When Roots of Change began in 2002, the food system was like a train off the tracks going full speed ahead. Agricultural pollution had degraded soil, water and air at unprecedented rates. Many saw farmworkers as cogs in a machine and tolerated indignities and exploitations. Increasing concentration of production systems drained jobs and wealth from rural communities. Most everyone sought processed, convenient and cheap food, and they were getting sicker because it was not nutritious. The vast majority of urban people were completely disconnected, uninterested and apathetic about food and agriculture. The crisis in the food system, the core system upon which civilization rests, was not perceived.
Although easily projected onto so-called Big Ag, mean labor contractors, lazy or corrupt bureaucrats, and dumb consumers, the real enemy resided in our collective thinking about food and agriculture — we were the problem. Modern society believed food production needed to be industrial and food was simply fuel. Our universities, governments and industry captains were teaching farmers to become factory managers: big, mechanized, fossil fuel and chemically dependent. They encouraged shoppers to seek the lowest cost food. They preached this in the belief that an endless supply of cheap calories was the ultimate success. In the aftermath of the great depression and World War II, perhaps that was okay for a brief time; but by the latter part of the 20th Century, the impact of unintended consequences could no longer be ignored.
Some visionaries had seen the problem for decades and an organic farming and alternative food system had begun to emerge, but these alternatives could not scale up. They remained on the margins, portrayed as fringe thinking, as impractical approaches. A few philanthropies had for twenty years made continuous and growing investments to spur expansion, but realized the tide was not turning. Thus, a small group of funders led by the Columbia, Clarence E. Heller Charitable and W.K. Kellogg foundations commissioned a report, published in late 2001, titled Roots of Change: Agriculture, Ecology and Health in California. Based on this report, a small group set out to rally others to help turn back the tide.
They formed the Roots of Change (ROC) Council in 2002 to be a catalyzing force, populated by a group of thought leaders who could agree on a plan of action, and whose gravitas would be strategically decisive in shifting the State’s goals related to food and agriculture. The core concept was to instill systems thinking and new values and principles into production and distribution practices, government policies and business models. The Council was composed of a diverse set of perspectives. Top policymakers, innovative farmers, bold business minds, holistic-thinking academics, and social justice advocates dialogued with dedicated philanthropists to conceive what might be done.
The Council forged a vision, entitled The New Mainstream: A Sustainable Food Agenda for California, in 2005 and empowered a small staff in 2006. This small group set out together to alter the context by changing thinking and coordinating collaboration among interested organizations and communities up and down the state. ROC recognized that farmers were not the core problem, but a vital part of the solution, and businesses off the farm and policymakers at the local, state and federal level had to be engaged. The key was to create a framework for systemic thinking and action to scale up the impact of the ROC Council by replicating its work in every cell of the body politic. From 2007 until 2011, ROC worked to build a vast leadership network with the ideas and power to make change. The approach has paid off (click to see the detailed timeline).
Today, we see a fundamental shift in momentum. The strategic thinking, catalytic stakeholder meetings, and millions in private and public investments, caused by ROC – along with the work of many people and institutions in the food movement – have fundamentally altered the context:
- According to former Secretary of Food and Agriculture in California, Richard Rominger, because of ROC, for the first time California has a strategic vision to guide development of food and farming in our state. Two cabinet secretaries through two administrations (one Republican and one Democrat) have adopted the California Ag Vision and its recommendations to guide their work.
- ROC’s Urban-Rural Roundtable initiatives helped three of the state’s largest cities to develop comprehensive sustainable food policies. Some highlights: San Francisco established groundbreaking urban agriculture policies that have impacted the entire state and nation. Los Angeles created the most progressive public purchasing policy in the nation that favors healthy, sustainable, just and local foods.
- Over thirty cities or counties now have local stakeholder groups composed of powerful environmental, food access, nutrition, and social justice advocates, as well as health, and agriculture officials and farmers. They are working together to build regional food systems.
- Five of the state’s largest crops: wine grapes, almonds, walnuts, rice and dairy have created ground breaking programs to promote and measure their progress toward sustainability and many more crops are turning in the same direction.
- Inspired by grassroots innovators New Root and IRC in San Diego county, ROC founded with twelve allies the Market Match nutrition incentive program. As a result, more than 230 farmers markets across the state have been unified and empowered to increase access to fresh nutritious food to thousands of low-income families. This has generated millions more in revenue for nearly 1,000 small and mostly organic farmers.
- A new federal Farm Bill program, the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) program emerged because of ROC, Fair Food Network, Market Umbrella and Wholesome Wave. Working together we documented and evaluated the impacts of our various but related nutrition incentive programs for Congress. FINI provides $100 million dollars for nutrition incentive match dollars from 2015-2019.
- Thirty-five key leaders from progressive and conservative viewpoints have agreed on the realities underlying food system dysfunction and have devised a strategy for overcoming these challenges, which is captured in ROC’s groundbreaking systems dynamic map that pinpoints the key levers of change.
- Following engagement with ROC, hundreds of investors and the government have been motivated to pursue sustainable food and agriculture projects and millions of new dollars are beginning to flow into the space.
- Because of ROC, the nation’s first statewide food policy council formed from the grass roots is now active. The California Food Policy Council (CAFPC) unites 26 counties and cities and a dozen key organizations in a common cause to influence the Legislature and Governor around food and farming policy.
- The CAFPC publishes the nation’s first annual report on state legislation related to food and farming that critiques policymakers’ performance.
- Ninety thousand people, with more each day, follow ROC through the web to learn about food, farming and the actions they can take to transform the system.