Creating and Sustaining a Local Food Web

by Christina Bentrup, Garden Director

The Nashville Food Project has been proud to call ourselves a full circle organization in the past. We grow, cook and share food in a way where each of our programs nurture and sustain each other and our mission.  However recent events have led me to wonder if we have limited ourselves in speaking this way and if actually what we are growing into is a vibrant and resilient food web. 

We all learned in biology class that food webs are made up of interdependent linkages. No part of a web is too small to not have an oversized effect on the whole web if disrupted or displaced. In the garden program at TNFP we grow thousands of pounds of fresh produce for our meals program, work with over 75 community and market gardeners and engage hundreds of volunteers each month in learning about urban agriculture through doing this work.

Daily, in and around our gardens we compost, raise chickens, provide homes for bees and other pollinators, collect rainwater, plant cover crops to protect and nurture the soil - the list goes on and on. We collectively refer to these aspects of our gardens as ecosystem components. In our controlled environment, our gardens could survive without many of these aspects. But they thrive because each of these parts contributes to a whole that supports and sustains a vibrant farm ecosystem. 


I believe that what is happening in the gardens at TNFP is a microcosm of our larger work. Food webs depend upon producers, consumers and even decomposers - no component exists in isolation or can survive fragmentation. We believe the same is true for Nashville’s food system. The isolation and fragmentation of communities has led to people without enough food to eat and without the social connections to tap into community resources that can help. 
TNFP shares meals and gardens because we believe that food has an incredible ability to connect and unite people in deep ways. The non-profit partners we work with every day share our meals to build community in their programs. Our gardens provide places for connection to the land and to diverse community-building activities. Volunteers in all of our programs nurture and support this work and build community with us and each other every time they gather. We are creating and sustaining a vibrant food web that makes connections, supports people and carefully stewards our resources.

Someone told us recently that we needed to work more on connecting the dots in our programs. We have a difficult story to tell and a complex solution to the problems we’ve identified. We need to understand better the root causes of fragmentation and isolation in our communities. We need to find innovative ways to measure the impact of our work and to evaluate and to place value in the links in our food systems.
Decades of factory farming that has fragmented food supply chains and destroyed ecosystems have shown that linear efforts to simplify food production don’t work. In our gardens we strive for complexity and resiliency to support an ecosystem based on food production that is connected to our specific places and communities - as does The Nashville Food Project as a whole.


We strive to create and support connectivity, to build resiliency, and to do these things in a framework of justice and anti-racism.  It’s a difficult and complex story to tell but that doesn’t mean we should simplify our efforts. Rather we need to continue to appreciate the thousands of small links joining together to make big change. We cannot do this work alone. We invite you to be a part of our food web, help us share our story, and make the connections that build community through fighting hunger.