By Judith Alexander

We all have to eat. So it’s no surprise that food and how we can relate to it responsibly has become a central topic in a collective conversation. Can we learn to feed ourselves locally, after decades of reliance on industrial agricultural practices that have taught us to think food comes from grocery stores? Jefferson County, Washington says, “YES WE CAN!”

At a Grange meeting last August, local farmers got together to discuss “What Farmers Need.”  I heard the message loud and clear: for farms and farmers to survive they need more customers to commit their food dollars to supporting local farms.  For that to happen, food education is crucial.
Knowing that the Northwest Earth Institute offers Menu for the Future, I envisioned starting several Menu courses, with a farmer participating in each group. Having a farmer “at the table” would ensure clarity around the realities facing small farmers, and cultivate direct relationships between farmers and consumers. My goal was to reach a local tipping point in support of local, sustainable food consumption.

Food growers from local farmers markets were invited to participate in the six-week course and many readily agreed.  Volunteers also tabled after each local showing of Food, Inc. to invite movie attendees to participate in the Menu for the Future groups.  The Menu course seemed a perfect “next step” to encourage a continued dialogue around the issues presented in the movie.

In January, NWEI volunteers held an event promoting the Menu course, with speakers who are active in the Jefferson County food movement. This event, combined with the earlier outreach efforts, led to a very exciting response—over twenty Menu for the Future groups were formed!
Having the input of local food producers added value and enhanced the discussion course experience.  As personal connections between farmers and customers were forged, many misconceptions were corrected too. As groups reached the end of the course, mentors supplied participants with resources to inspire them to continue taking action to support healthy local food.

To celebrate the success of this effort Finnriver Farm & Cidery, a local organic farm, offered to host a sustainable food potluck in early April. Course participants were invited and a conversation engaging both farmers and course participants addressed the question “What can we do, together, to expand our capacity and support for local food?”  People were encouraged to name specific actions they were motivated to take; individual steps (like growing their own veggies), neighborhood projects (such as a shared chicken coop), and community-wide initiatives (like forming a food policy council) were all encouraged.

Seeing food as our common link makes the world seem a bit smaller.  Working toward a tipping point in sustaining our local farms and farmers is well worth the effort, and thanks to NWEI’s Menu for the Future, the conversation is only just beginning.

Judith Alexander has called Port Townsend, WA home for thirty years, and has been an NWEI volunteer for ten years. Photo by Bill Wise.