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Food Summit: A leap of faith in Fellowship Hall

Recently, I witnessed a minor modern miracle of sorts unfold in Fellowship Hall. I witnessed the passionate coalescence of community in the service of a fundamental human mission: Feeding our neighbors. I witnessed more than 70 good citizens transcending for a few hours their cultural, economic, and social differences, in the pursuit of sustaining the Cities.

The Feeding The Cities Food Summit was “born” last year following a WJBC interview with  the  ISU  Stevenson  Center’s Frank  Beck, whose  students  had  helped prepare a  report  on  the  Twin  Cities’ socioeconomic progress and challenges for my group, Not In Our Town:  Bloomington-Normal.  On the way to the parking lot, Frank and I pondered ways to proceed  based on the study’s analysis of local “food desert” conditions. I wondered if assembling the diverse and passionate leaders of our food “community” might help illuminate issues, fuel new ideas or better approaches, help match resources, and take things to the next level. Frank  thought it was worth exploring. 

So I explored, warily, tentatively. Then I connected with Julie Robinson, one of West  Bloomington’s more tireless champions and a fellow First  Christian member, and the next thing you know, by December,  I had grant funding from the Disciples Women, a community-focused arm of our church.  First Christian offered me a free venue, and  I could not turn back.

The marvelous student team that had created the Stevenson Center report volunteered to help me identify those in the community who could guide me toward what I had dubbed the  Feeding The Cities Food Summit. Their list became my initial e-mail invitees.

At the same time, while exploring the food desert phenomenon, I had met Raghela Scavuzzo,  local food programs manager with my former employer, Illinois Farm Bureau.  Raghela, a  former Alabama food hub manager, proved a rich source of insights and realities, and she  readily agreed to open the summit.  

The McLean County Wellness Coalition took an interest in the project, and generously invited  me to attend its food resources subcommittee meetings. I was blown away by the  dedication and expertise of so many in the Cities, but rather than worry I was attempting to reinvent a wheel, food community leaders pitched in, provided contacts and background, invited others to be a part of our experiment in networking and innovation. Other groups and  agencies, scholars, government officials, and health and social warriors reached out. 

Then, this summer, things took a great leap forw
ard. Laurie Bell and Arthur Haynes are  determined  advocates for the socioeconomic health of West Bloomington and its diverse and  frequently underserved families.  Over tacos at Rosy’s on Market, I described what I hoped to accomplish with the summit, and Laurie and Arthur shared their striking vision for the West  Market neighborhood where Rosy’s operates and where the remains of Pop’s Market haunts  the block. Laurie and Arthur, and the business owners who survive among the shuttered storefronts, see hope on West Market  –  hope for bringing fresh and nutritious food to the  block, hope for creating a flourishing commercial district that might rebuild the corridor  between the Market Street beltway and Downtown Bloomington. Nearly three hours later, the proposed new West Market Street Council was taking shape, and we began to plan how Feeding the Cities could serve as a launching pad for this economic  initiative.

Originally, I’d hoped for 30, perhaps 50 summit participants. Amid an enthusiastic Facebook  response, more than 70 citizens, experts, volunteers, and dreamers gathered at First Christian  on Sept. 25 to share and to imagine a greater, better fed Twin Cities and commune over food truck tacos in the parking lot. The resulting 24-page summit summary, released last week, offers a potential blueprint for breaking the barriers between hungry souls and healthier and sustaining food.

The day after the summit, one of our participants shared with me an innovative proposal to foster community food sustainability and neighborhood self-determination. Within a week, others were reaching out, inquiring how we could work together to build on the summit’s dialogue. This winter, we hope to compile a community wide food resources directory that will help bridge need and supply.

Miracles can happen, through community, through communion over whiteboards and fish tacos, through a common vision. And sometimes through an exhilarating leap of faith in a cynical, challenging world. Faith filled Fellowship Hall on September 25, and our community is leaping into action.

                                                                                                                                         — Martin Ross