Leadership in Food Systems Development: Fostering More Just and Resilient Food Systems

Leadership in Food Systems Development: Fostering More Just and Resilient Food Systems

Feeding our communities is a highly complex task involving a wide array of stakeholders—including farmers, consumers, grocery stores, CSAs, farmers markets, food pantries, and more. The Covid-19 Pandemic has revealed major vulnerabilities in food systems across the globe, and climate change is threatening to further destabilize these systems. The United Nations has noted that we are not on track to achieve Zero Hunger by 2030 and 10 percent of all census tracts in the United States are designated food deserts

Kim Hines is a Leadership Co-Chair of the North American Food Systems Network.

Experts are attempting to tackle these issues by rethinking the ways in which our food systems are designed and managed, but we have a long road ahead of us. Creating just and resilient food systems will require a coordinated effort across the many different stakeholders involved, and this kind of system-wide coordination is difficult to orchestrate. Luckily, organizations like the North American Food Systems Network (NAFSN) are helping to facilitate this process. 

NAFSN is a professional development organization that offers “leadership and technical skills training, networking, and other professional development opportunities for the growing group of individuals supporting the development of equitable and sustainable local and regional food systems.” I had the pleasure of speaking with one of NAFSN’s leadership co-chairs, Kim Hines, to learn more about the ways in which the organization is supporting food system professionals. 

Hines is uniquely positioned to be working at the forefront of the food systems profession itself as she has over 38 years of experience in the nonprofit sector. Most recently, she served as the executive director of Augusta Locally Grown from 2010 to 2019, helping to grow the local food system along the Central Savannah River region of Georgia. Her involvement in the nonprofit sector has allowed her to both witness and participate in the evolution of the field while working alongside a wide array of stakeholders.


Innovation at the local level

When Hines first moved to Georgia, she saw a severe lack of environmental amenities in her local community. That’s when she started the nonprofit Augusta Locally Grown.

Augusta Locally Grown is a nonprofit helping to grow the local food system along the Central Savannah River region of Georgia.

It started out as a small pre-order farmers market, which was one of the first of its kind (back when the idea of community supported agriculture was still new). Pre-order farmers markets connect farmers and consumers via an online platform, allowing consumers to order fresh produce online and pick it up at a designated location. 

These systems are helpful for reducing waste, as farmers only bring the food that someone has agreed to pick up, but Hines also noted that pre-order farmers markets “basically saved the local food system during Covid” as they allowed farmers markets across the country to continue operations while minimizing large crowds. 

During the pandemic, her nonprofit got hundreds of calls about how to use this online platform. This is when Hines began to realize that the food systems field lacked a support system to help share resources and best practices, such as the platform for pre-order farmers markets, which is a role that since NAFSN has strived to fill in recent years.

During her time as director, she also recognized that food systems work was being constrained by a lack of funding. She told me, “I celebrated a lot of milestones, but I also ran into a lot of reality. Even then, it was hard to create full time paid jobs in that work. And so, although we were very much embraced by our community, we didn’t have that financial stability yet.”


Connecting professionals to share resources and best practices

NAFSN formed in 2015 to provide professional development services to the growing network of food systems development professionals.

The North American Food Systems Network is a professional development organization that provides support for food systems development professionals.

An important role of professional development organizations like NAFSN and academic journals like the Journal of Agriculture and Food Systems and Community Development, which Hines is also involved with, is to connect food systems practitioners to resources, tools, and best practices that are emerging in the field. This takes pressure off of smaller organizations like Augusta Locally Grown for sharing relevant resources, and helps organizations and professionals stay up to date with emerging trends in the field. 

Other important roles include curating opportunities such as job availabilities and funding options and showcasing food system development professionals so that people understand the breadth of the field.

NAFSN is still a relatively young organization, but it’s working to expand the services it offers to continue helping food system development professionals better achieve their goals of transforming their local and regional food systems. Unfortunately, with so many different actors involved in this work, their goals are not always aligned with one another.


Collaboration and competition in the nonprofit sector

As food systems increase in complexity, they bring together multiple stakeholders that often have competing interests. Environmentalists want ecological restoration and climate stability. Farmers want better support systems and resilient farm lands. Consumers want healthier and more affordable food options. Hines also noted that bringing together stakeholders from different political affiliations has been another major challenge for the field. 

Another barrier to collaboration in the nonprofit world more generally is limited funding, as this can increase competition between non-profits that may be working toward similar goals. Professional development organizations like NAFSN can help lobby on behalf of the field in order to secure higher levels of funding so that nonprofits can spend less time competing with one another for funding and more time forming partnerships and collaborations. 

Although competition for funding can prevent different nonprofits from joining together in their efforts, Hines noted that a healthy amount of competition can be a good thing, helping to “keep us more honest.” She explained to me that the high expectations from funders requires organizations to gain a high level of community support in order to secure funding.

However, she also noted that this can be more difficult for organizations in marginalized communities that do not always have access to the same resources as other organizations, and she recognized the importance of providing extra support for these communities.


Highlighting justice and uplifting marginalized voices in the field

Hines explained to me that she has had the privilege of working in volunteer positions within food systems development. Due to limited funding, there is a lack of paid positions in the field, making it difficult for those who cannot afford to participate in volunteer work to participate in food systems development.

As funding increases, Hines recognizes that the field needs to make sure that these paid opportunities are made available to people from marginalized communities, so that people from all kinds of backgrounds are able to help shape the future of our food systems. 


Supporting the role of youth leaders in food systems development

Hines noted that the most fulfilling part of her work has been working with students and youth interested in entering food systems work. “Every opportunity I get, I make sure that the students that are involved in our initiatives are front and center and that they are taking leadership roles.”

She also highlighted the emergence of several food systems programs in colleges across the country, which will allow future food systems professionals to receive the education they need to be successful in the field. NAFSN has additionally been part of a collaborative effort to develop a list of core competencies that practitioners should learn in their studies, in order to build towards an accreditation program for food systems programs.


Advice for future food systems professions? Don’t just talk about it, do it. 

I asked Hines to share any advice she has for people interested in entering food systems work, and she emphasized the importance of “doing the thing you’re talking about.” She advised, “Make sure you’re not just a talking head, but that you’re actually involved in the change. Don’t just talk about it, do it.” She also highlighted the importance of “being out in the sunshine working in the soil with other people,” so that we can cultivate a clear vision of the just and resilient food systems we are working toward. 


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