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