Much of what I have learned about systems leadership was gained working with groups of people focused on how to make our food system (everything that happens from farm to fork) more resilient, just, and healthy. Over the past 20 years I helped launch or support more than a dozen food policy councils across the U.S. West. These councils (which were commonly known as Food Systems Alliances) brought together interests from across the food system to influence community attitudes, change policy, and manage local food projects.
Recently I was contacted by a group trying to start a council in New York State who asked:
…from your perspective what is the leading cause of failure in Food Systems Alliances and/or Food Policy Councils?
My answer covers many of the basic elements of success for any deep change effort. Here is what is shared:
Success or failure for a Council depends entirely on its purpose. Since many Councils have lofty and tough food system structural changes as their core metric for success, it is natural that they may come up short in the near term. If process metrics, like community engagement or diversity, are set, many of the long-term challenges of grass roots organizing are encountered.
My experience is that Alliances/Councils that balance programmatic and policy work, that foster a strong network of food systems actors, and are engaged in continuing learning about both the problems that they believe are most relevant in their community and the solutions that might work on the ground tend to do well both in terms of results and funding.
In some cases (and we experienced this in our Alliance project) it is simply the case that the group completed what it set out to do. In the case of the Ventura County Ag Futures Alliance, they created long-lasting relationships between previously isolated actors, acted on the core problems they identified and had good success in the policy arena. Essentially they completed their work. This particular Alliance, however, never set a goal of redesigning the food system for justice, to incorporate regenerative practices, or to decommodify agriculture. They just wanted to keep ag alive.
- A diversity of interests and perspectives, who all share a directionally similar view, in the community are engaged.
- Action is based on a clear assessment of issues and is either based on or accountable to the community or those impacted.
- Some kind of programmatic offering is made (running markets, reducing food waste, etc.) that gives the group both visibility and a diversified funding stream.
- Long-term funding for core Council/Network functioning. Ideally a commitment of $20-40K annually for five years.
- Smart process leadership. Having a skilled and knowledgeable facilitator is critical.
- Trying to include stakeholders who fundamentally do not share common goals. Several of our Alliances floundered on their inability to bridge community and environmental perspectives with the views of farmers and farm organizations. There is a place for depolarized dialogue in every community, but it is likely an offering of a Council and not its value proposition.
- Inability to select one or a few avenues of change and developing the muscle needed to become good at it. Policy change is a specific skill and takes the right approach to be successful. Many councils have had less success on the policy side simply because they did not have the experience or resources needed to succeed.
- Inability to create a viable ’social entrepreneurial’ model. This is the combination of resources both financial and human that are donated to the group.
- Fatigue. Food system change is a multi-generational problem and our solutions and change entities need to have long time horizons.
- Leadership dominated by a few powerful folks, the usual suspects, who are not able to bring together a diverse and strong network.