by Lesley Sykes
On an early Thursday morning in mid-November, carloads of Friedman students headed across the Bay State to reach their weekend destination in Albany, New York. This was the designated spot for the annual conference of the Northeast Sustainable Working Group (NESAWG), where nearly 400 people gathered from across the Northeast to talk food. The meeting was organized so that all activities would take place in a fantastically quirky hotel just off the freeway, complete with 18th-century décor and the air of a colonial village.
While the hotel made for an amusing scene, the annual meeting was really meant to get people to work. After all, it is a working conference and NESAWG is a regional network, made up of people who work to address an array of regional food system issues. This year’s working sessions were a continuation from the last conference and covered topics like infrastructure, food safety, regional supply chains, research and assessment, labor and trade, food access, food planning, and messaging and outreach. This means that the breadth of diverse interests held by Tufts students’ was largely covered.
Sticking to tradition, many Friedman students not only attended the conference, but also served as scribes for the various working sessions. That way, interested folks can review notes from each group and become up-to-date on progress. A smart approach, since the nature of the sustainable food field implies lots of overlapping areas of expertise and interest.
Day 1 was set aside for pre-conference trainings, and this year there were four: 1) Alternative Supply Chain Development hosted by Red Tomato 2) New Leaders in the Food Movement including Friedman’s very own Amanda Beal who represented Eat Local Foods Coalition of Maine, 3) Systems Planning; and 4) Advocacy 101: from Local to Farm Bill and Beyond.
The sessions were well attended by Tufts students and it was the general consensus that compared to the shorter working sessions, there was more of an opportunity to achieve concrete goals. I attended a seven-hour long Red Tomato workshop, during which I learned a great deal about the nuts and bolts of the operation as well as the more complex issues that Red Tomato faces. Interesting discussions revolved around the questions of how to grow a distribution infrastructure for expanding and complex local food system networks and how to scale-up without losing integrity.
The Greenhorns hosted a festive evening of old time string band music, local cheese, and some wildly tangy pickles. I think we would all agree that the mixer served as a valuable opportunity for networking and having plain old fun.
The next day, the Opening Plenary was an appropriate way to kick off the busiest of the conference days. NESAWG Director Kathy Ruhf clarified the purpose of the working conference – to bring together a diverse group of sustainable food supporters and facilitate discussion, planning and goal setting. This was followed by a theatrical and rather amusing presentation by some of the Northeast’s most outspoken leaders. The presentation was a hard act to follow…unless you come from Columbia University’s Urban Design Lab, which uses an impressive design-based approach to shape the future of sustainable urbanism. Attendees were blown away by a presentation of cutting-edge graphics of New York’s food system. Their newest endeavor is the National Integrated Regional Foodsheds Model that will offer exciting opportunities to identify and eliminate barriers across the food chain for achieving integrated regional foodsheds.
Breakout into the various working sessions ensued, and attendees scrambled throughout the hotel to find the session that they felt would best suit them. The working sessions were remarkably short and productivity was heavily dependent on the effectiveness of the facilitator and the dynamics of the group mix. (This is where the comprehensive notes taken by Friedman scribes come in handy). Next came another enjoyable evening of a multi-course dinner and an a cappella performance.
The second day of the conference was designed to allow for a continuation of the working sessions. Attendees were encouraged, but not required, to stick to their original decision. More clamoring and swapping occurred. During these meetings, people seemed refreshed and eager to engage in productive conversations, possibly feeling the pressure of leaving the conference with maximal learning.
It took me until the end of the conference to achieve a better understanding of a working conference: it is not necessarily intended to generate tangible and momentous work, but rather to serve as a forum for important face-to-face discussion and collaboration that would continue throughout the year. With this in mind, it appears that the NESAWG conference was quite successful. After all, I learned more about what was going on in the Northeast, met some admirable leaders in the sustainable food system movement, and was given the opportunity to engage in a yearlong process to achieve goals specific to different working groups. And, nearly as important, I had the chance to bond with members of the Tufts community in an eccentric hotel and enjoy a change of pace from my usual deskwork.