“Best Questions” – Food System Forum a Success

The first ever Mayoral Candidate Forum on Food System Issues “Local Food, Local Economies” was a success by any measure.  We packed the Barnes school cafeteria, a full house. The moderator, Hillary Martin, a co-owner of Digger’s Mirth Collective Farm, was congenial and managed to keep everything on track.  And, we practice what we preach, feeding 80 people a simple supper of corn bread and chili that was (measured by dollar volume) 2/3 locally sourced.

The candidates were well informed; the audience as well.  According to (now mayor elect) Miro, this was the forum that asked the most detailed questions.  “Local food folks are extremely passionate,” and that passion is evidenced by a knowledge and depth of practice that you don’t find in too many places.

In case you missed it, you can find a video, produced by CCTV here.

And, in case you want to follow along with the opening remarks word for word, the text of my intro (being the food council facilitator and all) … can be found below the fold.


This is, I believe, a first – a mayoral candidate debate on the topic of local food.

The Burlington Food Council is pleased to be able to host this.  I am Will Robb, Facilitator of the council, and will be starting us off with a few comments on the connection between local food systems and economic development.

First I would like to thank our cosponsor, the Intervale Center.  And many of our member organizations that pulled together to put on this event

–       Burlington School Food Project
–       Friends of Burlington Gardens
–       New Farms for New Americans
–       City Market
–       The Food Shelf

One of the first points I would like to make underscores the title of tonight’s forum.  Local food system development is economic development.

Research from the Farm to Plate Initiative shows that Vermont’s food system involves 10,974 businesses and provides 18.8 percent of private sector jobs.  Doubling the amount of local food eaten in state from 5% to 10% would create an estimated 1,500 jobs and boost the state’s economy by $135 million dollars annually.

These are big numbers, and as the state’s biggest city, a large proportion of this would accrue to Burlington.  While developing a local food economy would bring a broad array of other benefits to the city – some difficult to measure in dollars – bringing good jobs to the city is a priority, and growing an economic sector that is already well established here in Burlington should be a very easy sell as you seek funding for policy initiatives.

And, because local food is grounded in our people, and in our land it provides an extremely stable economic base.  It is not vulnerable, for example, to the threat of a store leaving should a CEO in some remote corporate headquarters decide he can make a point more profit relocating elsewhere.

Community food system development also strengthens our city in many non-financial ways.   Healthier food means healthier children and seniors.  Open space, is preserved and cared for in an environmentally sound manner.  We increase food security and access for low-income householders.  These connections give us leverage; allow us to strategically place limited resources where they can do the most good.  As Travis Marcotte, executive director of the Intervale Center puts it, “By fixing the food system, we can fix so much else that is wrong.”

We are fortunate here in Burlington to be able to build on successes in many of these areas.  The Burlington School Food Project houses a Farm to School program that is a national model.  Friends of Burlington Gardens working in conjunction with city departments to ensure that everyone has access to a place to grow food is working at capacity. The Harvest Café, at Fletcher Allen Hospital is committed to local food sourcing – another national leader.  New Farms for New Americans, by connecting recent immigrants with land and support services, is enabling some 90 households to supplement their  income, to put better food on their tables.

So community-based food system development – at least here in Vermont, in Burlington – does not need to be built from scratch.  We have a network of organizations and practitioners currently engaged in this work on a daily basis.

Thus it is a different kind of development – development that does not start with a bulldozer or a blank sheet of paper.  It does not start with franchises and financing.  And this fact shapes the kind of support we look for from the city.

We look to the city to pay attention to what is already being done – and to remove regulatory barriers, to frame policies that encourage, rather than discourage those seeking to grow food.

Rather than letting the allure matching federal funding drive the design process we seek to engage the city as a partner in planning, looking for those leverage points where a wisely placed, appropriately scaled bit of capital can ease a significant constraint.

We look to the city to help foster partnership and collaboration, for example, working with the Food Council and member organizations, those assembled here tonight, to help hold the compelling vision of a local food based economy, and take practical steps to bring it about.

We are going to keep doing this work anyway, but as Ellen Kahler, executive director of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, is fond of saying, with this kind of support we can “go farther, faster.”

One of the reasons for holding this forum tonight is to start this kind of dialog.

One side of that dialog is for us to help you gain a deeper understanding of the people and programs that are doing the work, that are actively engaged in building a local food economy that provides fresh, healthy food for all residents.

And the other side of that dialog, that we are hoping the questions and answer tonight will bring out, is for us to hear about your vision for a local food economy.  For us to discover how each of you will engage with us to celebrating Burlington’s successes in this arena and support Burlington’s community of hard working local food practitioners and organizations.

About William Robb

William Robb, AKA OtherWill - no not the Will you are thinking of just now, that other one - is the main contributor to this blog
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