Engaging Restaurants and Markets to Rebuild a Regional Food System

From foodtank.com
Alexina Cather

Betsy Fink is co-chair of Marshall Street Management and Trustee of the Fink Family Foundation, which seeks to move communities toward a more balanced, sustainable relationship with the environment. She served on the Founding board of Wholesome Wave and the board of American Farmland Trust. In 2005, she established Millstone Farm in Wilton, CT, a working farm dedicated to increasing networks for local food production and consumption, and engaging local restaurants and markets to rebuild a regional food system. Betsy previously held management positions at both Prodigy Services and Priceline.com, specializing in technical project management.

Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to get involved in organic farming and sustainable communities?

Betsy Fink (BF): I have a vision of healthy food grown in a manner that enhances the environment and doesn’t destroy it, a food system that understands the need for biodiversity and our ecosystems, and a farming community that treats our livestock humanely. All of these components require sharing of knowledge and educating our communities. I was inspired to understand and learn for myself to become a better philanthropist, impact investor, and citizen of this planet.

FT: You established Millstone Farm in Connecticut as an incubator for resilient solutions for community-based food systems. Can you talk about how the farm practices sustainable agriculture and emphasizes the importance of local food production?

BF: When I purchased Millstone Farm, I wanted to learn first-hand how to grow my own food and understand the ecosystem needed to enhance regional food systems. For us, a primary component in building a sustainable, regional food system is creating relationships. Relationships forge trust and drive interaction and action for improvement. As farmers we need to know where our seeds come from, who is slaughtering our livestock, and what our customers need. Millstone Farm uses best management practices, only organic products and has also become Animal Welfare Approved (AWA).

We have experienced staff who teach and train various interns, CSA members and visitors on our farming practices. This interaction with the community, whether it’s through workshops, Farm-to-Fork dinners or community events, is another key aspect of how Millstone has emphasized the importance of sustainable agriculture and local food production. After ten wonderful years helping build our regional food system and providing a platform for many activities, we are moving out of Connecticut and will sell the farm. Our greatest hope is that we find new owners who will continue to steward the land and evolve the activities, maintaining the integrity of the land and mission.

For ten years we have been focused on cultivating the land, cultivating human capital on the farm, and creating a consistent “experience” for anyone who steps on the farm, attends a conference or workshop on the property, or buys and enjoys our produce and value- added products at a restaurant, supermarket, or at home. Each Millstone Experience is another connection to the land and sustainable practices. It starts one mouth at a time, one child at a time, one school teacher or cafeteria nutritionist at a time, and believe it or not, one hedge fund manager at a time who has the “Millstone Experience” at a farm to table dinner.

FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?

BF: Right now I have great hope in the next generation taking stewardship of farmland and actively solving food issues. We have seen many young people pass through Millstone—from the Yale Harvest program students to apprentices, our Harlem Grown partners, and Fink Foundation Fellows, and many others. The more people that are directly exposed to growing food, digging the dirt, understanding the extreme challenges of farming and at the same time experiencing the reward of fresh, healthy produce, the better our chances of fixing our food system. Knowledge is key and organizations like Food Tank play a critical role as well.

FT: What innovations in agriculture and the food system are you most excited about?

BF: I am a huge fan of the “would be waste” product innovations happening right now. The ReFED Roadmap we seed funded highlighted that value-added products utilizing food that would have otherwise been discarded is one of the solutions in the food waste reduction roadmap. I know first-hand how difficult it is to grow produce and raise livestock, no farmer wants to see any of the products of their labor go to waste. So many exciting and healthy products are popping up in the marketplace. The statistics on food waste worldwide are staggering, estimates range from 30-40 percent of what is grown is wasted.

FT: You and your family manage the Fink Family Foundation. Can you talk about the foundation’s efforts to support sustainable food systems and innovations for a resilient future? What type of projects will the foundation look to back in 2017?

BF: Jesse and I had managed the Betsy and Jesse Fink Foundation for the last 15 years, beginning mostly in land conservation and farmland initiatives, we then expanded to the national and international effort around climate change. In the last ten years we went back to our roots and funded in the sustainable agriculture and food systems space, while it is inextricably tied to climate change, it was something local we could touch and feel. We concentrated much of our efforts funding in human capital and gaps that we were seeing. In 2016, we became The Fink Family Foundation, bringing on our two children, Drew and Carly, as Trustees. We look forward to the next generation leading the way; as they are innovative and compassionate about changing our world.

FT: In 2013, the Foundation began its Food Waste Program. Can you talk about the foundation’s role in directing food waste to its highest and best use?

BF: About eight years ago I was seeing first-hand a tremendous amount of food left in the fields of some of our sister farms in Connecticut. As we know at some point the labor costs are too high or market demands are too low for farmers to harvest the full field of crops, or produce the retailers might consider “seconds”. We began our own gleaning crew at Millstone, and visited other farms, and at the same time our Foundation began funding gleaning programs and social entrepreneurs innovating more efficient food recovery systems. When I would do deliveries for the farm, I also saw how much food and fresh produce was being discarded in the back of our local markets. This made me think there was something more systemic about the problem—how large is the problem and what could we learn to drive solutions? Jesse and I asked the team at MissionPoint Partners to do some initial research on the problem to uncover barriers and gaps, which lead to the ReFED (Rethinking Food Waste through Economics and Data) report.

FT: What drives you every day to fight for the bettering of our food system?

BF: A healthy food system is the ultimate path to better wellness for all people—a cleaner and safer planet, opportunities for economic growth, and a more resilient future.

FT: Can you share a story about a food hero that inspired you?

BF: I would say the one nearest and dearest to me is Annie Farrell. Annie worked with me to build Millstone. She has spent her life learning and teaching how to grow healthy food. She has been my mentor. I continually learn from her and she never stops being inspired by the world around her. Her energy and passion are endless. A few years ago she wrote an essay to represent our nation at Terra Madre in Italy, she shared it with our team and friends of the farm. I think we were all touched and it made us want to work harder for a better food future.

FT: What’s the biggest problem within the food system our parents and grandparents didn’t have to deal with?

BF: For my generation, I would say our parents and grandparents knew the food they were eating and where it came from. Food was wholesome and for the most part, they ate what was in season. Our current food system is so full of processed foods that our bodies are dealing with inputs we aren’t accustomed to that affect our health. In addition, the foods are either sprayed or modified with chemicals now that we may not know yet all the long-term health effects.

FT: What’s the first, most pressing issue you’d like to see solved within the food system?

BF: We have focused so much time and energy on the reduction of food waste because we see it as a huge opportunity to address many issues within the food system, as well as within society as a whole. Reducing food waste within the United States will decrease natural resource degradation by lowering water and chemicals usage, lead to increased and more efficient food recovery and acceptance of imperfect produce will help feed more people. Post-consumer, safely-handled unwanted food scraps can feed our livestock, diverting from landfill will build our soils by increasing composting, and for other organic waste that can’t be used for people, animals, or compost, there are methods to create renewable energy, especially in the distributed energy framework. Diverting all this organic waste will also be a huge factor in the reduction of methane. While getting healthy, nutritious food to all is the highest order, we felt like addressing the problem in a systems approach could be more effective, and fits with our philosophy of leveraging impact.

FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?

BF: Don’t waste food and eat less meat.

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