Aquidneck Island: A Beachhead for Food Sovereignty

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Bevan Linsley has been telling the cabbage story for a while now.  Linsley is director of the Aquidneck Grower’s Market, part of the merger on Aquidneck Island (RI) of the market, Sustainable Aquidneck and Island Commons, into ACT: Aquidneck Community Table, with a mission to “foster awareness and understanding of the vital relationships between health, environment, agriculture and a thriving local economy.”

But back to those cabbages: As Linsley explains it, the cabbages were raised in Portsmouth on Aquidneck Island, roughly in the middle of Narragansett Bay.  When harvested, they were shipped north to a food distributer in Boston, who then repackaged them and shipped them back to Aquidneck Island to be sold in local grocery stores.

“Isn’t that ridiculous?” Linsley asks, not entirely rhetorically.  “The loss of revenue to the farmer and the local economy and the waste of fuel and emissions of greenhouse gases?  I was just appalled when I heard this story.  It’s a perfect illustration of how nonsensical and inappropriate our food systems are, but they’re buried in traditions that evolved when we weren’t thinking about how to create a food system,” she says.  “The system no longer serves us, but we have to see these habits for what they are before we can figure out how to fix them. It’s like any problem,” she notes: “You have to see the problem before you can find a solution.”

Thus, the cabbage story and its retelling serve to illustrate the reason for reforming, revamping, rebuilding our food system, and why the concept of food sovereignty is beginning to gain traction.  But that traction, so far, is really only among people who are working in the areas of social, economic, and food justice.  Ask most people (in, say, the grocery store) what they think of food sovereignty and they are likely to give you a kind of funny look.  Food sovereignty is not mainstream.

But thanks to other recent developments in the food system in the U.S., most notably the “eat local” and farmers’ market movements, food sovereignty is poised to enter the public mind.  In the northeast, Food Solutions New England has created 50 x 60, a plan to have 50 percent of the food consumed in the region raised in the region by 2060.  That would be a full half step toward food sovereignty, defined by the U. S. Food Sovereignty Alliance as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agricultural systems.”

Think for a moment about just that last bit: defining food and agricultural systems. Those are pretty much the purview today of multinational grocery retailers, multinational agricultural corporations, and international shipping organizations.  To bring all that closer to home is going to take some serious and united pulling. “In thinking about the big picture and how to get from where we are now to 50 x 60, it’s an easy pitfall in this kind of work to say we can do these things,” Linsley says, adding “and of course we can do these things—in small groups of people who already get it.

“But,” she notes, “if we’re really going to make change, we have to bring the people who don’t already get it into the conversation.”  Bringing people in is what Linsley and ACT are up to with a program this month, a creative way to get Aquidneck Islanders thinking about problems in the U. S. food system: the Aquidneck Food Challenge.

“There were two levels of participation,” Linsley explains. “One was to include something that is produced on the island in every meal for 10 days, September 1 through the 10th.  The second was to go the purist route and only eat things that are raised on the island for those 10 days.”  She notes the purist route raises several challenges.

“Obviously, we don’t grow tea or coffee here, or olive oil and we don’t produce salt,” she says, noting that one of her partners in organizing the challenge is “bringing seawater home on her bicycle and cooking it down to make sea salt!  One of the farmers on the island has just started producing butter entirely in response to this challenge.

“So there’s Plan A: Something from the island or [Narragansett] Bay at every meal and there’s Plan B: the eat only things from the island, and we’ve been saying ‘choose your adventure’ in promoting it,” Linsley says, adding that “there’s no right or wrong about how to do it, it’s about upping the ante in each individual household and thinking about our food sources: how fresh they are (or aren't); what the carbon footprint is; and just growing our food consciousness.  There’s a way for everybody to participate and that’s what’s important for us,” she adds.  

Another aspect of the Challenge, she says, is for people to look at what they eat and how much it costs, including when they eat out.  “A lot of people can’t afford to buy their food locally,” she acknowledges, but she also believes it may be more affordable than people think, “after we add up add up the cost of the many meals we usually eat out over 10 days, plus the expensive junk food we usually snack on, and factor in the waste from the short shelf-life of grocery chain produce, we get a very different food formula.”

To find out, Linsley says, the Challenge included a survey opportunity for participants, at the front end and at the backend, to track their meal costs. “So we’re going to be able to use that data for year two to keep building the conversation,” Linsley says. “We will have a better idea of what it costs to eat the old way and what it costs to eat locally.”

The possibility of the Challenge came to Linsley and Liza Burkin, (she of the sea salt creation) first as a month-long “just eat from the island. And we had this conversation and slept on it, and then said ‘we can't manage 30 days!’” Linsley recalls.  “It was way too intimidating an idea, because when you start thinking about the big hurdles like coffee and tea and salt and spices and olive oil, it’s daunting.  So this year, Burkin said let’s try 10 days, so we started putting the idea out there and got such positive responses from people that we decided to ‘Just Do It!’”

Burkin is one of a group of interns Linsley refers to as the “bright young things” she counts on to handle the electronic and cyber communication and to come up with some tools that are at the heart of the Challenge’s educational effort.  Most notable are the food maps they’ve developed, which represent a keystone in any effort to achieve food sovereignty: If you don’t know what you’ve got, you don’t know what you need.

“The maps worked very well as information support for the Challenge, which is designed, after all, to do the very thing that the cabbage story does: get people thinking about where their food comes from,” Linsley says.   “The map is a companion piece for all the people in the food challenge who had to think about how to organize their meals for those 10 days.”

The map shows consumers the local farms selling their produce, the farmer’s markets, community gardens where people can raise their own food, and food support programs, all integral parts of a sovereign food web.  And ACT is currently investigating adding a crucial new program, gleaning.

“Gleaning is an old word and an old concept but it has a new life in recent years,” Linsley observes.  In fact, as communities across the country have been taking back control over local food, gleaning has been more common.  On Aquidneck Island, ACT has begun by asking farmers at the Newport farmer’s market to donate their “unstable produce—their produce that’s not going to keep— to the local foodbank,” Linsley says, describing a common “after market” gleaning in which volunteers show up at the end of the market to take that produce to a local food bank or soup kitchen. 

On Aquidneck Island, such gleanings are stored for distribution the next morning, she says, noting that “it’s a fledgling program we hope to build to a next phase of volunteers gleaning directly from farm fields.”  Linsley explains that the economics of farming are such that if there’s “a glut of a particular vegetable and a farmer planted too much to meet a shortage last year, they will have to leave the surplus in the field to rot” rather than spending the time and money to harvest a crop that won’t sell.  “And so volunteers, we hope, would be able to go to farms to collect that surplus food,” another piece in the puzzle of food sovereignty.

Bringing all the pieces together and finding the gaps, establishing communication and basic food knowledge in the community of Aquidneck Island, are the overarching goals of ACT.  For Linsley, it started with “a grant to make a strategic plan.  We interviewed more than 50 people who were active in some way in the food system, from state government to the guy at the lobster collaborative on Newport dock, to get a sense of who’s doing what and where the gaps were.

“One of the things that I took away from that exercise size was how many people are engaged in something like aquaculture or farming or composting or zero waste, but more often than not those areas of activity and awareness and action are not connected to one another,” she says. “And so a fundamental part of our plan is to create a conversation, to bring all the parts of the island's food system together.  In one sense, the [Aquidneck Grower’s] market is an opportunity to do that because so many people now use it, especially now that we have not for profit status and we can build programs.”  And the Aquidneck Food Challenge is another part of an opportunity for further conversation.  And there are others, in Linsley’s mind, on the horizon—in due time, she stresses.

“One of my responsibilities as project director is to see that we don’t take on too many things too soon,” she says, “so we’re trying to look at this in a measured way, to build upon what is working now to achieve our goal.  We plan to get there!”

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