Two women involved in food policy at the local and national levels spoke about the importance of a sustainable, locally-based food system at a panel discussion Thursday afternoon.

Both Rebecca Nemec, a fellow at The Food Project in Massachusetts, and Jennifer McTiernan, a founding member of CitySeed in New Haven, discussed the various economic and social effects of local food movements in New Haven, Boston and across the country. The discussion was the latest event in a speaker series organized by the Yale Sustainable Food Project.

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McTiernan described the formation of CitySeed, a non-profit organization she started with three of her neighbors more than two years ago when they realized that there was nowhere to buy fresh food in their Wooster Square neighborhood. They launched the Wooster Square Farmers’ Market in July 2004, and three more markets were established in other New Haven neighborhoods in response to resident interest.

CitySeed has increasingly become involved in food policy, McTiernan said, and was instrumental in establishing the New Haven Food Policy Council in June 2005.

“It was a long process, but it’s finally coalescing,” she said. “We’ve caught the policy bug, and now we’re working with both the bottom-up approach and from the top-down, policy level.”

While McTiernan said CitySeed was “just starting to figure things out,” Nemec’s Food Project has worked to promote social unity and community reform in the greater Boston area through sustainable agriculture since its inception in 1991.

“The Food Project connects very different parts of the food system, from the producers to the consumers to the communities and the environment itself — the land,” Nemec said.

Nemec emphasized the importance of young people in the sustainable food movement, discussing the success of The Food Project’s Summer Youth Program. The program brings together 60 teenagers each summer to run farmers’ markets and work on one of The Food Project’s four farms, three of which are located in urban areas in Boston.

In addition to speaking about the successes of their respective organizations, both Nemec and McTiernan openly addressed the negative perceptions of the sustainable food movement and the problems their organizations incur.

“The toughest question we’ve had to answer at the farmers’ markets is, ‘Why is this so much more expensive?’” McTiernan said. “I can understand that the idea of farmers’ markets and sustainable food programs is seen as elitist. But if we want there to be farms in Connecticut, we as a community have to decide to spend a little more — if we don’t want our farms to become tract housing.”

Nemec said that while one of its goals is to unite young people from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, one of the greatest challenges for The Food Project is keeping young urban men involved with the project for multiple years.

New Haven resident Laurel Coniglio, who has volunteered at the Yale Farm, said she found it informative to hear about the organizations’ attempts to change fundamentally the way people think about food.

“It was interesting to hear about the urban youth initiative and its attempt to change young people’s ideas about food through education and engage food with other issues in their life,” she said. “You can’t change the entire social system, and yes, there may be a problem retaining young men of color, but at least you’re trying to engage them and change their thinking, whether it be about food or social justice issues.”

YSFP affiliates said the speaker series aims to make the project more accessible to the general Yale population.

“The idea in bringing these speakers here was specifically to address social justice,” YSFP student worker Gordon Jenkins ’07 said. “Farmers’ markets and the YSFP are seen as sort of elitist. The idea is to make both the project tangible and to make food more than just eating in fancy dining halls. Food can be a means of uniting all these issues — health, poverty, food security, social justice — with agriculture and eating well.”

Jenkins is a food columnist for the News.

The next planned YSFP speaker is Erika Lesser, executive director of Slow Food USA, a non-profit organization that aims to preserve regional food traditions despite the industrialization of America’s food supply. Lesser will speak at a Davenport College Master’s Tea on April 4.