Thursday, March 7

Sustainable South: Gaining Ground Food Summit

Emilie Dayan, our office intern, will be blogging regularly about issues of nutrition, sustainability, and food policy in the South. Last week, she attended the Gaining Ground Sustainability Institute of Mississippi's 4th annual food summit in Oxford.

Panelists at the Gaining Ground Sustainability Institute’s 4th Food Summit and Sustainable Living Conference -- staged this past weekend in Oxford -- delivered an honest and passionate discourse on the state of our health and food economy. Speakers included government representatives, food activists, and SFA’s oral historian, Amy Evans. Popular topics included biodynamic agriculture, farm-to-school programs, and food deserts. Conferees talked about the impact of public policy on healthy and sustainable lifestyles.
Mark Winne, food activist and writer, said public policy is “a way to accelerate creating a resilient and sustainable food system.” He challenged us to build a food democracy in which kitchens are a starting place for social change. Empowerment will come with each step, as “we get our hands in the dirt, our vegetables on the chopping block.”
Mary Berry, the keynote, spoke on living well without doing harm. In the style of her father, writer and farmer Wendell Berry, she argued that nature is our standard. We cannot have good food policy, she said, without good land-use policy.
No one at the conference asked this specific question. But we were all thinking it: Given the agricultural possibilities of our region, why have Southerners turned to imported and processed foods? To that point, Edwin Marty of EATsouth in Montgomery pointed out that 95% of what Alabamans eat comes from outside of the state. Does a reliance on processed foods, instead of locally-grown farm goods, explain our chart-topping rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease? 
I didn't find answers. But I did find some solace in the words of University of Mississippi Chancellor Dr. Dan Jones, who opened the conference. With age, he said, quoting Elie Weisel, we become more comfortable with questions than answers.
Can Southern food be healthy? That's the question I will explore in future blog posts. Until then, if you want to learn more about food policy in your area, here are some organizations now planting the seeds of change.