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: