Social Sustainability is Essential, Especially Now
Chris Hartman ’93, P’22, ’24 is an academic, farmer, and founder and president of Headwater Food Hub in Rochester. Headwater is a wholesale food distributor based in Wayne County that links regional farmers and food producers with both individual and commercial consumers. By managing supply chain logistics, aggregation, distribution, and sales for a network of farms, Headwater can be socially and environmentally responsible, while offering top-quality food. Chris served as Harley’s Director of Social and Environmental Sustainability from 2007 to 2016.
by Beth Bailey & Sarah Chambers / Photos by Quinn Hartman ’22
October 7, 2021
October 7, 2021
by Beth Bailey & Sarah Chambers / Photos by Quinn Hartman ’22

According to the United Nations, social sustainability means identifying and managing business impacts, both positive and negative, on people. One part of social sustainability requires involving citizens, which leads to understanding, engagement, and knowledge. If we start with involving citizens, while focusing on varying individuals’ quality of life and how a sustainable, healthy, and just society can be created, then education is one key component.

The way Chris sees it, The Commons at Harley serves many aspects of education that can help support the idea of social sustainability. Within the building itself there are sustainable features such as solar panels and the technology systems that run them and gather data. Students have the opportunity to review the data and look for trends that can be used in planning, accessing, and experimenting future modifications to the systems. Design/build thinking, a cornerstone usage of Commons spaces downstairs, allows students to work with their hands, problem solve, innovate, and understand green technology. Not everything they design works the first time; sometimes projects fail, but the process is invaluable. The challenges, and the thinking behind them, lead students to creative approaches backed by systematic problem-solving steps.

In the upstairs portion of The Commons are the Briggs Center for Civic Engagement and the Center for Mindfulness and Empathy Education, where students come together in groups and to engage as a population as they learn how to take action within the larger community. By learning to listen, understand, and value different perspectives, while having productive dialogues (even when they disagree), Harley students become well prepared for college and the post-college world. Many of them also become lifelong proponents of social sustainability.

As Chris puts it: “All of this is important groundwork because if communities cannot understand and listen to each other across differences, or come together to form some type of consensus on what needs to change, they cannot collaboratively solve problems, such as economic, environmental, and even food availability.”

Food Brings People Together

Headwater Food Hub is building a Good Food System model, bringing together people, farms, and local businesses with a focus on social and environmental sustainability and community health. They work with a network of local, sustainable farmers and artisanal food producers to provide convenient access to this region’s best foods. Through their direct-to-consumer project, The Good Food Collective, they offer year-round deliveries for individuals and families across Central New York, and via their wholesale program, they serve restaurants, institutions, and other distribution partners.

“Part of what we’re doing in the world of sustainability is trying to understand in an action/research-oriented way. Not just as an intellectual exercise, but to dig deep into an understanding of what a sustainable food system can, and should, look like—and ask how we can work to practice and model successful versions of this.”

At Headwater, their efforts focus on trying to build and steward a “good food” marketplace where farmers, food processors, logistics partners, and customers all benefit. The company’s customers include individuals, families, schools, and retailers who are trying to collectively and collaboratively build a real alternative to the big systems of food growth and delivery. Part of this involves agreeing upon a set of principles that define what constitutes a good, sustainable marketplace. Another key aspect is identifying measurable components and outcomes that allow various stakeholders to see where and how progress is being made.

Harley, Horizons at Harley, and Headwater—

Sharing the Bounty

This summer, the three Hs — Harley, Horizons, and Headwater — came together on behalf of families in the Horizons program, a transformational summer learning experience that helps students from low-income Rochester families who have trouble accessing enough food in general — and healthy food in particular — needs that have been further exacerbated by COVID.

Over the summer, each Horizons family received a weekly box containing fresh fruits and vegetables, along with recipes and cooking tips. Students were supplied with everything they needed to create a family meal as part of their Horizons experience, with the goal of building community and enthusiasm by connecting people over the shared story of making a meal together.

This innovative strategy filled several needs at once. It connected people facing hunger and food insecurity with small and midsize family farmers struggling to find marketplaces, especially during COVID.

When it was time for Horizons to hold one of its largest fundraisers, organizers needed to reimagine the event as an experience that could be shared from home. Headwater helped create meal boxes for the dinners, since people couldn’t be together in person. Participation was high, helping to raise funds for the program.

Pandemic Pivoting

As restaurants were shuttered or found themselves with greatly reduced business, Headwater looked at how they could authentically support small businesses and provide fresh food for families. Using an innovative logistics/production strategy that relied on a unique web of relationships/partnerships with both individuals and organizations, Headwater was able to make a significant contribution to local and regional emergency food programs. The business model spun from 80 percent wholesale to zero in March, while the roughly 20 percent that was sold directly to consumers “just exploded,” according to Chris.

The company was able to become a valuable food access point for the Greater Rochester and Finger Lakes communities, making it a very interesting time to be in the alternative, resilient food space.

“The weaknesses of our national agriculture infrastructure came to light. The lack of flexibility became clear — all of these small alternative, regional, diversified food systems were able to shine and show how they could be available to increasingly interested communities.

Based on the dramatic shift, Headwater’s warehouse infrastructure and business process had to change practically overnight.

“We were hiring when many laid people off, and we are very lucky with the talent we have at hand because we face the tremendous task of creating a nearly statewide emergency food infrastructure. Our scope has increased; the need has increased,” Chris says.

This larger mission is one that Chris and the team at Headwater are eager to continue:

“Within social sustainability, a fundamental component of communities and societies is that they are able to come together with equitability and compassion in mind to become supportive, caring, and growing communities,” he says. “I’m excited that our network of connections and relationships has never been stronger. More people than ever are signing on to be part of this vision.”