In 2008, the Appalachian Staple Foods Collaborative began to assess what was necessary for a regional organic staple grain and bean value chain in Appalachia. Michelle Ajamian who, along with her partner Brandon, runs Shagbark Seed and Mill in Athens, OH, had the vision, and began to reach out and form relationships with others interested in staple foods. Ten years later, this informal collaborative had grown from a handful to several hundred farmers, bakers, millers, and others around the country who are focusing on local, heirloom and organic grains and beans.
Now a for a bit of a necessary segue…..
Why a staple foods network?
For those readers who are not deep into sustainable agriculture, you may wonder why staple foods are important? Or even, what staple foods are? These next few bullets help delineate this, and also how staple foods relate to well-being, and equity bridging:
Staple grains, beans, and oil seeds are integral to a healthy human diet and food security; yet this market is dominated by an industrial global food market.
Bioregional access to nutritious staple foods strengthens the health of citizens, the environment, and local economies.
Regional food networks encourage socially and environmentally responsible food production and processing based on reconnecting people to food in a place-based context.
So, given the importance of staple foods to health, and the lack of local and regional availability, it became obvious to those of us with an eye on our food system that this group needed to gain traction. Acknowledging that to shift the staple foods culture in this country from industrial to a values-based value chain, it is necessary to be intentional in facilitating change to foster collaboration in our efforts to gather and share collective knowledge, resources, and best practices around policy, food access, and business. Because I had been participating in the RWJF/LLC trainings and community of practice, and as a farmer, was interested in cultivating (pun intended) staple foods work, I was uniquely situated for acting on this opportunity. So, I approached Michele with the idea, and she rallied support from Slow Food Columbus and Bill Best (a local expert). Together we applied for, and received a seed fund grant to support the growth of the Staple Foods Network.
Survey in sumApp
The project began with a survey of the Staple Foods Collaborative Members. It was also at this time that we began referring to it as the Staple Foods Network, realizing that there were people involved from Maine to California, not just in Appalachia.
Using a web-based application, Sum App, data was collected from individuals who self-identify as belonging to the Appalachian Staple Foods Collaborative. Through a participatory questionnaire, individuals answered demographic and relationship questions about their involvement, their expertise, and what they need help with. This part of the project went well with 73 out of 145 people responding, and a total of 586 connections made.
Mapping of the Network
Data from the initial questionnaire phase was used to develop a map using Kumu software. Data was to be exported from the collector to the mapping software to create a visual display of who is connected to who in the network. This information was used to analyze the hubs, clusters and connections within the Staple Foods Collaborative. People can see who knows who, and what the opportunities and gaps are. One of the major themes that emerged from this mapping is that staple foods members are all across the country. This established a need for developing a communications platform, and some digital communications training, which will be of further assistance to staple foods network members in building community and open up opportunities to engage with each other, and initiate activities around mutual visions, values and goals.
Lessons Learned, or “Where Things Are At”
Ultimately, despite the initial enthusiasm of many, Michelle and I were predominantly driving this project, and we both have many other irons in the fire. Once Michelle was able to get a comprehensive data base together, I created the survey and we let it snowball out. However, after the initial launch, without someone to facilitate ongoing engagement, or provide structure and governance, things have lagged. Though we understand that creating a community of learning and practice would exponentially enhance the ability of all with a common interest in staple foods to address policy and business challenges, and open up opportunities, at this point we are lacking someone to facilitate this.
Another challenge is getting people together for video conferencing and digital communications platform training. I can sum this up as many people have a fear of the unknown, and digital skill building with strangers is scary stuff . As a facilitator, it is important to acknowledge and bridge these differences between those of us who are comfortable in the digital world and those to whom this is new. Moving networks forward requires adding some tools to the toolbox and creating conditions to support these learning processes in a way that works for people whose voices are essential.
Slowly, progress is being made on getting a website together using the RWJF seed funds. However, without a curator it is unclear at this time who will be able to coordinate and engage the network long-term. A facilitator will be necessary to support innovation, and further regional, national and international networking opportunities for staple foods farmers, bakers, millers and others.
In summary, some progress has been made in connecting staple foods people, and creating a shared identity. However, in order to initiate activities to build community and circulate ideas and practices, a facilitator or “network guardian” is needed. However, valuable knowledge and experience was gathered regarding the obstacles and limits of network leadership and learning processes. This is relevant for data collection, research and future practice.
About the Author
MaryAnn Martinez is a non-profit director and interdisciplinary food systems scholar. She is currently a PhD candidate at Antioch Graduate School of Leadership and Change. Her work is in place-based food systems, and community-based food networks as catalysts for social innovation and transformative change. In addition, MaryAnn has over 10 years of experience as a vegetable and livestock farmer, in both for-profit and social enterprises