Rather than offering up paeans to those fabulous Brussels sprouts I grew this year, I want to devote my harvest message to three people I’m grateful for: Bob Lewis, Kate Fitzgerald, and Hugh Joseph. To protect the innocent, let me declare from the outset that not one of this trio had any idea I was singling them out for thanks. They may be embarrassed when they read this, as much as by being placed on display as by the factual errors this piece probably contains. But I was reluctant to sacrifice the element of surprise for the hard data that phone interviews would have surfaced. After all, gratitude need not be burdened by facts. My memory, unfiltered and uncorrected, is my transcript.
Let’s begin with Bob Lewis who announced his retirement this month from the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. Most of us who have worked with Bob hoped that he would never retire, and those few who hoped he’d retire sooner had probably been victims of his singled-minded determination to do the right thing. His tenure in the food movement, which extends beyond the birth dates of many readers of this blog, began (I think) in the 1970s with New York City’s first GreenMarkets.
With his New York accent and remarkable resemblance to Woody Allen, it sometimes strained your credulity to realize that Bob was the face of New York state agriculture in New York City. But Bob’s feet have always been rooted in the earth, and as a college geology major his understanding goes far deeper than topsoil. Ignorant as I was of igneous rock, a vigorous walk with Bob one day up Fifth Avenue taught me why the story of Manhattan and its soaring towers is as much geological as it is financial.
Bob has always been a Renaissance man, holding forth with equal ease on the cello or when singing with his community opera company as he is discussing New York politics. But it is his commitment to joining regional farming with the nutritional needs of New York’s large lower income populations that makes him worthy of endless kudos. Through the department of agriculture he quickly made New York’s WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program the biggest in the country. Whether you were choosing from the three growers at a remote Adirondack farmers’ market, or dazed by the seemingly endless market stalls in Union Square, you eventually saw farmers’ market vouchers, EBT cards, and other non-cash payments being used by WIC moms, senior citizens, and SNAP recipients. And because of the growth of these efforts in New York, which is largely due to Bob’s passion, I would hazard a guess that the state has more people of limited means enjoying the delights of local food compared to any other state in America.
I first met Kate Fitzgerald in the same context as Bob Lewis – through the development of the WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program. Like Bob, she was working for state government, which in her case was the one-term administration of Jim Hightower’s Texas Department of Agriculture. Rarely have I met a woman so clear-eyed, so focused, and yes, so Irish. When the TDA horse was shot out from under her by the oligopolistic forces of Texas agribusiness, she started a non-profit food organization in Austin known as the Sustainable Food Center. I can remember walking the city streets with her as she showed me the food deserts and neighborhoods that Austin’s tourists rarely visit. She put the troubling problem of poor food access and insecurity on the city’s public policy plate, but more importantly, she planted the seeds and instilled the vision that has made the Sustainable Food Center one of the nation’s model community food organizations.
Her mix of fiery Celtic stock and Quaker heritage gave Kate both the drive for social justice and the patience to mediate tough battles. It is a little known fact that by exploiting her well-developed Texas political contacts, she played a pivotal role in bringing about the passage of the Community Food Projects Competitive grant program in 1996. As a result, tens of millions in Federal dollars have been used to develop hundreds of badly needed local food projects. She continues to employ those well-honed negotiation skills today as a free-lance government affairs consultant working for food and farm organizations who need an intelligent and experienced voice in Washington.
I’ve known Hugh Joseph longer than anyone else in the community food field, so long in fact I can’t remember how long. I know we found ourselves starting community gardens and farmers’ markets at about the same time in our lives, I in Hartford and he in the gritty old factory towns of northeastern Massachusetts. One seminal moment occurred when our paths crossed at a New England conference where he told me about a pilot project they had just completed in Massachusetts that gave vouchers to WIC moms for use at farmers’ markets. I thought the idea was so cool I promptly approached the Connecticut Department of Agriculture to do the same thing in our state. And like states almost everywhere, the WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program, including its variations and permutations since the 1980s, made a mighty contribution to the growth in Connecticut’s farmers’ markets which now number about 130.
When he is not teaching future foodies at Tufts or helping various new farmer initiatives, Hugh is performing his wizardly duties behind the ComFood listserv curtain. And just so historians of the community food movement can avoid endless debates about its origins, let me say for the record that ComFood grew out of the Northeast food listserv (NeFood) which in turn grew out of a Northeast region food conference we held in Hartford in the mid-1990s. For the most part, both NeFood and ComFood are Hugh’s brain children. Today, with some 7,000 subscribers, ComFood is arguably the most effective networking and communication tool available to the community food movement. Hugh continues to guide, manage, and moderate ComFood, tasks for which, to the best of my knowledge, he’s earned little but gray hairs.
So there you have it, the three people I’m most grateful for this holiday season. I suppose you could say, by dint of their longevity, that they deserve lifetime awards for their service to the movement. But lacking authority to bestow such honors on my peers, I’ll simply pause this Thanksgiving, just prior to spearing my Brussels sprouts, and quietly thank Bob, Kate, and Hugh. And maybe each of us in our own way can think of three people that we are grateful for as well. I think it makes a difference.