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26 March 2020

By: Karen Karp

A month ago, we would not have been able to comprehend the world we are living in today—a global crisis we may have believed could happen, but which we still could not (or would not) dare to imagine. We recall other traumatic events of the last 20 years—9/11, the 2008 Recession, fires in California, and hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, and Harvey. Each rocked our world and nudged our paradigm but did not jolt us out of place as COVID-19 has. We are, today, tangibly experiencing the precariousness of unbridled globalization.

Also a month ago, I picked up a book that had been sitting next to my bed for some time and began to read it. In Search of Grace: An Ecological Pilgrimage was written by Peter Reason, one of my professors from my graduate program at the University of Bath. It was published in 2017, a couple of years after Peter completed one of his last solo trips up around the west coast of Ireland and around to Scotland on “Coral,” his beloved sailboat. 

The book accomplishes many things and is an educational as well as an entertaining read (think action-adventure mixed with quotes from Buddhist monks; environmental sustainability theory; and nautical chart, geology and meteorology lessons). It hits on the idea of multidimensionality that I’ve always believed we’ve needed to be good consultants, and for our clients to be great at what they do.

For Peter’s pilgrimage to be successful, he needed to be well-prepared, to have both knowledge and tools to respond quickly to changing situations that were literally a matter of life or great danger (and possibly death). But perhaps most importantly he needed to have razor-sharp awareness about which techniques to use, and skills that come with a deep capacity for reflection and analysis, to make important, timely choices as the situation around him changed dramatically from one moment to the next.

As I was reading, I often found myself asking the question, What did he mean by “Grace” in the title of the book? At the same time, it was an unnecessary question—it was everywhere. One of the most impactful ideas about this is when he writes, “The ecosystem’s balance is maintained because the diverse members live in an intricate network of collaboration and competition that is dynamically stable.” When I think about the resiliency of our clients it so often comes down to precisely these qualities.

Right now I’m applauding our long-time client City Harvest for understanding immediately the critical role they have as an anchor of NYC’s food supply, adeptly managing and planning for dramatic changes in the balance between supply and demand, and putting systems in place to manage a complex workforce, many of whom are on the front lines of rapidly increasing demand for food across New York City. I’m seeing Open Door Family Medical Centers, which provides medical services for the most vulnerable residents across Westchester County, swiftly set up and implement workplace policies that will minimize COVID-19’s impact on that demographic, while keeping its staff as healthy, focused, and calm as possible. As lead HR executive for both organizations, Dick Batten, KK&P Vice President, has supported them through these changes.

Several of the New England food hubs we have worked with in recent years have deftly established robust home delivery options, expanding their services and operational load to ensure that homebound people have access to local foods and that local farmers—deprived of the critically important restaurant and institutional markets—have alternative markets. Similarly, food business incubator Hope & Main in Rhode Island has been hustling to support the numerous small businesses that manufacture product within their walls. They launched the Eat Strong RI initiative to connect RI residents to locally produced foods during this crisis, while also serving as a distribution site for free and reduced school lunches during the state’s school closures. Meanwhile, the Rhode Island Food Policy Council, with strategic support from Senior Consultant Shayna Cohen, is rapidly shifting gears to support the state’s food industry employers across sectors, exploring strategies such as worker exchanges to temporarily place workers displaced from one food system sector into another.

And back here in NYC, I’m incredibly proud of how West Side Campaign Against Hunger, on the front lines of direct service emergency food response, is not losing vision for the long-term strategy of collective action with peer organizations New York Common Pantry, Project Hospitality, and St. John’s Bread & Life; Senior Consultant Ben Kerrick is helping these four organizations collaborate and coordinate best practices in the context of the rapidly evolving coronavirus crisis. Ben has also been working intensively over the past two weeks with Rivendell Farms of the Carolinas, to design and launch a series of food resource maps for the Charlotte, NC, region; the first of these maps can be seen here:

Gregory Bateson writes in Steps to an Ecology of Mind that the human mind is driven by conscious purpose, concerned not with long-term stability but with the pursuit of short-term goals. His description of conscious purpose as a short-cut device that allows us to get quickly at what we want without regard for the consequences for the wider whole results in the unbalancing of circuits and undermining of the ecosystem’s stability. COVID-19 presents a case for rethinking the scale and scope of globalization that currently defines our world and, I’d argue, which has undermined the ecosystem, of which we—humans—are an important part. 

We may not experience stability again for some time, but when I look around today and see how the current crisis has upended our daily lives, I am hopeful that we can allow the crisis to help us foster a deeper appreciation for all that we take for granted or perhaps overlook—the physical world, our friends and families, history, culture, art. 

Thomas Berry, in The Dream of the Earth wrote, “A radical reassessment of the human situation is needed.” The coronavirus adds a new layer of urgency to that radical reassessment. My copy of In Search of Grace is dog-eared and devoured. The time taken to read this book—in fact to sail along with Peter on his pilgrimage—has reaffirmed what’s precious yet also vulnerable, and has also confirmed for me that the investments and commitments made by our clients and community across the agriculture, food and health sectors over the last generation will not only hold but will lead as we emerge from this crisis and rebuild our society and economy—while entering into a more graceful relationship with the planet.