FLEdGE: Reviving the “meet” in meetings and the “fun” in the fundamentals of sustainable food systems


Lesli Hoey– September 19, 2017

How often do you walk away from a conference or series of all-day meetings feeling energized, rather than drained? I was not only energized, but inspired after participating recently in the international meeting of the Food: Locally Embedded, Globally Engaged (FLEdGE) Partnership, an initiative led by FLEdGE PI Alison Blay-Palmer, Associate Professor at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Centre for International Governance Innovation and founding Director of the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems.

I might still be considered fairly green to the world of academia, starting my first faculty position in 2012, but I quickly learned to expect less of the world of conferences, academic retreats and research meetings than I had as a wide-eyed graduate student. I always expected to walk away from such time-intensive events renewed with new research ideas, challenged by provocative thinking, and excited to pursue new partnerships. This type of intellectual reflection and connection still happens on occasion, but it’s far less common than I imagined. At best, I learned that such events tend to be opportunities to catch up with old friends and colleagues, and to push yourself to get a new paper off the ground. At worst, much of the time can be spent listening to panel discussions that are uninspiring opportunities to naval gaze while your e-mail inbox piles up.

In stark contrast, FLEdGE—described as a “research- and knowledge-sharing network”—did not disappoint in delivering on its tagline during the Sept 7 and 8 meeting in Waterloo, Canada. Succinct, thought-provoking presentations and engaging panel discussions were followed by long breaks and evenings over fantastic food and drink that encouraged participants to carry on conversations long after the day’s events. As others at the meeting described, it felt more like “a foodie TED Conference”, or a “work camp”, rather than a typical academic event. It not only brought together many of the scholars I have read and cited for some time but also a new generation of rising scholars and many I was introduced to from across Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, and beyond. Blay-Palmer started off our meeting by having us reflect on the synergies we saw across presentations, to think about how this connected to our work, and to make theoretical as well as practical connections. Ultimately, she told us—“Have fun—build networks!”. That I did.

I found someone working on remarkably similar research in Kenya on food environments, diets, and food governance. Several of us solidified the next steps we plan to take for a new endeavour just getting off the ground focused on urban food policy advocacy. I am already talking to local partners about a new tool for food policy councils I learned about at the meeting, as well as a framework for studying food networks that I can use in my work in Michigan. I met others who I might collaborate with on participatory food systems planning internationally and a working group outlining competencies for food systems education that parallels work we are doing at the University of Michigan. And I walked away with numerous insights, new questions, and lists of resources that will greatly enhance my teaching, service and research.

Ultimately, at a moment when I often have my head down, chugging along towards turning in my tenure package, the FLEdGE meeting inspired me to think strategically about how I want the next five years of my academic career to unfold. It left me with a renewed commitment to the fundamental issues of equity and advocacy that brought me to academia to study and teach about sustainable food systems in the first place. It reminded me too that I am not alone in these endeavours—that this field is made up of a community of practitioners, students and academics that have a strong conviction to leave this world better than how we found it, from the perspective of food systems as well as the many issues that are inextricably connected to food, including the environment, social justice, public health, poverty, the economy, and more. Most of all, it was precisely because the FLEdGE meeting focused so much on creating the spaces for us all to meet others that it became so easy—dare I say fun—to engage in deep intellectual reflection and chart out future collaborations.

Lesli Hoey is an Assistant Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Michigan.