On Wednesday, October 7, the Connecticut Food System Alliance (CFSA) held the final session of this year’s virtual summit, Designing Resilience for Food and Farming in Connecticut: A Virtual Series to Collectively Shape the Future of Growing & Eating in Our State. This session, Actionable Steps Toward the Future of Sustainable, Resilient Food & Farming, recapped the previous three sessions and allowed participants to discuss what they would like to see in the future of the Connecticut food system. For this session, we invited state senator and long-time CFSA supporter, Marilyn Moore, to speak on her experiences making change in the state.
Senator Marilyn Moore
“Senator Marilyn Moore was first elected in 2014 to serve the 22nd State Senatorial District communities of Trumbull, sections of Bridgeport and Monroe. She was elected to a second term in 2016. As a lifelong Bridgeport resident and community activist, Senator Moore has been a force in advocating for health equity, living wage, and legislation that supports and protects Connecticut communities. Recognizing the rapid increase in morbidity and mortality rates among low income minority women with breast cancer, she founded and became President and CEO of The Witness Project, which seeks to address and reduce breast cancer mortality.
In addition, Senator Moore has tackled the war against hunger by serving and being a member of several boards in Connecticut, including, End Hunger CT!, Network Support Team of the Connecticut Food System Alliance, and Food Solutions New England.
As a result of her unwavering passion and dedication to fighting for food and health equity in Connecticut, the City of Bridgeport formed the Bridgeport Food Policy Council, which integrates all agencies of the city in a common effort to improve the availability of safe and nutritious food at reasonable prices for all residents, particularly those in need.”
Senator Moore began her involvement in food systems work through non-profit work. She ran a non-profit for 15 years advocating for Black women who suffer from breast cancer at the highest rate. Through her work making mammograms and health screenings accessible to more women she realized that access to healthy food was a factor in treatment success, overall health, and breast cancer prevention. This compounded with childrens’ excitement about healthy food and growing healthy food drove her to advocate for food system legislation during her tenure as state senator.
In Bridgeport, she noticed a dearth of healthy food among the abundant corner stores selling and marketing unhealthy options. A study in Bridgeport showed that it took people 75 minutes by bus to access a full service grocery store, making corner stores and bodegas the most accessible option. Senator Moore worked with the City of Bridgeport’s health department to create a corner store initiative, bringing healthy foods, appropriate storage, and marketing assistance to corner stores.
Since her election in 2014, Senator Moore has served on the Environmental Committee and has been appointed as Chair of the Human Services Committee. These experiences opened her eyes to the world of agriculture and how the food system and SNAP impact low-income people in our state. Additionally, COVID has shown that many barriers to food access (waivers, paperwork, and limited SNAP funds) do not have to exist. “That’s another opportunity for us to say ‘why not?’ Nothing changed, nothing hurt anybody by allowing them to have access to precooked food, especially seniors.”
Senator Moore ended her presentation highlighting the importance of food system work in Connecticut. As a state with farmland, suburbs, and urban centers, it’s important for people, especially children, to understand how food is grown and how it gets to the grocery store. It’s especially important for youth to see diversity in race, gender, age, and class in agriculture. “It’s important for them to see this is another place where they could find a home, be comfortable, and raise their own food.”
What Are Our Interests?
During this session, we summarized the previous sessions and extracted our favorite ideas and initiatives. Here are the initiatives and solutions that garnered the most attention:
Food is Medicine (modeled after a program in Massachusetts) – this works to address and prevent diet related illnesses. The Food is Medicine intervention includes medically tailored meals delivered fully prepared, medically tailored food delivered unprepared, a voucher (“prescription”) program for healthy foods, and population-level healthy food, anti-poverty action. Registered Dieticians and Nutritionists tailor meals and provide “prescriptions” for individuals. This is a health-focused food system transformation.
CSA Subsidies (similar to a program in Vermont) – Vermont NOFA collects donations from across the state and uses that money to subsidize farm shares so more low income people can access and support local farms. Some farms in Connecticut subsidize shares, but a statewide program could increase accessibility to more people.
Food hubs could create a more accessible local food system; however, Connecticut only has three: the Northwest Regional Connecticut Food Hub, Brass City Harvest, and the Hartford Regional Market. Food hubs can better connect local farmers to communities, especially for communities that do not have the resources to establish a farmers’ market or farmers who cannot sustain a farmers’ market presence.
More on-farm training – what can Connecticut do to encourage farming?
As discussed in the Funding and Policy session, there’s an educational gap between policy makers, philanthropists, and people trying to resolve issues like food security. Inviting legislators to your organization’s events and planning strategic meetings with philanthropists (or the Connecticut Council for Philanthropy) could help bridge those gaps and encourage more discussions and substantial change.
Connecticut has some of the nation’s best farmland and some of the most expensive farmland (USDA). How can we incentivize farming and make this land accessible to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) farmers?
Connecticut also has a number of vacant buildings and lots. How can we incentivize retrofitting these spaces for value added food operations that could close the food system loop in our state? GreenWave, for example, uses vacant tobacco sheds to dry seaweed. How can that model expand to different operations in the state? Resources to check out with more information:
Our social safety net must be proactively strong instead of reactively growing. Securing funding for appropriate social safety nets like SNAP, unemployment, and hazard pay well before an emergency strikes could prevent strain that these programs face when they are underfunded.
What Are the Next Steps?
Dedicate time to each of the issues above. Generate energy behind each interest during focused sessions.
Identifying the true cost of our food system, “the triple bottom line.” What is the cost of the food system from an economic, environmental, and quality of life perspective?
Get more funding for the long-term. A critical component to achieving sustainability is longevity – and the bias toward temporary programmatic funding as well as limited funding periods (usually a year) impede the true systems work that we want to achieve.
We hope to continue these discussions into the new year and the long legislative session. Want to get involved and stay up to date on future discussions? Join the listserv: send a message to email@example.com!
On Tuesday, September 22, the Connecticut Food System Alliance (CFSA) held the third session of this year’s virtual summit, Designing Resilience for Food and Farming in Connecticut: A Virtual Series to Collectively Shape the Future of Growing & Eating in Our State. This session, Funding & Policy: Building Long-Term, Systemic Solutions, focused on philanthropic giving and advocacy as methods of creating change. CFSA Steering Committee members Latha Swamy and Cara Mitchell moderated a panel discussion between Fahd Vahidy, philanthropic advisor to William C. Graustein, and Nyree Hodges, project coordinator for Connecticut Farm to School Collaborative.
Funding in Connecticut
Connecticut sees hundreds of millions of dollars in charitable giving from both foundations and individual donors annually. In 2017, Connecticut foundations awarded $803.7 million in grants, less than half of that amount remaining within the state (CT Philanthropy). In Connecticut, 32% of foundation giving goes to health initiatives, 5% goes to community and economic development, 3% goes to environmental and animal services, and 0.3% goes to agriculture, fishing, and forestry (CT Philanthropy, according to the most recent data collected in 2016).
Connecticut is also home to 18,602 nonprofits with 501(c)(3) distinction, including public charities, religious organizations, and public and private foundations (Independent Sector). Despite a common misconception, it’s legal for these 501(c)(3) organizations to lobby for legislative change (Bolder Advocacy & Center for Nonprofits).
About Fahd Vahidy
“Fahd Vahidy currently serves as a Philanthropic Advisor to William C. Graustein and supports his charitable giving work and programmatic investments including the Community Leadership Program in New Haven, CT. Fahd has held management and executive management positions in the nonprofit sector, and as a consultant, he’s advised on innovative startups, talent development and organizational culture work, and systems-level advocacy and change. He has served on the board of several state-wide organizations in CT over the last 20 years. Fahd received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Connecticut. When he’s not fly fishing on the Farmington River, he’s likely to be gardening in his backyard or spending time with his wife and two cats.”
About Nyree Hodges
“Nyree is a certified community health educator who brings several years of experience as a non-formal educator/ and project coordinator in environmental education, service learning, and agriculture to her work. Nyree currently works as the Project Coordinator for the CT Farm to School Collaborative and finds it essential to incorporate the intersectionality of food, education, and land in her approaches to work.”
Latha Swamy framed the panel discussion as an examination of the divisions, or false silos, that prevent progress toward true food systems change. For example, groups emphasizing the importance of emergency food services while knowing they are temporary solutions, not long-term solutions to hunger or poverty. Latha spoke about how food systems change includes addressing housing security, job security, and financial security through policy.
Latha also acknowledged the separation of food and agriculture in funding situations. For example, a funder could be focusing on the food system, but may not choose to fund something related to land security or growing food. Agricultural programs go underfunded even though they are integral to the food system.
Q: How do we bridge these divisions that prevent collaborative change?
Nyree acknowledged the work that mutual aid groups and grassroots organizations have done to support populations not included in pandemic relief, such as undocumented immigrants. Nyree observed that, “these grassroots organizations have filled in the gap where policy has failed us.” Mutual aid groups mobilized during the pandemic to provide communities with food, money, and other resources.
Nyree also discussed silos based on who is at the table in different organizations. For example, the information she collects through her work as a project coordinator for the Connecticut Farm to School Collaborative is different from the information shared with the Northeast Farmers of Color (NEFOC). She added, “as time goes on I see funding that’s brought into these rooms and they get used in very different ways. So I think that’s one way that these silos live and division happens.”
Fahd stated that silos are part of the system’s design: “Silos are emblematic of the very design that’s been reinforced and replicated, structurally, politically put into place through policies and programs.” Fahd continued that in order to bridge these divisions and encourage collaborative change, we should analyze whether these efforts to bridge and collaborate reinforce or redesign the existing system.
From Fahd’s unique philanthropic perspective as an advisor to an individual donor, funding is relational: “We try to build these relationships with the folks who are on the front lines, who have a deep expertise about systems that are working efficiently and systems that are not working efficiently.” It’s through these relationships that philanthropists can work toward understanding needs of individuals and connect them to community agencies that have trust within impacted neighborhoods. “The bridging work for us is not so much as redesigning systems but really trying to influence the type of conversations that can support reimagining systems.”
Q: It’s often easier to obtain funding for programs than it is for policy or grassroots organizing. Do you observe these patterns as well and what are some of your thoughts around how that impacts what’s happening? Is there potential for change?
Nyree drew from personal experience working with Make The Road Connecticut in Bridgeport. She worked on a project to provide safe pathways for students to get to schools in Bridgeport. “They [Make The Road Connecticut] worked with the city council a lot to try to get this funded and they wanted permanent paint so that students can have a pathway to get to school where the rain wouldn’t wash away the paint. But the city kept telling Make the Road for years that they can only use temporary paint.” While this was not related to the food system, Nyree expressed that it’s an example of a system redesign that was not funded for the long-term until very recently and after years of asking. “That’s just one example when I noticed that something temporary, or a temporary program, is more likely to get funded than a long-term permit or policy, especially one that redesigns a system.”
Fahd acknowledged that this issue is alive in the philanthropic world; there’s a prevailing bias toward programs. Program officers and grant managers often inform these funding decisions based on program evaluation metrics, not on systems redesign. Fahd referenced how historically philanthropy has been a neutral endeavor. “If you were to back away from thinking through this and be a bit more imaginative around the types of systems we want to change, you have to take a position and it certainly can’t be neutral on issues that matter.” Though neutrality is an issue in institutional philanthropy, individual giving has the opportunity to fund advocacy and policy initiatives without aligning an organization with a political agenda.Fahd also references a New York Times Magazine article, America At Hunger’s Edge, about philanthropy and giving during the pandemic and during economic emergencies through history. “It’s easier to put the money out there to the organization or to relieve pain and suffering than to push for a policy. It probably has something to do with the government structure or the trust in government and the immediate benefit that people receive from putting money out for emergency food.”
“In order for us to make significant change, we must invest in leaders, not simply see them as instruments to advance the work of organizations. Given the level of disruption and change that’s much needed and more possible than ever before, real progress will more likely come from unfettered leaders and the new platforms they create than from slow-to-change organizations that are hoping for a return to normalcy.”
Is this something you agree with, and is it happening in Connecticut or not happening in Connecticut, especially in the food system?
Both Fahd and Nyree agree with Vu Le’s quote calling to invest not only in programs and organizations but BIPOC leaders.
Back in 2001/2002, Fahd’s employer, Bill, created the Community Leadership Program, bringing leaders from New Haven together to discuss tensions, divisions, and leadership capabilities in the state. “I’m certainly behind leadership development investment and I think a supplement to that is having experiences that allow for leaders to critique and perhaps reexamine some of the narratives that they’ve bought into about what leadership looks like.” The space for critique is especially important when discussing redesigning systems. This program and similar programs help build cooperative leadership skills, interdependencies, and trust that can help generate the right results. They also help bring community leaders and those with direct ties to the issues to the table to develop solutions: “The people who are closest to the issues that we want to impact are the best forces to influence that design.”
After graduating college, Nyree was part of a fellowship program called Young People For, a leadership development program dedicated to social change. While programs like these uplift BIPOC youth leaders, they’re contextualized by predominantly white perceptions of professionalism. “People of color will get these roles because they’re the best people to go out into the community for the non-profit…I do see that kind of running down on a lot of BIPOC leaders because it’s like telling BIPOC folks ‘you don’t have the tools to lead their communities in a way that they could without having to go through this corporate or professional way.’” In a state like Connecticut, lots of the same BIPOC leaders are pulled into discussions in a tokenizing way. Instead, organizations in the state need to expand outreach to include more voices, especially Indigenous voices. “There are a lot of people who are interested, a lot of people who are doing this work…I think we can do a lot more targeted outreach to bring in those people who you wouldn’t normally see to be a part of the space.”
Q: How do we move toward cross sectoral relationships and create that ecosystem so that funding is not siloed, conversations are not siloed, and we are not talking in vacuums all the time?
Fahd assessed that more leaders and organizations are shifting their priorities and opening conduits for more collaborative and cooperative initiatives. He sees the potential to look past short-term solutions and focus on long-term change that can benefit more people, especially when it comes to extractive food system practices. “I think we’re beginning to turn a tide on this where people are beginning to realize that we need more people at the table to influence the type of work we’re into and while we may have divergent interests if we look at a short-term timeline, but in a longer scale a cooperative working environment and cooperative thinking design are really necessary.” Fahd referenced the Business Roundtable, an association made up of leaders from well-known organizations, that started to focus on corporate social responsibility. “I think these are some ways we can start developing a framework that people can support but also having some critical conversations about what’s fundamentally important.”
Nyree agreed with Fahd. However, we need to connect organizations having these conversations separately from one another. “There are a lot of folks in Connecticut who are working towards the same goal and sometimes when I’m in a room I think to myself ‘we’re talking about this and they’re talking about that and it would be great if these two rooms can conjoin.’” Nyree noted that COVID-19 has presented the unique opportunity to increase communication and start pulling more groups together in the virtual space. She went back to an earlier point about siloed conversations based on who is in the room and subsequent funding based on those conversations. She proposed increasing coordination between all of these groups (through designated coordinators and community liaisons) and including feedback loops into these discussions.
The conversation sparked interesting discussions in breakout sessions. Each group had opportunities to share their thoughts on the panel and add to the main ideas.
Funders need to foster integration and de-siloing. Funders tend to overlook the issues that intersect with the one they are trying to support. For example, food and agriculture are deeply intertwined, but are often separated in funding. The same applies to food security and other anti-poverty initiatives promoting affordable housing, job security, and financial security.
Funding windows, often a year, limit what philanthropic giving can realistically change. Instead, short-term funding goes toward programs and charitable work, treating a symptom of inequity instead of attacking the root cause. Programs and charitable giving are important during emergencies, but building a resilient system can prevent future devastation and strain on these temporary programs. Unrestricted or less restricted funding could foster long-term systems change.
Funders avoid policy work due to political stigma. When it comes to food security and policy work, “apolitical” funding skirts the root cause.
Knowledge gaps exist for both the general public and legislative policy makers. Policy makers need more information on the intricacies behind food insecurity and the general public needs to better understand the legislative process and how they can get involved.
Knowledgeable policy makers will have the ability to address the full scope of issues related to food security, including the racism and classism deeply embedded in the policy-making space itself. Leadership programs, specifically for Connecticut’s BIPOC leaders, can help facilitate representation in influential policy spaces.
There’s a disconnect between what policy makers view as “new” issues and what entire populations have been experiencing since before COVID. For example, research shows that SNAP funding has been insufficient, and those on SNAP are still widely food insecure. However, with more people on SNAP during COVID, policymakers finally addressed this information, and states like Connecticut started providing SNAP families with more funding and support. While the pandemic exacerbated hunger in our state, the need to expand SNAP existed prior to the pandemic as families struggled with the insufficient funds.
Funding & Policy
When it comes to funding, there’s a bias toward programs. While philanthropic organizations might be concerned with political affiliations, it’s crucial that these organizations fund advocacy and policy work in order to make changes for causes they support. While this is mitigated by individual philanthropy, institutional philanthropy’s bias toward programmatic funding limits change and leads to a nasty cycle.
These discussions highlighted the false silos in funding and policy. There’s a responsibility for philanthropic organizations to invest in policy and advocacy initiatives, instead of temporary programs. There’s also a responsibility for non-profits and grassroots organizations to get more involved in the legislative process through lobbying and other legal processes. There’s a bias toward temporary programs that prevents long-term policy change; non-profit leaders and philanthropic influencers need to abandon the apolitical mindset and get more involved in policy work.
Connecticut also needs to expand its decision-making space, becoming more inclusive and accessible. Some proposed solutions include policy training and education for both non-profits and philanthropists, and increasing BIPOC leadership and representation in decision-making spaces. With our collective new proficiency in virtual technology, this may be the perfect time to facilitate inclusive, cross sectoral conversations that can mitigate funding silos and address existing and worsening problems in the food system.
On Thursday, September 17, the Connecticut Food System Alliance (CFSA) held the second session of this year’s virtual summit, Designing Resilience for Food and Farming in Connecticut: A Virtual Series to Collectively Shape the Future of Growing & Eating in Our State. This session, Assets & Gaps: What Do We Have and What Do We Need for a Better Food System?, focused on the existing and missing opportunities in Connecticut’s local food system. These virtual discussions, a safe and responsible replacement for the CFSA’s usually in-person summit, will help shape a food action plan for Connecticut (as of now, Connecticut is the only state in New England without a food action plan).
Connecticut Assets & Gaps
Asset mapping, identifying food assets like grocery stores and food pantries, does not always encompass the big picture when it comes to local food systems. Sure, assets can be grocery stores and farmers’ markets, but they can also be tobacco sheds, vacant buildings, and philanthropic funds. Connecticut’s unique geography includes farmland, protected coastline, and industrial cities, but not all of those assets are optimized to their full potential.
CFSA asked participants to come prepared with an example of a food asset in their community. Their examples included stakeholders, empty buildings, a diverse customer base, grassroots food justice organizations, and institutions. To speak about their businesses as Connecticut food assets, Sam Garwin from GreenWave, and Wayne Pesce from the Connecticut Food Association joined the discussion.
Sam Garwin, market innovation strategist at GreenWave, introduced CFSA and participants to Connecticut’s “blue economy.” GreenWave provides training and support to new ocean farmers and innovates new technology to improve operations and reduce costs to hatcheries. GreenWave supports ocean farmers interested in polyculture vertical farming: growing high yields of shellfish and seaweed with a small environmental footprint and low aesthetic impact. These polyculture ocean farms have a relatively low financial barrier (compared to land farming) and restore and protect ocean ecosystems in the process.
GreenWave utilizes Connecticut’s unique assets to build a blue economy and sustainable use and marketing of ocean resources. GreenWave’s operations in the Long Island sound provide food to humans and livestock, fertilizer for land farms, biodegradable materials for plastic alternatives, and ecosystems fighting climate change. Long Island does not use their coastline for ocean farming, giving Connecticut’s ocean farmers an advantage in the New York City market for seaweed and shellfish. It also provides an opportunity to strengthen economies of working waterfronts. GreenWave has also partnered with unused Connecticut tobacco sheds to dry seaweed, since transporting wet seaweed is a market side logistics obstacle for GreenWave.
Despite GreenWave’s innovative operations, there are still gaps in supply side and market side operations. First, the permitting process is extensive and lengthy, and despite this process, there is no certification or federal standard for cultivated organic kelp. Additionally, raw seaweed must be processed within 24-hours for optimal quality and there is currently no independent processor or co-packers in Southern New England. On the market side, the FDA and USDA provide minimal guidance regarding seaweed food safety, and it is difficult for these small ocean farms to compete with the low prices afforded by the large international market. Additionally, chefs and eaters are still relatively unfamiliar with seaweed as an ingredient.
While GreenWave’s operations are unique and innovative, these gaps are familiar to farmers and local producers who have to adhere to USDA and FDA standards and regulations, and compete with the low costs of a larger market.
Connecticut Food Association
Wayne Pesce, President of the Connecticut Food Association (CFA), discussed the organization’s observations and interactions with Connecticut’s grocery retail industry during the COVID-19 emergency. CFA’s network consists of approximately 300 retail food stores and 135 pharmacies. In April 2020, CFA worked closely with stores in COVID hotspots in Connecticut to implement safety measures that protect frontline associates and customers.
The food retail industry and grocery store associates are an asset to the state’s infrastructure. Deemed essential businesses and essential workers, grocery stores and grocery store employees were on the front lines during the pandemic. To ensure the safety of workers and customers, CFA involved itself with state and local governments to implement safety measures like installing plexiglass barriers, encouraging one-person-per-family shopping trips, and providing personal protective equipment (PPE) to staff. CFA also informed legislators and the public about these safety precautions.
CFA also worked toward making food accessible. Panic buying left grocery shelves without enough food for everyone, including food banks. Outbreaks in meat processing facilities also created a protein shortage. In order to combat this, stores had to limit quantities of meat and disinfecting products in order to leave enough on the shelves for everyone and their neighbors. While Connecticut piloted an online SNAP program, CFA also worked toward extending this online pilot to WIC recipients as well for a safer, less congested, more accessible shopping experience.
While frontline workers and grocery stores are assets, there’s still more to do about resiliency. As climate change takes a toll on the environment, more storms are likely to cause power outages, and natural gas/fossil fuel burning generators are not the most effective or sustainable backup solution. Renewable energy and microgrids are better options than generators and CFA has been partnering with other groups to invest in battery storage so grocery stores can continue providing essential services during emergencies.
COVID challenged us to think outside the box. We in the “land of steady habits” quickly put collective creativity to work to experiment with existing assets and repurpose those to serve different needs. While this discussion surfaced many gaps in Connecticut’s food system, almost all of them can be viewed as assets and opportunities.
What are the most prominent assets, gaps, and opportunities?
Broad customer base interested in local food: The state’s ~100 farmers’ markets operate in urban, suburban, and rural areas across the state. While this is certainly an asset, there’s also an opportunity for these farmers’ markets to build stronger producer-consumer connections, especially in urban areas.
Money in many forms: At some point this year, unemployment benefits increased temporarily, a stimulus check went out to eligible citizens, and SNAP/EBT expanded in Connecticut. Giving people money, instead of pre-packaged, pre-selected goods, can better improve the local economy. While charity models are helpful during emergencies, direct funds allow individuals to make choices for themselves based on preferences and priorities. Models like food boxes, as noted in the food supply chain session, also take too much time to implement on this large scale. Funds, whether federal, state, or private, could be funneled toward broad systems change instead of temporary programmatic change.
BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) leadership: Connecticut, in context of the rest of New England, is a racially diverse state; however, BIPOC voices are often left out of the decision making process due to racism. To build a stronger, more inclusive food system, there needs to be BIPOC representation and leadership.
Relationships and networks: institutions have resources to build networks that could facilitate relationships between different parts of the food system. Encouraging farms, restaurants, institutions, and grocery stores to engage in open communication, via social media or word of mouth, could strengthen Connecticut’s local food system.
These discussions resurfaced old discussions about lack of or insufficient use of physical assets: few processing facilities exist, Connecticut’s prime farmland is inaccessible or too expensive for new farmers, and food hubs exist but are sparse. COVID has given Connecticut an opportunity to rise to the occasion, exercise some creative solutions, and break some steady habits. So, what’s in the way of fully utilizing these assets?
On Wednesday, September 9, the Connecticut Food System Alliance (CFSA) kicked off a series of virtual sessions, Designing Resilience for Food and Farming in Connecticut: A Virtual Series to Collectively Shape the Future of Growing & Eating in Our State. This first session, Successful Food Supply Chain Adaptations & Sustainability, focused on the adaptations made during COVID-19 and the sustainability of these solutions. These virtual discussions, a safe and responsible replacement for the CFSA’s usually in-person summit, will help shape a food action plan for Connecticut (as of now, Connecticut is the only state in New England without a food action plan).
What is the Food Supply Chain?
The food supply chain is “the set of trading partner relationships and transactions that delivers a food product from producers to consumers” (USDA). In other words, the food supply chain encompasses all the steps from growth to consumption. Where does food originate, how far does it have to travel, and how many people have to interact with it before consumption? That means you (yes, you reading this), as well as farmers, processors, and distributors are part of the food supply chain.
What happens in a crisis? As Connecticut experienced at the onset of the COVID-19 lockdown, the food supply chain, as well as other supply chains, had to shift to adapt to different needs. For example, some restaurants who could not serve diners maintained their relationships with farmers and wholesalers to provide people with groceries. This kept restaurant employees paid and the supply chain intact.
We asked participants to think about some adaptations they witnessed in their own communities. To speak about their experiences, we invited Kimberly Acosta, the food system administrator for the City of New Haven’s Food System Policy Division, to speak about New Haven’s Square Meals | Comidas Completas program, and Maria DeSarbo, the vice president of Carbonella & DeSarbo Inc, to speak about distribution changes during COVID-19. We sought out two successful examples from the for profit and non-profit sectors to spark conversations about long-term changes to the food system.
Square Meals New Haven | Comidas Completas
Kimberly Acosta is the food system administrator for the City of New Haven. She works closely with the director of food system policy, Latha Swamy, and researches best practices for equitable food and urban agriculture development. To respond to COVID-19, Kimberly researched and implemented a model that would house unsheltered populations while supporting restaurants.
The Square Meals | Comidas Completas program aims to connect restaurants and unsheltered populations, utilizing vacant hotel spaces to house people while restaurants, closed for service due to COVID-19 precautions, provide hot meals to those in the hotels. The program launched in May 2020 with support from New Haven’s Town Green District. According to Kimberly’s research, Cambridge, Massachusetts has a program similar to New Haven’s, with restaurants providing meals to shelters. Under director Latha Swamy’s guidance, this initiative met an urgent need (providing shelter and food to New Haven’s unhoused population) while providing economic support to local restaurants and hotels who were seeing fewer, if any, guests.
Square Meals | Comidas Completas faced multiple obstacles during implementation, mainly funding, recruitment, and lengthy approval processes. After sustaining funding for a month of operations from community foundations and partners, a FEMA Public Assistance Officer from the State of Connecticut assured that the City would be reimbursed for the Square Meals program. The City had to consider equitable distribution for economic benefits as they decided which restaurants to recruit; supporting restaurants from a range of neighborhoods. Finally, drafting and finalizing contracts, necessary City processes, caused delays in project implementation. At the height of the pandemic, the program not only provided food to unhoused individuals, but also first responders. At its peak, the program was providing approximately 665 meals a day to six sites.
Carbonella and DeSarbo
Maria DeSarbo is the vice president of Carbonella and DeSarbo Inc., a family owned and operated wholesale fruit and produce distributor. Maria is the fourth generation of leadership at her family’s business. Carbonella and DeSarbo Inc. sources, imports, and distributes produce throughout Connecticut and the country to a variety of consumers and organizations, from restaurants to nursing homes.
Carbonella and DeSarbo had to adapt to a full shutdown of the food service industry, their largest market. The business also had to adapt to the new buying patterns as panic buying settled in and markets became hyper-inflated. Maria’s goal was to just feed as many people as possible utilizing the resources Carbonella and DeSarbo had readily available.
In order to overcome these challenges, Maria had to adjust the distribution plan. Carbonella and DeSarbo had to tap into different markets and repackage food to account for the needs of those different markets. For example, restaurants no longer needed 50 pound bags of potatoes, so Carbonella and DeSarbo repackaged these as 5 pound and 10 pound bags in order to sell them to families and non-profits. This forced her organization to increase communication and leverage existing relationships in order to pivot operations and distribute to different customers. Having ample space and resources to repackage things like large bags of potatoes made it possible for Carbonella and DeSarbo Inc. to make these changes.
Maria’s experience emphasized how important flexibility is when overcoming food supply chain disruptions. Her for-profit business partnered with non-profit organizations, and negotiated agreements in order to move, repackage, and sell available products. When another disruption inevitably occurs, Maria has the tools necessary to reflect upon the most stressful challenges, expand her operations accordingly, and maintain the relationships that meet needs in the Connecticut food system.
During breakout sessions, groups discussed successful and not-so-successful food supply chain adaptations, as well as pivots they would like to see continue post-COVID. Groups also discussed the obstacles people faced while trying to pivot a business model or program.
What innovations are worth continuing/expanding, and why do they matter?
Online ordering and curbside pick-up, especially for farms and farmers’ markets, increased availability and accessibility. Farms and farmers’ markets that adopted pre-order systems and drive-through/walk-through systems could be on-par with grocery store curbside options in terms of convenience. Plus, farmers’ market pre-order systems that accept SNAP increase peoples’ accessibility to fresh foods while limited retailers allow shoppers to use SNAP for online purchases.
Increased communication opened doors for cross-sectoral collaboration and fewer missed opportunities. However, the influx in online communication created fatigue.
Streamlined processes made it easier for people to access benefits and emergency services. Reduced paperwork for SNAP (such as automatic renewal, and relaxing employment requirements) and automatic P-EBT for students receiving free and reduced price lunch streamlined the process for recipients and state agencies. Instead of relying on charitable giving, which often eliminates consumer autonomy and is not always rooted in trust and dignity, people can better access programs that provide direct subsidies. However, policy must be changed at the federal level in order to keep these changes post-COVID.
Mutual aid mobilized to provide support, especially in communities who could not benefit from government assistance or stimulus programs. Mutual aid, based on dignity and community care, emphasized community power in Connecticut. Organizations like Mutual Aid Hartford, Semilla Collective, and CT CORE collected and redistributed resources in communities throughout the state.
Organizations and entities repurposed unused spaces and supplies. Square Meals | Comidas Completas, for example, provided housing in vacant hotel rooms and mobilized restaurant staff to provide meals. This utilized vacant hotel space and temporarily closed restaurant kitchens to support houseless, asymptomatic, COVID-19 positive New Haven residents.
The general cultural shift toward growing and cooking at home encourages independence, and supports mental, physical, and financial well-being. However, equity is still a concern since not everyone can trade the convenience of grocery store shopping and restaurants or pre-packaged meals for home-grown or home-cooked food. Not everyone in the state has the time or resources to maintain a supply of home-grown food.
What challenges were there and why does it need to be addressed?
Labor forces and “essential workers” lack social safety nets that protect their health and provide appropriate pay as they work on the front lines. These workers received abundant praise; however, that praise did not come with benefits like paid leave, hazard pay, health benefits, and more. There’s room for the state to make wages, benefits, and workplace standards on-par with the importance of these roles.
Who markets food and to whom do they market it? While urban areas in Connecticut have farmers’ markets (Hartford has five fresh markets and Bridgeport has eight) not all farmers were marketing to or had access to urban consumers. Bringing fresh, local food to urban areas could impact food and nutrition security in urban areas, specifically urban areas struggling with food apartheid.
Without a social safety net, people relied on slow-moving relief packages for food, income, and other assistance. Families and individuals waited for stimulus checks, USDA Farmer to Families Food Box, SNAP benefits, rental assistance, and more. Had a stronger social safety net existed pre-pandemic, these difficulties may have been avoided.
Building networks to access fresh, local foods made for quick adaptations; however, broader networks can help more businesses and individuals access these underutilized assets. A statewide culture shift toward openness in the market can help more people stay afloat, and waste fewer resources.
Community initiatives and creativity drove some of these successful food supply chain shifts. However, emergency shifts and programs tend to focus temporarily on the gaps in the food system and not the sustainable, long-term solutions that could create an equitable system. Connecticut needs a stronger social safety net, including expanding SNAP and providing benefits and hazard pay for essential workers. Policy-driven, upstream change would ensure the state’s food system sustainability when future supply chain disruptions occur.
CALL FOR PROPOSALS: 2020 Connecticut Food System Alliance Summit
Event: May 2, 2020 | 9 am – 4 pm
Common Ground High School, New Haven
Proposal Deadline: Friday, April 10
Chosen projects will be notified by Friday, April 17
Join us as we reimagine our Food System Network Summit! Present a question, challenge, or new idea you have to make our food system more sustainable and more equitable – and spend time with your allies across the state improving on that idea, tackling that problem, and generating clarity for the path forward. Rather than a traditional call for proposals asking for workshop topics, we are inviting you to tap into the collective wisdom of Connecticut’s food system actors. Work together, build new relationships, strengthen existing ones, and help build a better food system.
Instead of a traditional lecture and workshop style conference, where presenters are experts teaching the attendees, we want this to be an event where all participants – presenters and attendees – can learn from and work with each other. Therefore, “presenting” at this summit is more like an opportunity to dive deep into your work and find some next steps, insights, and questions to chew.
What are we looking for? We welcome proposals from individuals, organizations, businesses – anyone, a single person or a group of up to four individuals – can submit a proposal. (If your project involves more than four people, still apply – but it should be no more than four people presenting). You can present a challenge you’re experiencing in your work, a question you’re trying to answer, a “rut” you’re stuck in, a new path you’re trying. We will prioritize projects that are collaborative (involving more than one organization, or grassroots efforts). The purpose is to spend a short time presenting your issue (10 minutes), and then gain insights from the group knowledge at the summit (20 minutes). Apply by April 10; project organizers will be notified by April 17, and attendees will get brief overviews of your projects to prepare.
Conferences, symposiums, and other professional network events are great opportunities to connect with new people, learn about ongoing work, and develop new skills. But too often, we are overwhelmed by grant deadlines, project outcomes, and day-to-day management of our organizations. The inspiration and skills gained at a conference can feel disconnected from our regular work. Sometimes, we feel that we must step out at conferences and skip panels in order to attend to “real work.” Conferences and network meetings are real work; but it’s hard to conceptualize them that way. So how can we reinvent that conference meeting space? What if the conference brought clarity to our work and gave us tools to return to our communities and do that work? The Connecticut Food System Alliance is asking you to reimagine our food system summit with us. We want to create space for our brilliant, passionate network members (you!) to work together to improve the food system.
At the Summit on May 2, we will strengthen our state food system network by offering space for members to work on projects together. The premise of the conference is the question, “How can we leverage network meetings to advance our collective food and farm goals for a more sustainable, food secure Connecticut?”
This will be an opportunity for program directors and staff, community organizers, volunteers, food system leaders, and others to present a food justice/food system project and gather feedback from peers. Is the project on the right track? Is the project stagnant? Is it growing? Is it new? Whatever stage the project is in, we want to create space for project organizers to get feedback and next steps from fellow network members from across the state.
The Summit will adapt “the clearness process,” a Quaker meeting method based on listening, companionship, and reflection. We will adapt the process to a secular, work-oriented strategy to help project organizers gain clarity in their work. Group attendees who are not presenting will have the opportunity to be a part of a unique, community-based process for developing innovative solutions and connecting with peers throughout the state. In addition, all attendees will receive a guide for repeating the process in their own communities and offices.
We are soliciting proposals for people and organizations to be “focus points” for this conference, and will choose nine total proposals in mid-April. Your project should be food system related: for example, organizing a youth food justice campaign, coordinating vendors across a network of urban farmers’ markets, understanding the impact of a food policy council, etc. New projects, established projects, struggling projects – all will be welcome, but projects that prioritize collaboration will be considered first. The projects will be grouped into trios based on relevance (similar problems, similar work area, etc.) to ensure cohesion in each group.
At the Summit, attendees will be briefed on the process and instructions for the workshop portion of the day. In three breakout groups, project organizers will present for 10 minutes and have 20 minutes of feedback and questioning from fellow breakout group members. Each breakout group will include a CFSA organizer to facilitate the workshop. Event attendees are asked to come prepared with at least one question to propel this process forward. This process will repeat three times for each project selected. Breakout groups will collectively choose one of the three projects to present to the full group.
In the afternoon, the three projects selected in the morning will be presented to the full group.
The CFSA is very interested in maintaining the momentum and energy we hope to achieve at this event. We are eager to see how this process furthers food system work in Connecticut. Post-conference, we will organize the presenters into communities of practice, offering virtual meeting time for attendees to connect after the main event. We’ll interview each group who presented during the Summit four months afterward to check in on your progress and ask how the event helped your work.
Sample Agenda (subject to change)
9:00 – 9:30
Event registration and sign-in; breakfast
9:30 – 10:15
Welcome and keynote
Share instructions for breakout group process
10:25 – 12:30
Nine total project organizers present in three breakout groups:
10:25 – 10:35
Welcome and introductions
10:35 – 11:05
First presentation (10 minute presentation; 20 minute question/feedback period)
11:05 – 11:35
Second presentation (10 minute presentation; 20 minute question/feedback period)
11:35 – 11:45
Break and coffee, snacks
11:45 – 12:15
Third presentation (10 minute presentation; 20 minute question/feedback period)
12:15 – 12:30
Wrap-up; select presenters who will present to the large group
12:40 – 1:30
1:40 – 3:10
Presentation of three selected projects; each will have 20 minutes to present and be illustrated live plus question and answer time.
To change the food system, we have to understand the current status. Data about Connecticut’s food system reveal that access to food is disproportionately lower for communities of color, and that while farms tend to be small, a handful of very large farms make up the majority of agricultural production.
Scroll on to learn more, or download our Connecticut food system snapshot here.
Connecticut ranks 25th in food security in the country. Food security exists when people have access to appropriate, nutritious, affordable food at all times.
In the United States, people of color are far more likely to experience food insecurity than white people. Households with children and households headed by single women are also more likely to experience food insecurity, meaning that people of color, women, and children are disproportionately affected by food insecurity.
In Connecticut, inequitable food access is similar to national trends: white Connecticut residents are more likely to be food secure than their neighbors of color. Suburban/rural people are more likely to be food secure than urban counterparts.
You can also explore some of the sources used on this page and on our snapshot as well as some other recommended sources:
DataHaven serves Greater New Haven and Connecticut by surveying communities on many types of issues ranging from food and health to housing and public safety.
The USDA Agricultural Census is released every 5 years and is a complete count of farmers and ranchers in the US, including urban agriculture. The most recent agricultural census can be found here. A profile of Connecticut agriculture can be found here.
In March, the Connecticut Food System Alliance awarded Grow Windham with a mini-grant to launch a “Know Your Farmer Fair” in Windham, CT. This was the launch event for the “Windham Grown Network,” a group of local farmers and producers looking to expand market opportunities by connecting with merchants, restaurants, processors, individual consumers, and institutional food service providers. The event featured 16 local producers, with over 70 attendees.
These funds made possible the event itself, which was a celebration of local food and community. Follow-up surveys with participants identified ways to promote and sustain the relationships that were cultivated at the event, resulting in the development of a “Local Buying Guide,” targeted at restaurants and merchants, introducing them to local producers, and providing guidelines and best practices for successful local sourcing. In addition, producers requested support with marketing materials, which will be created in conjunction with their participation in the guide. A grant from the New England Grassroots Environmental Fund will support a local graphic artist to create templates for promotional materials to be used both as stand-alone promotional materials for local producers, as well as to promote their products when they are featured in local establishments.
This proposal has helped both to celebrate and promote local producers, as well as to integrate them with local markets. This enables the benefits of local production to be invested within the community.
Grow Windham will continue this event next year, and hope to coordinate with other regions in the state to host similar events. They also will continue to expand and sustain the network of producers at the event, in order to continue to support projects that promote their establishments.
This Thursday, May 26, from 2 to 7 pm at Connecticut College is the Connecticut Food System Alliance’s Spring Gathering – Food Justice and the Labor Movement. Thank you to those who have already RSVP’ed! If you haven’t already, you can RSVP here, or RSVP on Facebook. Please be sure to RSVP so the caterer brings enough food! Check out this page for the agenda more details about the programming for the day.
From Hartford (1 hour) and points north (Western MA, VT): I-91 South to Hartford. Take I-84 East to Route 2 East to I-395 South. Take Exit 5 (formerly Exit 78) onto Route 32 South. College entrance is 3 miles on right.
From New Haven (1 hour), Bridgeport (1 hour), and New York City (3 hours): Exit 83 from I-95 Northbound. Turn left at the end of the ramp, proceed up hill to intersection, and then take right at light onto Route 32 North. College entrance is one mile on left.
Parking and getting around campus
Here is a detailed map of campus. All the programming will be taking place in the Crozier-Williams building (“Cro”). You can park anywhere on campus but the parking lots indicated below are nearest to Cro. There will be signs posted inside Cro to help you get around.
Coffee, tea, snacks, and water will be available from 2 to 6 in the main function room, and water will be available in all the breakout rooms as well. Snacks from Fiddleheads Food Co-op include apples, sesame bars, veggie chips, naan chips, baby carrots, hummus, cookies, and salsa – many of these items are vegan/vegetarian/gluten free.
At 6, Big Belly Kelly’s BBQ of Groton will serve fiesta bean salad (vegan, gluten free), garden salad (vegan), pulled pork, fried chicken, and corn bread (vegetarian).
Participants are encouraged to bring their own reusable water bottle, coffee mug, leftover container, and plate/cup/fork. We are committed to cutting down on paper, plastic, water, and food waste. Bringing these items enters you into a raffle for a canvas grocery bag from Fiddleheads Food Co-op!
Childcare is provided on site to all participants. When you sign in Thursday, please also share your child’s name and your phone number so we can contact you in case your child needs you during the event.
We have set a goal of 100 Tweets for the day! You can Tweet about what you’ve learned, discussions you’re having, and calls to action with the hashtag #EatTogetherWorkTogetherCT. You can Tweet to the Connecticut Food System Alliance at @CTFoodSystem and find us on Facebook, The Connecticut Food System Alliance.
If you’re interested in sharing flyers and resources from your nonprofit, community organization, program, etc., please feel free to bring some. We will have a dedicated resource table to share these materials with participants.
Join us on May 26, from 2 to 7 pm at Connecticut College in New London for our spring gathering. The theme is “Food Justice and the Labor Movement,” intended to educate food justice advocates about the labor movement and to connect labor organizers to food justice advocates.
1:30 – 2:00 pm. Sign-in and registration
2:00 pm. Welcome from CFSA and keynote address from Mark Firla with Q&A session
2:45 pm. Labor panel featuring Unite Here, Unidad Latina en Acción, Fiddleheads Food Co-op and Restaurant Opportunities United
3:30 pm. Break
3:45 pm. Workshops:
What’s going on in New London? With FRESH New London, Ken Blair of Unite Here, and the New London County Food Policy Council
Food Chains: 30 minute version of documentary and discussion
Community Organizing with Maegan Parrott, New London Youth Affairs
Food Policy Councils collaboration – open to food policy council members and people interested in learning more about food policy councils
5:00 pm. Break / networking
5:30 pm. Welcome to people arriving after work and panel about community organizing with Isa Mujahid, Connecticut Corps, and Maegan Parrot, New London Youth Affairs.
6:00 pm. Dinner catered by Big Belly Kelly’s BBQ of Groton.
More details about the food we’re serving up here.
We are excited to partner with two local food businesses in New London County to provide free food for attendees of the Spring 2016 Gathering. We hope you’ll love it too – you can take any leftovers home!
Throughout the day, participants will be able to snack on a variety of healthy foods from Fiddleheads Food Co-op of New London.
Baby carrots, apples, tea, hummus, cookies, and granola bars will be available with plenty of vegetarian, vegan, and gluten free options. We will also be serving coffee (not from Fiddleheads).
Fiddleheads Natural Foods Cooperative offers our community a member-owned, full-service market. We are dedicated to providing wholesome organic and natural foods and fresh local produce, emphasizing products that are cruelty-free, developed through fair trade, and with a commitment to preserving our environment. We promote healthier life choices in a friendly, service-focused atmosphere where owners are a valued and essential part of our success. Fiddleheads strives to educate our members and patrons about the benefits of organic and whole foods, and of creating a closer connection to food sources. We are committed to strengthening our community through education, social outreach programs, and food bank donations.
We honor the earth by supporting and promoting environmentally responsible products, business practices, and sustainable agriculture. Our store is located in New London, Connecticut, at 13 Broad Street, adjacent to the corner of Huntington Street and Governor Winthrop Blvd.
Fiddleheads Natural Foods Cooperative is 100% member-owned. All are welcome to join us as co-op Member-Owners! We have over 1125 Founding Member-Owners. The Member-Owner equity share is $175, and a payment plan is available. There are many benefits available to members, and we strongly encourage all in our community to join!
Kelly Walker is known for cooking with soul and passion. His secret recipe BBQ sauce is finger licking with a tasty twang. The smoking process is a mastering only Kelly can deliver!
He moved to Ledyard in 1999; back then, he owned Brittany’s Southern Cuisine in New London. For the past 15 years he and his wife Sandra have been cooking out of the food truck at festivals and events like the Essex Hot Steamed Jazz Festival, British by the Sea at Harkness and the Ledyard Fair.
“It’s finger-lickin’ good,” said Michelle Hinton, who remembers Kelly’s BBQ at the Ledyard fair this summer. “You’ll need a lot of napkins.”
People may be ignoring the building now but the smokey aroma wafting from the food truck soon to be parked there will lure people in by their noses.
Kelly said he learned to cook from his mother and from lots of trial and error but, he said, cooking BBQ is a labor of love.
Kelly said he smokes beef in the BBQ pit for 12 hours at least.