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    Whidbey gets serious about building local, healthy food systems

    Using Whidbey Island as a blueprint for healthy, sustainable food communities, the Whidbey Institute launches the first in a series of conferences dedicated to thriving communities.

    The greenhouse at the Whidbey Institute, host of the upcoming community food conference.

    The greenhouse at the Whidbey Institute, host of the upcoming community food conference. Whidbey Institute

    A produce stand in Italy gives consumers a direct line to healthy, nutritious food.

    A produce stand in Italy gives consumers a direct line to healthy, nutritious food. vgm8383 via Flickr (CC)

    The Whidbey Institute is only an hour and a half from Seattle, yet seems light years away. Maybe it’s the hush of its setting — perched amid 70 historic wooded acres that insulate this remarkable place from what passes for reality. More likely it’s the institute’s heartfelt mission of connecting people to the natural world with deep, ongoing conversations. Its goal is nothing less than to renew our life energies by encouraging us to imagine and create an abundant, sustainable, and life-affirming future. From the organic vegetable garden that supplies the dining room to the winding paths through the forest, the Institute embodies its mission.
    Early next year the Whidbey Institute will host its first Thriving Communities Conference. The three-day event, February 2-5 2012, will be focused on food. “Food is a way into our souls,” says Executive Director Jerry Millhon. “We’re taking on food first, because it’s important to get the gut taken care of with dignity.”
    Basic to the health of any community is how it cares for the hungry — a truth brought home by recent, shocking poverty statistics. According to census data released last September, more Americans are living in poverty than at any time in the last 52 years. About 46.2 million people, or 15.1 percent of the population, is in need.
    Starting with a definition of community that’s larger than just geographic, where better to host a conference on taking care of your own than on south Whidbey Island? Here resourceful and dedicated volunteers have created a safety net of charities and mutual reliance. Good Cheer Food Bank, Friends of Friends, Whidbey Island Nourishes, and Hearts and Hammers are thriving charities that grow and distribute food, repair housing, help pay medical bills, and feed hungry school kids with nutritious sack lunches. (See my recent Pacific Magazine cover story in the Seattle Times.) It’s these volunteers who will lead workshops and keynote at the conference, sharing experiences and hard-earned wisdom. “We can’t rely on the Federal government; we need to move locally to get help for the hungry,” says Millhon.
    The Whidbey Institute is planning five years of Thriving Community Conferences to explore the critical issues facing small communities, using Whidbey Island — from Coupeville to Clinton — as a living laboratory for change and inspiration. At the inaugural February gathering, participants will define the attributes of a healthy local food system, create an optimal food blueprint, and identify common challenges and strategies for overcoming them.
    “What’s the flow of food on this island, and how does it get to the table?” asks Millhon. “What is our capacity to thrive and be resilient?” Millhon anticipates that community activists, leaders of food banks, Rotarians, and perhaps a mayor or two will attend. Still, anyone ready to step up and do something in their communities is welcome, from individuals to community-based teams. People from the Napa Valley to Bellingham have already expressed interest in attending.
    Millhon sees the conference as a beginning step in crafting ongoing relationships between communities. He hopes these relationships will grow into a network of support and collaboration that will infuse participants with ongoing opportunities that extend well beyond the shores of Whidbey Island.
    If you go: “Building a Healthy, Local Food System,” February 2-5, 2012 at the Whidbey Institute.


    Valerie Easton started her career as a librarian shelving books at Lake City Library when she was in high school. Now she writes full time, and has authored five books, including The New Low Maintenance Garden and her newest title Petal & Twig. She writes a weekly column and feature stories for Pacific Northwest magazine in the Seattle Times.

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    Posted Fri, Oct 28, 10:16 a.m. Inappropriate

    Heading for our 12th year living in Langley, friends and neighbors such as WHIDBEY INSTITUTE continually offer us interesting, fun, healthy, and compelling opportunities such as the THRIVING COMMUNITIES CONFERENCE that invariably enrich our lives and those of others. Valerie Easton captures well the island community's dedication to feeding the hungry, nourishing children, helping the sick to heal, and the frail to be safe. We are so grateful to have found Whidbey, an island full of heart and hardworking folks who walk their talk each and every day! Thanks Val, for spotlighting what are to us, core attributes of a place that also happens to be oh-so-pretty!


    Posted Fri, Oct 28, 10:38 a.m. Inappropriate

    This was a great article, Val. "what is the flow of food on this island, and how does it get to the table." Love that quote.

    Posted Fri, Oct 28, 3:48 p.m. Inappropriate

    The Whidbey Institute will be the perfect place for this conversation. We hope to see lots of folks participate and bring home the messages to their own communities. Let's share our wisdom and questions and use the Institute as the home for that process.


    Posted Fri, Oct 28, 5:32 p.m. Inappropriate

    Valerie Easton's article, as always, captures the essence of good intentions, noting Whidbey Institute as a catalyst which embraces all efforts to become a sustainable community.
    I follow Val Easton's writings, articles and blogs-as her writings expand our thinking and therefore our call to action. Thank-you Crossfire -and thank-you Val!


    Posted Sat, Oct 29, 1:10 p.m. Inappropriate

    The WHIDBEY INSTITUTE is approaching these critical issues of Thriving Communities is very creative ways. I am pleased to be a Whidbey Island resident and to have this vibrant community on our island.


    Posted Sun, Dec 11, 10:52 a.m. Inappropriate

    Why can't these groups ever talk in "plain English"? Instead, they use silly words to make the simplest thing seem more important. "abundant" "sustainable" "life-fulfilling" "thriving communities"

    Farming is an age-old food production method. None of our old relatives who farmed for a living would enjoy using the silly new-age words that the trendy people on Whidbey love to use.

    "Sustainable" isn't a helpful word. It's simple: what is needed is BACK TO THE BASICS. Let's just help people learn how to grow good food, and help them learn how to prepare or cook it well -- not talk with fancy words that trended out of Califorian EST seminars.

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