Marion Nestle Challenges Funders to Be More Strategic and Political

Thursday, August 8, 2013
by Jenny Rempel, Tom Ford Fellow in Philanthropy, Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems, Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation
Food systems funding is hot right now. Foundations are supporting everything from food hubs to community gardening, and often without much coordination. This lack of coordination among funders echoes and engenders fragmentation in the food movement. Community Food Funders (CFF) was founded to organize, align and network philanthropists who are committed to an equitable, environmentally sound and sustainable food system.
On May 7th, over 55 people came together at the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund to learn, network, ideate, collaborate and celebrate CFF’s accomplishments. The second annual CFF gathering included funders from the NY-NJ-CT tri-state region, as well as a handful of food systems practitioners who were engaged to help inform CFF’s new working groups.
The evening’s keynote speaker, although famous for her scholarship on public health and food systems, was neither a funder nor a practitioner seeking funding. As the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, Marion Nestle’s salary is covered by her tenure status. With a perspective informed not from funding or fundraising but instead from food systems scholarship, Nestle offered three pieces of candid advice to food funders:
  1. Fund coalitions: Individual projects and initiatives can only ever succeed at a piecemeal approach to food systems reform.
  2. Work through collaboration not competition: Philanthropists and foundations that fund individually without coordinated strategies across the field aid and abet the fragmentation of the food movement.
  3. Get political: To change our corporatized, unsustainable and inequitable food systems, philanthropists — and, indeed, the food movement — need to move from demonstration projects to political demonstrations (within the confines of the charitable giving tax code, of course).
Marion Nestle encouraged the audience at Community Food Funders' Annual Gathering to work collaboratively to build the food movement.
Marion Nestle encouraged the audience at Community Food Funders’ Annual Gathering to work collaboratively to build the food movement.
As the author of Food Politics, Nestle’s third point should come as no surprise. She’s seen many food studies students shy away from the politicized activism she sees as necessary to confront the power of Big Ag and Big Food. To young foodies, Nestle says, politics with a capital P is smeared by corrupt officials, back-room deals and stifling gridlock. These un-politicized members of the food movement, Nestle continues, only want to “do good,” and don’t realize that doing good — for racial justice, economic vitality, environmental sustainability, social justice, any number of “good” causes related to food systems — requires organizing and advocacy to challenge power and address inequities.
CFF is already working towards some of the strategies suggested by Nestle. To better engage funders in collaborative work toward social justice and environmental sustainability, CFF recently rolled out working groups focused on four topics: 1) urban agriculture; 2) food chain workers; 3) public health and healthy food access; and 4) food hubs, financing and investment. These groups offer funders opportunities to dig deeply into issues directly related to their investments and align, collaborate and learn from fellow funders and also from nonprofit and public sector thought partners. Following Nestle’s keynote address, foundation staff and trustees were invited to engage in dialogues with these four working groups, which will continue their shared learning and collaborative work in the months ahead. Newcomers are always welcome.
Through the CFF working groups and steering committee, I can step back from my foundation’s individual funding strategy and better understand the strategic opportunities to build an equitable and sustainable regional food system. Collaborations like CFF represent an opportunity to break out of rigid silos and move from transactional philanthropy to transformative change. Through organizing, funders can begin to think of themselves less as gatekeepers and more as partners, activists and organizers. CFF is an opportunity for funders to be more strategic about their work by engaging in shared learning, partnering on novel projects and sharing funding strategies, rationales, ideas and questions. And as the annual gathering on May 7th highlighted, CFF usually brings good food and great conversation to the table, too.
This blog post originally appeared on the North Star Fund Community Blog and is reprinted with permission.
If you’re interested in learning more about Community Food Funders or the new working groups, please reach out to Mafruza Khan, Interim Food and Environmental Program Officer at North Star Fund, at
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