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After The Podium, The Worms

Will Allen looks happy with a pitchfork in his hands, turning the soil that’s dark and rich with worm castings. The diffused light in the greenhouse gleams off his face and arms. The air is warm and moist; it feels nourishing in the lungs. You can almost chew it. Today is Wednesday, Oct. 20. For the past few days, Will has spent a lot of time standing behind a podium at the Midwest Express Center. He and his Growing Power staff have been playing the gracious host to almost 500 people from all over the country attending the eighth annual national Community Food Security Coalition conference, October 16 through 19. The conference was an intense whirlwind of ideas, designed to inspire the enlightened and spin them off with renewed energy and a host of new connections. It offered several learning tracks to help focus the information, including Anti-Hunger, Upper Midwest, Farm to Cafeteria, Local Food System, New and Innovative Alliances, Public Policy and Enterprise. Of particular interest to activists, the Public Policy track offered a wealth of practical ideas to bring issues of food security to the attention of local, state and federal government. Andy Fisher, Executive Director of CFSC, is himself a city planner. He lives in Venice, California. In the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots in 1992, Fisher was one of six researchers who helped produce a 400-plus page paper called Seeds of Change: Strategies for Food Security for the Inner City. This work, a pivotal piece of writing for the emerging food security movement, has been described as “perhaps the most thorough documentation of an urban community’s food system.” It included sections on hunger, nutrition, the food industry, supermarket industry, a community case study, farmers’ markets, urban agriculture, and food policy councils. In a recent interview with the Riverwest Currents, Mr. Fisher explained that CFSC was formed as a “conceptual umbrella” for various groups already active in the early 1990s, including anti-hunger initiatives, sustainable agriculture advocates, community gardeners, nutritionists, environmentalists, and community development organizations. The food system connected all these groups: it was their common enemy. “The food system marginalized all these groups,” he explained. “It kept organic farmers from making a living wage because of a lack of markets. Low-income consumers were faced with a corporate food structure that wasn’t responsive to their needs.” These were the issues that the CFSC was organized to address. Slowly, an alternative food system began to grow, based on principles like social justice, economic viability, and ecology. “This growth is perhaps best exemplified by the boom in farmers’ markets, the number of which increased by 63 percent from 1994 to 2000,” said Fisher in an essay published in the 2002 book, Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture. “Now, over 2,800 markets operate nationwide. Sales at Farmers’ markets total approximately $1