What I’ve Learned from 20 Years of Building Healthy, Just & Sustainable Food Systems

There is no sound more soul-satisfying to me than the ‘snick’ of a lid sealing on a canning jar. After all the work of washing, cutting, cooking, and boiling, I have a tremendous sense of accomplishment and security from knowing that I have my food for the winter.  I love the creativity and experimentation – even the failures.

Pot of strawberries

My very first batch of strawberry jam!

By contrast, policy change to build healthy, just and sustainable food systems feels like the longest canning process ever. I wait for the ‘snick,’ but sometimes it’s just more washing and chopping or the policy equivalent of meetings, research, papers and briefing notes, along with wondering when all the ingredients will be ready to make the magic happen.

My personal path really did follow pickles to policy change – a term used by the Our Food Project at the Ecology Action Centre to describe our approach to civic engagement in food and social change. I started with organizing community gardens. This exposed me to issues about seeds and biodiversity, pesticides, genetically modified organisms, health and health equity, income, racism, social justice, education, and food sovereignty. Everything became about policy and politics, as I learned more how our social, political and economic systems shape peoples’ diverse experiences with food. In diving deep into long-term policy change processes, I learned a few things about what enables me to continue.

Stories: It’s easy in the endless flow of meetings to lose sight of the ultimate goal and what we’re hoping to achieve.  Being connected to individual stories reminds me of what’s important, why I’m doing this work and why doing it well really matters.

Inspiration: Two of my mentors recently died: one in her seventies and the other in her eighties. Both were strong, kind, compassionate women who never wavered from their conviction that change is possible. They never hesitated to act, rolling up their sleeves and drawing others in. Neither was shy about sharing her opinions or making waves. I take inspiration from their decades of fighting for social and environmental justice. I hope I can be that cool one day.

Balance: The challenge for me is in finding the balance between the rewards of short-term, concrete action and patience for longer processes. I have to actively seek a mix of work that nourishes the different parts of me.

Celebration: My life seems to come in two speeds – fast and slow. During the fast times, it’s hard to recognize what’s actually been accomplished, often more than I think! I try to find time to look back and celebrate the wins along the way.

Community: Working in teams and creating a community around change processes helps to share the load, support one another, and build on different strengths. Diverse perspectives always yield better results in the end, even when they are messy and hard.

When I started this work over twenty years ago, we were still cutting photos of food from magazines to create photocopied posters to invite community members to garden meetings. In some ways, we’ve come a long way, but it’s still about pickles and policy change.

~Satya Ramen is a Senior Coordinator with the Our Food Project of the Ecology Action Centre. Her work focuses on policy change and civic engagement.

Adventures in Local Food is your source for food news in Nova Scotia, from pickles to policy. It is a project organized by the Ecology Action Centre. Learn more about our program at https://www.ecologyaction.ca/ourfood. Follow us on Twitter @ourfoodproject.

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