Post Oil Solutions at Five Years

Organizing a Community-Based Regional Food System

2010 No Gardener Left Behind event at the River Garden, Brattleboro
2010 No Gardener Left Behind event at the River Garden, Brattleboro

Written By

Tim Stevenson

Written on

September 01 , 2010

A strong regional food system—one in which the people of a region are participating in their own food production in both sustaining and sustainable ways—is community based. As much as this system grows food, it grows people, encouraging relationships of collaboration and mutual aid, respect and care. No longer at war with nature and each other, unburdened by that ancient power relationship of us over them, and having given up the self-destructive effort to control life, people actively work with life in a community-based food system. In this way, they practice “relational agriculture,” building the social fabric that leads to a truly sustainable food system for all.

In order to build this necessary social infrastructure, however, we must be empowered to take charge of our diet. We must increasingly remove ourselves from the dangerous dependency we currently have on a government-subsidized, industrially run, petroleum-based, profit-driven food system that provides our sustenance through cellophane-wrapped packages that magically appear on grocery chain shelves from who knows where. But the removal of ourselves from this system necessitates that we accept responsibility for feeding ourselves, growing our own food, practicing root cellaring and putting food by, extending the growing season, and sharing resources and labor as neighbors, while at the same time supporting our local and regional farmers through CSAs, farmers’ markets, and farm stands.

Post Oil Solutions, a citizens’ group serving southeastern Vermont, was founded in 2005 to assist and empower people in their efforts to re-localize. During the past five years, the group has launched a number of high-impact projects related to local food. The core organizing group of a dozen citizens, our AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers, and the countless number of local residents who have worked on individual Post Oil projects from Brattleboro to Bellows Falls are truly building a regional food system that has the potential to sustain people, animals, and land seven generations from now.

The Three Rs:

Re-localization, Resiliency, and Redundancy

As its name suggests, Post Oil Solutions is informed by a vision in which we recognize both the end of our petroleum-fueled civilization and the need to transition to the new world we’ve already entered. In this way, we are part of a larger movement, both in Vermont and elsewhere, that believes this transition can only be successfully accomplished through re-localization. The process of re-localization happens when communities increasingly come together in collaborative ways to meet their needs around food, energy, transportation, education, the local economy, wellness and health care, and everything else in our lives that is now dependent upon black gold.

Post Oil Solutions’ initial efforts were aimed at helping people re-localize around food: organizing community gardens, a winter farmers’ market in Brattleboro, CSAs, an Eat More Local pledge campaign, workshops on how to eat out of a garden 12 months of the year. We largely concentrated our efforts on food because it is second only to water in maintaining life, yet our present food system is based entirely upon fossil fuels, from seed to plate. By focusing on food, we were also working with what, in community organizing, is known as a felt need. We found that food was the issue that many people were responsive to, and one they could be organized around. There are a variety of ways to hold conversations about food and the need to re-localize its production. You couldn’t invent a better community-organizing opportunity!

Our successful food-organizing efforts were more spontaneous than strategic during the first two years. This was not entirely a problem, of course. As a community-organizing project that recognizes the importance of people acting on their lives, and doing so in concert with one another, we pushed for a more action/less talk approach. Getting people moving, helping them to follow through on their good ideas, tackling the low-hanging fruit, holding meetings in which people talked about what they were doing and what they’d accomplished, and building on modest, albeit important, successes—these were essential steps in moving Post Oil to the next level in its efforts to build a community-based regional food system.

After two years, however, we began to recognize the need for more strategic thinking. It had become apparent that if we were to be a people who could feed ourselves, we would need to have a system that was not only re-localized, but resilient and redundant. Since we fully expect the post-oil transition to be a rocky one, full of unexpected events along the way that could suddenly disrupt systems—including those that we presently depend upon for our food—we realized that we needed our food system in southeastern Vermont to be highly decentralized, consisting of overlapping, redundant components, any one of which would be able to replace or fill in for another if it were suddenly not available. This, in turn, would make our food system resilient.

This understanding led to the birth of our Regional Food Sustainability Campaign in the summer of 2007. It consists of five areas that we’ve identified as essential to a viable community-based food system: infrastructure (as reflected in the plans for the Great Falls Food Hub in Bellows Falls); home gardening (Post Oil has hosted a number of instructional gardening workshops); acquiring land for farming (we are exploring the idea of creating an incubator farm); access to local food for all (see next paragraph); and the kind of re-localizing projects that Post Oil started out doing and continues to do (see postoilsolutions.org for more info). The common thread that links all of these efforts is the Three Rs, with no one component viewed as more important than any other.

One of the most dynamic projects in the campaign, the Community Food Security Project (CFSP), was successfully launched when Post Oil successfully applied to AmeriCorps for VISTA volunteers to staff the project. With a mission to “increase the access of locally produced food for all people regardless of income,” the project was founded upon the growing understanding that the localvore movement was largely a white, middle class phenomenon, peopled by those of us whose income and race allow us to access local food. While in no way wishing to disparage or diminish the vital role that localvores have played in building a community-based food movement, the CFSP sought to serve people in our society who are often excluded from local food because of race and class. We realized that until this issue was addressed, it rendered moot the realization of both community and sustainability.

Post Oil has been on a learning curve here (see Angela and Richard Berkfield’s “Getting Everyone to the Table,” Local Banquet, Fall 2009) but the project has made our efforts at developing a true community-based food system more of a reality. By developing the CSA Market Basket program at a low-income housing unit in Brattleboro, expanding the Farm to School program in the area, conducting a Rapid Community Food Assessment, initiating a gleaning project, starting school gardens, and doing container garden workshops and cooking classes in low-income communities, the CFSP has been instrumental in teaching Post Oil members what we’ve needed to learn most of all: how to go beyond ourselves and listen to people so that we engage with them effectively. After all, the bane of human existence—ego—is something we’re all afflicted with and need to be as mindful of as we can. This is a lesson that is basic to successful community organizing but one that we must learn over and over again.

Community Organizing

Although Post Oil initiates projects, we don’t own them. The CFSP’s Market Basket program was started at the Westgate community in 2009, but people from that community are in charge of it today. The Great Falls Food Hub Interim Working Committee runs its own show now, not the Post Oil organizers who began it.

We also choose to collaborate, rather than compete, with others. We were only too happy to be invited to be part of the very successful Brattleboro Farm-to-School program, with whom we co-sponsored a terrific farm-to-school conference this past spring. In addition, we are working with Transition Town Putney to develop a pilot neighborhood greenhouse project (seven neighborhoods have expressed interest in having a shared a greenhouse). We’ve also partnered with the Vermont Foodbank around a gleaning effort, and with the UVM Master Gardeners program through our 9 x 12 garden workshops.

In a time of great urgency—“the long emergency,” as author James Howard Kunstler refers to the age of the end of oil—when we believe that what we’re doing today to address issues of sustainability should have been done yesterday, there is a tendency to devalue anything (or anyone) who is not moving forward with the alacrity we deem necessary. But while community organizing recognizes the virtue of action, there is also wisdom in the advice that, at times, we should not just do something, we should just stand there. Part of the art of community organizing is listening, observing, and learning, so that we can understand where people are at and what they want done. In this way we build relationships of integrity—and strong regional food systems, too.

Photo by Sherry Maher

About the Author

Tim Stevenson

Tim Stevenson

Tim Stevenson is a community organizer and one of the co-founders of Post Oil Solutions. He lives with his wife, Sherry Maher, in Athens, where they collaborate with their neighbors to raise chickens and to eat out of their gardens 12 months of the year.

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