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UPDATE: Food First and the U.S. Food & Farm Movement (Part 1: August 3, 2020)

This is an unofficial update on Food First, a U.S. food & farm non-profit going through some organizational stress, publicly and, as is common in these situations, uncomfortably. The context of my update is how the events at Food First relate to and symbolize problems of the larger U.S. food & farm movement and the U.S. as a whole. In general, I believe that Food First’s problems should be viewed as rooted in and caused by older, deeper, more systemic disfunctions.

To be clear, this is not a detailed review of internal operations or day-to-day events at Food First. I personally have no inside information about the organization and I have not done any research along those lines. My information derives solely from the public sphere—the tip of the iceberg, if you will: food & farm listservs, Food First website, interactions with food & farm colleagues including group emails and one-on-one emails. and emails from Food First leadership.  My analysis derives from life experience (the tip of the iceberg is, after all, just the tip) and 15 years participating and observing the U.S. food & farm movement at all levels: hyper-local Evanston, IL, metro Chicago, state of Illinois, Midwest region, and national.

Moreover, I have no previous or current connection to the organization. In fact, I don’t know that much about Food First or the people associated with it. Whatever interactions I’ve had with Food First staff or board members over the years has been through various listservs (mostly COMFOOD and WFAN—Women, Food, and Agriculture Network). Just recently I provided some volunteer consultation to Franke (Francis Moore Lappe, co-founder of Food First). My consultation was not about Food First, nor does Franke seem to have any formal involvement with the organization at this time. I do know that Food First has been around a long time (45 years) and is generally well respected in the food & farm movement.

My reasons for posting these updates are fourfold:
—Public need to know re food & farm system, non-profits, policy organizations, names of players, and public policy in general.
—Case studies provide high-impact learning for people and organizations in similar situations. 
— Suggested action steps
—Archiving my personal contributions to the U.S. food & farm movement: Seeing as my future is getting more uncertain (age, possible homelessness, death ?), I seem to be in a “wrap-it-up, put it down on paper” mode.

Part 2 will be posted in the next few days. It will begin with Food First’s plans to do some listening sessions in the next few weeks. For information on these listening sessions, see their July 31, 2020 announcement:
The Reports of Food First’s Destruction are Greatly Exaggerated .

Part 2 will also include my thoughts on the problem with “personnel” matters, as well as any additional information and analysis that may develop.

This post was originally sent to four listservs serving the U.S. food & farm movement:
–COMFOOD (Tufts University) the oldest and largest all-purpose food system listserv
–Food Policy Networks (FPN, Johns Hopkins University) serves and supports food policy councils (FPCs)
-North American Food Systems Network (Cornell University) professional development for food system folks
–Regeneration Midwest (Organic Consumers Assn.) serves a 12-state coalition supporting regenerative agriculture and local food economies

CONTENTS of Part 1
PROLOGUE: The Great Recession, the Great Confluence
FOOD FIRST IN AUGUST 2020: How did we get here?
–My July 3, 2020 email to Food First & supporters
–Personal Anecdote: Governance blindspots in U.S. food & farm folks (from Illinois Food, Farms & Jobs Act task force 2008-09)

PROLOGUE: The Great Recession, the Great Confluence

I would like to file my update under the much-quoted category these days: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” I suspect that the stresses at Food First are directly related to, in fact a somewhat different version of the stresses of 2007 when Fair Food Foundation collapsed, two weeks after Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme collapsed. I believe Fair Food Foundation was 95% funded by Madoff money. The reverberations of FFF’s closing were felt nationally, especially in the Midwest, where I was just getting to know food & farm folks at the state (Illinois) and regional level, but didn’t fully understand the non-profit funding world.

Of course, the Madoff collapse was just the beginning of the larger “Great Recession” of 2008-09 (a useless establishment label that doesn’t describe the reality of chronic corruption embedded in our political economy). I believe the dissolution of the Community Food Security Coalition almost exactly 8 years ago (Aug. 6, 2012, according to Wikipedia) was also collateral damage from the Great Recession (although I think there were also some good reasons for such a big organization to disband). 

In fact, one could easily argue that the 2020 implosion of Food First (which, we now know, started at least five years ago, in 2015) is just a continuation of the Great Recession. A more complete explanation for our current collective stresses might be called the Great Confluence (of existential crises):  climate crisis, financial crisis, COVID pandemic, political crisis, and spiritual crisis.  

FOOD FIRST IN AUGUST 2020: How did we get here?

This update is the first in a series documenting both my observations of Food First’s difficulties and my interactions with Food First leadership and supporters in the context of movement-wide difficulties.

June 25, 2020
So far as I know, Food First’s difficulties first went public on June 25, 2020, when Hugh Joseph (moderator of the COMFOOD listserv) posted Jahi Chappell’s resignation letter (after 10 months as Food First Executive Director), along with a letter from board member Michael Dorsey.  Both letters charged internal racism, in addition to some other improprieties mentioned in Jahi’s letter. 

b. FPN, NAFSN, Regeneration Midwest
Later that day, I reposted Hugh’s email to three other food & farm listservs (Food Policy Networks, North American Food Systems Network, and Regeneration Midwest).  I had been drafting a blog about truth commissions and the Food First dust-up seemed to be a synchronistic moment in which to introduce the idea to the U.S. food & farm movement. I introduced the idea with this comment:

“In response to the letter that was just posted on COMFOOD (Racism & The Food Movement — The Destruction of Food First, forwarded by Hugh Joseph, the listserv manager), it looks like food & farm folks are going to be having a long overdue conversation—not just about racism, but about sexism, systemic problems with non-profit organizations, turf wars, elites vs. grassroots, democratic decision-making, etc.”

c. Food First
I later learned that Food First had also posted an announcement on its website. 
Leadership Update: A Message from the Food First Board of Directors

July 1, 2020
I received an email from Food First with the subject line: “Responding to your concerns.”  The email was addressed to 35 “Friends and Supporters”, all of whom (evidently) had expressed some kind of “concern” about Food First—privately or, in my case, publicly.  Of the 34 others on the email chain, I recognized 7 names.

The contents of the brief email included:
—disclaimer about addressing “personnel matters”
—plans for future “opportunities to exchange and…listen”
Attached were two long personal statements by Board president Joyce E. King and Interim Executive Director Hank Herrera. The substance of both statements described their respective qualifications for being anti-racist.

July 2-5, 2020
Over the course of the next few days, in response to Hank and Joyce’s email, numerous people on this email chain replied, some with comments, some with just a request to be taken off Food First’s “mailing list”.

July 3, 2020
As I began to understand from the replies that there really were governance problems at Food First (and that Food First’s initial reaction was to be extremely defensive), I added my own 2 cents, focusing primarily on democratic governance. My interest remains the larger U.S. food & farm movement—including a reminder of our collective responsibility to keep the larger movement and the general public updated, as much as possible. See my email below.


Here is my entire July 3, 2020 email, sent to 29 of the original 34 (since 5 had asked to be removed from additional mailings). I also included Hugh Joseph on my email. (Since not all people on this email chain may agree with me about being “public”, I have used initials instead of full names for those who are not already public players in this drama. For discussion of being “public” and other personnel matters, see Part 2 of this update–forthcoming.)

From: Debbie Hillman
Subject: Re: Food First: Responding to your concerns
Date: July 3, 2020 at 6:49:47 PM CDT
To: Food First, Hugh Joseph, and 29 others

Hi, all —

Thanks for everyone’s thoughts and comments about the “internal” crisis at Food First. As I made clear in my initial response over COMFOOD (June 25, 2020), I believe Food First’s crisis is symptomatic of a larger crisis in the U.S. food & farm world, in the U.S. non-profit world, and in U.S. culture as a whole—all of which are being exposed through current world events. As AS described and as I often note in my observations, this is a crisis of “governance issues”, particularly democratic governance issues.

Thanks to Joyce and Hank for responding privately to 35 of us, some of whom I recognize as long-time U.S. food & farm colleagues. Most of you I do not know, but presume that we share a variety of food & farm concerns, as well as governance ones. (I have removed the 5 people who asked to be removed.)

I would like to offer my 2 cents as to the apparent current status of the Food First crisis. My particular concern is keeping the general public informed as represented by the food & farm listservs who know that something serious is going on but are not being kept apprised of (a) how it is being handled, (b) what really is going on, (c) how this might impact the larger U.S. food & farm community, etc. My thoughts:

1. Letter from Rosalinda Guillen
MA mentioned a letter from Rosalinda Guillen that contained demands that she (MA) “fully” supports. I have not seen that letter. It sounds important and valuable. It would be especially helpful for having a unified conversation. Evidently numerous other private group conversations have been going on about Food First, which only adds to the general confusion and stress. Perhaps someone could forward Ms. Guillen’s letter.

2. Public update?
a. It would be good if Hugh Joseph, moderator of the COMFOOD listserv, would provide an update on his original posting (June 25, Racism & The Food Movement—The Destruction of Food First), which was the first public notice that something was going on at Food First. I am copying Hugh on this email.

b. If Hugh posts an update on COMFOOD, I will be happy to forward it to the three other food & farm listservs to which I posted his email (along with my own take on the crisis plus an announcement of a new bill in Congress addressing the need for a national public conversation on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation).

c. If Hugh does not have time to write an update to COMFOOD, I would be happy to write my own and send it to the 3 other listservs (with the obvious caveat that I don’t know all the facts, which is why it would be wise for Food First to communicate directly to the listservs.).

5. AS’s summary
It sounds like AS’s summary of the crisis is accurate and I thank her for describing the problem and solution so concisely. To repeat, “governance issues” are at the center of our collective and interlocking crises. The term that I usually use for this pattern of organizational ignorance, bias, secrecy, and power grabbing is “democracy issues”. AS also describes it that way: “I now do very much doubt the board’s commitment to transparent, democratic functioning of an organization that embodies 45 years of movement work.”

6. Blindspots re governance: Food & farm organizations
Since Joyce and Hank’s initial response suggests that there are organizational blindspots re governance (democracy), perhaps an anecdote from another food & farm initiative might help. This is from my personal experience as a member and co-coordinator of a public task force responsible for draft and food & farm plan. My anecdote from the Illinois Food, Farms, and Jobs Act task force (2008-09) is described at the bottom of this email.

My takeaway from my personal experience, as well as confirmation from countless anecdotes from other food & farm projects (including now Food First) is that food & farm organizations need to:
—hire people with democracy experience and commitment
—appoint board members with democracy experience and commitment
—hire trained meeting facilitators
—foster real cultures of real democracy
—teach food & farm policy folks about the legislative pipeline (Congress, state level, county, etc.)
—have a way of checking the integrity of prospective organizational members

7. Legal action
If anyone thinks that AF’s suggestion (“If FF has broken its bylaws or articles of incorporation, a complaint can be filed with the Calif attorney general who will investigate.”) is overkill among friends, I invite them to 
—start observing U.S. governance
—read a classic organizational essay, The Tyranny of Structurelessness, by a leader of the second wave U.S. feminist movement, Jo Freeman (now an elder and still going strong).

8. Centering Dr. Chappell
I thank BF for her reminder to be thinking of Jahi Chappell at this moment. I do not know him personally but his resignation letter made it sound like a really uncomfortable 10 months. I am sorry that he had to go through such a toxic combination of gaslighting, violating his authority as Exec. Director, etc. 

I hope this helps to get us all on the same page. I certainly don’t have all the pieces so I look forward to additional input.

I also realize that not everyone on this email chain is based in the U.S., which is the framework for my work. But I would guess that most people on this email chain would support U.S. food & farm folks getting our acts together re equity, respect, etc. The good news is that in the last year, there have been at least 4 active proposals for a U.S. version of “truth commission”—three of them just in the last few months. We’re getting closer.

Feel free to share my comments with anyone else who is interested in good governance. Period.
— Debbie

Governance blindspots in U.S. food & farm folks
Illinois Food, Farms & Jobs Act task force (2008-09)
by Debbie Hillman

The Illinois Food, Farms & Jobs Act of 2007 empaneled a 35-member task force to—draft a food & farm plan for the State of Illinois—write a report in support of that plan

I was a member of that task force and during the first task force meeting was voted to be one of the two co-coordinators—i.e., paid staff. Although there was no money in the authorizing legislation (which made it easy to get a unanimous vote!), the task force voted to seek funding from local foundations to pay me and my fellow coordinator. This gave me some peace of mind because I was working 24/7 on the task force and needed some income.

A number of task force members volunteered to do the funding search, including the chairperson of our task force, a dean at Illinois’s land grant university and himself a local food farmer. I was not involved with all the funding nuts & bolts —who to contact, how much to ask for, etc.—but after a few meetings it became apparent that the chairman was not following up on his promises. We two coordinators tried to push the envelope behind the scenes, but the entire task force was such a delicate operation on so many fronts that I didn’t feel that I could push very hard. In addition, I believed that everyone on our task force would operate in good faith and follow through on their promises.

Unfortunately, this was not the case with the chairman, but I did not understand until much later how little integrity he had.

About 6 months into our process (one-fourth of our allotted 2 years), we were at our monthly meeting in the Illinois Department of Agriculture headquarters in Springfield. We were discussing the principles and values of our task force, which would then be embodied in our report and hopefully into our local food system. The principles are listed and described on page 17 of our report, Local Food, Farms, and Jobs: Growing the Illinois Economy.

Two of the principles seemed particularly applicable to the issue of keeping promises, respecting colleagues, as well as fostering social equity among members of the Illinois food system: (1) Fairness and Justice, and (2) Responsibility.

As I sat listening to the discussion and listening to our chairperson wax poetic and inspirational about our collective values, I became more and more agitated because behind the scenes something totally different was going on. I was running out of funds because he had missed a deadline for a local foundation’s grant. We had been assured that we would certainly have received the grant, but now it was too late.

When I brought up the discrepancy between our statement of values and the chairman’s actual behavior, it made for an uncomfortable public moment. But we received no apology, promise of restitution, or attempted restitution.

Other actions by the chairman confirmed that he had no interest in good governance (democracy) and no real skills at setting an agenda, following an agenda, or working as a team. He went on to violate major task force decisions (trying to draft his own version of the report even though we had a Writing Committee of which he was a member) and embarrassing me twice in front of my state legislator. (It was my state legislator who was the chief sponsor of the Illinois Food, Farms, and Jobs Acts.) Our chairman made promises to my legislator about getting her some last minute information regarding (a) the structure of the permanent food council, and (b) drafting a companion bill to authorize Univ. of Illinois Extension to expand their “local foods” programming. Both times he never sent the information nor communicated to her about the lapsed promises. The Extension bill, especially, would have been a great addition to our “local foods” policy toolkit in Illinois.

Luckily, our task force was a temporary one. Although there was certainly some fallout from our chairman’s behavior (and my inexperience in dealing with things in a more timely fashion), a 45-year old organization (like Food First) was not at stake.

What was most disappointing about this experience is that the task force was operating under the auspices of the State of Illinois. One would have thought that people advocating for food & farm justice would have had some understanding and commitment to good public process. The chairman was not the only task force member who lacked both. Luckily, there were a good number of task force members who prioritized democratic processes.

To repeat, my takeaway from this personal experience, confirmed by countless anecdotes from other food & farm projects (including now Food First) is that food & farm organizations need to:
—hire people with democracy experience and commitment
—appoint board members with democracy experience and commitment
—hire trained meeting facilitators for board meetings and other major meetings
—foster real cultures of real democracy
—teach food & farm policy folks about the legislative pipeline (Congress, state level, county, etc.)
—have a way of checking the integrity of prospective organizational members

—END of Personal Anecdote, end of July 3 email, and end of Part 1–