Taking Steps Towards a More Sustainable Food System for All

By April Guilbault

Hope, optimism, great ideas and action.

That was the name of the game two and a half weeks ago at the Green Market Exhibition panel discussion entitled “Farm and Food Innovators: Building Sustainable Food Systems and Community Food Security”. Held at the City Hall Annex in Bridgeport, the Exposition was well-attended by green businesses, community leaders and the public.

Kevin Mullins, Executive Director of Community Plates, a non-profit that rescues surplus food and distributes it to organizations serving the food insecure.

Four esteemed panelists were brought together to tackle the questions of how we can produce and distribute enough food to feed the people of our communities, our state and ultimately, the planet. The kicker and preference, of course, being that the food be healthy, nutritious, and sustainably grown food.

The panelists were Kevin Mullins, Executive Director of the non-profit organization Community Plates, Farah Masani, a sustainable farmer based in Wilton, CT, Tyler Cote, managing partner of Cote’s Naturals, and Andrea Angera, Jr., a farmer and advocate for local agriculture. Although they each focus on something different, there is a common thread running betwixt and between…staying local and growing. Growing better produce, growing better people, growing better communities.

This can happen in a variety of ways, as our panelists explained. One way is by utilizing what is already out there and present. Kevin Mullins shows us by the one million pounds of food that his organization, Community Plates, has redistributed since their start in May of 2011. Surplus food (still good, still usable) from local restaurants, stores and farms are quickly and efficiently transported to local shelters, food banks, and soup kitchens where they are met with hungry stomachs and open arms. Considering that between 25-40% of the food our country produces is thrown away, the act of transferring it to those that are “food insecure” is a logical and necessary act. That food, had it not been rescued, would simply have gone into a landfill or dump instead of into mouths that need it. A prime example of using what we already have to greater measure. Found gold.

Farah Masani, a sustainable farmer in Wilton, handed out garlic to inspire guests to start growing some of their own food.

Another way to accomplish this is by using existing land, as Farah Masani tells us. Do you have extra space on your property? Do we really need to fill those spaces with yet more manicured shrubs and landscaping? Put in a garden! “It’s really all about education…so let’s learn!”, Farah enthusiastically proclaims. Whether it’s beginning a garden or learning to extend the life of your summer vegetables into the winter (canning anyone?), a bit of knowledge is really all you need. Start small and watch it grow (not much space is ultimately needed to produce food for a family) and what could begin as a small plot in your yard could fuel neighbors to do the same. Before you know it, the neighborhood is feeding itself, kids are learning where their food comes from and everyone is eating healthier.

Bulbs of organic garlic Farah Masani used to illustrate how a small act can lead to big change over time.

Farah illustrated her point that small steps can easily lead to bigger ones,with a basket of elephant garlic that she brought in to share with the audience. Each person was given one large, beautiful bulb. As Farah explained, a single clove planted now will produce one whole bulb by next summer. One bulb reproduces easily into about ten.  A magnificent domino effect.

Tyler Cote, of Cote’s Naturals, is also on a mission to create within existing spaces, albeit urban spaces. The mantra of “knowing where your food comes from” can become a reality and highly accessible via the creativity of aquaponics. Aquaponics is a soil-less farming method that combines aquaponics and hygroponics, removing the need for farmland. Connecticut is the “orphan child of the growing seasons” as Tyler points out, in that we cannot grow outdoors year round to great and varied yields. Farmers here need to be smart about what they grow and how they grow it. This led Tyler to establish his aquaponics company in a large warehouse. With proper lighting and water usage, the amount and variety of foods produced in urban areas can grow abundantly. There is no need for pest control and there are fewer risk factors, such as weather issues (Hello, Sandy). Tyler also, like the other panelists, is convinced that yes, we can have enough fresh, healthy food to feed people…we just need to be creative with how it’s grown and we need to support those farmers and organizations that are exploring new options.

Andrea Angera recommended shopping as locally as possible to obtain the most nutrient rich food.

The fourth panelist was Andrea Angera, Jr., a farmer and heavy advocate for local agriculture. Andrea began by discussing how the food that we eat really is “defined by the means of distribution” and how you buy your food dictates what quality of food you are ultimately consuming. If you are buying much of your food at big box stores, that food has already traveled quite a distance to get to you and has lots nutrients with each passing mile. Probably picked in a underripe stage, then stored, then transported, then shelved…it can be weeks old by the time you are putting it on your plate. A simpler, healthier answer? Shop as locally as you can. The farmer in the next town just picked those cucumbers this morning and by the afternoon, they are in your salad-so much nicer, right? And much more nutritious. Andrea also spoke about supporting technology. Instead of giant agribusinesses using countless finite resources and monies to produce processed foods, high fructose corn syrup and other undesirables, wouldn’t it be great if that technology could be used to support the growth of nutrient-rich, healthy food? In short, support your local farmers and support how they are trying to grow (literally and figuratively) and in the end, we all will eat and live better.

All-in-all, the consensus was that we do, as a community, have the wherewithal to produce our own food and get food to many mouths. Creativity and ingenuity are key! Eating with the seasons and shopping locally, as well as exploring new options for farming and growth are stepping stones to a better way of life.

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