For nearly 20 years, the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin has been promoting healthy community food through its organic farm, tribal orchard, retail store, farmer’s market, a cannery facility to help community members process food, and educational programs to help people do it themselves.
Joined by the tribal food-distribution program and a wellness program, this complex array of efforts is known as Oneida Integrated Community Food Systems. Program managers, though, stress the importance of starting small and keeping it simple.
“Until they are interacting with it, people don’t change,” said Bill VerVoort, the OICFS coordinator. “They have to get personally involved.”
That involvement initially must be convenient, relevant and engaging. Meet people where they are, with a fun, hands-on activity. Take baby steps. The manager of the Oneida’s Tsyunhehkwa organic farm has seen too many people get discouraged when they try to do too much.
“It’s really easy to get frustrated if you plant too much,” said Jeff Metoxen. “When summer comes and it’s hot, it’s hard to get motivated to be out working on a big half-acre (plot). We tell people to start with a tabletop garden, something easier. Success leads to success later.”
Halfway across the world, in Hawaii, there is the same advice. At Wow Farm in Waimea, president Mike Hodson started small by planting one greenhouse. When that one greenhouse proved successful, he doubled his operation. Taking small steps and building on the success of each one, Hodson continued to double his operation – growing his farm into a 45-greenhouse operation that produces 6,000 pounds of tomatoes each week.
““When you start small, you make mistakes and you keep tweaking those mistakes to make yourself better,” explains Hodson. “It’s easier to tweak your mistakes on one greenhouse than 45. If you make mistakes then, you have to tweak 45 greenhouses. That’s a massive effort.”
Jeff Metoxen at Oneida says small victories can snowball into greater success. His colleague, VerVoort, says it’s equally important for the community members to see the food program constantly model what it means to follow through and be responsive to community needs.
“The secret (of our success) is relationship-building,” says VerVoort. “It really is. We help make a connection between people with needs and people who have resources….Another requirement is commitment. You can talk commitment and talk the talk all you want it…but when the community sees it, it’s a totally different kind of bonding with them.”
He describes a collaborative philosophy of partners filling gaps in order to meet shared goals, working side by side, not by issuing directives. That side-by-side approach fits with cultural preferences for collective progress rather than just individual gain.
It’s about a different way not only of working but also of being. Be the change.