Food is the connective tissue that holds humans in healthy relationship with one another and with the earth - it is the medicine we need.
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.
Students in the Earth Heart Grower program harvesting at Joseph Fields Farm.
The Lowcountry is an epicenter of cultural and ecological shifts interwoven with deep and complicated historical roots, including the ignominious distinction of being the heart of the slave trade, the ripples of which are reflected in a unjust local food system: food deserts plague African American neighborhoods and government programs offer substandard food that contributes to chronic lifestyle diseases (we are in the “stroke belt”). Recent cuts to SNAP benefits and lowering the bar on school meal quality threaten to make a bad situation worse.
Adversity gives rise to strength as demonstrated by the Gullah Gechee, a sovereign nation that inhabits the coastal areas of The Lowcountry. The Gullah (as they are called here) have cultural roots in West Africa and the Caribbean. Recent years have ushered in a rise in pride and solidarity among the Gullah. As farmers, fishers, shrimpers and oyster harvesters historically dependent on the land and sea for much of their subsistence, many Gullah, including Joseph and Helen Fields, maintain a deep connection with the rich and complex natural systems of the region. Thus, Gullah wisdom and knowledge - the technology of indigenous culture - can inform and guide a re-envisioned food system that works with nature and for all people.
The City of Charleston, the metropolitan heart of the region and a tourism mecca, has experienced an economic boom over the past 2 decades that has led to gentrification, displacing tens of thousands of the city’s African American citizens. Many have moved to North Charleston which suffers from one of the highest crime rates in the nation and the highest eviction rate in the country. In short, the urban areas of The Lowcountry reflect two of the most destructive social forces in the U.S.: racism and extreme wealth inequality.
It also faces a serious ecological challenge: Just above sea level, much of the Lowcountry is in danger of being submerged due to climate change. Flooding and hurricanes are regularly occurring disasters, making resilience a critical necessity - especially for our economically disadvantaged citizens (disproportionately African American) who often lack the luxury of insurance coverage or a well-stocked savings account.
Outside the greater Charleston area The Lowcountry is predominantly rural and agricultural. Regenerative agricultural practices are yet to be widely adopted, though there are encouraging signs - including the opening of the Institute of Regenerative Agriculture at Mepkin Abbey in 2020 that will include a 10 month training program. Though the farm-to-table movement has brought local food to many high brow culinary establishments in Charleston, there is not a widespread commitment elsewhere to supporting our farmers.
The Lowcountry is an ideal area for catalyzing a local just regenerative food system: we are big and diverse enough to be able to pull from a broad range of natural and human resources; we are small and unified enough to share a sense of common destiny.
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
One example illustrates many challenges facing our local food system: our most economically disadvantaged children are being fed junk food by area school districts with funds from the USDA. The Summer Feeding Program (“SFP”) provides food to children in need while school is out of session, a nobel end. Unfortunately, the dynamics of our food system results in kids being fed hot dogs (a known carcinogen), Doritos, Pop Tarts and Fruit Loops along with fruit juice (no better than soda from a metabolic view). This, in a region overflowing with fresh local produce during summer months. Many of SFP sites are in food deserts so the need for quality great.
This microcosm reflects the macrocosm. Our local food system is overwhelmed with cheap junk food in part because federal subsidies for soy, corn and wheat make nutritionally deficient foods made from these commodities cheap. Thus, even though our region is rich in healthy local food our farmers cannot compete with artificially inexpensive ultra-processed food sold by corporations. Money is siphoned out of our community rather than circulating here where it can multiply prosperity. Ultra-processed foods are shelf-stable and full of salt, sugar and fat, making them convenient and addictive by design. Food is distilled to its lowest common denominator - commodity crops stripped of fiber and nutrients - and fed to those most in need of nourishment.
The result: chronically ill people, struggling farmers, a fragile supply chain, ecological degradation (conventionally grown commodity monocultures deplete soil and pollute water), cultural dissipation and dependency on hand-outs. Absent effective interventions 2050 will likely see more of the same, but exacerbated by the loss of arable land due to sea level rise and suburban sprawl.
Policies dictate superficial nutrition criteria but neglect substantive quality. This problem is common to hierarchical approaches to complex systems: easily enforced rules focus on simple to measure criteria, prompting decision makers to ignore important variables not addressed by the rules. Put simply, what is not counted does not count. Thus, for example, excessive amounts of sugar and simple carbohydrates that metabolize like sugar in SFP meals does not violate the rules. That metabolic diseases are on the rise among children, especially those in low income families, and that these conditions are caused in part by high sugar diets, is not considered by those designing the menus.
The SFP illustrates an important feature of our current system and attempts to correct its most glaring shortcomings: it is symptom focused. Handouts to those systematically disempowered allow a fundamentally imbalanced economic system to continue without disruption. People at the bottom of the economic scale (a growing demographic even in this time of claimed “economic growth”) are kept fed - just enough to prevent major upheaval. Meaningful and lasting system interventions must target root causes.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete,” advised systems pioneer Buckminster Fuller. We envision a new model of food production and distribution that leverages resources to which we collectively have direct access, thus minimizing the need to “fight the existing reality.”
The core of our Vision is a networked ecosystem of worker-owned cooperatives and allied organizations that grow, distribute, cook and serve nutritious, delicious, and ecologically responsible food. Worker ownership is a proven model for democratizing economic systems and promoting wealth equality, which is key to creating a fundamentally just food system. Cooperatives will play a critical tool in transitioning to an economy that values money as a means to the end of expanding community prosperity - including quality food - in alignment with natural systems.
Ultimately, the co-op network will include regenerative farms, urban gardens, greenhouses, markets, restaurants, institutional food providers, and value-added product producers. The first cooperative (“Seed Co-op”), a catalyst of this ecosystem approach to food, will be a wholesale provider of healthy plant-centered ready-to-eat meals and snacks. Locally grown ingredients will be prioritized with assistance from GrowFood, our local nonprofit food hub. We will also source produce from urban farms and gardens - Climate Victory Gardens - which we will promote in collaboration with partners such as The Green Heart Project, Earth Heart Growers, and Wecology Gardens, thus supporting efforts aimed at food sovereignty.
Initial distribution will be through aligned institutions and local retailers - including the Summer Feeding Program. By recruiting area hospitals and schools as anchor customers we can leverage their buying power. (This strategy is inspired by The Cleveland Model which has successfully used institutional buying power to catalyze worker-owned cooperatives, including the country’s largest urban greenhouse.)
The Seed Co-op works from the assumption that interventions will be effective if they add value to stakeholders such that they are willing to change their habits. Convenience, price and taste are the criteria on which we make food choices. Thus, for example, we will partner with existing retailers in food deserts, such as Mary’s Sweet Shop, to put affordable, delicious options in easy reach of those most harmed by our food system.
Where conventional for profit businesses seek to scale, we will spread our model by creating largely independent “franchises” in communities across The Lowcountry: Adaptable, decentralized, grassroots organizations operated for the benefit of people and planet will, over time, replace rigid, centralized, top-down hierarchies operated for the financial gain of corporations.
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 food system is complex and adaptive. This makes changes difficult to predict, prone to failure. Solutions may contain the seeds of new problems. We believe that moving forward in small iterative steps, observing the effects and if necessary changing the approach, provides the most successful strategy for profound system changes. This requires a team prepared to learn from failure, whose collective knowledge and activities will sustain over long periods.
Our Vision is inspired by the power of synergy - the core driver of all system evolution. Synergy arises when we align creativity, passion and action with the generative force of our local ecology. We envision a Lowcountry sustained by a circular regenerative economy founded on a vibrant local food system. For example, culinary creatives shift our eating choices toward produce that grows with the fewest inputs in our bioregion - consumption is led by nature rather than by preferences shaped by an unsustainable economic system. Rural and urban farmers grow more with less by working with nature and investing in the health of the soil, thus regenerating our agricultural land and sequestering carbon. Worker-owners earn a living wage as they grow, distribute, cook and serve whole foods. Our schools and hospitals partner with worker cooperatives to nourish students, patients and staff with delicious meals that model healthy sustainable eating. We divert organic matter (formerly “waste”) to neighborhood compost piles that nourish verdant public food forests in place of ornamental lawns. Residents of all ages and financial conditions have access to produce grown in their neighborhoods. Potlucks and shared gardens bring neighbors together in celebration and solidarity, fostering the connections and relationships essential to human thriving. Well-being flourishes as diets improve, loneliness ebbs, and all are empowered to contribute meaningfully and concretely to a better world.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
Joseph Fields sharing his passion for growing food
Meeting Street Academy students at Grow Food Carolina
Grow Food Carolina is our nonprofit food hub
Students at Destiny Community Cafe
Our ancestors gathered, hunted, cooked, planted, harvested, preserved, and feasted together. These daily communal activities wove us into a rich and varied tapestry of people and place. Technological innovations profoundly transformed our relationship to food, and thus, to each other and our planet: food became an object, a commodity to be bought for the lowest price possible and sold for the highest profit possible. As food’s essential role as a mediator of relationship dissolved the tapestry unraveled.
What if many of the intractable social ills of modern American society have their roots in this unraveling? Loneliness - as bad for one as a 15 cigarette a day smoking habit - is an epidemic that in turn contributes to lifestyle diseases (diabetes, heart disease, obesity), mass shootings (committed by and large by alienated young men), depression, alcoholism, suicide, all of which are on the rise, especially among our youth. If, as we believe, the commodification of food is one cause of the disintegration of our social fabric, then by generating a new food system centered on people and planet we can reweave community and heal the dis-ease of modern American society.
Our understanding of food as relationship reflects the deep wisdom illuminated by the classic folktale Stone Soup (see the video submitted herewith): Sharing and cooperating multiply prosperity and joy - and food can be a binding force that brings people together. Conversely, fear and selfishness deprive us of the wealth we could enjoy if we aligned our efforts and resources.
Stone Soup illustrates a key principle of systems theory that informs our Vision: Synergy, when the whole is equal to more than the sum of the parts, happens when parts of a system coordinate in ways that promote the good of the whole. It is the driving force of complex adaptive systems. Through the lens of synergy a major cost of the food-as-object approach comes into focus: coordination that gives rise to synergy, and thus to overall increases in system function, requires diverse, numerous and healthy relationships. Thus, the synergistic potential of food-mediated relationships has been lost.
Our modern food system has significant anti-synergistic (i.e., prosperity destroying) effects. It is extracting from the whole, socially and ecologically, to benefit some parts of the system, mostly an increasingly small number of large corporations. This truth is not immediately discernible because conventional agriculture uses stored energy in the form of fossil fuel, degrades topsoil, pollutes water, and destroys habitat - these ecological debts are not reflected on the balance sheet. Our modern food system a Ponzi scheme: we are stealing from the future to pay for the grift of a profoundly extractive system. Similarly, we do not count the suffering and lost potential caused by diet-related diseases.
By reweaving the threads of connectivity broken by our commodified food system we multiply and amplify synergistic relationships, thereby creating real and sustainable prosperity through mutually beneficial cooperation. This new tapestry is made of a grassroots network of worker and community owned enterprises, nonprofits, aligned institutions and community groups working in collaboration with the ecosystems on which life depends.
By prioritizing relationships we co-create a new local food system that appreciates the connections between our dietary choices and the vitality of our environment and our bodies, between governmental and institutional policies and the health of the community, between technological innovations and unintended consequences, between cultural dissipation and a fraying social safety net, between financially defined profits and the true prosperity of our people. We aim to align these connections in ways that maximize beneficial synergies where, presently, many of these relationships are misaligned in ways that diminish the welfare of our people and our ecosystem.
By catalyzing this diverse web of food-mediated relationships we will (1) promote food sovereignty through local regenerative agriculture, commercial and non-commercial, in rural and urban areas; (2) transition away from extractive capitalism toward a just regenerative circular food economy that expands and fairly distributes real wealth; (3) foster healthy sustainable dietary choices by making delicious culturally inspired local whole-food plant-centered options convenient and affordable for all; and (4) offer meaningful work and volunteer opportunities that bring people together with a shared sense of purpose.
This web includes a diverse array of structures and relationships: Cooperatively owned and governed enterprises play a critical role in the food system of 2050. Prioritizing win-win cooperation over zero-sum competition maximizes synergistic potential. For example, instead of debating the wisdom or feasibility of a higher minimum wage that pits the interests of workers against the interests of owners in a never-ending tug-of-war we transcend the conflict by dissolving the distinction between workers and owners.
When workers are owners they have every incentive to apply their full creative potential to their jobs: rather than selling their life to a company an hour at a time, they are purpose-driven co-creators who share fairly in the prosperity their efforts unlock. Turnover is low as employee-owners are valued and empowered to make a positive difference in their community. Retention preserves know-how and strengthens relationships between members and other stakeholders. Organizational function is optimized. Synergy is expanded.
A collaborative network of community-owned markets featuring locally sourced foods spans The Lowcountry. Many offer areas for groups to meet while enjoying delicious healthy ready-to-eat foods. Community engagement multiplies in a context that fosters and celebrates collaboration.
Artisan food producers, supported by the local food web, make the most of the abundance of our bioregion. They make a good living creating delicious, nutrient rich, affordable and widely available value-added products that, in turn, make eating right for the planet and our bodies easy and pleasurable. Ecologically responsible packaging (e.g., deposit-return glassware) is an additional benefit of locally produced options.
Institutions use their purchasing power to support local regenerative agriculture and a circular economy by partnering with cooperative enterprises that prioritize ingredients from within our bioregion. Hospitals and schools value the benefits of whole-food plant-centered diets to mental and physical well-being. Importantly, USDA standards for school lunches and summer meals are seen as a floor, not a goal.
Farmers steward the land as they adopt regenerative practices such as no-till, crop rotation, cover crops, and cultivating a diverse range of plants. By nurturing healthy living soil they sequester substantial amounts of carbon, thus helping reverse climate crisis, and grow a wide variety of high quality nutrient dense food. Farmers benefit from a network of enterprises and institutions that value their efforts and buy their products.
Urban gardeners have transformed the landscape of our cities. Vibrant and verdant public food forests thrive where ornamental lawns once grew. Every neighborhood has at least one, often multiple, communal gardens - hyper local neo-village squares - where children play and learn to grow food, where Sunday potlucks foster community. Scraps are either fed to well cared for chickens in exchange for eggs, or composted. Community greenhouses ensure year-round access to fresh greens. Garden stewards receive a financial stipend if needed, paid from voluntary sliding-scale dues, though much of their reward comes in the form of support of all kinds from grateful neighbors.
Our myopic focus on money as the primary means of exchange gives way to a recognition that real wealth is the relationships and things necessary for our physical, emotional and spiritual thriving - clean air and water, healthy food, comfortable safe housing, education, art and friendship. As we resolve our confusion about money (it is a means of accounting, not actual wealth) we are able to see opportunities for prosperity expansion that were previously obscured: for example, the food growing potential of lawns, chickens fed from food scraps that would have been garbage, gardening skills of retirees.
This Vision for a regenerative circular food system redirects economic activity toward self-sustaining local enterprises, thus creating an ongoing source of community prosperity. By enabling institutions to support the local food web through changes to buying policies we activate powerful levers of change. By shortening the supply chain, rewarding farmers who adopt the regenerative agricultural technology of indigenous cultures, promoting composting and shifting toward a plant-centered diet we shrink our ecological “food print.”
The tapestry of community is rewoven as we remember the value of food as a mediator of relationships. We tell a new story about who we are and what is possible. The schism between us and nature narrows as we put our hands in living soil and reconnect to the wonders of the natural world. Injustices perpetrated by those alienated from their humanity and shaped by a culture that values ones and zeros on hard drives - money - above life, ebb as a new, and ancient, culture of belonging emerges. In 2050 the Lowcountry is sustained, body and spirit, by the abundance of its earth and the cooperative efforts of its people.