WHY IT STARTED
The roots of the MNCFC are in discussions held two years ago between Ken Morse and Kirsten Walter who were both involved in fledgling efforts to develop food councils in their local communities. As they considered the robust food movement in Maine, they made connections through relationships with others involved in similar ventures. Food councils, sometimes funded through the US Department of Agriculture Community Food Project grants, are often the first step that communities take to develop a more coordinated locally-focused approach to food production and distribution. Ken and Kirsten convened others involved in the food movement who were interested in food systems assessment, planning and developing councils, and the group spent several meetings defining goals and principles and researching systems-level models. This team decided to focus on helping rural and/or under-resourced towns and regions develop a comprehensive quick-start approach to looking at community food systems that would move the community to action quickly.
WHO IS INVOLVED
The network is in its early stages of development and seeks to knit together individuals involved in local food movements through creating a forum for community food efforts where people can share experiences, resources, information, and strategies. Most of the work to date has been focused on developing a kick-start tool kit that communities can use to accomplish some early successes in their development of a local food council.
The core partners of the MNCFC continue to be Ken Morse and Kirsten Walter; Barbi Ives from the Muskie School of Public Service, as well as Annie Doran and Brendan Schauffler, two coworkers of Kirsten’s from the Lewiston-based St. Mary’s Nutrition Center, who have also played an important role in the development of the network.
HOW THEY WORK TOGETHER
The MNCFC typically meets on the second Friday of every month, prior to the Eat Local Foods Coalition meeting, at the library in Brunswick, ME. Although 40 people are on the membership list, usually 8-12 attend the meetings. The major focus of the meetings has been on developing a “kick start tool kit” that communities can use to develop a community food council. The tool kit calls for implementing a community food scan as a first step toward developing food self-reliance, so that everyone has the same picture of how food works in their communities. The members of the MNCFC have found that many groups wanting to conduct food systems assessment and planning begin by spending a great deal of time on developing a vision, guiding principles, and goals, rather than getting to the heart of what brought people to the table in the first place. By focusing on a three meeting model, with suggested starting indicators, the tool kit asks a community to first dig into the story of its own food system, painting a picture of “how food works” in the local community. In this way, a collaborative view is developed early on.
The partners of the MNCFC approach their work through tapping into the collective knowledge and experience of the network members. They view the building of the tool kit as an iterative process, so they don’t begin with a lot of answers to local community issues, but strive to elicit feedback from member communities at different stages in the process. The tool kit itself and the monthly meetings provide multiple points of entry for people to become involved.
A good example of how this work has developed in a local community is the community planning charette that was held in Lewiston-Auburn in 2010 to discuss the local food system. An overflow crowd attended the event at the public library, representing local interest not seen during ten years of work on food systems in that area. As the work has evolved over the past year, Good Food for Lewiston-Auburn has hosted a series of community food gatherings in people’s homes, rather than in formal academic settings. These gatherings have been seen as the start of local community food councils.
The MNCFC sees itself working on two fronts: first, as a catalyst to loosen up the siloed approaches to the food and agricultural sector around the state, thus developing a systems approach within the sector; and secondly, trying to build coordination and a systems understanding within local communities attempting to grapple with their own food systems.
Moving to a systems approach has many challenges inherent in it, so the partners take a long-term view of their work; they realize they are trying to shift the framework of how people think and act about their local food systems. The resources of time and funding for developing a network and an initiative, such as the kick-start tool kit, are real. Everyone involved in the network is stretched thin, also working at other jobs and in other capacities.
PROGRESS TOWARDS GOAL
The Maine Network of Community Food Councils is very young, still at the start-up stage, gathering support for developing the community kick start tool kit. They have recently received funding specifically for the network from the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation; these resources will be used to develop a more formal approach to building the network. Although early on the network partners didn’t want to spend their first efforts on network structure and governance, they now realize the importance of attending to these issues of process and have learned that it is a necessity for building the capacity and health of the MNCFC as it moves forward. They plan on focusing more on this aspect of network building in the coming year.
The work of transforming our food system from a global industrial supply chain to a more community-based system is a large task. Currently, the state of Maine has set a goal of 80% of our food coming from our local communities; most localities in Maine are not even at 20%. To realize this large goal, the network intends to engage as many people as possible, since the partners feel that the process is as much about engagement as goal setting. They look to design a process that communities can adapt from wherever they are. To that end, over the coming year the network will pilot test the kick start tool kit in several communities around Maine and encourage these localities to include as many people as possible in building their own locally-based food system.