Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Food Movements Unite!

It was about the same time that I started reading “Diet for a Small Planet” by Frances Moore Lappé that I received some information about Food First in the mail.  With so many different organizations asking for support, it’s hard to decide which ones to pay attention to.  But as I read through the letter explaining the mission of Food First (which happened to be co-founded by Frances Moore Lappé), I knew that there was something special about this organization that stood it apart from a lot of the other foodie organizations.  Food First recognizes the centrality of democracy to the food justice movement.  As I read the letter I noticed one of the ways to lend support involved receiving a complimentary copy of the book “Food Movements Unite” – which sounded like an important book. How could I say no to this deal? 

Not too long after I received the book in the mail I heard about a launch event for the book with the author/editor, & current Executive Director of Food First, Eric Holt-Giménez.   And with 2 of the panelists being leaders from the Bronx on the front lines of food justice, I knew it would be a good event J

On the panel were Karen Washington from La Finca del Sur / NYC Community Gardening Coalition / Just Food / etc; Ray Figueroa from Friends of Brook Park; Daisy Cheung from Restaurant Opportunities Center – New York, Diana Robinson from the Food Chain Workers Alliance, Lupe from the Community Farmworker Alliance, Eric Holt-Giménez from Food First, and last but not least was moderated by our fearless food sovereignty champion, Christina Schiavoni from WhyHunger. 

Eric opened it up with the background behind the book.  He saw that everyone was too busy doing their own food justice work to look at the movement as a whole.  He wanted to create unity in the food movements by getting the stories from food justice movers and shakers across the globe, to hear not just about what they’re doing, but how they believe what they’re doing intersects with the larger picture of the food movement.  To find the areas of convergence and figure out what the barriers are that still need to be addressed.  I’m excited to read the book.

The panelists brought up some interesting points.  Yes, there have been food riots because despite there being enough food grown in this world to feed the population one and a half times over, there is still an extraordinarily high number of people suffering from food insecurity (about 50 million in the US) and hunger (1 billion worldwide).  But this is just a result of the capitalist global food system doing exactly what it is supposed to do – consolidating the food supply into the hands of a few, creating a monopoly over our food supply.  That’s what capitalism was built for – making money.  Which lends itself to disregarding the social externalities which would slow down the profit-making machine that is the world of corporations.  But our job has to be to connect the dots of people doing incredible work in our own backyards, and take back our food system. 

Ray Figueroa from Friends of Brook Park said that one thing we can do is connect with the other human rights movements.  Go off of the model of the Black Panther Party, which saw food justice as one part of a much larger story of liberation. Food is a human right, and the people who work on Housing as a Human Right will also be in solidarity with the food movement.  And not only that, but there will be areas in which to work together.  One thing the housing movement works on is land issues, and it just so happens that community gardening space is also a land issue. So one thing Ray & the NYC Community Gardening Coalition is working on is spreading the word and advocating for the NYC Garden Law, which would protect GreenThumb community gardens so that the Dept of Housing Preservation & Development cannot reclaim and raze the gardens. (If HPD can just take back GreenThumb land whenever it wants, what’s the point in registering the garden in the first place?  That was the question of the day for the Morning Glory community gardeners in the Bronx, whose garden was razed last fall.  But there are a number of other gardens legitimately registered with GreenThumb that still get reclaimed by the City on a regular basis.)  

Karen Washington mentioned that what’s missing is the grassroots element of food justice organizing and advocacy.  We can get funding for certain initiatives, but how do we make sure the money will fund the true grassroots work that needs to get done, and not necessarily just fulfill the “goals” of the grant?  And, how do we get young people engaged in community gardening?   Ray added to the point with the wisdom heard time and time again in social justice circles – top-down education won’t work, communities aren’t going to be educated out of oppression.  He offers the alternative from Gandhi, who was a “fierce humanist” – we must weave our own cloth.  Move to the communities experiencing oppression.  But don’t come if you’re just coming to “help.”  Come if you believe your destiny is tied up with my destiny.  Because then we can all live with dignity, and actually work together to get somewhere. [It’s quite inspiring, really, to have been part of the struggle against FreshDirect moving to the South Bronx from the very beginning of South Bronx Unite in February 2012, and to see the fierce dedication and in-house capacity and skills of the people who are part of this campaign for food, environmental, and economic justice.  Enough injustice in one community is enough.]

Karen Washington echoed something I heard Steve Ritz say at a Bronx Health REACH meeting recently – it’s important to talk to the grandparents.  This generation has a lot of wisdom, and many of them come from agricultural backgrounds and are a lot more respected than other authorities within a community.  We also need to see who is at the table at meetings we have – is there fair representation of communities of color?  Are the meetings held at night so that working class people can attend?  Is childcare and transportation made available?  Until these needs are met, it’s going to be very hard to get people to care about an issue, if their main concern is providing for their families and just having enough money to get by. 

The Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United) advocates for restaurant workers nationwide, who survive on poverty wages, little to no benefits, and discrimination.  These restaurant workers federally are salaried the tip minimum wage ($2.13), and are often treated more like machines than human beings.  70% of restaurant servers in the US are women.  And out of 20 million people working in the food industry in the US, most of them are immigrants and people of color.  So ROC works with racial justice organizations and women’s rights organizations to advocate for better conditions for restaurant workers, such as paid sick days, living wages, and dignity.  They’ve organized a national campaign against full service dining, against Darden, which owns 1900 restaurants in the US and made a $500 million profit last year, despite its workers suffering from wage theft and discrimination. [I’m a fan of ROC-NY’s incubator restaurant worker-owned cooperative, COLORS.  Juan Carlos even worked with me to host a screening of the movie FRESH in the restaurant as part of their “Building Bridges Not Walls” series, where Karen Washington/ BUGs, Eric Weltman / Food & Water Watch, and others came together to share their experiences with the food system.] 

Lupe from the NYC Community Farmworker Alliance discussed the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which came together to support the tomato farmers in Immokalee, Florida that grow 90% of America’s tomatoes.  These farmers get $0.45-$0.50 for every 32 pounds of tomatoes they harvest, which makes it hard to earn the minimum wage.  They’ve been successful in getting some new sign-ons to the Fair Food Agreement to prevent exploitation of tomato harvesters, and currently in NYC are campaigning to get Chipotle to sign on to this agreement, since they’ve now been successful with getting Trader Joe’s to sign the agreement.

Lupe talked about how the farm workers’ method of dealing with problems that arise is one of community organizing which everyone in the food movement could utilize – see the problem, analyze it, and take action.  Her other suggestions were to make sure youth have access to food justice information; start youth-run collectives; and bring in faith communities. 

According to Eric Holt-Giménez, there’s the dominant white narrative on food justice (described quite eloquently by Michael Pollan), and then there’s “this” narrative.  [Might I add, it’s not that Michael Pollan’s story is “bad,” it just isn’t the complete story.  Not everyone has adequate access to farmers markets and CSAs and organic food.]  As Eric said, “Voting with your fork doesn’t work when the only option is capitialist food.”  The answers need to come via grassroots, innovative solutions to the issues of food injustice, like entrepreneurial youth farming projects [the Green Bronx Machine being one of my favorite]. 

The event organizers put together a really good handout of next “action steps.”  I will share most of them with you here:

May 1 – All out for a general strike on May Day!  Stand with food and farm workers and all workers – particularly immigrant workers – everywhere!  See http://www.may1.info/ and http://maydaynyc.org/

May 12 – Come to the Brooklyn Food Conference!  Over 5,000 people are expected to attend this free, all day event filled with keynotes from notable food activists, workshops, panel discussions, food demos, family programming, art and much more. http://bkfoodconference.org/

June 1-3 – Occupy the Land ‘Unconference’ – the NYC Community Gardening Coalition is collaborating with the Occupy Wall Street movement, environmental and social justice groups, and a variety of artist collectives to hold an ‘unconference’ in community gardens across the city. The unconference will be a platform for dialogue between different groups and struggles, from the local to the global.  www.nyccgc.org

June 6 – Food Workers & Food Justice Conference – the Food Chain Workers Alliance is co-hosting this conference with UFCW Local 1500 and the Alliance for a Greater New York (ALIGN).  http://foodchainworkers.org/

June 20 – Global day of action in solidarity with La Via Campesina and the Peoples’ Alternative Summit to Rio +20 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  There’s a call for people to do actions in their own communities to expose how corporations are driving climate chaos and environmental destruction and to put forward real grassroots solutions. There’s also a call for actions leading up to Rio+20 the week of June 4th.  More at www.viacampesina.org and http://tinyurl.com/772yf4m.

More ways to plug in:

Monday, April 9, 2012

Diet for a Small Planet: Lessons for the Long Haul

Last September, I attended the 40th anniversary celebration of Frances Moore Lappé's book "Diet for a Small Planet" in New York City, entitled "Feeding Hope, Living Democracy."  At this event I heard Frances say that "hunger is not caused by a scarcity of food, but a scarcity of democracy" - a quote which truly intrigued me.  (How ironic that the event was held only five days after the start of Occupy Wall Street!)  
While my reading list is always umpteen books long, I figured Diet for a Small Planet should be pretty high on my priority list.  I'd already read her daughter Anna's book, "Diet for a Hot Planet", and have a lot of respect for them both as women in the food movement who also support Oxfam America and HEN.  Today I finished reading Book 1 of "Diet for a Small Planet," and I will say it definitely lived up to its reputation. What I could not believe is how everything Frances wrote about 20, 40 years ago (1971 edition updated in 1991) is still just as relevant today as ever.  We still have the same issues with our food system, but the stories of struggles and successes in overcoming food injustices all over the world are just as inspiring as ever.
Working to change the food system is a daunting task, because the roots of the issue are so multifaceted and cannot be solved with one solution.  It's easy to get overwhelmed and not know what to do first, as happens over and over again in my life in NYC.  But Frances gives some words of encouragement, from the lives of some people whose names still ring a bell 30 years later.  From the life of Harry Chapin, co-founder of World Hunger Year (now WhyHunger) and namesake of the Harry Chapin Media Awards which were created to encourage the media to "tell the story of hunger and poverty," Frances tells us to use what we have.  Well, I have the experiences of life and the books I've read and films I've seen, and this blog, so can write about what I know.  Meanwhile, Oxfam America has relationships with many famous music groups across the country who can continue in the vein of Harry Chapin and encourage musicians to speak out against hunger and poverty.
Frances next talks about how Joan Gussow - the matriarch of the "eat-locally-think-globally food movement," source of inspiration for Michael Pollan, and professor emerita at Teachers College, Columbia University - believes that her decision to study nutrition was probably the "first real decision in her whole life."  She struggled past the dull image of nutrition to learn the science of how food works in the body, and as a result has earned the respect of people interested in bridging the gap between studying food from a scientific perspective and learning about where food comes from... the ground.  I picked up a copy of her book "Growing, Older" when at the NY Botanical Gardens last year and look forward to reading it someday.
Frances tells the story of Michael Jacobson from Center for Science in the Public Interest, a highly respectable organization which has gained a lot of publicity within the last year since CSPI re-launched the annual Food Day initiative on October 24, 2011. Mike Jacobson started off studying biochemistry, and wanted to do something to touch more immediate social problems than could be solved in a chemistry laboratory, so he started looking into the hazards of food additives as an intern with Ralph Nader.  (Fortunately for us, the research into food additives that Mr. Jacobson started in the 1970's has evolved into a food additive safety database available online and on phone apps, called Chemical Cuisine.)
It was also interesting to read about a Nestlé infant-formula boycott at the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, and to think about how the ICCR could become more engaged around food justice issues in the future (perhaps through the food justice work that NY Faith & Justice has started? hmm....).
Frances Moore Lappé gives us some other tips in the chapter "Lessons for the Long Haul" that are of note.  These include:
  • working with others - finding a core group who can push you further than when trying to work on the issue alone
  • using the direct experience of oppression - whether placed in a situation involuntarily or voluntarily
  • remaining critical of oneself and one's organization - such as Larry Simon's experience with working with Oxfam America, when "he concluded that Oxfam should not work in certain countries where government repression is so strong that it precludes the existence of any organization working for redistribution of power, the only kind of organization which Oxfam wants to support" 
  • hard work and balance - hard work and self-discipline are important, and balance important so as to prevent burnout; but some of us have recognized that working for social change is incredibly rewarding, makes life interesting, and gives us the opportunity to work with people who are equally inspiring and passionate about social change and food justice. 
There is still so much more to learn and so much more to share.  (I did not even touch upon the books' themes of citizen democracy, meat's impact on the world, or protein complementarity in this post!)  But when you surround yourself with incredible people, read books by inspiring visionaries, and stand on the shoulders of the giants who have paved the way before us - anything is possible.