The North American Food Systems Network (NAFSN) was founded in 2015 to offer leadership and technical skills training, networking, and other professional development opportunities for the burgeoning number of people in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico supporting the development of equitable and sustainable local and regional food systems.
As a community of practice, NAFSN connects geographically dispersed practitioners and helps build individual and collective capacity to solve pressing food and agriculture issues. There are many innovative solutions and pioneering organizations working to address and understand the complex issues of food systems — for example, working to eliminate causes of food deserts, obesity, hunger, and other food-related human health issues, as well as working to increase sustainable farming practices, ecological and economic health of farms and rural areas, and creating viable markets.
However, as reported in our 2012 survey of self-identified food systems development professionals, many practitioners and activists working on the forefront of the good food movement feel vulnerable to the whims of funders and lack of public support for their work, despite mounting problems in both urban and rural communities. Furthermore, many indicated they have neither the time nor resources for quality professional development. NAFSN thus aspires to provide efficient and cost-effective training by building relationships with existing training providers.
NAFSN expects to see growth of competencies, increased best practices, and more effective targeting of resources as results of its efforts.
The following mission statement was developed by the NAFSN Steering Committee in its June 2015 meeting, and subsequently modified through recommendations during and after the Founding Members meeting in November 2016:
The mission of the North American Food Systems Network is to support equitable and sustainable food systems by:
- creating opportunities for professional growth for food systems development practitioners;
- identifying and encouraging best practices;
- expanding applied research on food systems; and
- developing tools, methods, and programs to build the capacity of communities to engage in food systems innovations.
NAFSN launched its founding member campaign in October 2015. However, it had been in conceptual development for several years before the launch, after a survey of self-identified food systems development practitioners showed strong demand for a professional community of practice. Read the NAFSN White Paper for more background.
Most community and regional food initiatives are launched with the best of intentions. But if they lack skilled program planning and execution, these activities, while worthy, can be a waste of precious public and private resources. This not only hinders future work in a given community, but also tarnishes the image of the food movement overall. We attribute the lack of training and program success to a number of key issues:
- Relying heavily on biased, unsubstantiated, or otherwise non-research based information such as blogs, informal reports, and other gray literature, and word-of-mouth such as presentations and anecdotal stories.
- Experts on top rather than on tap: experts lead a project and assume that buy-in is enough and thus do not secure leadership and ownership of a project by those it is intended to benefit.
- Projects in communities of color being managed by (predominantly white) outsiders.
- Mission creep: chasing grant dollars and thus acting on a donor’s interest instead of those defined by the community.
- An attitude of “if we build it, they will come”: using a trial-and-error approach or launching whatever program is currently popular.
- A toxic competitive environment leading to silos of activity and staff at the community and regional levels.
- Reinventing the wheel by replicating projects that have already been done without learning from their successes and failures.
- Painting problems in overly simplistic terms that pit project stakeholders against each other, precluding transformative action.
- The common belief that impacts cannot be measured or that evaluation is too expensive.
- The tendency to focus on symptoms of problems rather than the underlying causes.
- A lack of focus on systems (the full range of production, supply chains, and food security), and instead a focus on a single aspect of food systems.
NAFSN utilizes a governance model adapted from Sociocracy (aka Dynamic Governance) and Circle Forward. It is led by a Leadership Circle composed of chairs and individuals who have taken on specific volunteer roles from other administrative circles (e.g., the Communications Circle, Member Services Circle, and the Training and Certification CoP), as well as representatives of the Founding Partner Organizations. The current co-chairs of the Leadership Circle are Abby Wyatt and Kim Hines. An executive circle provides more coordinated administrative functions.
NAFSN is currently being supported by the Lyson Center for Civic Agriculture and Food Systems. The Lyson Center is, in turn, a project of the Center for Transformative Action, a nonprofit affiliate of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, USA. Twelve Founding Partner Organizations have signed memoranda of understanding with NAFSN committing to collaboration in developing the network.
A Founding Member is an individual who joined NAFSN on or before December 31, 2015. Benefits of founding membership include:
- Receiving discount membership dues, including a 5% discount in perpetuity;
- Participating in structuring the organization and taking initial leadership of circles and circle committees;
- Participating in the early planning of programs such as the NAFSN Good Food Talk webinar series and NAFSN’s training and certification program.
Founding Partner Organizations are nonprofits that signed a memorandum of understanding to collaborate in developing NAFSN, especially its training and certification program. Founding Partner Organizations have representation on NAFSN’s Leadership Circle.
NAFSN is a largely volunteer organization with key expenses covered by member dues and small grants. Lyson Center staff and the many founding members provide in-kind support. Some key programs such as training and certification will require significant grant funding to establish, but our objective is to be lean, efficient, and sustainable over time and not be grant-dependent.
It is a cliché to say you will get out of membership what you put into it, but there is some truth to this idea. NAFSN is a very grassroots organization, relying on many members’ participation to reach our shared vision. You can pay for membership and wait for things to happen, or become engaged—by volunteering for committees, participating in consent decision-making, taking advantage of training discounts, attending trainings, networking with other NAFSN members at national food systems conferences, and participating in communities of practice (CoPs). Our hope and expectation are that as a result of these activities, you will improve your employment prospects; your knowledge, effectiveness, and impacts; your contacts; and your satisfaction with your work in food systems.
The development of NAFSN’s training and certification program is underway. A Training and Certification CoP with several dozen members from around the U.S. and Canada is working to create a core competencies–based curriculum and a training accreditation program. The CoP includes representatives of existing training content providers who will be coordinating their offerings to meet the final curriculum and accreditation program. Level 1 Food System Professional Certification is likely to consist of acquisition of digital badges for completing training (via online, self-paced courses and live workshops provided by our partner organizations around the continent). A “fast track” certification process may be developed for NAFSN members with considerable experience (to be defined) or previous training.
The Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development (JAFSCD) and NAFSN are sister programs of the Lyson Center. A membership benefit for NAFSN members is a free subscription to JAFSCD. However, note that NAFSN and JAFSCD have separate websites. After you join, we’ll set up your JAFSCD subscription and send you your login details. If you’re already a JAFSCD subscriber, we’ll extend your subscription by a full year!