Above: Paige Clay, 28th Class Emerson Fellow.
Being a true Coloradoan I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I found out I’d be moving to Syracuse, New York, for my field placement. Having never been to Syracuse or New York State in general, I was nervous about how I’d contribute to improving a local food system that I haven’t been a part of. As I transitioned and settled into Syracuse, I became more familiar with my community and the surrounding area. Beyond the state fairs, apple festivals, and fall leaves that are key aspects of life in Central New York, I began to see food access and equity issues. Local distribution issues, environmental changes, and cultural divides are key issues impacting the overall food system. These needs, along with challenges in local agriculture production, prompted the creation of my current field placement, the Syracuse-Onondaga Food Systems Alliance (SOFSA). Established in 2019, SOFSA is an independent food policy council (FPC) focused on engaging food system stakeholders across various sectors, including nonprofits, healthcare, higher education, government, and the private sector, to improve the area’s food system. SOFSA fosters partnerships that increase access to healthy food and reduce food insecurity in the city of Syracuse and surrounding Onondaga county.
Before telling you all a bit about my work with SOFSA, I want to first define what an FPC is and why they are so important in food justice work. FPCs address food and food access issues by developing actionable policies, projects, and recommendations for improving their community’s access to food and overall nutrition, enhancing the food system to fight hunger and poverty.
I began my work at SOFSA by examining several different comprehensive city plans from Central New York to get a better scope of issues impacting Syracuse residents. My examination helped me to create a matrix of policy actions that have been undertaken by other FPCs. I’ve researched local FPCs like Seven Valleys Health Coalition and the Food Policy Council of Buffalo and Erie County, while also looking into groups outside of New York State, like Detroit Food Policy Council and Mississippi Food Policy Council. As I enter the second half of this placement, I’ll be creating a set of policy recommendations based on my examination and matrix, while also outlining any areas of opportunities for future research. These projects connect directly to understanding the needs and assets of the community and translating them into actionable recommendations for SOFSA that reflect strengths and opportunities in Onondaga County. These objectives are based upon SOFSA’s mission, which focuses on making the food system both more accessible and equitable. In addition to the amazing work SOFSA has done, this project will help in building an effective platform for advocacy. In terms of broader implications, it’s important to understand that this work will not only impact FPCs in Central New York but can also be applied to similarly positioned groups across the country.
I’ve learned so much this past couple of months with SOFSA, and feel as though I’m developing more as a leader. Before working with SOFSA, I hadn’t known the severity of the inequities that Black farmers are still facing today. While attending a lecture at Syracuse University, I was lucky enough to listen and learn from Leah Peninmam, Co-Founder and Co-Director of Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York. As I listened to her, I learned so much about BIPOC farming processes and got a better understanding of agricultural work. It opened my eyes to the lack of federal and state support given to farmers, specifically Black and Indigenous farmers. After visiting the Food Bank of Central New York, I also learned more about food waste and food recovery solutions. In previous work, I’ve been so consumed with the food source that I hadn’t taken the time to think about the abundance of food wasted at every step of the food system. Moving forward, I hope to carry with me the tools that both my supervisor and colleagues have gifted me through this experience. Maura Ackerman, my supervisor, has taught me to never lessen myself or make myself feel small while doing this work. Her guidance has helped guide my work and enhance my experience in Syracuse. Avalon, a friend and colleague of mine, has also taught me the valuable lesson of not overworking yourself, especially as a woman of color. I’ve also been incredibly inspired by those in my cohort. My cohort of Emerson Fellows has helped me feel supported during all the transitions we’ve encountered in the last couple of months and has contributed to my development as an anti-hunger/anti-poverty leader. My field site partner Elaine has also been my partner in crime in exploring Syracuse and getting an idea of what the city has to offer!
Being an Emerson Fellow has and will continue to prepare me to be an effective leader on social justice issues. I believe effective leadership appears in many ways and improves as we gain knowledge and engage in valuable community-based experience. The program has not only given me the tools to do equitable anti-hunger/anti-poverty work, but also provided me with the foundation to understand policy as a means to foster community and build sustainable solutions. This is not only effective leadership, but also the justice-seeking spirit needed in fighting hunger and poverty. As I wrap up these last two months with SOFSA, I’m focusing on writing and editing my Hunger-Free Community Report, which all fellows complete during the field placement. My report will consist of all the components of my work plan and focus on how important FPCs like SOFSA are in influencing food policy. While I don’t have all the answers it takes to end hunger, I feel equipped to continue working toward solutions and take the lessons I’ve learned into my policy placement! I’m very excited for the next chapter of this journey in Washington, D.C.!