The Central Appalachian Foodshed Conference: Peer-to-Peer Connections

In late September, the AFP hosted the Central Appalachian Foodshed Conference, in partnership with the Central Appalachian Network, the Appalachian Funders Network, and the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition. The conference was the result of a regional planning team effort, and made possible by a generous grant from the Virginia Cooperative Extension Community Viability endowment fund.

local wiki maps of organizations

The Appalachian Foodshed Project covers Western North Carolina, southwest Virginia, and West Virginia, but our partnerships for this event allowed us to expand the conversation to include practitioners, funders, academics, and policymakers from eastern Tennessee, eastern Kentucky, and southern Ohio.

The Conference aimed to create a space for peer-to-peer learning and engagement: Leadership in large-scale food system change efforts will come together with peers to:

  1. share what’s working, what’s being learned, the complexities of the work, and what we are still figuring out;
  2. engage in creative dialogue about how to aggregate and synthesize the most promising directions and strategies, with the recognition that the local context drives the work on the ground;
  3. explore the potential of an information-sharing platform for on-going regional alignment, collaboration, and movement building across political boundaries.

To this end, the conference was formatted as an open space, meaning that the participants were responsible for setting the agenda and bringing their content, knowledge, and experience to the conversations. The result was a rich dialogue that explored the complexities inherent to mature, food systems work. The lack of a hierarchical structure gave rise to the vase knowledge that is on the ground and working in Appalachia—and validated that this movement is in solid, creative, capable hands.

IMG_20150925_112916392The conference was also an opportunity to explore regional information sharing, and participants were introduced to LocalWiki as a digital platform for creating knowledge together. LocalWiki is an open access, open source platform that allows anyone to contribute to our knowledge base. It’s a bit like Wikipedia for places, with the ability to create connections across localities and organize information using a tagging system. We’re very excited about this project, and the possibilities for our work, so stay tuned for more information soon!screenshot localwiki

Key learning from the Conference included:

  • The need to create spaces to fail fast and frequently, and the means to reassess, respond, and retool. We experience many of the same issues and challenges across Central Appalachia.  As food systems work matures and deepens in our region, we need to be able to take risks, share results and failures openly, and learn together.  Funders need to fund experiments, practitioners need safe spaces to innovate, and everyone needs the opportunity to learn from what works and (especially) what doesn’t work.
  • Transparency is vital to support collaborative, innovative efforts to address complexity and create food systems change.  This requires a shift in culture and mindset, as well as development of technologies and tools that facilitate effective and transparent communication.
  • Food systems work in Central Appalachia is increasingly viewed as a tool for economic development. While this is a positive reflection on the work so far, the reality on the ground is complex and there are no silver bullets for impacting economically distressed and food insecure communities. The economic impacts of local food systems are deeply interconnected with the other impacts of a localized food system for the people of Appalachia, including health and wellness, culture, and food access. This will involve bringing in new partners, especially from the health sector.
  • We need focus on democratizing the work, by identifying barriers to participation and creating cultures of inclusion, especially with low resource communities.

You can download the full summary as a pdf.

It’s also available on LocalWiki, with links to notes and summaries from conference sessions.

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Nikki D’Adamo-Damery is the Deputy Director of the Appalachian Foodshed Project. She lives in Christiansburg, Virginia.