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Oakland-based Roots of Change champions policy to instigate food system reform

Turquoise waves splash against a shoreline of rich alabastrine sand.  The repetitive rushing of these steady surges against the coast replaces the morning silence.

Speaking on his phone by the beautiful Baja California Sur coast, Michael Dimock has a couple of things on his mind: the last hours of vacation and the U.S. food system.

Dimock is president of Oakland-based Roots of Change (ROC), a project of the Public Health Institute which advocates for a healthy California food system that is fair and environmentally sustainable.  He is also the host of “Flipping the Table,” a podcast featuring discussions about the present and future of food and farming.

“The problem is in how we think really,” Dimock said. “How we think about justice. Do we even think about justice? Then how do we think about our relationship to the planet and natural system?”

The U.S. food system is a behemoth comprised of the infrastructure and processes to get food from farms and onto tables.  These operations include everything from the growing and harvesting of crops to the marketing and consumption of food products.

In 2017, 21.6 million jobs came from agriculture and food-related industries.  In addition to employing 11% of the U.S. population, these businesses also contributed $1.053 trillion to U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). These numbers are according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Despite these benefits, farming has been contributing to climate change, deforestation, pollution and species degradation.

For instance, pesticides contaminate surface and groundwater, affecting public health. Nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from animal waste, fertilizer and soil erosion has created a 6,952 square mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Resultant algae blooms deplete oxygen in the water, killing countless birds, fish and marine mammals.

“The largest problem is that we don’t understand … the need to work with nature rather than against nature,” Dimock said. “We think we can control nature with chemicals and other processes. Therefore, we disrupt the natural cycles which keep the planet resilient.”

Yet, this system is a complicated issue because food production is essential and necessary to feed the human population.

Understanding the catch-22, ROC initiates and supports Californian food and farm policies aimed at shaping sustainable processes and outputs.  Though it is focused on policy, the organization shares a commitment to educating the public about the path their food travels.

“The food system is so complex; you can’t actually change it by changing one thing other than the way people think,” Dimock iterated. “How do we think about something? And so that’s why we continue to focus on how people think.”

Dimock also urges people to, as he puts it, vote for their food.  He recommends students learn about policy, organize on campuses and, in turn, educate their peers.

To help constituents track where California legislators stand on food and farm policies, ROC created a Food and Farm Scorecard.  The California Food and Farming Network currently manages it.

ROC has partnered with UC Davis to bring climate scientists, activists and farmers together to discuss climate change.  This kind of face-to-face interaction enables farmers to hear straight from scientists and helps researchers understand each side’s needs.

The organization sees itself as a catalyst to spark initiatives that it then passes along to other organizations to manage.

This process can be seen in the timeline of Market Match, a healthy food incentive program that matches customers’ CalFresh benefits at over 260 farm-direct sites across California.  In 2016, almost 1 in 7 Americans relied on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) for food; the Market Match program helps California recipients afford a more balanced diet.

CalFresh is the California version of SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp program. It provides financial assistance for low-income residents to purchase food.

Recipients of CalFresh can get $10, the general weekly cap per shopper, of fruits and vegetables matched at a participating farm-direct side, such as a farmer’s market, and therefore take home $20 worth of fresh produce.

“It doubles their buying power, contributes to small and midsize independent farmers, and keeps money local—supporting job creation and economic growth,” Ecology Center Food and Farming Program Director Carle Brinkman said in an email.

Based in Berkeley, the Ecology Center works with a network of regional leaders who operate farmers’ markets, mobile farmers’ markets, farm stands and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program sites across California.

Once ROC created the Market Match program in 2009 and got it off the ground, they passed it onto the Ecology Center to manage.

Brinkman shared that, last year, the program drove $4.6 million in spending by low-income families at farm-direct sites, mainly farmers’ markets. In response to a survey, 73% of families reported purchasing more fruits and vegetables each week. Furthermore, 71% expressed an improvement in their family’s health as a result of the Market Match program.

“We see California’s Market Match program, and other healthy food incentive programs like it across the country, as an important lever to drive more CalFresh/SNAP spending directly with farmers,” Brinkman said in an email. “Direct marketing through farmers’ markets and farm stands means 100% of the dollar goes to the farmer. The farmers selling at those sites are small and midsize independent farmers and they take those dollars and reinvest in their own communities.”

The Ecology Centers reports that 84% of farmers sold more fruits and vegetables. In addition, 37% reported expanding their operations—new hires, equipment, acreage and crops—because of the program.

“I’ve gone to the farmer’s markets … It’s a fabulous experience and know that that means a lot to those families,” Dimock said. “So yeah, it’s kind of like this is part of what keeps me motivated, despite the long slog to change the policy.”

Dimock became president of ROC in 2006. Even prior to his current role, an accumulation of moments has fostered his love for agriculture and an interest in changing the food system.

On his uncle’s Santa Clara cattle ranch, a young Dimock first observed that humans and agriculture can co-exist with nature. 

“Here, the wildlands are very present, but they were also raising cattle,” Dimock said.

He spent 1979 in a Nepali village helping subsistence farmers harvest rice and millet. It was also during his year that the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. It became clear to Dimock that resources for economic and public development become scarce during times of war. 

This observation led him to pursue a Masters in International Affairs from Columbia University.  He studied Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of economic and political systems reformation, known as Perestroika. Most notably, Gorbachev’s thoughts on systems consistency prompted Dimock to begin thinking about them too.

In 1989, Dimock began his career in agribusiness as a sales executive in Europe. He moved on in 1992 to found Ag Innovations Network: a strategic planning group for companies and governments interested in healthier food and agriculture. Dimock is also the founder of Slow Food Russian River that supports clean and fair food in the Russian River watershed of Sonoma County.

In 2004, he received funding from the ROC Fund for a project that brought together multiple stakeholders, including environmentalists and farmers, to create a model for people to understand the current food system’s complexities and problems.

Reminiscent of Gorbachev, they first asked themselves, “How do systems work?” 

Their efforts led to, for instance, changing a state law concerning pesticide usage around schools.  The ROC Fund ended up requesting the model go nationwide. Since then, ROC has shifted its focus more toward policy. Their efforts have included advocating for AB 614, which would expand food donation tax credits, and AB 842 for hunger-free preschools.

To drive food system reform, the organization partners with a vast network of individuals, community-based organizations, food producers and businesses, advocating nonprofits, government agencies and their financial supporters.

“As we empower more politicians to make good decisions around food, they’re going to balance the markets, the media and the political process,” Dimock said. “We got to work together.”

To learn more about ROC’s policy and program initiatives, visit their website at  “Flipping the Table” is also available on their website; season two is slated to include discussions with New York chefs, activists and farmers.