The National Center for Appropriate Technology’s Mississippi Food Justice Collaborative – which includes Mileston Cooperative, Choctaw Fresh Produce, Mississippi Farm to School Network, FoodCorps, and the Steps Coalition – hosted a two-day gathering of current and emerging leaders who are passionate about further building equitable Mississippi food systems.
On June 27-28, a cohort of 36 food systems leaders from across the state of Mississippi came together to learn, strengthen relationships, and gather new tools to improve their ability to make systemic change in their communities. The gathering was hosted at the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center in Jackson with Joseph McIntyre, founder of consulting firm 10 Circles, facilitating the training.
Participants highlighted numerous challenges in their work of making a real, lasting impact on Mississippi food systems. There’s the lack of education about food: how to grow, cook, and prepare it and how it affects our bodies. Then there’s unfairness in the market between wholesome, nutritious foods and unhealthy processed food that is cheap, widely distributed, and accessible at every corner store. Many participants’ communities lack jobs and economic opportunity as well.
Systemic barriers and inequities, including racism and the continued access to power of privileged individuals and decision makers, also were discussed. Participants expressed a need to heal relationships with the land and with each other. They shared that a lack of collaboration and coordination between efforts – even if those efforts are well-intentioned – inhibited the ability to make systemic change.
An excerpt from a training manual developed by 10 Circles outlines some of the challenges.
“Systems change is not dramatic, quick, or always easy to see. It is the carefully planned changes to the ideas and structures of inequity that result in better lives for everyday people. Systems change is not something someone can do for you. It is done community by community. We have systems change at scale when the best of our programs are working in every community that needs them and we have banded together with other friends and allies in and outside of the food movement to change damaging policies, attitudes, and actions that limit the effectiveness of local initiatives.”
The gathering provided opportunities for participants to take a step back and reflect on their approach.
Instead of focusing on solutions that meet their needs in the short-term, participants practiced systems-thinking, identified forces that drive and restrain their work, and shared stories about the future that they want to create together.
The gathering ended on a hopeful note. After two days of learning and sharing, participants expressed an interest in continuing to meet as a group to develop a common message or goal and a set of shared values. Together, they developed a long list of opportunities that exist for them to collaborate more effectively. Participants are looking forward to reconvening to share meals, stories, models, and best practices.
When reflecting on the gathering, Langston Moore with the Mississippi Food Policy Council and the Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi said, “I really learned how to better work with people. Not just in a food systems environment but any type project. I felt a strong pull towards team building and how we can learn to understand positions of people and not attack them but use that to build up the food system or whatever it may be we are working on.”Ms. Mary McGee, of South Rankin County Farmers Association, “We all agree that we have a fixable problem that only together we can solve.”
NCAT hopes that, through these deeper connections and deeper understanding of the many parts of our food system, these leaders can be catalysts for systems change. A systems change approach can help these leaders collaborate to develop meaningful political education resources, a resilient grassroots framework, and accountability processes that will help support communities engaged in food systems work.
The Mississippi Food Justice Collaborative project and this workshop were made possible by a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, as well as support from the Wallace Center.