*This column originally appeared in the Jan. 17, 2015, edition of the Traverse City Record-Eagle
I rub shoulders with some pretty smart people in my work within the food and farming community.
There are lawyers and accountants, MBAs and PhDs, farmers and entrepreneurs, all of them carrying a virtual alphabet soup of letters behind their names. But these days this illustrious group is challenged with something, something you might find simple.
We talk a lot as part of our work. We plan, debate, converse, strategize and then we take action. We occasionally pause to consider how all this might look to the outside world. These moments are typically followed by an awkward silence indicating we’re speaking in a language that might sound foreign to most normal human beings.
You see, even when good-hearted people try to solve the problems of a community, they can get lost in their own shadow-world of language.
It’s something we all do. We seek comfort in the familiar. Often this means creating a compartmentalized vocabulary to serve this comfort. That language reflects the academic origins of our passions for those of us in community development or human services, but that unfortunately can make a transcript of our conversations read like the page-long disclaimer in a pharmaceutical ad.
We decided to address this a few months ago by seeking simple definitions of six key terms we use to describe and measure our work. We selected six words from the Food and Farming Network’s main goal and its five objectives: food, institution, agri-business, access, affordable, and sustainable. I won’t bore you with the details of our discussion, but I will invite you to step into our shoes for a moment.
Take the first, and arguably most important word — food. Everything we do revolves around food, yet it’s not so easy to define. Go ahead, give it a shot.
Now take that definition and ask yourself: Do soft-drinks qualify? How about alcoholic beverages, or bottled water, or fast-food or a protein bar with mysterious ingredients that look a lot like that pharmaceutical ad? This is our challenge as we try to measure our work in the food system, and it’s just the beginning. We’ll be publishing our first report to the community, including these definitions and a progress report from the network at our annual Food and Farming Summit on March 13.
The Northwest Michigan Food and Farming Network meets monthly, and this month we’re tackling these definitions and more. Visit us at foodandfarmingnetwork.org if you want to participate or follow our efforts. You might also want to attend the Northern Michigan Small Farm Conference on Jan. 24 at the Grand Traverse Resort, smallfarmconference.org.
We haven’t yet solved all of our challenges, but we can take comfort in this instructive quote from Franz Kafka: “So long as you have food in your mouth, you have solved all questions for the time being.”