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What happens at a Local Food “Lab”

I put “Lab” in quotes because I just learned that the term Local Food Lab is Trademarked. I’ve used it for a year and a half so I’m perplexed about how to migrate to a new name when the old term is dispersed through the web. At the end of this post in blue are alternative names (please vote on your favorites) so for now I’ll refer to it as the Food Lab.

This post outlines the key elements to this form of eater/producer/middle folk engagement to strengthen their local food systems.

I first designed the Food Lab in collaboration with Brazilian global sustainability leader, Thais Corral. She has dedicated her 160 acre Atlantic Rainforest retreat center, SINAL, to resilience and local food. We hosted a 3 day workshop in April 2013 with entrepreneurs, designers, government officials, creative artists and more to investigate how we in our personal lives and social roles might participate more in local food resilience. Of course, it being Brazil, there was a lot of laughing and music and fun. Being the tropics it was not so hard to find an abundance of local food (everything we ate came from a 30-mile radius). Being a bunch of very committed people, our work yielded not just projects but an understanding of how a Food Lab can work.

A beautiful report can be found here, including an infographic at the end that communicates the process. I’ve delivered versions of this Lab in Canada, Oregon and Washington in the last year, refining the basic structure. Here are the key elements:

Preparation elements:

1. A host team: Two or more local organizations committed to strengthening the local food economy, an alliance that can persist beyond an event to re-convene key players, facilitate cooperation, keep the process alive.

2. Design/Facilitation Team: People fluent in a variety of facilitation modalities from which to craft the event, which for me includes: World Cafe, Conversation Cafe, Circle, Open Space, ToP (Technology of Participation), Dynamic Facilitation and Non-Violent Communication. In effect, the Host team engages the Design/Facilitation team as consultants (even if they are the same people!)

3. Food Team: Defines a circle for sourcing the food (10 mile, 100 mile, county, state) and/or local chefs/food businesses and provides local food for the event.

4. The space: a community space or retreat center with food service capacity and moveable chairs – a place that can hold a public event plus can allow Lab participants to move chairs into small groups.

5. A compelling invitation: a letter/email/poster that will attract everyone who cares about food and the local food system to “the table” (example below) which is distributed to all key food system players and the general public.

6. Minimally a full day, ideally 1.5-3 days to run the lab

7. Experts on Tap, not on Top: coaches, bankers, investors, business advisors, legislators/policy experts, etc. present and available to help groups think concretely about their ideas and plans.

8. Local food storytellers: People who can briefly talk about innovations and institutions already active in the community.

Lab elements:

Module One: Celebration and Education (can be open to general public)

  1. Celebration of what’s working
    1. Presentations by those who are already building the local food economy: farmers, food outlets, non-profit, for profit, agencies, citizen groups, inspiring experts from nearby communities.
    2. Additional celebrations from community members present.
  2. Asset mapping: Either prior research or by posting flip chart sheets around the room labeled: farms, farmers markets, restaurants, grocers, organizations, agencies, spark-plugs (individual catalysts)
  3. Presentation on “What is a food system? Who are the change agents in a food system? Why change is needed?”
  4. Visioning exercise using the best method for situation (guided visualization, popcorn, small group, ToP workshop) to feed the imagination of what’s possible in a spirit of “Wouldn’t it be cool if …”

 

Module Two: Gaps and Opportunities

  1. Lecture on “Gaps as Opportunities” – etiquette and attitudes that help groups consider what’s missing outside of posturing, complaint, argument.
  2. A key open-ended question that is both the call to the lab and the beginning focus of this discussion of gaps and opportunities. One example: “How might food be an engine of prosperity for our community?” Another example: “How might more locally sourced food be served at tables – large and small – in our community?” Another example: “How might we (farmers) expand our markets and profits in our community?”
  3. Facilitated group discussion that can draw out what is already on the community’s mind, the questions, the experience, the good ideas, the crazy ideas, the inklings, the information, the doubts so that everything already known or felt can be on the table without being in conflict. I find that Dynamic Facilitation (a whole group process run by a skilled facilitator that allows all points of view to be present and the group to enter the realm of creativity) to be a powerful tool, but other processes can work towards the result needed.
  4. Visual Representation of core ideas:
    1. Graphic facilitation
    2. Post-it and grouping exercise

 

Module Three: Nuts and Bolts

  1. Lecturette on the shift from divergence (lots of ideas, lots of space) to convergence (down to the nuts and bolts of what, who, where, how and by when). Depending on time, the conversations might just gather the first “who”, and refine the first “what”. Or they might get to “how” and “by when.” At very least potential projects are discussed and a group for further inquiry formed.
  2. Techniques might be
    1. Open Space
    2. Facilitator/host determines which are the most crucial conversations
    3. Brief presentations from people with projects already up and running
    4. Red dot exercise: identify from the Gaps and Opportunities session the most compelling ideas for further discussion by giving each participant 3 “red dots/post-its” to vote with.
  3. “experts on tap but not on top” introduced and at the ready.

 

Module Four: Completion, Celebrations and Commitments

Wrap up, next steps, gratitude’s, clean up. Declaring one’s new or renewed commitments to a group that can support you and/or hold you accountable is a powerful way to anchor good intentions in the hub bub of daily life. Expressing gratitude is a wonderful way for a community to feel and stay connected. We all want to be seen, heard and appreciated.

Other elements depending on length of lab

  1. eating, hopefully food totally sourced regionally
  2. socializing, walks and talks, napping, meditation, yoga, watching videos, improv games

 

What results can a community expect from a Food Lab?

  • Understanding of the state of the local food system: A Food Lab allows people to discover what is actually happening in a food system – the successes, the gaps, the opportunities, the barriers, the solutions – so they can form alliances, start projects or target their work more accurately. Even people and organizations with obviously shared agendas and purposes rarely convene, reflect, create and collaborate. If they do, they at best simply report on their work, often revealing only the good side, but not the challenges. Each participant has access to a fairly complete picture of what is already up and running, working, in trouble but worthy.
  • Market analysis for people who are scanning for opportunities are often oblivious of who else sees what they see, cares about what they care about and wants to do similar things. Or people launch businesses at the same time, unaware of “the competition.”
  • Courage: In the absence of partnerships or even educated encouragement, many ideas die on the drawing board.
  • Answers to “How can I change? How can I help?” Eaters want to make a difference often don’t know where to begin. They will meet like-minded people and learn about organizations with volunteer opportunities.
  • Projects: Beyond this collaborative space, a Food Lab will generate a few new “low hanging fruit” ideas/projects/businesses that will move the local food economy towards greater resilience – start the infill of the elements lost to the industrial efficiencies and logistical prowess.
  • Education: The Lab will also serve to educate the community on the benefits of local food, the need for food system work and the possibility of food as an engine of rural and regional economic development. It’s like rebuilding degraded city lots or neighborhoods or an old homestead… little by little, piece by piece, the life returns.

The Food Lab is a work in progress. I (Vicki Robin) am a passionate advocate for action research on issues of common concern through focused, facilitated community workshops that happen in a context of ongoing commitment to change. Because I care deeply about local food, the Food Lab is my way of contributing – in addition to public speaking, comedy and writing (Blessing the Hands that Feed Us).

A sample invitation:

Imagine a beautiful, vibrant Clinton. Sound improbable? Maybe not. Read on.

As a follow on to the Clinton Future Search Conference 2 years ago, you are invited to join a diverse group of South Whidbey eaters, chefs, business owners, non-profit and institutional leaders, and grocers May 5 (evening) and 6 (9:30-4:00) for the first Clinton Community Food Lab. Together we will explore how food might be an engine of prosperity for Clinton. We will also have a few special guests from off-island, and local author Vicki Robin will be the keynote speaker.

What is a Food Lab?

A Community Food Lab is a structured sequence of group conversations and exercises that create a current map of local strengths, gaps and opportunities in our local food system. Together, we explore:

• what’s working,

• what’s missing,

• what’s ultimately possible,

• what’s currently feasible and

• what’s next – for farmers and processors, other businesses, alliances, service organizations, funding sources, policy makers…and the all-important consumers.

Your ideas, experience and love for our Whidbey Community will make a real difference. It’s time for us to stop depending on food from afar for over 90% of our diet; it’s time for us to reclaim our local food system – once vibrant and vibrant again in the future.

Why in Clinton, why now?

Building on success from the Future Search Conference:

We learned a great deal about our community at the Clinton Future Search Conference, in January 2012. And we have made great strides since then:

• The Clinton Thursday Market is preparing for its third season at our new location – The Clinton Community Hall

• The Clinton Community Council is actively working with the County and State on many issues of concern to us (e.g., clearing brush and trenching on the walkway up from the ferry)

• And we are in the process of building new websites for the Market, the Council and the Progressive Association.

Now it’s time to focus the question and see if food can be one of the keys to building a thriving Clinton.

Continuing to foster Economic Development:

It’s easy these days, with more shuttered businesses, to think of Clinton as a dying town, cut in two by a river of cars heading up island. An alternative is to see those empty storefronts as a canvas on which we’ll paint a new picture. As we all approach this process with an attitude of discovery, putting aside our negative assumptions, more opportunities and ideas are revealed.

The Community Food Lab team (Carol Flax, Sherryl Christie-Biershenk and Vicki Robin), the Clinton “Local Eats” Opportunity team (CLEO) (Sarah Boin, George Henny, Tara Long and Angi Mozer), are collaborating, along with the Clinton Thursday Market – and inviting other co-sponsors so we have a strong foundation as we take the next step on our journey to a beautiful, thriving Clinton.

Even if you don’t live or work in Clinton, this is an important discussion about food security for all of us here on Whidbey.

May 5 is a free event for anyone on South Whidbey Island who cares about food, farming, eating and a thriving local economy.

May 6 is for people who want to be the new entrepreneurs, committed change makers and in any way active builders of a thriving local food economy from Clinton on up the Island.

Monday evening we’ll hear from local leaders about what’s happening, map the food resources we have and dream together about what could be. No need to register. Free, with donations welcome. (Feel free to bring a dessert to share).

Tuesday will be a face-paced, facilitated workshop with the intention of seeing the gaps in our food system as opportunities for new businesses and projects, and then helping people and groups with budding ideas to concretize their projects and identify next steps.

 

The Name Game:

What shall we now call the Food Lab? Contenders are:

Community Food Lab
Local Food Collaboratory
Local Food Convening
Local Food Confab
Local Food CoLab
(your idea here)

Tomatoes teaser image via chiefmoamba/flickr. Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Whidbey Island Farmers Market image via The Homes and Lanes of Whidbey Island by Linda Casale

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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