How has our approach to understanding community food systems become like our approach to poetry? I took some instruction recently from a former United States Poet Laureate, Billy Collins.

                                                                            I ask them to take a poem

                                                                            and hold it up to the light

                                                                            like a color slide

                                                                            or press an ear against its hive…

                                                                            But all they want to do

                                                                            Is tie the poem to a chair with rope

                                                                            And torture a confession out of it.

                                                                            They begin beating it with a hose

                                                                            To find out what it really means.

 The more I see of community food assessments – a process whereby researchers and stakeholders gather information about their food system in order to better understand its strengths and weaknesses – the more I worry, that like Collins’s over-zealous students, we are torturing the subject while never getting to know its essence

Though there is some risk in comparing a food system to a poem, I find more similarities than not in our reliance on quantitative techniques and an obsession with wrestling the “facts” to the ground. Like the innocent poem that is pressed against a slide for unrelenting dissection, we are launching waves of graduate student drones over target zones, laptops programmed and grids drawn.

Couldn’t we float and flit for a bit, and like butterflies that light on meadow flora, sniff, touch, and taste the place for a while? I like to look at my surroundings through different lenses, hold them up for scrutiny in varying lights, and put my ear to the hive to check the buzz. When it comes to the community food assessments, we’re too much above it all and over-fueled with high-octane, evidence-based objectivity. The truth is on the ground where we belong, with our values and subjectivity fully on display.

Just as the imaginative reader of a poem holds hands with the lines and images until the molecules are absorbed through his skin, the food system investigator who opens up her sociological imagination might discover something unique, beautiful, and yes, often deeply disturbing. Instead of inducing rigor mortis with scientific rigor, as I have seen some community food assessments do, why not let the assessment process unfold slowly, even over a lifetime, by simply making it an everyday occurrence? And by “a lifetime” I certainly don’t mean that we twiddle our thumbs, waiting, as some groups have, for the data to tell them what to do. As a community food activist who should be immersed in your place, you will always be searching, asking questions, and keeping your ear pressed gently to the ground.

It was sometime after my fifteenth year of running the Hartford Food System before I felt like I understood what was going on in that city and the state of Connecticut. We had learned from firsthand experience that Hartford’s food was more expensive than that in the suburbs; we discovered that the city’s bus routes didn’t take people to supermarkets which had fled to the suburbs; we found, after watching farms disappear for a decade, that Connecticut was losing farmland faster than anywhere else in the nation. With a prima facie case in hand, we swooped in, gathered the evidence, secured an indictment, and started the corrections job as fast as possible. But it took 15 years of living and working in a place – looking under the hood and scraping our shins on the truth – before we got it.

I want science to be ruthlessly rigorous when searching for links between tobacco and lung cancer, or factory livestock operations and antibiotic resistance, but when it comes to understanding the community experience, something softer is called for, something perhaps more intuitive and anthropological. You see, our imagination is central to our work. Without it we never would have conceived of this thing we call a food system in the first place. The connections between food, health, environment; the idea of a feeding web; even ideas like social capital and community would have remained isolated within their own disciplinary boxes if we hadn’t sought a bigger horizon, one not constrained by reductionist thinking. While I may be quirky in finding beauty in a food system, I do believe we all find joy in the connection between two or more previously disparate things.

When it comes to how we assess a community’s food system, listening is the most important tool we have. I was reminded of this at a recent Santa Fe Food Policy Council meeting where we were discussing our food assessment and draft food plan. One member of the community had come to the meeting to put forward some unsolicited ideas. But, according to our public testimony rules, we only granted her two minutes to speak, much of which was consumed by her trying to keep her two overactive young children from disassembling the muffin tray. Frustrated and pissed, she corralled me afterwards in the parking lot where she went on at some length saying, “if you want the public there, if you want poor people there, you better have child care….” I listened hard; I agreed with her, and tried to relate and repeat what she said. I suggested that she set up a neighborhood meeting where we could discuss the food plan and hear her neighbors’ thoughts. She is now organizing that gathering.

Time is a great oppressor, a dictator that truncates the human experience to digestible data bits and highly efficient exchanges – life reduced to a hashtag. Our task is to slow down and slow dance, make eye contact, and when necessary, give ourselves a wide berth from the rules, the clock, and the agenda. As the Zen master Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by watchin’.”

C. Wright Mills, the great lefty sociologist and Columbia University professor may have written one of the best treatises on social science methodology, The Sociological Imagination.  Published in 1959, it is worthy of a read by all food system researchers, assessors, and activists. Mills was an advocate of a more values-based approach to social science research and an early critic of the statistical slavery that was then overtaking his field. In one lashing he wrote, “The ‘empirical facts’ are facts collected by a bureaucratically guided set of usually semi-skilled individuals. It has been forgotten that social observation requires high skill and acute sensibility; that discovery often occurs precisely when an imaginative mind sets itself down in the middle of social realities.” While being overly harsh toward those we depend on for numbers, I have little doubt that Mills would agree with Billy Collins that a poetic sensibility and a sociological imagination are kissing cousins.

When I see our earnest food assessors serving their method before their community, I recall my favorite Mills’s admonishment: “Many…social scientists in America today…conform to the prevailing fear of any passionate commitment.” Trembling, unsure of which God they serve, the best and the brightest too often balk because the data has not reached their desired level of perfection – a bar they always push higher and often never climb over.

While the threats to our food system are far too urgent for us to succumb entirely to the sweet indulgence of poetry, I think there are lessons to be learned from those who desire more profound ways of understanding. If a poem sends an unfamiliar surge up my spine – whether disturbing or pleasurable – it has done its job, and I am now in a heightened state of readiness. While discussions of syntax, meter, and the poet’s sexual preference may provide a minimal amount of illumination, it is the generous beat of the poetic impulse that is the true torch.

To what end do we seek a better understanding of our food system? I suspect that it is for reasons more profound than simply producing the interventions that may follow. For if we have succeeded in establishing a food hub, or getting another serving of local vegetables on a cafeteria tray, have we truly done enough? If today’s industrial food system is guilty, as I believe it is, of feeding consumers to maintain their status as, what Mills calls “Cheerful Robots,” do we food advocates necessarily offer a qualitatively better experience? By adding more local and organic food to their diet, or securing a few more dollars to their monthly SNAP benefits, we may be doing nothing more than producing cheerier robots.

It seems that the task of any inquiry, including a community food assessment, should be the elevation of the human condition, not only through the addition of more and better goods and services, but by contributing to the growth of individual freedom and reason. “Freedom” as Mills says, “is the chance to formulate the available choices…and then the opportunity to choose,” a process that cannot occur without an enlargement in human reason. Spending more time interacting with people and their place – not more time refining the data – will enlarge everyone’s reason. This may make our work of understanding a food system a more difficult and longer enterprise, but it just may make it richer, more enjoyable, and in the long run, significantly more rewarding.