Photo by Erin White

Photo by Erin White

Picture an old apartment building, maybe 8 or ten stories tall.

Now imagine standing in the damp, dim basement of that building with 20 others who live in the building with you. You all stand staring at the building’s foundation wall, made of old and crumbling brick, where the mortar is mostly worn away, and groundwater is seeping through. You look up at the thick floor beams above you and wonder how much longer this wall can hold them up, and the rest of the building above.

Look around at the others gathered here in the basement. Some are nervous, some are merely curious. Some are terrified, some outraged. Many are new faces to you.

How often do you actually say hello, or speak with them on a normal day? But today is different. Here, together, gaping at the evidence of a failing structure, each of you worry that everything of value to you — your families, your memories, your health — could all tumble down.

“Who let this happen? It’s completely irresponsible to let the building fall apart.”

“This is a disaster.”

“We all need to get out.”

“We can’t leave — we have nowhere else to go.”

“Same with us.”

“Us, too. Can’t leave. There’s nothing to do except try and fix this.”

Here’s the last piece of the story: the only people who can repair this building, that can keep the upper floors safe and intact, are the ones standing here with you. Somehow this diverse band of residents must find a way to work together to repair the crumbling foundations.

How do you start?

How do you get everyone on the same page, and how do you create a shared plan to repair the ailing building?

What if all of the skills and resources needed to repair the building were standing there in that group? What if all you had to do was identify the carpenter, the mason, the cook to nourish the repair crew, and the coach who could motivate the team each morning?

Our food system is like this apartment building.

Like a food system, the building depends on a complex network of parts to support life within it: a physical structure, water supply pipes, electrical wiring and hardware, exit signs and staircases. Like a food system it supports many different people. Some of these people know each other and many don’t. Some of these people understand the system that is supporting them, but many aren’t really aware of it.

Our food system is like that building in that it’s failing us at almost every point.

We throw away 40% of the food we grow, we are losing farmers and farmland, our mainstream agricultural practices are increasingly dependent on chemical inputs and corporate interests, and in the face of all of that we are as hungry as ever.

If our food system is like that building, then scattered within our real-world communities are those 20 people staring at the failing foundations, starting to realize that it’s up to us to solve this. These are the few people already engaged in food system change, but they aren’t enough. Whole communities need to bring their energy and assets to keep the food system from falling down.

We all need to be part of the solution. Participation in your food system matters. Grow vegetables, buy local, attend a policy meeting, start a food business, or start a community garden. Instead of waiting it out in an upstairs apartment, we need everyone down in the basement figuring out how to help. Everyone’s got different skills, experiences, and resources to contribute to the effort, and only with all of our assets on the table can we craft a lasting solution.

Particular skills like farming, teaching, marketing, food inventory management, policy development, or community organizing are critical in a healthy food system. The skills and assets within our communities, however, will only be as strong as the system that connects them, that empowers them and catalyzes their innovation.

This blog post, originally published by founder Erin White on Community Food Lab’s website and reprinted here1 with his permission, is how his firm views food system design. A leader in crafting those lasting solutions, White is passionate about creating real change in how we think about food as not only nourishment but as an economic and social driver of prosperity.

The allegory is also the perfect explanation for why the City of Raleigh’s Environmental Advisory Board (EAB) adopted urban agriculture as one of its priorities for 2015 and beyond.

“Food is medicine,” said Anya Gordon, EAB member and proprietor of Irregardless Café. “Increasing access to local, healthy food is absolutely critical to the future of Raleigh and the health of its residents.”

On Saturday, Nov. 14 the EAB is hosting a panel discussion and public conversation on The Future of Urban Agriculture in Raleigh. The event, free and open to the public, is from 10 a.m. to noon at the Alliance Medical Ministry, 101 Donald Ross Drive in Raleigh.

Gordon hopes that “this event will spur thoughts, ideas and collaborations that will keep us on the right track and moving toward a healthier local food system.”

The panel includes City of Raleigh staff and local leaders in the urban agriculture movement, including White, City Council Member Bonner Gaylord, Jill Staton Bullard, Advocates for Health in Action, Interfaith Food Shuttle and the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation. They will address issues such as how to get younger people involved in farming, other cities’ best practices, and challenges that may be impeding progress.

In addition to hearing the panel’s thoughts, attendees will be encouraged to write down ideas about what Raleigh can do to spur growth in local urban agriculture.

These local efforts to grow food reach far beyond the actual nourishment provided from the crops grown. The event will also recognize the work of 13 local gardens and farms that received urban agriculture “mini-grants” from the EAB at the City’s 2015 Environmental Awards Ceremony in April. Applications for 2016 grants open Nov. 16.

Award winners include Childcare Network #61, a facility recognized regionally for its efforts to replace canned goods with items grown fresh onsite, tended by the center’s children.

Tangible proof of their success is that children are eating more vegetables, willingly, no small feat. The center purchased a dehydrator, which the children use regularly to make their own snacks such as apple chips and kale chips. According to Director Wanda Davis, one day the children compared the pizza from Childcare Network’s food distributor to the eggplant pizzas they made and voted on which they liked best; their own eggplant pizzas came out on top.

White made another key point about community participation and design thinking, a process to address a wicked problem from multiple angles. “It fosters ground-level and grassroots solutions instead of top-down solutions. Top-down thinking can be useful, but it limits user input, tends to over-simplify complexity, and rewards efficiency over resilience. The more we can participate in our own solutions, the more resilient and intelligent our solutions can be.”

Standing in a dark, leaky basement with 20 strangers is a way to picture how design thinking comes into play.

These strangers can all be introduced, and their interests and skills and histories can be connected into a system of social possibility. They can all participate in assessing the condition of the crumbling walls, and together can decide to make change.

Drawn together in the confidence that their collective crisis can be made clear and can be solved together, the strangers become a community, and the process of becoming a community provides them with the tools to create change.

Let’s go downstairs and fix this together.

  1. All the italic sections in this story
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