Preserving Abundance: Shifting Mindsets to Shift Food Systems
Using education and creative engagement to help people and companies re-envision how to sustainably engage with food.
Lead Applicant Organization Name
Root Food, LLC
Lead Applicant Organization Type
Small company (under 50 employees)
Website of Legally Registered Entity
How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?
Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?
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?
State of Georgia
What country is your selected Place located in?
United States of America
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
In 2015, I defended my dissertation and immediately drove from Florida to Georgia for my final, in-person interview as the head of a rare book collection. I had spent a total of 24 hours in Atlanta previously, and sadly did not get a chance to spend any additional time during this visit. However, something pulled me to this place, and when I was offered the job (located in the north Atlanta suburbs), I immediately took it, but chose to live in the city.
The first thing I was struck by was the strong sense of community among the circles I run in: artists, chefs, and other creatives of all strips. When I left my curatorship in early 2018, I was at a turning point: I was reconsidering every aspect of my life, from my career path to personal habits and to where I wanted to live. I could have gone anywhere in the world, but made an intentional choice to stay in here in Atlanta and recommit myself to the city and region I love. After a beloved friend and collaborator told me that Atlanta needed me, I began to consider how I could be of service while pursuing what I love. I founded my business, a community-minded food history and fermentation organization, based on the premise that education and connection (especially through food) can have profound and far-reaching impacts. In Atlanta, I see this in large multi-disciplinary art projects, spearheaded by creative minds like Danny Davis at Protect Awesome, who uses his skills in conceptualizing and building spectacle to help his collaborators dreams come true. I see it in the Georgia/North Carolina border, where the deep passion for community we see in Atlanta bleeds out into the Appalachians, where longstanding traditions continue to be honored. I had considered submitting this application only for Atlanta and, indeed, Atlanta will likely be the focus of many of my efforts, but Atlanta cannot be divorced from the state it is part of, particularly north Georgia, & the mountain range that my family called home for centuries.
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.
In Georgia, we see the astounding diversity of food and people in the American South. Up north, we have Appalachian food culture, built out of a long mountain history of inter-community cooperation as well as a ethos of self-reliance. The mountains hold the start of the Appalachian Trail and incredible diversity in thought and perspective, all undergirded by a strong sense of community.
In Atlanta, we find some of our most diverse but also most fraught food systems (more on that below). Critically acclaimed fine dining restaurants sit alongside casual, familiar staples, and just north of the city is Buford Highway, a multicultural hub and the town of Clarkston, a place where many refugees and immigrants have settled and which is often referred to as “the most diverse square mile in America.”
Atlanta is also home to historic, nation defining moments, such as the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and this is reflected in both the city’s food and its sense of civic pride.
As we move to coastal Georgia and the agriculture-heavy southern part of the state, we find the cuisines that reflect a strong sense of place, both adjacent to coastal and inland waterways, as well as cuisines that reflect farming and foraging practices in the region. Brunswick stew, for example (which Georgians will insist was created in Brunswick, GA though their counterparts in Virginia think differently) contains corn and pork, but I have also had it in homes where it included squirrel.
But for as many cultures as we have represented in the state, there are as many traditions and communities who have been displaced and whose knowledge has been lost. In North Georgia, for example, we have the Etowah mounds and legacies of a thriving Cherokee community through records of the Cherokee Phoenix, the first newspaper published in an Indigenous language. It was published in the Cherokee capitol of New Echota from 1828 until the forced displacement of the Cherokee in 1834 on the Trail of Tears. While the Trail had a number of start points, one of them was in Cherokee county in Georgia, where those who had stewarded the land for millennia were forcefully driven out.
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.
Georgia is filled with complexities often overlooked by the country writ large, and as such there are no easy, one-size-fits-all solutions for building or reimagining food systems. Local & national legacies of slavery and racism have resulted in unequal distribution of resources, where Black communities are impacted by redlining, food deserts, and a loss of Black-run agricultural spaces. These legacies also result in the loss of Native knowledge about the land and agency over the land, as the Cherokee and other tribal nations were driven from the state.
Gentrification in urban areas, such as Atlanta, has pushed out longstanding communities, and cost-prohibitive food offerings replace those businesses that once nourished and sustained communities. Gentrification, as well as the displacement of those who traditionally stewarded the land, also has a negative environmental impact, as ecosystems are disrupted and food systems based on foraging and agriculture pushed to the wayside in favor of tract housing and condos.
Atlanta also faces staggering transportation challenges: The city is divided in its center by Interstates and encircled by an Interstate bypass that literally divides it from the rest of the state. The interstates also divide intown neighborhoods from each other, and with limited rail and bus service (as well as inconsistent sidewalks and bike lanes), moving around the city without a car is a difficult prospect.
By 2050, climate change will have impacted coastal areas, as hurricane seasons result in storms that are both more intense and more numerous. In agricultural areas, a changing climate affects crop yields and farmers face the ramifications of policies, tariffs, and shifting markets. Natural spaces will also be vastly changed or entirely vanished. Cumberland Island, a refuge for many endangered species of wildlife, is currently being considered as a site for a private rocket launch pad, which risks grave ecological impacts on the island itself as well as potential impacts on neighboring spaces, such as the nearby islands occupied by the Gullah Geechee community.
We will also see vastly changed urban areas, increasingly designed around the whims of the privileged while physically and socially displacing the poor.
All of this speaks to a disconnected mindset: Atlanta, often called “the city in the forest,” has been razing mature trees at an alarming rate as developers cash in on the housing boom. This wasteful, short-term view is part of a larger perspective that sees the world as built to cater to oneself and one’s needs. While addressing food waste or other food issues may seem unrelated, when we consider one’s food habits as a part of one’s larger personal perspective, a mindset shift-based approach have a ripple effect throughout one’s life, community, and industry.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
All of the above speaks to a disconnected mindset: Atlanta, often called “the city in the forest,” has been razing mature trees at an alarming rate as developers cash in on the housing boom. This wasteful, short-term view is part of a larger perspective that sees the world as built to cater to oneself and one’s needs. While addressing food waste or other food issues may seem unrelated, when we consider one’s food habits as a part of one’s larger personal perspective, a mindset shift-based approach have a ripple effect throughout one’s life, community, and industry.
Reconnecting people with their food, and using a systems approach to do it, will help them see how all of this is connected (e.g. working with agricultural professionals who can share sustainable food systems that include the flora and fauna around us, or with labor rights advocates to discuss inequities and poverty among those preparing and serving our food).
More and more people are interested in working with food deserts and food security (e.g. Georgia Grown, Carver Neighborhood Market, Generator, others), food and farming justice, food waste (e.g. Root), and support for food workers (e.g. The Giving Kitchen) environmentalism, and skills building (e.g. Root, The Homestead). All of this, when brought together under the guiding principle of building an equitable food futures, can help reverse the trends listed above, instead replacing them with a healthier and more sustainable vision. The Full Vision described below outlines some possibilities for how this might happen, recognizing that these will undoubtedly evolve and grow as new partners share their perspectives and as the food landscape of Georgia and the country shifts.
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.
The goal of this project is to foster connectedness to food is a systematic and community-driven way. By teaching mindset shifts that encourage re-engagement with the full potential of food, and fostering explicit understanding how our food connects to all other parts of our lives, we can create all kinds of positive change in Georgia food systems.
Thinking sustainably about our food can help individuals and companies reduce food waste, as is already happening with Root’s Preserving Abundance course and consulting work with restaurants. However, by using a systems approach, wherein these changes are connected within a larger structure, the mindset we teach using the various modalities described below can apply to many different areas of one’s life and work (e.g. seeing nature as part of our systems and lived experiences, rather than a resource to be exploited). This is one reason why I plan to approach community collaborators from many different fields and backgrounds, so that all of those perspectives and modes of engagement can be activated to help this project reach its full effect.
Once we have deployed the course, received feedback, created community toolkits, and engaged in other community collaborations, it is my hope that Georgians will be armed with tools to tackle food sustainability as it exists throughout food systems. However, by having a new way to think about food, it is my hope that Georgians (here I mean both individual and groups like companies or communities), will be excited about the possibility of sustainable change, and see challenges as exciting questions to solve rather than insurmountable obstacles to be suffered. By addressing our food systems, we also address inequity as it exists elsewhere in our systems (e.g. racial and income disparities in access, income insecurity in the agricultural sector) impacting many of the larger social issues I described in the sections above.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
I see my role, and my organization’s role, as one of connection: Both in connecting the organizations I work with together to tackle large and complex challenges, but also in using my purposefully diverse professional background to build connections between ideas. The first step in this process is using this sort of connective thinking to tackle food waste (an area Root works in deeply), and once we have set up a framework for working together, to move on to consider other areas of our food system.
One of the greatest challenges I’ve encountered in working with people and food waste is getting them to feel motivated to make sustainable, lasting lifestyle changes. Much of the time, people are eager to make a change but do too much too quickly, or don’t have a framework to help them, leading to overwhelm and eventual abandonment of new habits they’re trying to develop.
I used my unique professional experience as a food historian, a fermenter, and a social scientist to build an online course that uses our connections to history and stories as an undergirding framework for making waste-reducing changes in kitchen habits for home cooks and culinary professionals.
I see this course, and this perspective, as a jumping off point rather than an endpoint. It uses a two-pronged theoretical approach to get people to think differently about their food: First is to see each ingredient, rather than each dish, as one with an abundance of possibilities, each of which can be explored using familiar concepts. And the second is to use historical stories to connect us to those familiar concepts, tapping into our desire to connect to the past and be moved by storytelling in order to bring depth and richness to our lives. By connecting cooks with stories that they are already compelled to engage with, and using that connection to help gently guide them to rethink their food, I believe this approach can create meaningful and widespread change.
The course is self-paced and entirely online, which means it can be accessed by cooks anywhere with an Internet connection, who can begin the course whenever they wish. I plan to expand this course with two advanced companion courses (also online), one covering advanced cooking methods and one covering home crafts and art.
However, just as we can use the history of food to connect us to others and learn about ourselves, I also feel there is power in connecting this perspective to place. I would love to take what I’ve learned about teaching new food habits using history, and tie it to the place I live, which is full of rich history and many both beautiful and painful stories to tell.
Waste and food insecurity, both historically and today, are a part of those stories, and one of the things that is most compelling to me about this grant is the opportunity to connect what I’ve done with Preserving Abundance within a systems approach, and to work with others throughout our food systems to address food waste and insecurity more holistically.
I am still working out the details, and what I find most exciting about the Vision Prize is the opportunity to engage in a framework that includes refinement and the accelerator process in addition to funding.
It is my goal to use the Prize process to create specific collaboration frameworks and benchmarks for success, so I can reach out to potential collaborators with a clear vision in mind that we can work together to enact.
I want to use this vision to work within Georgia and, as applicable, elsewhere in the lower Appalachian region, using the stories of producers and the histories of the foods we commonly consume here, along with the abundance mindset mentioned above, to help consumers reframe their relationship to waste. In this case, “consumers” includes home cooks, but also larger-scale operations such as restaurants and even industrial operations that make prepackaged foods but waste vegetable stems and ends or other usable parts.
The process will include:
-Working with collaborators, such as fellow food historians, growers, and other relevant stakeholders to build a toolkit of stories paired with specific skill-building materials (recipes and other tutorials)
-Identifying and building relationships with those who can employ the toolkit: E.g. cooking schools, restaurants, colleges, etc.
-Providing them with the toolkit and training, and using their feedback to refine it prior to it going ‘live.’
-Once out in the world, we’ll help those using it to teach skills to community members by coming in to assist with courses, answering questions, publicizing their work, and connecting those using this approach across different organizations or even industries in order to engage a systems-minded perspective.
However, my goal is not simply to build and deploy a teaching toolkit. Once we’ve fostered familiarity with this idea of abundance and of shifting habits using stories, I plan to take it farther by engaging with colleagues in many other areas, such as visual art and dance, academic research, and transportation, all of whom can bring their own perspectives to bear towards the goal of helping people feel reconnected to their food.
I am seeking an end result that offers drastic improvement to the lives of Georgians. By offering a shift in mindset and perspective, rather than just skills training, we open the door to incredible lasting change and to abundance that can expand out through different areas of our food system.
If we see each food we work with as one offering us abundance, we can translate that to agricultural practices, and reconsider things like environmentally damaging monocultures, which ask us to operate out of fear of crop failure (a greater concern with monocultures) as well as being completely beholden to fluctuating markets. By considering the abundance already present in the land and foods around us, we can plant more diverse crops that speak to each other’s needs (the most famous such companion planting perhaps being Three Sisters: corn, beans, and squash), and still grow our cash crops but with greater security and an eye towards working smarter. Working with agricultural justice organizations, we can also locate BIPOC agricultural professionals who are familiar with sustainable farming systems, connect them with land to grow on, and in so doing support Black and Indigenous farmers while enhancing food security for the state’s residents overall.
Whether or not one vision can completely rectify issues throughout something as complex as an entire state’s food system (and, by extension, its interconnection on regional, national, and global levels) remains to be seen. However, even if some challenges persist, or even if new ones emerge, the impact of this plan will be palpable and far-reaching.
How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?