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Stories & Inspiration

Sharing stories and inspiration about our food system work helps us to connect with one another, find greater empathy and compassion, and provides the motivation to continue on with our work. We invite you to share your stories and inspirations with us for consideration in our feature on this page! Share your story!

Faces of Food Systems Planning: Mary Chicoine Praus

This post was originally published on the American Planning Association Food Systems Planning Interest Group's website.

Mary PrausMary Chicoine Praus is a Land Use Planner at Franklin Regional Council of Governments in Greenfield, Massachusetts. The organization is the co-author of the Massachusetts Local Food Action Plan and has undertaken various regional food system planning efforts.

This interview was conducted via email by Erica Campbell of the Vermont Farm to Plate Network, and member of the APA-FIG Leadership Team.

What is your current position (include your title and name of organization)? 

I am a Land Use Planner at the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, the regional planning agency for Franklin County. Our agency is located in Greenfield, Massachusetts.

How long have you held this position? 

Five and a half years

What do you enjoy about your work? 

I like being able to focus on several areas of interest, including farm and food system planning, green infrastructure and urban trees.

Similarly, what do you find challenging about your work? 

I find it challenging to have many projects at one time and to have enough time to devote to them all, especially those as complex and intricate as our food system.

What areas of the food system do you focus on in your work? 

I’ve focused on several areas: statewide comprehensive food system planning, regional farm and food planning for Franklin County with a focus on land and food access, and community food assessments for individual towns. We’ve completed the Franklin County Farm and Food System Project, focused on increased food access and food production, and co-authored the Massachusetts Local Food Action Plan.

In the work that you perform, where does addressing food systems issues fit in? How has this changed over time

Food system planning per se was not a stated focus of our agency five years ago. Now we are regularly working on food system related projects at several scales. Even if the primary goal of a planning project is not related to the food system, my colleagues and I are often thinking about the food system when we are working on open space plans, master plans, or transportation planning. I think there is more focus on social equity and food access, and more awareness of the need for access to affordable farmland, which permeates many areas of planning at the FRCOG.

Do you consider yourself a food systems planner? 

Although my official title is Land Use Planner, I do also think of myself as a food system planner.

What is the biggest food systems planning-related hurdle your community faced in recent years and how was it dealt with? 

I think funding is one of the biggest hurdles both for our organization and for many organizations and businesses in our region. After successfully obtaining funding for a couple of significant food system projects at the FRCOG, it has become more difficult to find funding. It has also become more competitive over time, especially for food system planning projects.

Do you have any advice for someone entering the food systems planning field? 

Ground your planning work in the real world – and do your homework to understand what work has already been done before hand. Be respectful of farmers and food processors – value their time and their real world experience. Don’t ask farmers and food processors to participate in your project unless there is real value to them for doing so.

What makes you successful in your work? What skills do you use the most in your food systems planning related work? 

I think being respectful of those already doing the work in the food system helps me to be more effective. The day-to-day skills I use the most are conducting research, analysis, and GIS mapping, creating graphics and infographics, and doing outreach to farmers and others in the food system community.

Sharing our stories: Emily Horton

Emily Horton at Good Food Bus launchHow are you working for healthy food for all and thriving communities in New England?

I grew up on an organic farm in mid-coast Maine.  In the mid-90’s, as family farms in my community were shutting down, including our own, I realized how important it was for society to recognize the benefits small-scale farming had on the community, the environment, and the economy. I studied agriculture as an undergraduate and traveled globally to compare industrial and sustainable farming practices. I obtained my Masters in Public Health with a focus on child malnutrition and sustainable agriculture solutions in Haiti. 

After college, I went back to my roots and began working at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) under Russell Libby’s leadership. Since MOFGA, I've taught nutrition education to low-income Mainers, served on community food councils, farm to school work-groups, and have been selected as a Maine delegate to the New England Food Summit in 2014 and 2015. I currently work as an agriculture and food policy staffer for Congresswoman Chellie Pingree of Maine’s first district.

What successes and challenges do you see in your work to achieving the Vision of “50 by 60” with racial equity and social justice, healthy food for all, sustainable farming and fishing, and thriving communities?

One of the successes - and challenges - is that we are all in this together and come to the table with our own perspectives. Whether you're a farmer, fishermen, legislator, or work for a nonprofit, everyone's voice brings valuable perspective to building a sustainable food system. Sometimes the conversations get messy or sidetracked, but the end result is a collaborative effort reflecting all communities and their needs. Regionally I think we are on a great path. 

Are you using the Vision in your work?

Absolutely. The New England Food Vision is a tangible document that helps me tell the story of regional partnerships in New England and Maine. And this is especially important when working with groups outside of these efforts.


Emily Horton at the launch of the first ever mobile farmers market in Maine, the Good Food Bus. 

Ten Questions with Niaz Dorry

This originally appeared on Food Tank's website April 16, 2016.

Food Tank had the chance to speak with Niaz Dorry, the Coordinating Director of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, who will be speaking at this year's Food Tank Summit in Washington, D.C.Niaz Dorry (L) with CT Senator Marilyn Moore & the 2016 New England Food Summit

Food Tank: What inspired you to get involved in food and agriculture?

Niaz Dorry (ND): It was the omission of seafood from food system conversations that really sparked my involvement. Considering it’s the only thing we eat with the word “food” in it and that our rationale for killing marine animals is to feed people, I found it puzzling that neither the food world nor the fishing world considered seafood worthy of inclusion in food system discussions. It has become increasingly important to me to since we are seeing the strategies that undermined our land-based food system spreading to the sea. We have a unique opportunity to stop the bad stuff while applying some of the good lessons and solutions from land food to sea food. 

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

ND: Redefining “efficiency.” High volume, low value, single species animal or crop production have defined success for too long. Shifting our thinking toward low volume, high value production systems focused on the diversity that nature provides is a huge opportunity that can yield so much ecological, social, and economic value. 

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

ND: Since I work on fisheries issues, the innovations around values-based fishing operations are really exciting to me. We’re rethinking what value means to us, away from money and towards one's judgment of what is important in life. This is huge and is leading to a major sea change.

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

ND: There are way too many of them to pick one. 

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

ND: That we have the potential to live harmoniously with each other on this planet where no one has to struggle for basic needs such as food. I can visualize it, and as a visual thinker, if I can see it, I know it is possible.

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

ND: Our ancestors didn’t have to deal with what I call “unidentified food objects”—things that are a shadow of what they are supposed to be, void of nutrients, connections, and values, and are branded as “food” when they don’t really deserve that title.  

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

ND: Equity and integrity in the entire food chain. 

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

ND: Try to eat in season (yes, even fish have seasons), and eat food that still looks like what it’s supposed to be. 

FT: What’s one issue within the food system you’d like to see completely solved for the next generation?

ND: Farmers, fishermen, food workers, and others who work in our entire food chain should not be struggling to feed themselves and/or their own families.

FT: What agricultural issue would you like for the next president of the United States to immediately address?

ND: Fair prices for community-based fishermen and family farmers, and fair wages for all food workers. Too many of our fishermen and farmers are working in the red. The current narrative around subsidies makes it sound like they are reaping wealth off tax payers’ backs when in reality, our current food system is straining their backs. Many of them can barely make ends meet. They deserve to be paid their cost of production, and all those whose hands touch our food deserve lives with dignity.

Shirley Sherrod’s Fight for Civil Rights and Farmers

This story originally appeared on Farm Aid's blog April 12, 2016 by Jessica Kurn.

Shirley Sherrod

For more than three decades, farm advocates have been invaluable, supporting farmers across the country in times of crisis and through important changes to their farm businesses. Much like America’s farming population, these advocates are aging. Farm Aid is working to capture the incredible lives and work of these special people and building the next generation of farm advocates across the country. At the link below you’ll hear from Shirley Sherrod, who we recorded with help from StoryCorps in Chicago before our 30th anniversary concert. Stay tuned to hear more first-person stories from other farm advocates in the coming months.


With strength and intuition, Shirley Sherrod has channeled personal tragedy into a decades-long career to advocate for fairness, justice and equality in America’s agricultural system.

Shirley Sherrod at the StoryCorps interview. Photo: StoryCorps

As a Black woman who grew up in Georgia, Shirley’s life and career are inextricably linked to the Civil Rights Movement, fighting particularly hard for the rights of Black farmers and other landowners in the South.

In the decades following the Civil War, farming and land ownership became essential facets of Black Americans’ newly-won citizenship, particularly in the South. Black land ownership peaked in 1910 when 218,000 black farmers owned 15 million acres of farmland. But by the turn of the century, these numbers declined to about 18,000 Black farmers owning only 2.3 million acres.

The dramatic decline in Black land ownership was no accident. Much of this loss is attributed to systemic discrimination and racism, which was all too common in both civil society and in the government, including at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Shirley and her husband Charles experienced USDA discrimination in the form of farm loan denials, which ultimately cost them the farmland they were trying to protect.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack meets with Shirley Sherrod in his office at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, DC in 2010. USDA Photo by Bob Nichols

Their experience was far from unique. Shirley joined a class-action lawsuit that black farmers filed against the USDA over the denial of farm loans. The case, Pigford v. Glickman, was initially settled in April 1999 for farmers who could prove discriminatory treatment in loan decisions by the USDA. While some 13,300 Black farmers received compensation under the settlement, making it the largest civil rights settlement at the time, another 70,000 Black farmers did not have their claims heard. After many more years of struggling for justice, the 2008 Farm Bill provided for additional claims to be heard, and in 2010, Congress appropriated $1.2 billion through Pigford II to compensate additional Black farmers.

Black land loss continues to be an enormous challenge. Farm Aid is honored to work with advocates like Shirley, as well as organizations, that fight against systemic racism and empower black farmers in the U.S.

  • Shirley Sherrod is the executive director of the Southwest Georgia Project, a Farm Aid partner since 2014 and recipient of $17,500 in Farm Aid funds. This organization educates, engages and empowers communities on a whole array of issues from voter rights, unjust policies effecting school children and families, to Black land loss.
  • In 1967, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives started to help limited resource communities produce a livable income and save their way of life. The Federation, which has received over $966,170 in Farm Aid funds, develops black-owned cooperatives and credit unions for community development; protects and expands the landholdings of black farmers throughout the south; and advocates for public policies that serve black farmers and other low-income rural communities.
  • The Land Loss Prevention Project (LLPP) was founded in 1982 by the North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers to curtail epidemic losses of Black owned land in North Carolina. LLPP broadened its mission in 1993 to provide legal support and assistance to all financially distressed and limited resource farmers and landowners in North Carolina. Farm Aid has worked with LLPP since 1990, granting $130,500 to the organization.

Network Profile: Andrea Solazzo

Andrea Solazzo with broccoli Andrea Solazzo is the Gleaning and Community Outreach Coordinator at Vermont Food Bank. Andrea joined Vermont Food Bank team a year ago and brings a diverse set of experiences and skills. Andrea attended Eckerd College in Florida studying Political Science and Religious Studies and continued to work there after graduation developing opportunities for students to travel abroad and immerse themselves in agricultural and environmental projects. Additionally, she has worked on an array of climate justice and food sovereignty issues for the United Nations, La Via Campesina, and across Vermont farms. She continues to dig at these issues through her work at the Vermont Food Bank. 

Why do you do what you do? 

My work addresses the need for fresh vegetables and distribution of fresh vegetables to rural Vermont and the Burlington area. It is inspiring to see people take charge of their health and make vegetables a part of their diet. There is a high demand for fresh vegetables at area food shelves and we try to support food shelf clients choices for a healthy, balanced diet.. 

What are you working on? What are your most urgent concerns? 

gleaning in a field The Vermont Food Bank alleviates hunger by gathering food from farms, grocery stores, distributors, and distributing the food to members of the community. My work focuses on harvesting produce at area farms and helping distribute it area food shelves. The produce we gather produce from farms is often used mobile food pantry, which goes to low-income senior housing sites and food shelves across the state. We are fortunate and very appreciative of all the farms and farmers that support our work and allow us to gather produce on their fields.  

How can the FSNE Network help you overcome or address those concerns? How can FSNE help build support of awareness for your concerns? 

It would be great to learn about what people are doing in food access around the region, especially how they are outreaching to specific populations in need. In addition to the annual Summit, it would be fantastic to have a food access monthly report that takes an in-depth focus on a food access program. I would appreciate learning about how organizations are identifying community members needs and shaping their food access programs around those needs.