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To change a system is to continue to tend to that system, and to constantly be asking what it needs and how you might serve to support its change.

Let’s use the local food economy as a prime example. Here in New Mexico many have spent generations seeding and tending to it or buying it at our favorite local farmers markets and local restaurants. We all participate in it. It is a living, breathing, growing system.

In my 15+ years of working in the local food economy system I’ve discovered that lessons learned should be applied and then reapplied–and that we need to keep checking in on the system. We all live, work, and serve in systems. But how you intend to change a system for the greater good and for positive social impact is really what I’m talking about here.

I’ve also learned that the most successful parts of the local food system work because of shared values among collaborators and across the value chain. This creates a values-based value chain that embeds the input from all stakeholders in an equitable manner to ensure fair prices, wages, and support for the entire system. Valuing the people in the system first and foremost is how we make change.

So, how then, can we also create equity across the value chain?

Partnerships are key, and good partnerships require strong relationships and those relationships require trust. Relationships move at the speed of trust. Build trust among partners, and keep communication open and strong. Don’t wait until things fall apart to talk about the project problems.

Funding collaborations are hard but doable. I’ve been involved with half a dozen food system grant funded collaborations. These projects require collaborators to come together to create a scope of work for the project and for each collaborator is held accountable to getting the work done.

Spend time early on to establish those shared values. For instance, if all partners have a deep passion for food justice, make sure that is clearly stated and communicated often. Celebrate the commonalities! Talk about the shared ideas. Discuss why you share those values. When partners connect on common values, they can more easily accomplish a shared goal.

Make a commitment to those values. For instance, in the values-based value chain in the food economy, partners might agree they value high quality products grown with sustainable practices, fair wages, and paying for the true cost of food production. Committing to these values ensures all partners can participate in the system equitably.

Sharing the work and leadership in a values-based value chain makes the work more equitable, too. Know your strengths in a partnership so it’s easier to know your role in the ecosystem.

Don’t stop learning. I recently spent a day with a nonprofit community development corporation to train their whole team on the local food system because they’ve made a commitment to their community impact, and to the ongoing education of their team as a way to tend to the food system. It’s ok to learn from past projects and ideas. We know what is broken and doesn’t work, but what’s good and new? What is working? What is growing? Give attention to those things and see where the energy leads. Staying open to new ideas can also be a way of learning and implementing.

I call all of this “the care and feeding of the food system” because systems change takes time and commitment. It doesn’t happen overnight but with patience and long-term care it can happen.

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