Reclaiming Our Food: A Conversation with Author Tanya Denckla Cobb
The surface of the grassroots local food movement is well known to edible readers — stocked farmers’ market stalls, local cheese on a menu, a community garden nearby, or a farm-to-tray school lunch program. The underpinnings of the movement, its foundation, is made up of people and organizations that span the country and give rise to the elements we are all so familiar with. It is these people and organizations that are at the core of Reclaiming Our Food: How the Grassroots Food Movement is Changing the Way We Eat by Tanya Denckla Cobb.
Cobb, a noted expert on policy, environmental mediation and organic gardening — along with a team of researchers — set out over a two-year period to profile and takeaway inspiration from grassroots organizations determined to change the way we eat. From coast to coast and north to south, Cobb gathered the vision and stories of nearly 60 organizations and the voices of the people who comprise their membership. Not only is Reclaiming Our Food an insightful survey of the movement, it is a practical and useable handbook for community-based leadership and change in food-related areas.
I reached the author between engagements during her vigorous speaking schedule last fall to discuss the book and the future of the grassroots food movement.
At what point did you realize that you had to write this book? I met Will Allen of Growing Power before he became the urban farmer superstar and learned that he’d been looking for someone to write their story. As we moved forward, he encouraged me to write about the movement and not just about Growing Power. It was a crazily serendipitous beginning to a multi-year, highly intensive research adventure.
Given your work with food policy, did you enter with notions of where the book was going to lead (and was that where it ended up?) No. I knew I would learn a lot, but didn’t know what, exactly, I would learn. Would I learn that the food movement really is a flash-in-the-pan or elitist as so many claimed? I was open to this and all other possibilities.
Was there a point in your research where the story took a turn that you didn’t expect? I had an intense experience on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona that opened me to an underlying theme that tied all the disparate projects together into a meaningful whole. I learned of the Navajo belief in the Beauty Way, or following the Path of Corn Pollen, and seeing that the grassroots food movement is beyond food. It is about people seeking to create more meaningful and balanced relationships with our food and environment, our families and friends, our personal health, and with our communities. It is why this movement is here to stay — it is an expression of a real, age-old need to be connected and to have meaning in life.
How difficult was it to select organizations to profile from the many working to change our food system? It was extremely hard. After interviewing some of the top food leaders in the nation, we created a list of several hundred prospective projects. We sought to include those that have been around sufficiently long to elicit “lessons learned” that would be helpful to others. We also considered diversity of geography, age, culture, income, part of the food system, rural versus urban, and the size of the project. Still it was very hard.
Where do you see new or exciting growth taking place in the food system? It’s hard to find a community — large or small, rural or urban, rich or poor — that is not experiencing some change in their sensitivity and interest in local food. Whether it’s through farmers’ markets, CSAs, roadside stands, community gardens, chickens or goats in the backyard, or stores and restaurants that now offer and celebrate local food — change is happening everywhere.
What has been the biggest challenge faced by the organizations you’ve profiled? They are all variations on access. Access to land is a really big challenge, particularly for growing a new generation of farmers, and so is increasing the supply of local food. Access to processing facilities for artisan foods, local meats, canning and refrigeration is also in short supply, as is access to fresh, healthy food for low-income populations. Addressing these challenges will require many different types of strategies, not just one.
In the course of your research, have you come to your own conclusion what it will ultimately take to reclaim our food system? A mix of strategies are needed, all of which are currently being vigorously pursued. We must enable and support community gardens, urban farms and local producers while teaching people. We need to teach people about how to cook with local food, about nutrition, their diet, and about the hidden costs in our current food system, such as the costs of pollution, obesity, food contamination and transportation. We must also help people to understand they have the ability right now to reclaim their power — to vote with their dollars, to vote with their feet and where they buy their food, to grow their own food and to support others who grow food for them.
Simple messaging and simple goals will go a long way toward furthering the goals of the movement. For example, if every Virginian were to spend only $10 per week on locally produced food, this would contribute $1.65 billion to my home state’s economy. This is a powerful message that is very easy to understand and very doable. Messages like this will be key to fostering success.
So, are we making progress in reclaiming our food? Yes, I heartily believe we are making slow, but steady, progress. Look at the tremendous growth in the number of farmers’ markets, CSAs, and in interest in sourcing local food for schools and restaurants. The fact that Wal-Mart is now talking about increasing sourcing from local farms means that, in my opinion, we have passed the tipping point; they now see the merit financially in reducing their transportation costs and finding ways to diversify their sources. The future will be difficult and will require deep discussions about core ethics and criteria, so local movement people don’t feel like they’re being “sold out.” But I don’t see how we can fall backwards now.
Tanya Denckla Cobb is a writer, environmental mediator, organic gardener and an instructor of food systems planning at the University of Virginia. Her previous works include The Gardener’s A to Z Guide to Growing Organic Food also published by Storey Publishing. Visit her website for more details about her book and speaking schedule at tanyadencklacobb.com.