tomatoes grown by Half Pint Farm just down the road and the taste of that just-picked, juicy tomato in my mouth.

· Rejoicing at the sound of ospreys circling overhead just a few weeks ago on Earth Day with 25 volunteers who were helping transplant shrub willow and speckled alder into our native tree nursery.

The Intervale is truly a place that brings people together.

350 acres of reclaimed floodplain – once abandoned and misused, now a vibrant community hub for sustainable agriculture, conservation and recreation- the Intervale is woven into the fabric of the vibrant community of Burlington, VT. In an increasingly physically disconnected world (though virtually more connected than ever), the moments of connection this special place allows– to other people, to place, to how our food is grown and who grows it for us – are so important .

As we use this special place to connect with daily visitors and food systems leaders from all over the world, we also seek to amplify, inform, and find inspiration for our work by participating in networks like the Food Systems Leadership Network, Vermont Farm to Plate, NESAWG, NIFTI, National Young Farmer Coalition, and more. These are awesome networks, many with a combination of online and in-person opportunities for connection. I love reading what other organizations and people are up to, and I’m often inspired by the words on my computer screen. And yet, as I prepare to leave the Intervale Center in June to return to my family farm in Delhi, NY, what sticks with me isn’t the last blog post that I read or an email exchange I had three years ago. What is lodged in my cells, in my memories, and in my heart are the inspiring people I’ve met, the delicious food I’ve eaten, and feel of the Intervale’s sandy soil on my hands.

These are the experiences that we seek to create for our community – engaging directly with farmers, with the land, and with people – so that they may become more active participants in our local community food system. I’m so honored to have been part of the Intervale Center and can’t wait to bring what I’ve learned about connecting with community into the next chapter of my life.

Reflection Pool: “Black Girls Lunch” by Angel Mills

“Black Girls Lunch”: People of Color Must Be Protected and Encouraged to Gather Separately in the Workplace

Reflections by Angel Mills, Georgia Organics

“Ladies Who Lunch”, that’s what we call it. Shhhhhhh…don’t tell anyone but, it’s basically a code phrase my fellow Black women colleagues and I use to plan our monthly lunch outings. Initially we wanted to call it “Black Girl Lunch”. However, we thought it best appropriate to use a more innocuous title so as not to arouse undo attention to the monthly event on our shared Outlook calendars.

There are three Black women, including myself, who currently work full-time at my work place. Each month we go out for lunch together. We eat delicious food, laugh, gripe, and talk about work and our personal lives. Most importantly, we bond and provide support for one another. Our “Black Girl Lunches” are one of the highlights of my month. I need this time. All three of us do.

Our “Black Girl Lunches” are not the only instance where we meet. There are frequent impromptu meetings throughout the week as well. Oftentimes, we gather in one another’s offices and chat for 5-10 minutes about current events, pop culture, food, candles (We all love candles!), our weekends, or whatever else is the hot topic at the moment. Just like our lunches, these chats invigorate me. As Black women we have so much shared experience. Fellowshipping with these women helps me to feel seen in spaces where I’m often the only Black woman and woman/person of color for that matter.

The ladies and I began scheduling our lunches last year, after we participated in an all staff mandatory racial equity training taught by famed race educator Wekesa Madzimoyo of the AYA Institute. During the all-day training Baba Wekesa, as he is affectionately called, told our mostly White staff that it was important that the Black people in the office meet separately sometimes. He explained to my colleagues that Black people are underrepresented here and often experience feelings of isolation and discrimination inside and outside of the office. Baba Wekesa’s words made me personally feel empowered to openly commune with my Black colleagues. In previous workplaces, I’ve felt hesitant to do this. I’ve heard many stories from friends and families who work in majority White spaces about the micro aggressions and snide remarks they receive from colleagues when having lunch or stopping to speak frequently with other Black colleagues.

Throughout history, Black people have had to exercise caution or secrecy when meeting. It is important I mention this because my workplace is located in the South and aims to address the food systems and agriculture inequities in a state that has historically empowered White residents to violently disassemble and discourage Black gatherings both official and unofficial. Black farmers with financial resources and social capital, such as land and local prominence, were and still are targeted due to their ability to financially, legally, and legislatively support Black-led resistance efforts. In 1856 and 1866, several Southern states passed the “Black Codes” which prohibited free Blacks from assembling in groups, learning to read and write, and voting. Simply googling the words “COINTELPRO” or “Black Lives Matter surveillance” will provide a deeper insight into the immense efforts made to undermine the assemblage of Black people and other groups of color. Consequently, though openly meeting with other Black colleagues for non-work purposes is immensely gratifying, I can’t help but to exercise a bit of caution. Hence, why the three of us decided to name our “Black Girl Lunch”, “Ladies Who Lunch” on our work calendars. Nonetheless, we will continue to meet and perhaps next month we’ll call our lunch it’s proper title.

Calls to Action

1. Organizational Leadership: Encourage and protect the private and public assembly of groups of color in and outside of your workplace.

2. Do the aforementioned prompt in number one AND refrain from commenting, inquiring, or disparaging any assembly of groups of color in the workplace.

3. Person of color: Commune with other people of color in your workplace to share, eat, and fellowship – publicly if possible and privately if necessary or desired.

, ,
Reflection Pool: Striking and Growing as Community Engagement by Brenda Rodriguez

Striking and Growing as Community Engagement

Eight years ago, I started my journey as an organizer within the labor movement. At the time, I was beginning my Ph.D. in Chicana feminist literature at the University of San Antonio, Texas. While I was supposed to be reading for my doctoral program, I found myself drawn to the experiences of hotel housekeepers and food service workers. I was at an Occupy Wall Street campaign meeting when I first met union organizers for Unite Here!, a union of hotel and food service workers. I learned from workers of Aramark and the Hyatt about the ways in which they were often ignored and mistreated. During the day, I drove from house to house learning about each worker’s unique struggle, and at night I read about Emma Tenayuca, the strike committee chair of the Pecan Shellers’ Strike of 1938. The strike began when 12,000 pecan shellers went on strike for the reduction of 5 cents per pound to 3 cents. A majority of the workers of the Southern Pecan Shelling Company were Mexican women, and the strike was created to protest yet another wage reduction. The Pecan Shellers’ Strike resonated with me for many reasons. It mirrored the fight that many women of color continue to face within the global supply chain, but most importantly it highlights the power of collective action.

So, there I was, inspired by the many brave members of Unite Here! and the pecan shellers, when I decided to drop out of my doctorate program to start my journey as a labor organizer.

After Texas, I moved to New Mexico as the member coordinator for Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO. During one of my “know your rights” workshops, I met dairy workers whose biggest issue was not wage related like the pecan workers, but even more immediate. Employees were suffering from irritation and headache after using a new disinfectant on the job. They had asked the owner of the dairy for gloves or protective gear, and he responded with, “Quieres guantes? Ahí está la puerta! (You want gloves? There’s the door!).” We were able to help them file an OSHA claim and the owner received hefty penalties for this treatment. During this campaign, I learned that we could change workplace practices, but the fight was long, slow, and not exactly the immediate change we desperately need.

In the years that followed I spent my time leading issue campaigns, dropping banners, and facilitating meetings, all with the aim of improving the rights and health of workers. While my focus was always on “workers’ rights,” the communities I engaged with were always deeply impacted by the food system.

Now, I formally work within the food system as the Community Partnerships Manager at the Chicago Food Policy Action Council (CFPAC). One of my favorite community engagement solutions comes from the previous role I had at a worker center on the southeast side of Chicago. At Centro de Trabajadores Unidos, I learned about worker cooperative development and became very passionate about alternative economics and community wealth building. Bringing this lens of labor and alternative economies has provided me with opportunities to engage in some of the most exciting work in my career to date.

In my current role at CFPAC, I help build capacity for an emerging transformative network of Black and Brown urban farmers and entrepreneurs called the Urban Stewards Action Network. We host quarterly community fundraisers modeled after the Sunday Soup model called Food Fun(d)ing Fridays to fundraise for exciting food initiatives that have a strong focus on racial equity and food sovereignty. One of the top prize winners of Food Fun(d)ing Fridays is Catatumbo Cooperative Farm. Catatumbo is an emerging workers’ cooperative farm run by three womxn and gender non-conforming immigrant individuals of color. They are committed to cultivating and harvesting culturally-relevant produce to Latinx, immigrant, people of color, and low-income neighborhoods in Chicago.

When I learned of Catatumbo Cooperative Farm, I felt the same inspiration and excitement as when I first learned about the Pecan Shellers’ Strike of 1938. It’s a feeling of both awe and hope. One day, 70 years from now, someone will read (or see archival videos) about Catatumbo and it will inspire them to take collective action to grow and heal their community.

Sometimes, I’ll hear “where are the young people? we need the young people to engage within the food system” or comments such as “it’s hard to bring people of color to the table.” Every time I hear this, I sit with discomfort. Depending on who you ask, community looks very different. These types of statements are more telling about who is asking the question rather than the community in question. Community engagement is the practice of putting our values into action. We cannot have an equitable food system without creating and funding intentional spaces of dialogue to transform power.

In my opinion, a short sweet answer to those questions is that young people and people of color are leading some of the most pressing fights of our time within the food system, such as the Fight for $15, Black Lives Matter, and the immigrant rights movement. Our families and lives are deeply impacted by the food system–from production to food service–but we are also key movers and shakers. Whether we’re striking like Emma Tenayuca or the Hyatt workers, growing food as a worker cooperative, or holding small potlucks at community gardens, the pathway towards an equitable food system continues to unfold and it leads us closer to food sovereignty.

Brenda Rodriguez is the Community Partnerships Manager with the Chicago Food Policy Action Council. You can read more about her on her FSLN profile here!T

Reflection Pool: Year-end reflections by Red Tomato’s Angel Mendez

As I approach year-end and I prepare to put 2018 in my rearview mirror, I am feeling a deep sense of gratitude for the work and learning that I have been a part of with the Wallace Center’s Food Systems Leadership Network. 

To begin, I’ve been working at Red Tomato, a Plainville, Ma – based food hub wholesaling fruits and vegetables in the northeast region, for 18 years. I always knew that this “city boy” arrived in the sustainable Ag workspace for a reason.  I have always carried huge empathy for others, and I believe this comes from my need to help and share lessons learned.  I have never been an advocate for “reinventing the wheel,” so instead I like to build off existing infrastructure as we built Red Tomato.

Working with the Wallace Center’s FSLN, I have been able to take all of the knowledge and wisdom gained over the years and share it with organizations that I am passionate about.  Thus far, I have completed two rounds of mentorship with six amazing organizations.  I have been able to guide them in food hub operations, financial reporting and metrics, and transportation logistics.  It has been awesome to understand the variety of challenges organizations face due to the different demographics & geographies, and think about how one would amend a Red Tomato model of a food hub to work in different parts of the region and country.

The mentorship work this year feels like I was able to reach another plateau of the endless mountain of learning, in support of my own leadership journey.  Sharing knowledge with others has helped me work on my own brevity, active listening, and to organize my thoughts.  In addition, this work has helped me boost my own self-esteem and confidence. 

Mental Models and Artificial Barriers
As a Latino man that grew up in the urban core of Boston, MA, the transition from environment to environment was a huge challenge throughout my career that created a lot of mental models for me along my journey.  Mental models are the beliefs and ideas that are consciously or unconsciously formed from our lived experiences and subsequently guide our thoughts and actions. If you have experience with these types of mental models, you know that they are “REAL” for you at the moment and can lead to assumptions, or as I like to call them “artificial barriers.”  These barriers are made up of untested assumptions that get in the way of progress and slow down productivity.  These assumptions/mental models can also hinder self-esteem and confidence, so I learned about the 3A’s of managing stress and used these as a temporary tool to support me while I figured this all out:

1. Altering – refers to either removing or lessening the source of stress by changing something.   This may occur through such actions as communications, problem-solving, time management, planning ahead, coordinating, or organizing.

2. Avoiding – refers to the ability to remove yourself altogether from a stressful situation or to figure out how not to be there in the first place.

3. Accepting – is necessary in those situations that you cannot alter or avoid.  Accepting does not mean that you are helpless.  It does mean that you must equip yourself by building resistance to the stress encountered.[1]
This helped, but it was the Food Systems Leadership Retreat in Kansas City that put all of this into a more scientific perspective for me. Learning the language of systems thinking, and being equipped with more tools, helped it all make sense! 

Looking Ahead
My goal for the next 10 years of my career is to take lessons learned and share them with others in the food system looking to do similar types of work, specifically targeting the urban core and underserved communities, both rural and urban.  I have always had a dream that all food hubs would show up to a huge garage with all their tools, dump them out, and explore how we can share tools through collaboration to be more effective and efficient.  Collaboration is no small task, which is why I am thankful for the work the Wallace Center is doing to support and foster collaboration with food hubs and the food system. Looking ahead to 2019 for more learning, perspective, and collaboration.

[1] Unknown. “The Three A’s for Managing Stress.” Humor at Work: Do’s and Don’ts, Harris, Rothenberg International, LLC, 2018,


It has been a few weeks since the Food Systems Leadership Network (FSLN)’s Leadership Retreat in Kansas City, and I am still chewing on the wisdom and learnings. I had the honor and privilege of being a co-facilitator after being a retreat participant just a few months before (June 2018). Despite having a 25 year career in nonprofit work, and having delivered numerous capacity building and leadership development activities over my career, and working for an organization, Community Health Councils, that has advocated for health equity and food justice since 1992, the FSLN took me by surprise.

My journey with the FSLN has taught me three key things.

First, we don’t always know what we don’t know. I came to the FSLN retreat as a participant thinking that I was attending your business-as-usual nonprofit networking/learning event. I knew what I wanted to learn and what I had to offer. I was surprised to have so many of my assumptions challenged, and my commitment to my social justice work deepen. Despite being a newly licensed minister with three years of full-time ministerial school and ten additional years of spiritual training yet, I was not prepared for one of the most profound spiritual (and political) insights that occurred by being introduced to the work of Theory U by C. Otto Scharmer. Who knew a white, male German intellectual could have such a profound effect? Sometimes when we are open, we get some pretty cool surprises, and in unexpected spaces. But what if I would have stayed in critique, which was my initial tendency, with this material?

Sometimes challenge and critique are necessary, but more often, especially in a safe space of allies, we need to just sit, be quiet, and trust the process. If we come into settings thinking we know it all and have nothing to learn then we do ourselves, and our food systems work a disservice. Staying in the question, the curiosity, and seeing again for the first time is required to be an effective leader.

Second, we don’t always know what we need. In my experience, the Food Systems Leadership Retreat is a welcoming, affirming, and safe space, where you feel you can let your guard down and just be. It is a place where you can admit you are tired or bored or unsure or hurting and receive unconditional support and coaching.

I have talked to numerous participants who experienced the retreat as a time of deep wonder and knowing, or as a time of deep reflection and introspection, or even as a time of pain and mourning. As committed and passionate food systems leaders, we don’t always fully understand how we are burnt out or how the work has taken a toll on our lives, till we step back and take time. The Retreat opens up a space for people to really see themselves with fresh eyes and raise some necessary insights to be a leader with healthier, sustainable, and just personal practices.

Third, we don’t always know that the way we show up in the world has a huge impact. I love to wear clothing with bright colors often with sequins and glitter. I was taken aback by numerous retreat participants who commented on or thanked me for what I was wearing. One person said I made their day and another said they were feeling sad but seeing me made them happy. Perhaps it is not the fashion, but more my willingness to show up in the world in a way that is authentic and makes me happy and free. But what if the way I show up has a negative impact? What if me “doing me” shows up as discord and disconnection in a collective space? What if my showing up and showing out fundamentally undermines others?

We can never be the change we wish to see in the world if we think we have the right to judge, insult, and humiliate others with our progressive politics and social change process frameworks. We have to remember that having voice is not about speaking with rudeness, disrespect, and “treating” each other with words of violence. That is what we have been taught by oppressive models of communication and engagement. How do we take up space in a collective setting in a way that is loving and liberatory, not from a place of woundedness? How do we challenge our own ways of replicating systems of dominance that feed on political arrogance, blaming, and shaming? I wholeheartedly believe we need voice. And we need to call out injustice. But the WAY we do it is key.

There are people out there that really don’t care about the work of FSLN or would even seek to destroy the work (knowingly and unknowingly). We don’t have the luxury of alienating allies in our circles. This work calls for respect and compassion. It also calls for a deep commitment to helping each other be our highest and best selves, but we must do it in a way that opens dialogue and healing.

If we really intend to make deep and lasting change, we need to first start with ourselves. We need to start by challenging our own assumptions and understandings about what we know, what we need, and how we show up. As we become more in touch with our true selves, we find more sustainable, equitable, and complete ways to source, and “re-source” ourselves. As we learn to feed and nurture ourselves and others, we grow the greatest gift for food systems work.

Do you have a suggestion for an organization or leader to feature, or reflections you’d like to share in the Catalyst? Reach out to us at [email protected]