Often the result of attending a convergence, or a gathering of individuals focused on a particular topic, is to leave with an immense sense of solidarity and communal power. Today, however, I left Santa Cruz with a well—rounded sense of satisfaction and comfort. Like I’d been patted on the back for the work I already do, rather than fired up for the work ahead. I realized that perhaps it is the California equivalent. The Eastern rush of adrenaline and power often means we hurry up to wait, and the level-headed, steady pace of California students’ collaboration certainly seems no less productive.
These students came together this weekend for Strengthening the Roots, a convergence held in Santa Cruz, organized by United Students for Fair Trade, the California Student Sustainability Coalition’s Food Initiative, and The Community Agroecology Network. The event confirmed: as in the East, California students are moving towards the goal of a sustainable food system, one that truly nourishes people, communities, and the earth. On either coast, the urgency we feel in progressing towards this goal is the same. Like the well-paced tortoise of the fairly tale, California may get ahead of us for some of the way, and it was interesting to note why it’s path is different.
In New York, increasing the consumption of local food is like sprinting up a daunting hill. Well-entrenched political, cultural, and natural systems combine to torment our muscles-in-training. Not only are subsidies and agribusiness not invested in the small, diverse farms that populate the New York region, but our climate includes several months in which it is quite difficult for food to grow. And culturally, New Yorkers are starkly divided: city people, suburbanites, and farmers or far-outs. We forget our realms lie side-by-side, and love to think we are independent of each other.
In California, it’s a less-steep slope for more-shapely muscles. The hill is still there, steepened by the same political system, set against small, diverse farms. But the incline is softened by the climate, in which food grows easily throughout the year. And furthermore, California culture tends to exercise a love of natural beauty. The beauty of lakes, forests, vineyards, and ocean are ever-present on this Western coast. The hills make this beauty visible wherever you are, and so even simple topography reminds Californians that theirs is a state populated with farmers. People forget that about New York, or never knew.
For students in both places, there is a race to be run. The Real Food Summit was a mile marker in the Northeast, and one I felt gave a thrilling burst of energy to we who were leading the Eastern pack. The West Coast Convergence this weekend did not quite require that burst – after all, the California contingent is not so out of breath – but they are not so far ahead of us either.
We students all have different styles and motives as we run together (and we do run together, not in competition, but as many individuals, with a common goal). We increase access to healthy foods, because we believe everyone deserves to eat them, or because we hope to slow the increase in numbers of our population suffering from diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. We change the structure of agricultural policy, because we believe commodity subsidies are unjust in a world of free trade, or we believe that diverse farms sustain soil fertility, or we fear for biodiversity in a world of agribusinesses. We uphold workers rights and living conditions, because we know the torment undergone by a single farmworker, or because we are ashamed to encourage the global exploitation we cannot see. Our run is a combination of any of these actions, and many, many more. And naturally, we run at different paces, and on different terrain.
There is a need to unite before any finish line of a sustainable food system is reached, before the steep hill smooths out and our run does not halt but transforms into a dance (a celebration of a life, and the system we have developed together). We may come together to agree upon a numerical finish line, and call our race The Real Food Challenge. We will doubtless come together in Washington before we realize our true numbers. And any such developments will be well-documented here. For the moment, regardless of the banner under which we run, one thing is clear after this weekend’s convergence: The western tortoise is truckin, just like the eastern hare.