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A Healthy, Humane, and Sustainable Northeast Florida

Reenvisioning farmers as stewards of the environment and the nexus for a sustainable, integrated, healthy community.

Photo of Alexis Vanderhye
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Lead Applicant Organization Name

Farm Transformation Institute (FTI)

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

FTI's lead application partner is 50by40, an organization that envisions a 50% reduction in the global production and consumption of farmed animal products by 2040. Their other partners include ICLEI and Health Care Without Harm. Consulting partners include: The Good Food Institute David Dinkins, University of Florida Ag Innovation (hands-on work with the tri-county region of NEF farmers) Phil Leary, USDA Rural Development NE Florida Wendy Mussoline, NE Florida USDA AG Extension Officer Putnam Community Hospital (regional hospital) Terrence Hill, Mayor of the City of Palatka Local Rotary Service Chapter Putnam First Cancer Fund Putnam County Chamber of Commerce Northeast Florida Regional Council (enhances the ability and opportunity of local governments to resolve issues and problems transcending their individual boundaries) Children’s Reading Center Charter School (home to the only regional children’s gardening program).

Website of Legally Registered Entity

Farm Transformation Institute: 50by40:

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Putnam County, Florida

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Northeast Florida tri-county area of St. Johns, Putnam, and Flagler

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

The founder of Farm Transformation Institute, Janabai Owens is originally from Palatka, a city in Putnam County, Northeast Florida (NEF) described in 2017 by the Washington Post as “a dying city.” While she loved the community and unique surroundings of her childhood, she was keenly aware that the area struggled with harsh economic realities that affected the future of its residents and its environment. Historically, due mostly to geography and the changing nature of market forces, NEF had been left behind by the growth in capital that had infused the Central and Southern regions. This is due to the Northeast being too far from Central Florida to experience the boom from Disney and Universal Studios and so different from Miami and Ft. Lauderdale that tourists didn’t make the trip. Throughout her childhood, Janabai’s family was committed to service and community and was deeply involved in most aspects of community life, including in governance and with cultural NGOs, local hospitals, schools and parks. She has maintained her commitment to rural economic change through to her current work with farmers around the globe. Her time in California working with food and farming has convinced her that the food system is the key juncture to ameliorating many of the challenges to economic and cultural change. Through this commitment and a love for the NEF region that continues today, she is passionate about transforming the food system and the surrounding community. Her enthusiasm to effect on-the-ground change in an area where support is sorely needed and rarely given has inspired our team to target the tri-county area of NEF for impact.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Northeast Florida (NEF) is a unique mix of coastal attitudes and culture with the traditions, congeniality and complex cultural history of the Deep South. The region is traditionally ignored by many when referring to the South, as most Americans consider Florida to be the home to Mickey Mouse, South Beach, senior citizens and wacky news stories. NEF is still covered in a dreamy landscape of oaks and pine trees. Beaches are wide and quiet, with a mix of “snow birds” (“Yankee” visitors from Canada or New York) enjoying the eclectic mix of surfers, local fishermen and year-round sunbathing. Residents love sharing food and hanging out at local watering holes, talking politics and football. Racial and economic tensions underlie discussions but young people seem more inclined towards an understated pragmatic progressivism. There are few large employers in the region and competition is tough for low wage positions while higher-wage positions are scarce. Historical downtown areas struggle with vacancies while big-box stores drain wetland properties, pushing urban boundaries farther out. The St. Johns River, which was once a major artery of trade during the steamboat area, is home to recreational activities and the area’s unique aquatic inhabitant, Manatees. Residents love fresh seafood and traditional cultural foods like barbeque, lima beans, boiled peanuts, coleslaw and hush puppies. The smell of fried food and the sounds of hometown hero’s Lynyrd Skynyrd permeates restaurant parking lots while folks enjoy a soda or sweet tea. Church life dominates social activities for many on the weekends and there is a plethora of events, from Bass fishing contests to arts and crafts fairs. Recent immigrants from Southeast Asia are less visible but affecting the food culture as grocery stores increase their “ethnic” food offerings. Agriculture was once a major force in the region, which was known for “cabbage and taters,” but it has dwindled over the years due to changes in the potato market. New market demands for Asian vegetables have brought the only recent economic growth to agriculture in the region. However the area could potentially grow a much more diversified crop selection. Great climate conditions contribute to the potential of the region, and yet, changing climate conditions, chronic and extreme weather, and strains on water infrastructure create uncertainty for local economies. Increasingly the most affordable seafood in the popular grocery chains are farmed and grow outside the US, despite the local coastal proximity. Obesity, heart disease, cancer and diabetes plague residents of all ages. There are few programs available to educate residents about the benefits of healthy eating. Residents are skeptical about outsiders, but hope to expand the opportunities for their region and see their children graduate from school and go to college.

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

The current food system is providing an economic boon for a concentrated minority, while contributing to a range of economic, environmental and health problems across the whole food value chain. 

US farm policy has led to the consolidation of farming operations among a small number of corporations and the demise of small family farms, hitting lower-income communities like Northeast Florida “NEF” (specifically the tri-county area of St. Johns, Putnam, and Flagler) especially hard. While the largest 10% of industrial ag operations receive nearly 80% of govt farm subsidies, smaller farms have experienced a significant decrease in profit and 70% of all full-time farmers in Florida operate at a net loss. As farm policies drive smaller farms into insolvency, their surrounding local food economies often collapse, leaving food deserts in their wake.

Food deserts in communities like NEF are characterized by a lack of access to affordable, nutritious whole foods from local grocers. With limited incomes and options, families purchase cheap, energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods from fast food restaurants and convenience stores.

Industrial ag operations, particularly animal agriculture, are a leading cause of environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, and climate change. Unfortunately, the US govt allocates $38B in subsidies annually to the meat and dairy industries and less than 0.05% of that amount to fruits and vegetables. Meat and dairy products provide only 18% of our calories and 37% of our protein, while consuming 83% of our farmland, clearly displaying how industrialized animal agriculture as an outdated farm technology falls short of its promise to feed a growing population in an efficient, sustainable manner.

With these challenges related to economics and health, culture has become deeply insular. A once traditionally democratic state has swung wildly and now NEF finds its democratic leaders switching parties to struggle to maintain relevance in an area that feels left behind. Blaming their struggles on a governance that’s out of touch, residents have turned towards views that give voice to their experiences. Experiments like the city-run grocery store in deeply impoverished Baldwin, Fl. show that this desperate community is willing to embrace collaborative solutions that put wellbeing above partisanship.

The future in 2050 for NEF will be a major population transition from today. With sea levels rising anywhere from 1-3 feet depending on the prediction, much of South Florida will be in the process of submerging. Putnam County ranges from 13-30 ft above sea level, with large amounts of flat, inexpensive open area, it will become rapidly developed due to the need for housing for southern and coastal climate refugees. 

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

We will re-engineer a model journey from farm to fork to create economic, environmental and health benefits for everyone across Northeast Florida’s (NEF) food value chain beginning with our farmers.

FTI and its partners (including 50by40, ICLEI, The Good Food Institute, and Health Care Without Harm) will work with farms and supply chain partners both within and beyond the community, forging corporate and healthcare relationships focused on delivering sustainable, healthy food. We will work with local governance and other stakeholders to help smallholder farms (including “hidden farmers” from less visible demographics) transition away from livestock to diverse, high margin crops with larger market potential. In collaboration with The University of Florida and USDA rural development agents, we will provide farmers with access to business planning, new farm technologies, and re-skilling to ensure they have the structures and support needed to succeed.

With few to no farmers markets in the region, we will need to introduce an assistance-incentivized farm hub for everyday access to fresh, value-added local food. By reducing community reliance on distant markets and intermediaries, we will increase environmental resilience, employment, and farmer income. This will have a positive “multiplier effect” on the local economy and health as jobs are created and a nutrition education network for “food-vulnerable” communities is developed.

We will establish a cooperatively owned plant-based protein processing facility. Soil-building legumes and innovative proteins processed into plant-based ingredients will help the farmers tap into the booming plant-based market.

To elevate individuals from passive consumers to participating citizens, we will design educational campaigns that promote healthy consumption and empower the next generation of food choices in partnership with local schools and HCWH’s network of nurses and physicians. From the garden program at the local charter school to service organizations like the local Rotary chapter, we will integrate the campaigns within the community’s leadership.

Leveraging the network of ICLEI, we will engage with local governance to enact food and environmental transition policies. ICLEI will help us secure regional purchasing agreements from institutional buyers to create stable, secure markets for producers. They will also help quantify environmental impacts of farming and build incentivizing policies to support the shift to a more plant-based food system.

Our collaborative approach will build bridges and will open this distressed region to new ideas, resources and most importantly… a hopeful future. In a state where “climate change” was once a banned topic in official communications, there are myriad opportunities to model a bright future driven by the need to overcome adversity.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Northeast Florida in 2050: Reenvisioning farmers as stewards of the environment and the nexus for a sustainable, integrated, healthy community.

The future of the NEF food system lies in helping all people access appealing, healthy and sustainable food. Our vision is to support sustainable smallholder farms in NEF while improving farmers’ social and economic conditions, animal and environmental welfare, and the economy and health of the surrounding community.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Northeast Florida in 2050: Reenvisioning farmers as stewards of the environment and the nexus for a sustainable, integrated, healthy community.

The future of the NEF food system lies in helping all people access appealing, healthy and sustainable food. Our vision is to support sustainable smallholder farms in NEF while improving farmers’ social and economic conditions, animal and environmental welfare, and the economy and health of the surrounding community.

Farming will become an increasingly attractive and viable industry. With the scientific and technical support of FTI, farmer-led research and innovation will advance sustainable farming solutions and will stave off industrial agriculture’s near monopoly over farming, land, and markets in NEF. 

Climate change will be mitigated by transitioning away from animal ag and by growing diversified crops that require 47%–99% less land and 72%–99% less water than animal ag operations, emit 30%–90% fewer greenhouse gases, and cause 51–91% less aquatic nutrient pollution, thereby protecting local waterways and their inhabitants. 

As local farmers increase the supply of affordable plant-based foods for their surrounding communities, the percentage of the population that is food insecure and experiencing diet-related health conditions will dramatically decrease, creating exponential benefits in quality of life. The farmers market will contribute to greater empowerment, participation, and economic opportunity for community members, as well as providing more opportunities for human connection and civil discourse. Full of cultural pride, created through environmental stewardship and rebuilding their community into a vital region, the people of NEF have found a unique place in a positive future. 

Ultimately, NEF and its farmer leaders will increase the economic stability, vitality, and life expectancy of their surrounding communities. The region will go from among the state’s “worst” to a beacon for future-proofing around the world.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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Hi Alexis Vanderhye - Welcome to the Food System Vision Prize! In this final hour, a reminder to cross-check your vision to our checklist: