“Let’s do a food summit!” proclaimed the food policy council member, whose moving motion was immediately seconded and thirded by the council’s other members. “We can invite everybody!” suggested one member. “Michelle Obama can be our keynote!” chimed in another. “I can do a workshop on hemp production,” offered a fourth. And, so it went for all of ten minutes during which time the Uptown Food Policy Council had the day-long event completely lined out. Then the trouble began.

“Who’s going to organize this and how are we going pay for it?” quietly asked one person. “How does a summit relate to all the other things we currently have on our plate?” meekly queried another. “And why are we doing this?” incredulously intoned a third. Just as form is supposed to follow function and the second inning follows the first, planning any event, especially a food summit, should begin with the end in mind. The first questions should include how would a community (local, regional, or state) gathering serve your mission, what outcomes would be produced that will guide your work in the years to come, what will it cost and what are the opportunity costs (e.g., other projects or campaigns you will forgo to pull this off), and do you really believe that Michelle Obama will return your phone calls?

Having been a part of many food summits over the years–-as a participant, planner, and presenter-–I have seen sufficient energy mustered that people regard those occasions as part of their organization’s creation story. Unfortunately, I have also witnessed summits where social capital was spent recklessly and a critical opportunity for bringing the community together was squandered. With the intent of encouraging food system activists to make the most of these oh-so rare “big moments,” let me offer a few thoughts.

First, let me be clear about what I mean by a food summit. I am referring to those events of no more than one day in length that are focused on a wide variety of food issues and concerns unique to a specific place and geography. It can be a city, county, region (multiple counties), or a state (I am not including national, multi-day food conferences in this discussion). The number of participants might vary from 50 to 300, keeping in mind that the more people, the more logistical and facilitation challenges you will face. For reasons I can’t fully justify, attendance in the 100 to 200 range feels right – it allows for a manageable number as well as a diverse representation of the community’s food interests.

Just to be repetitive, let me repeat that your summit must be the beginning of something bigger than you are now, and not merely the stepping stone to the next summit. Think about your community’s food system and all the ways that people get, grow, and learn about food. How do those parts – projects, businesses, farms, government and non-profit services – relate (or don’t) to each other. Ideally, you want them all at your summit, you want them to understand how they are linked to each other, and you want them to “own” a vision for a sustainable, equitable, and prosperous food system. And lastly, you want to end the day with a clear idea of where you’re going, and a sense of shared responsibility for how you will get there. If you are a food policy council or similar coalition, you are effectively looking for that charge from the community on how to move forward. Unlike Moses ascending Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God, you want a tablet of “dos and don’ts” generated by your constituents.

Set the stage for these outcomes prior to your event with a website, a summit title, and a program that tells people what to expect and how to prepare. “Setting the Course for Franklin County’s Food Future,” “Imagining a Healthy Harrison City Food System,” or “Our Food, Our Future” are a few of my favorite summit titles. Be bold and imaginative. Don’t pussyfoot around the reason for this convening or hedge your bets to avoid offending the Evil Empire. This is not the time to be timid.

Frame the day with three or four questions that will guide the presenters and the participants. Answers to these questions will close the day and set the course for future action. By way of example, a recent food summit in western Maryland used the following questions: “What are the major challenges facing our food system? What would be an effective response? What type of projects or policies are needed? How can we improve food system coordination in our region, and what should the role of our food council be in doing that?”

Your speakers and workshop presenters should be thoroughly prepped with these questions and understand that their task is to provide enough information so that participants can answer them. This is not Show ‘n Tell – that was great when I brought my new puppy to third grade; this is time for you as an expert and/or participant in one or more facets of your food system to tell the rest of us what’s working, what’s not, and how we can improve things. Don’t be afraid to dream big or speak up, even if you don’t have all the details. The day is essentially a time for brainstorming with some rough attempts to prioritize (using those good old colored dots for people to express their top choices of ideas still works pretty well). The food policy council, staff, and summit’s core group members will vet the lists and flesh out the details in the weeks to come.

Here are a few more tips to help you stay on track:

Keynote: Assuming that Michelle Obama is not available, find someone who can provide a little inspiration as well as clearly and accurately frame the day. You don’t need someone to dump reams of statistics on you. To avoid that, put together a one to two-page briefing sheet that goes into everyone’s conference packet that contains the major facts about your food system: obesity and health, hunger and poverty, numbers of farmers, farmland, and other facts and figures that explain the depth and breadth of your food system. Use a little social math, as in “Franklin County lost 100 football fields worth of farmland over the last five years,” and “Harrison City wastes enough food each year to feed our entire population for three months.”

Sessions: Remember, these are designed to help you answer your questions. Don’t do too many; don’t give all your friends a chance to have a session on their pet topic. You need just enough to represent your food system’s diversity. In western Maryland they did that with six sessions – three in the morning and three in the afternoon. Each one had about 40 participants. You should be able to cover the topic with no more than two presenters. A good moderator should be more than a bio-reader and timekeeper; she should keep things on track and facilitate the discussion of the questions.

Budget: This can vary considerably, but if you’re using a community facility or have access to a friendly college, facility costs can be reasonable. Such institutions would also have the ability to handle lunch and snack service. Other costs such as promotion can be kept low if you’re using social media and existing community media outlets and food system networks. Western Maryland put on their summit for around $6,000 (not counting staff, many of which were made available in-kind). A small grant, sponsorships from local institutions, and a $25 per person registration fee (I wouldn’t recommend much higher) covered all their costs and produced a modest profit.

Staff, Volunteers, and Timing: Planning a food summit does take time, knowledgeable people, and some institutional capacity. With a small but dedicated planning committee and one or two people working part time to handle the nuts and bolts, 6 to 8 months is a reasonable amount of time to allow from conception to the day of the summit. Establishing subcommittees such as marketing and promotion, facilities and food, and program and presenters is a good way to distribute the work load. Having perhaps 10 people working mostly as volunteers on a very part-time basis should be enough until the day of the summit when you’ll need to conscript several friends and colleagues to help with miscellaneous tasks.

Managing “Troublemakers:” It seems like every convening attracts a couple of people who think their issue is the only one in the world. The outraged earth mother who sincerely believes that her two darlings, Sky and Luna, are being poisoned by the carcinogenic dreck served by the evil lunch ladies can derail and dominate an otherwise productive discussion. Taking a firm but respectful position that lets everyone be heard, but not so much so that others can’t be heard, sets a tone of civility and fairness. Carefully stating this as a summit ground rule right from the beginning sets the stage for a good community participation process.

Participants: I have attended summits where the majority of the participants were invited, and I’ve attended others where registration was open to anyone. Strive for a balance that ensures that your community’s significant food system stakeholders participate, that the larger community feels welcome, and that you don’t have so many people that the day’s work becomes unmanageable. Determine in advance who the right people are, what the right number of participants is, and if necessary, impose a cap on the total registrations. And lastly, always invite your local elected officials and give one or two the opportunity to say something at the beginning of the summit.

Food: Well, it is a food summit so you’re not likely to leave a memorable impression if you give people a brown bag filled with a bologna and cheese sandwich, green banana, and chocolate chip cookie with the diameter of a frisbee. This is a rare opportunity to make a statement about local food–-farmers, food businesses, and social programs. You should go the extra mile to use lunch–-its preparation, ingredients, service–-to highlight the richness of your local food system.

Follow up: Short evaluations of the event are always helpful. Harvest the day’s outcomes, sort and organize them as quickly as possible, and disseminate the results to the participants. That is the best way to honor everyone’s time investment and to encourage their involvement in future work. Capping the day off with an informal reception at a local brew pub is a nice way to put a finishing touch on things.

Lastly, and most importantly, celebrate! You’ve worked hard, you’ve brought the community together, and your vision and goals should now be sharper. Yes, much work lies ahead and there may even be another summit in the offing, but for now bask in the glory of food democracy and the knowledge that you did the best you could to hear everyone’s voices.