In a world where sustainable food systems are becoming increasingly vital, Elias Berbari, an alumnus of the Master's of the Environment (MENV) program specializing in Sustainable Food Systems (SFS), is making a significant impact. He is currently serving as the Development Specialist at Fresh Approach, a non-profit organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. During his time at MENV, Elias emphasized the importance of obtaining a deep understanding of systems thinking, as well as policies—such as the Farm Bill and SNAP—that shape our food system. This knowledge equips him to critically assess the complexities of food production, distribution, and equity issues.
In his current role, Elias thrives on collaborative efforts. The organization sources from over 25 regional farms for its mobile farmers' market truck and actively engages with the communities it serves. Elias points to the Community Advisory Board (CAB) as a testament to their dedication to community engagement. The CAB, comprised of residents living in the communities where Fresh Approach works, serves as a platform for discussions about local needs and allows members to design and implement their own projects. We can throw out numbers and statistics as much as we want, but telling and amplifying stories is crucial.
One key part of Fresh Approach’s work has been with coalitions and collaboratives in the Bay Area. These partnerships, founded on shared values of community-driven food systems, have facilitated resource sharing and advocacy work. Elias mentions their involvement in budget advocacy efforts, particularly in securing food security funding in San Francisco, and how they infuse a farmer's perspective into these discussions, thus creating new market opportunities for growers.
One area for improvement in this space is breaking down barriers in communication and access to resources. Elias identifies the danger of working in silos within the food system. He stresses the importance of considering the environmental and social aspects of food production, distribution, and access. For instance, he highlights the interconnectedness of affordable housing and food, emphasizing that food systems do not exist in a vacuum. A common misconception Elias confronts is the belief that industrial agriculture is necessary to feed the world. He emphasizes that we already produce enough food to feed everyone; the issue is distribution. Elias advocates for a values-driven approach, asking critical questions about the true cost of food and its impact on healthcare.
One emerging and exciting trend in this line of work is the inclusion of small-scale farmers and farmers of color in larger food assistance efforts and institutional purchasing. Elias sees this shift as a promising step toward a more inclusive and equitable food system. Food hubs and other food aggregators can play a vital role in connecting farmers with institutions and ensuring a consistent supply of fresh, nourishing food. Furthermore, Elias emphasizes the role of Food as Medicine work and its potential to lower healthcare costs and improve community health. Produce prescription programs, in collaboration with healthcare clinics, are a core component of Fresh Approach’s work, aligning with the White House Strategy's recognition of food as medicine.
Different players within this broader system can serve as catalysts, barriers, or sometimes both in achieving sustainability and equity goals. Too often, we accept the narratives created by the dominant voices in the food system, such as Big Agriculture (“big ag”) and Contained Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). From the institutional perspective, huge companies can dominate the market by offering low prices. However, those prices don't reflect the true cost of food.
Elias lived and studied in Colorado when the Farmer Worker Bill of Rights passed. He remembers learning about the pushback from power holders in the food system. The framing of the narrative is vital, and it must center the voices of often-exploited yet always-essential food systems workers. Something important to acknowledge is that the people at these big ag companies are not cartoon characters—they are human, too. They may have a particular idea of what progress and success look like that they've bought into, and yelling at one another does not usually lead to productive conversations. Focusing on the differences between players in this realm is easy, but one can instead find allies and build solutions from the ground up. Suddenly, it becomes clear that organizing works better than bickering.
Advocating for farm worker rights or good food purchasing programs and holding institutions accountable to the sustainability goals or racial equity goals they have set, it becomes untenable to source from how we have been doing it habitually. More often than not, good intentions exist, but communication serves as a significant barrier. Elias believes that accountability is critical to reshaping the future of sustainable agriculture. Holding institutions accountable for their sustainability and equity goals can drive change in sourcing and purchasing practices. Mapping out players in the food system, from farmers to distributors, helps institutions transition toward more sustainable practices.
He also emphasizes the importance of starting change at the local level and building from there. Local initiatives, like sugar-sweetened beverage taxes, can serve as proof of concept for broader change. It takes courage and imagination to reconsider the current food system, which is rooted in many historically oppressive practices. The decisions we have made, particularly policy-wise, are just decisions. Elias quotes a food policy professor from MENV, Taber Ward, J.D., "If humans made it, we could undo it, especially from a legal standpoint." Elias envisions a global food system that prioritizes values and relationships over industrial-scale practices.
In conclusion, Elias Berbari's journey from the MENV program to his role at Fresh Approach exemplifies the potential of holistic knowledge, community engagement, and values-driven approaches to transform our food systems. His insights remind us that sustainable food systems are not just about production and distribution but also about reimagining success, breaking down barriers, and telling the stories of resilience and change.