It was during this time that Lowe—a fundraiser for a community garden that supported an under-resourced elementary school in the city—began to ponder his own upbringing and further understand that the area’s food system in its current state is fundamentally flawed.
“This made me realize that I had a different experience growing up. I had access, and the kids I worked with didn't know that the tomato that they're using for meat sauce came in from the dirt—not just the corner store.” Lowe shared.
For his expertise in the Niagara Falls and greater Niagara County food system and his gift of community building, Lowe was asked to participate on the Regional Advisory Council the WNY Regional Food System Initiative, now known as Food Future WNY.
“I think it’s a great initiative, and the sky’s the limit with what we can accomplish,” Lowe said. “The right people are around the table.”
At the core of what guides his work both in the NFLFAP and for Food Future WNY is the crucial focus on grassroots representation and leadership by those who are a part of the community it affects—especially those who face systemic exclusion and oppression.
He shared, “If [the food system] doesn’t represent the people it’s supposed to serve, it’s going to start prioritizing profits over people. Then, there’s no difference between the current food system and the one we’re working toward.”
Select quotes have been edited for clarity.
You would be hard pressed to find a more "up-beet" person in the Western New York Food Regional Food System Initiative work than Chris Hartman. Yes, beets are his favorite food because of their underdog status in the food world, but his passion for educating people about the importance of how our food is grown and consumed is infectious.
Chris says he was always interested in teaching but not in a traditional classroom. During his senior year at Vassar College in the Hudson Valley, he landed the only internship he could find doing community-based education and it was at a farm run by three nuns. They allowed him to live there and learn the art of farming alongside them. He graduated, traveled a bit but was drawn right back to that farm to help it grow.
"Those were super formative years for me. Learning from the nuns how to feed the community in need around you while engaging youth in that process was such a privilege," said Chris.
After a few years on the farm, Chris was a newlywed looking to earn a master's degree and start a family with his new wife closer to home in Rochester, NY, all while keeping education and farming his north star. During grad school, he started a farmers market in his neighborhood. On opening day, he hoped for 60 people but 500 showed up. He knew there was an appetite for better understanding where your food came from and access to locally grown food. That led to another project where he created workplace-based delivery of fresh, local grown produce in downtown Rochester and he included local high school students in developing it. All of this eventually led to him starting Headwater, which sources food from over 200 regional family farms and businesses to distribute to individuals, families, chefs and institutional food service throughout New York State.
Chris' understanding of the interconnectivity of the food system made him an excellent candidate for the Regional Advisory Council (RAC) for Food Future WNY. A 9-county planning effort, led by the SCALE consultant team, to strengthen the region's food system to achieve resilience, equity, strong economic performance, and reduced food insecurity.
"I knew I wanted to participate in this effort right when I was asked because the SCALE team was made up of some of the most interesting national thinkers right now in the food system space," said Chris. "As I got into the work, I was impressed with the plan and the approach, it was methodical and disciplined and I appreciated that we made some adjustments at the halfway point."
This storytelling project was made possible through funding from the WNY Foundation