Expanding Food Advocacy with the Food and Society Fellows Program

We are in the midst of dramatic changes in how we think and talk about food. An explosion of interest amongst groups and individuals new to food discussions is expanding the dialogue and broadening the concerns of the food movement. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s Food and Society Fellows Program is looking to be a catalyst for that change.

In the past there seemed to be two kinds of “foodies,” Mark Muller, Director of IATP’s Food and Society Fellows Program says. “The people working on the obstacles that face farmers and rural America were working in one movement, and the other was the consumer, chef/culinary movement.” The needs of people living in vulnerable communities and people of color were often missing in the conversation.

Muller sees this as a perfect time to get synergy between many interests pertaining to food across the country. “The food system needs to work for all of us. It’s important to be inclusive and embracing of many efforts that create an equitable and just food system across the board,” Muller says.

The Fellows program is in the process of recruiting for its next two-year class, most likely consisting of nine individuals. “The fellowship program is expanding its focus to place a higher priority on issues that impact low income communities and communities of color that are stuck with a food system that is failing them on so many levels,” Muller says.

“The relationship between the food system and health will continue to be a priority, especially at a time when obesity is impacting the health and well-being of our children, youth and families.” Muller points to the high levels of obesity related chronic disease that are showing up among this country’s school-aged children. “We are also looking for fellows who want to address a broad range of issues including breastfeeding, emergency feeding programs, farmworker rights, food deserts, economic development through food, and racial equity in the food movement,” Muller says. “We hope that the work of the nine fellows mirrors the expanded discourse on food, and includes innovative projects at the local level, national policy advocacy, and a variety of innovative communications.”

“We have already heard from amazing people doing really innovative work all over the country,” Muller says. “For every one of the star television chefs or bestselling food authors that you see, there are hundreds of hard working folks at the ground level making change in their communities. These pioneering approaches and ideas deserve more attention.”

“All Americans need to be able to see themselves in this discourse,” Muller says. “One way to open the dialogue is to begin to cultivate a culturally, ethnically and geographically diverse body of leaders in the food work.” As IATP continues to recruit  applicants (the deadline is January 18, 2011) for the new class, Muller says they are casting a wide net. “We continue to reach out to the farming community, but also want to do more outreach to people involved with food processing, schools, anti-hunger, food justice and public health.”

“The Food and Society Fellows have always been change agents,” Muller says. “We invest in individuals that have a vision and plan for bettering the food system. These fellowships aren’t about incremental change; we want big visions that have the potential to change how we grow, process, eat and think about food.”

Synergy is the key to making change. The Fellows Program is looking to bring about even more collaboration across issues and interests than ever before. Just recently, for example, Shalini Kantayya used her filmmaking skills to strengthen the corporate campaign that Sean Sellers was working on for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. And Deb Eschmeyer and Curt Ellis teamed up to launch a service program called FoodCorps that will bring service members into schools to help students grow and learn about healthy foods.

Thanks to the work of fellow Roger Doiron of Kitchen Gardeners International, the fellows were able to take a trip to the White House vegetable garden in September of 2009. Many months prior to the 2008 election, Doiron started a campaign to have the next President plant a kitchen garden on the White House lawn. He used Facebook to gather over 120,000 signatures of support, which contributed to First Lady Michelle Obama’s decision to plant a garden in the spring of 2009.

Muller cites successes from Bryant Terry’s nationwide book tour getting people thinking about healthy soul food, to Ann Cooper’s ground-breaking campaign as the “Renegade Lunch Lady” changing how we feed schoolchildren, to the food and nutrition resources that Nicole Betancourt provides young parents at Parentearth.com. “What I’ve learned is that there is no cookie cutter approach to success; fellows have found an incredible number of creative ways to change how we think about food.”

“This is part of the reason why we are really interested in a truly diverse cohort of fellows, working in different networks with different skill sets, backgrounds and communications techniques,” Muller says. “Amazing things can happen when a diverse group of individuals gets to know each other and strategize outside of their comfort zone.” He encourages other groups to start brainstorming and collaborating outside of their traditional networks. “A good conversation with a different crowd can really spark creative thinking,” Muller says.

If you are interested in becoming a fellow and have more questions, feel free to email Mark Muller at mmuller (at) iatp.org. You can apply for the IATP Fellows Program here.