2017 Arizona Food Summit
“Connecting People, Producers, Resources and Food”
By: Marley Halter
July 20th, 2017
The Phoenix pavement was starting to heat up in the April sun, but it was a welcome relief to those Summit attendees who’d been sitting for hours in the air-conditioned Young’s Market Company Seventh and Union meeting room, newly opened only weeks before. The facility was host to nearly 200 statewide food systems stakeholders on Thursday, April 27th and Friday, April 28th, for the state’s first Food Summit, a meeting held to develop a “Five-Year Roadmap to a Healthier Arizona”. Attendees came from all areas of the food system, from academics and concerned citizens to farmers and politicians; it was a full room with some palpable tension and lot of passion when it came to discussing better ways to grow food and feed people in Arizona.
Like most of the other Summit attendees, I’d entered the room on Thursday morning with very little information about the event and not knowing what to expect. I anticipated speakers from different areas of the food system, probably discussing research or farming techniques or grant writing. Instead, on the first day of the Summit, Vitalyst representative Raquel led the room full of slightly confused attendees in a series of activities aimed at engaging different learning styles and using art (or coloring sheets, in this case) to help the tables of randomly assigned stakeholders reach a deeper level of understanding about how they viewed Arizona’s food-related problems and the potential solutions.
The resulting discussion about poverty, resilience, and mental and physical health was exciting. Instead of just telling us facts about the topics, the activities were designed to get attendees talking and acknowledging challenges they recognized in the communities in which they lived and worked. Despite the painfully obvious lack of young people, poor people, or people of color in the room, the overall enthusiasm about environmental and social justice left me hopeful for the following day, when the “real” Summit would begin.
Day two of the Summit kicked off with the second of several long, rambling speeches by Arizona Department of Agriculture Director Mark Killian. “We don’t need more policies or regulations”, he repeatedly asserted. These words came as especially confusing since we were also told during the opening remarks that the point of this whole Summit was to develop a “roadmap” of guiding principles for the newly appointed Arizona Food & Agriculture Advisory Council, a distinctly political entity and one that Director Killian was solely responsible for. The speech was followed by a series of keynote talks by speakers Sharon Thornberry, Rural Communities Liaison for the Oregon Food Bank, and Ken Meter, President of the Crossroads Resource Center in Minnesota, then by panel discussions and breakout sessions based on the main topics of the Summit. These topics were Bolstering an Emergency Food Network, Strengthening an Equitable Food System, and Developing Long-Term Solutions Through Economic Development.
As panel members spoke, and sometimes misspoke, about policies and issues related to childhood hunger, the SNAP (or food stamps) program, rural poverty, education, and the local business economy, attendees were welcomed to anonymously submit questions via their cell phones that were then projected live onto the screen behind the panelists. This developed into a sometimes amusing, sometimes thought-provoking, and occasionally scathing running commentary on what the panelists were saying and on the panelists themselves, the other speakers, and the Summit facilitators. The panelists, of course, decided which questions to address, if any, during the very short five-minute Q&A period.
Then it was on to the breakout sessions, where table groups had forty-five minutes to discuss the topic, pose problems, and suggest solutions. It was a breath of fresh air, after hearing the speakers and panelists dancing around the issues that had been brought up full-force in the activity session the day before, to see that the Summit attendees not only had great ideas, but were passionate about those ideas being heard. The breakout sessions frequently ran over the allotted forty-five-minute time slot. Pages and pages of notes were taken by table scribes and attendees alike. A desire for less time given to speakers and panel discussions and more time given to the solution building group work seemed to be the consensus of the attendees.
The outcome of this, frankly, unorganized Summit? The “Five-Year Roadmap to a Healthier Arizona”, the implementation of which falls to the Killian-appointed Arizona Food & Agriculture Advisory Council, includes some lofty goals, such as using public funding to decentralize the supply, processing, and distribution of food in Arizona, developing “regionally customized,” community-based food economies (or “food hubs”). There are some gems in there as well, such as making business “best practices” widely available for farmers and co-ops in the state, and finding ways to address, especially at the decision-making level, the “root causes of food inequities”, such as poverty, race, and immigration status. The real meaningful results will take five years to develop, when we see if anything substantial actually comes out of these efforts. Until then, I am inspired, not by the Summit itself or its facilitators, but by the attendees, who advocated for their people, their ideas, and who weren’t afraid to say exactly what they thought was right to move the Arizona food system forward in the most equitable way possible.
For the full Council member list and Roadmap that resulted from this Summit, visit http://www.arizonafoodsummit.org.
Marley Halter is a board member for The Sustainability Review and is currently a graduate student in the School of Sustainability.