Panelists link food and cultural updating at ‘Nourishing the Change’

FOOD ACTIVIST AMANI Olugbala, left, of Soul Fire Farm, and Abenaki Chief Don Stevens spoke about changes in agriculture and culture at a Dec. 7 panel.

MIDDLEBURY — How do we nourish change in agriculture and culture? Five experts approached the question with a blend of philosophy and science at a recent panel discussion that culminated a Middlebury College class that also interrogated that issue.
Aubrey Streit Krug, director of EcoSphere studies at The Land Institute in Salina, Kan., moderated a wide-ranging discussion that dovetailed with students’ classroom investigations into the “Perennial Turn,” a shift toward sustainable practices and thinking.
Central to the Dec. 7 discussion, which took place on the Middlebury College campus, was the need to change the way we think about how we grow our food.
A panelist at the nexus of change in both agriculture and culture was activist Amani Olugbala. Her Grafton, N.Y., organization, Soul Fire Farm, is committed to ending racism and injustice in the food system.
Olugbala painted for her audience a picture of food apartheid, contrasting the “beautiful abundance of the farm in the height of the season, how wonderful and nourishing and green it is,” with the urban neighborhoods where Soul Fire Farm delivers its food — gray places lacking in nature, where there’s nowhere local to get food.
“It’s deplorable, but it’s what is true,” she said. “We have to acknowledge what is actually going on in order for us to be able to create any kind of equity, fairness, healing.”
Panelist Don Stevens, the Vermont-based chief of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk-Abenaki Nation offered an observation as the discussion turned toward the subject of relationships.
“People rely on one another for their food,” Chief Stevens said. “But once they lose the connection to the source of that food, they tend not to care about it, and then it gets abused.”
Philanthropist Peter Buffet, co-president of the NoVo Foundation, agreed.
“We’re nothing if not in relationships,” he said, adding that narratives based on such notions as “the rugged individualist” needed to be shattered.
Agronomist Fred Iutzi joked that the first priority of his organization, The Land Institute, is weeding field plants. Secondary is conducting scientific research.
That research, conducted over decades, has led to the development of a number of perennial grains, which are just now coming into commercialization, and which the Land Institute hopes will spark a seismic shift from unsustainable annual-based agriculture to perennial-based agriculture.
More than just science will be required to make that transition, however. We may need a whole new way of thinking.
“Joanna Macy has taught that we are in the midst of a ‘Great Turning’ to a life-sustaining society, even as we are simultaneously involved in a widespread, extreme destruction of Earth’s living systems and great upheaval in social, political and economic systems around the world,” wrote professors Nadine Barnicle, Mark Lapin and Bill Vitek on the course syllabus.
Another conversation, highlighting the spiritual aspect of these questions, was scheduled for Dec. 15 at Weybridge Congregational Church, where the public was invited to “discuss new ways to define the relationship between humans and non-humans and to welcome the sacred in nature.”
Though the students’ main focus in the class was to listen and read, the course came with a community-engagement piece, said Barnicle, who coordinated that aspect of the course.
Students got hands-on engagement with 13 community partners, “local change-makers,” including several in Addison County: The Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op, Juice Amour, the Hawthorn Center, WomenSafe, and the Addison County Interfaith Climate Action Network.
Co-teaching the course was “sort of like making music,” Barnicle said.
Change in culture and our relationship to food will not be easy, agreed the conference panelists.
Shelburne Farms Director of Professional Development Jen Cirillo spoke of the tension inherent in effecting change.
“It’s generative for learning,” she said. “When we say what we want it puts tension on the system.”

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