May 31 2019

Goal: Healthy, Vibrant, Resilient, Rural Communities from Farm to Fork

By Marilyn Paul, Ph.D

The Power of Your Fork and New Community Connections.  

Everybody eats, but not everyone knows where their food comes from or how their food choices can transform the lives of their communities.  Communities can transform a destructive food system that leads to unhealthy soil, farming methods and food.   They can do this by investing in creating connections between organic farmers and markets that value health, well-being and the healing power of organic food.

In the Regenerative Agriculture Lab at TRANSFORM 2019 we learned about a very exciting change that is taking place in Illinois agriculture.  The leaders, Carol Hays (The Collaborative Strategic Group), Erin Meyer (Basil’s Harvest), Claudia Meglin and Sean Esbjorn-Hargen (MetaIntegral) highlighted the systemic change potential of linking a local farmer who changed his farming methods from conventional to organic farming on his 2,500 acre farm with a local hospital who could buy his organic oats.  

Carol Hays started off this session by saying that we can catalyze change beginning with our forks. Every bite of food we eat shapes not only our own individual health but also the health of our communities.  As small farmers gain control over their land and farm it organically, the land comes back to life and the soil can start regenerating itself.  That is a natural process.  As the soil regenerates, families can regenerate because more good jobs become available.  In this case Farmer Harold Wilken (Janie’s Farm Organics) was able to bring his son back to the heartland where they farm together.  

One of the things that farmers need is a market for their produce.  The Regenerative Agriculture Lab is working with the St Francis Medical Center as an anchor institution for buying healthy organic local oats.  They are working to create a farm-to-food service model that is more scalable than farm-to-table.

Erin Meyer – started in the hospital as a diabetes educator.  She noticed that people were asking for help to improve their eating but they had limited understanding of the impact of their food choices on their bodies or on the system as a whole.  She learned that it was empowering for people to know where their food comes from and where it is grown.  It’s helpful for people to know the farmers who grow their food.   And then, connecting farmers to local hospitals that could serve as anchor institutions could create new links in the farming economy.  An expanded understanding of health care and farming practices is integral to this.  

Claudia and Sean from Meta-Integral were brought into the project to help tell a compelling story about the core changes that needed to take place.  They could see that this project brought whole person and whole systems thinking together.  Again, there is a virtuous cycle involved.  Eating well can change the food system and changing the food system improves access to good food.  They explored what it would take to scale this system and how they might leverage the different types of capital in the system not only financial capital. is located in a system of other types of value.  They demonstrated how to describe different types of value in a system that are forms of capital. 

big lever for change in this process is that people are more interested in their food.  They want to feel empowered to have a healthier diet and they need food they can trust.  Food is personal and so is our health.

Healthier food comes from a food system that insures health and well-being both of humans and the earth. Large scale monoculture farming is the root cause of most of the problems that we face.  It’s killing our soil They key to this change is biodiversity which is the opposite of monoculture – it is a much healthier way of growing food.  It develops healthy living soil which is an essential part of a food system that truly promotes health.  A healthy soil with lots of carbon has millions of different species.

Soil health is vital for a healthy food system.  While this seems obvious, the ongoing regenerative capacities of soil are not valued by industrial agriculture.  Unhealthy soil does not regenerate itself.  By contrast, going organic can help regenerate the soil.  The soil breaks down residues from crops.  In addition, planned organic grazing of ruminants can help regenerate the soil and sequester carbon.  For farmers to plant more diverse crops they need to be able to sell them.  They need access larger scale markets.  Then they can get a quantity of food into a school system or a hospital.  We have to make changes in multiple places and that takes time.

Organic farming is outside the norm in Illinois.  The speakers pointed to is a powerful group dynamic that makes it harder for farmers to adopt organic methods.  If a farmer does something out of the norm – and if something goes wrong, then that farmer can become ostracized.  It takes time to build trust in how the product is grown.  Until organic farming is valued it is difficult to overcome the efficiency of industrialized production of oats.  There is urgency to make these changes happen in order to increase carbon drawdown, but also to save lives.  I learned the harrowing information that more farmers than veterans are committing suicide.  The struggle for healthy land ownership strikes deep.

By thinking about the food system, we can see that it can be an engine of growth or contribute to a vicious cycle of collapse.   We can build an engine of growth by relocalizing the food system and attract people to come back to the heartland.   What they are doing can be replicated throughout the Midwest.  It will take telling new stories about health and agriculture to continue to spur the engine of growth, the virtuous cycle of healthy agriculture and healthy people.  

Marilyn Paul, Ph.D. Co-founder Bridgeway Partners – Reframe and Resolve Intractable Problems