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You Can Breakthrough a Broken Food System to Lead Change

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By Cynthia Belliveau, Dean of University of Vermont Continuing and Distance Education and professor in UVM’s Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences.


We have a problem. The current American food system is ecologically, economically and energetically unsustainable. There are nearly seven billion people who need to eat. We have a global system that degrades our land, our health and our humanity through short-sighted practices and policies that benefit a few at the top. In order to change this, a regional approach is necessary – an approach that is from the ground up, literally and figuratively; a more distributed system that’s innovative and proven to be workable, sustainable and inclusive.

So how do we begin to make sense of all this? The upcoming Breakthrough Leaders for Sustainable Food Systems is where all points-of-view come together to determine how to create a healthy food system that can feed a hungry plant. The goal of the program—both online and on-campus—is to help emerging leaders in food systems learn to better articulate and use their voices to talk about alternative food systems.

Knowledge is the vital ingredient that we all need. It’s how we begin to understand not only where and how food gets to our plates, but also how it affects our health, our economy, our environment, and our social world. I think you will quickly realize that everything is connected when it comes to food.

Through the Breakthrough Leaders Professional Certificate program, we created a framework by dividing the entire food system into four quadrants: environmental, economic, health, and social. These categories are wide enough for many interpretations, but narrow enough to allow us to focus.

We cover the tough topics: factory farms, obesity, loss of farms, migrant workers, food miles, scarcity, access, hunger, diet-related disease, loss of cooking knowledge, loss of diversity, GMOs, the Farm Bill, consolidation of supply chains. I won’t lie — it will get depressing. We will delve into the scary, but we’ll also serve up solutions.

Hear from past participants as they put into practice some of the learnings from the program:

“First of all, I would say that it’s important to try to let go of preconceptions and think critically toward solutions. Too often people get bogged down in their own ways of thinking, and being open to other points of view is the only way to get around this. On a more tangible note, I would simply say, do it! Food systems solutions and opportunities are going to have to come from many different angles. Whether it’s working on a farm, studying at school, interning for a policymaker, or any number of other endeavors, there are many leverage points to effect positive change.”

Serge Wiltshire, 2014 Breakthrough Leaders for Sustainable Food Systems


“One of the key lessons I learned at UVM was that leadership isn’t just about leading by example, but leading by using all of your senses. A lot of my work is about engaging employees about what they care about. I have to slow down and sense what is happening with employees. My job is to support our purpose-driven culture with positive energy and influence without authority.”

Emily Getty, 2018 Breakthrough Leaders for Sustainable Food Systems


“After completing the UVM Breakthrough Leaders program, I kept thinking about the helpful ways to improve the health of a community. I kept asking myself, what’s the best way to solve so many issues that are important to me – mental health, obesity, substance abuse? It always kept coming back to food.”

Rex Manchester, 2014 Breakthrough Leaders for Sustainable Food Systems


I’m fortunate to work with some truly smart and inspiring people at the University of Vermont and the State of Vermont, who care deeply about these issues and have compelling alternative plans. But we need you. We need to bring together people who are passionate about re-creating our food system to make it more sustainable in its practice and more equitable in its access. Join us on online from May 20-31 and on the UVM campus June 3-7. We are also very thankful for our partnership with program sponsor Ben & Jerry’s.

Registration is open but space is limited for Breakthrough Leaders for Sustainable Food Systems.