Local Food Hero: Farmer Janet Brown Brings Food Policy to the Table

July 15, 2016

Many people know Janet Brown for the delicious organic vegetables she brings to the farmers market from Allstar Organics, where she farms with her partner, Marty Jacobson. In addition to farming for the last 20-plus years, Janet has also been actively working to create connections in her community through the Marin Food Policy Council.

Since 1998, she has helped advise the county on agricultural policies and shape the council’s priorities to make healthy food accessible for all. She was also a founding board member of Marin Organic, which supported organic farms in Marin, and she served as a program officer at the Center for Ecoliteracy.

Janet was recently honored by the Marin County Board of Supervisors for her outstanding leadership in local food policy. We spoke with her about how the community can come together to transform the local food system for the better.

How did you get started with the Marin Food Policy Council?

I had been farming for a little while in Marin when I went to the Ecological Farming Conference, where I attended a workshop on community food security and food policy councils. Twenty-five years ago, not as many people were familiar with terms like food security or food justice. I was really taken with the idea because it seemed like a solid approach to the persistent problem of hunger. It’s a whole-systems approach, rather than a therapeutic, interventionistic “war on hunger” kind of approach. It’s focused on an interlocking set of strategies that comprise a solution. It really fit with every issue I was concerned with, from women, children, and public schools to malnutrition and lack of food access.

Can you tell us what a food policy council does?

In the beginning, we just tried to gather a comprehensive group in Marin County. We looked at the stakeholders in the food system: producers, eaters, distributors, health and human services, county ag and extension. Marin Organic was being founded around the same time and came on board. When you have everyone together with their own perspective on the food system, you begin to create that set of interlocking strategies around community food security.

It’s about building networks of relationships to find out what our role and vision of community food security is. Going on community food security assessment tours is one thing we do. We’ve gone to a number of the communities that we think have the most vulnerable residents with least equitable food access, met with them, and asked them, “What are you working on, what’s missing, what can we do to help, and how can we work together?”

How do you define food security? 

A standard working definition is that all residents at all times receive a nutritionally adequate, culturally appropriate diet from local, nonemergency sources. Another definition that I use is from Jeannette Armstrong, who is an Okanagan wisdom keeper from British Columbia. She said food security is when the people are feeding themselves within a pattern than can be repeated from generation to generation. I like that one. 

Our food policy council adopted the UN resolution that access to food is a human right, but we added that it is a right and a responsibility of all residents. I don’t know of any rights that come with no responsibilities, so part of that responsibility is to understand better how to feed ourselves and to take on—hopefully, enthusiastically—some role in that process.

What are some of the specific food issues and challenges that Marin County faces?

We have a lot of wonderful advantages. 50% of all the land in Marin County is zoned for agriculture, and because of Marin Agricultural Land Trust, half of that land is permanently protected, which is profound. That said, we feel all the pressures of being close to a large center of population. What that does to land value is very challenging. It’s hard to make a living growing carrots when the land can make more money than you do.

Marin County has been judged as being the healthiest county in the US, but even so, there are disparities. In Marin City, the life expectancy is 20 years shorter than in Ross, which is just 20 minutes away. That’s a breathtaking number. This is not due to gun violence. This is due to differences in nutrition, access to medical care, and environment. We have other disparities too, like the number of people eligible for food stamps vs. the number of people who have signed up. California is the worst state in the US for signing people up for food stamps who are eligible, and Marin County is third from the bottom in counties. I’m proud of my county, but I’m not proud of this. We wanted to build a group of people who could in a civil way express their intolerance by making a change.

How does your work as a farmer inform your work on the food policy council?

Everyone has romantic notions about farming, but when you do it as a livelihood, some of that romanticism wears away, and that’s a good thing. You see what the job really entails, like the very practical things of putting a seed in the ground and knowing how long it takes to grow and what it takes to get it to market. It can be difficult to keep an agricultural presence on food policy councils because farmers often need to be on the farm. That’s why I thought it was good I am with this food policy council, because I’m bringing that perspective.

Sustainability and farm viability are sometimes perceived as at odds with affordability and access. How does the food policy help address those issues?

I’m a farmer, and what I’ve learned is that food security increases when you’re in a decision-making position around food. Let’s not underestimate the power of a community garden. In the Second World War, there was a lot of trouble getting food to the soldiers, and America had food shortages, so they dug up Golden Gate Park and grew a ton of food there. Bill Mollison, the father of the Permaculture movement, said if you add up all the front and back yards in America, it equals more area than all the land in active agriculture in America. If everyone grew food in their yard, it would have a huge impact.  

What advice do you have for people who want to make a change in their local food system?

If you’re interested in the future of food, you might want to see if there’s a food policy council in your city, town, or county. Hunger is not always visible, but it is there. Look at the people around you, look at your schools. A lot of the time, the school lunch ladies know who’s hungry. In this very wealthy nation, it’s impossible to explain how this condition of hunger and chronic, low-grade malnutrition could persist, yet it does. It would be naive to think it will change until we shine a bright light on it, and take up our own individual responsibility. The good news is there are lots of willing people with their hearts in the right place who want to do something about it and are just looking for the right way in. When people work together, it’s always a surprise how much can happen in a short time.

Learn more and take action in your community. Visit Roots of Change for a list of California’s Food Policy Councils.

Find Allstar Organics at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays.

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