Food policy advocate shares 20 years of food and farm lessons

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Policy analyst Diane Conners, the author of newly published “Shared Abundance.”

Beth Price

Policy analyst Diane Conners, the author of newly published “Shared Abundance.”

Capital News Service

LANSING – A new book by a Michigan food policy advocate emphasizes that everyone is needed to create a sustainable and prosperous food economy.

“There’s such a wide variety of people who make a local food economy work,” said Diane Conners, the author of the recently published “Shared Abundance” ($29.95).

“There’s a role for everyone, and that’s really where the title comes from,” said Conners, who has worked for two decades at the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities in Traverse City,. “When we all come together and share the different things that need to happen to make a food system work, we get so much abundance out of that.”

Conners explores 20 years of enhancing the economy, community, schools and infrastructure through local food.

Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, which published the book, helps people who want to better Michigan with innovative, local solutions that create a clean environment, strong economy and healthy community. 

It has programs dealing with climate, environment, transportation, community design, local food and farming. The center started its work in food and farming by researching local food, farms and economics in 2001. The following year it published a report called, “The New Entrepreneurial Agriculture,” Conners said.

“Now, it’s been over 20 years and we decided to use the anniversary of that publication as a launching point,” she said. “We wanted to take a look at what’s happened in the time since then, and if there are any lessons that could be learned and shared with others.”

The key takeaway from the book is that everybody is important to building a local food economy and that people anywhere can do it, she said.

“What I learned was the depth of the importance of relationships. I think everyone on our staff knew that the reason we had success in what we did was because of relationships that were built over time.”

“Relationships are built at the speed of trust, and social change happens at the speed of relationships,” she said. “What I found in doing the book was that every single person I interviewed said the same thing: It’s relationships and partnerships that can make sustainable change happen.”

“Shared Abundance” emphasizes the importance of local farmers. It provides tips, personal stories and even fun local food recipes. 

Conners recounts how farmer Reid Johnston of Cedar had received a text from a Groundworks employee about a baby pantry coordinator gushing about the taste of his carrots. 

She said that interaction meant a lot to him as it helped reconnect him to why he got into organic local agriculture in the first place. He replied with a heart emoji.

Jim Bardenhagen, a former Michigan State University Extension agent used to work on behalf of some of the largest fruit growers in the country. 

Conners said a top U.S. Department of Agriculture official once told Bardenhagen that large agriculture and GMO agriculture were the only ways to feed the world. 

His reply, according to Conners: “Don’t rule out the small farms.”

Conners avoided a long narrative for people to wade through. The prologue recounts Groundwork Center’s history with local food. 

And she realized that she could tell the story in seven chapters and in a way that could help people get their brains around it.

There is a chapter about the 10 Cents a Meal program that supplies local food to schools, building resilient communities, marketing and food and health.

“I was also talking to our own staff and brainstorming with them. I needed to narrow down the number of people (to profile), and we wanted it to be readable,” Conners said. She wrote short profiles featuring one person for each focus area.

“Whether it’s a farmer, a food service director, a doctor, whoever it is, you learn a little bit about them,” she said. “But then you also have tips that they have about how they did it.”

One of the profiles is of chef Nathan Bates, who switched after being a long-term restaurant chef to working on school food. His profile tells people about using Michigan-grown produce and how he helped transform the food and recipes used in school lunches.

At the end of each chapter are tips, recipes and ideas for people who don’t have time to read it.

“I hope people who read the book can see themselves in it,” Conners said. “Anybody can be a part of helping to bring locally grown food to people.”

Jacklyn Sellentine reports for Great Lakes Echo. 

Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities.
Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities.

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