Posts Tagged ‘food justice’

Americans are beginning to understand that buying and eating locally grown food is better for our health, the environment, and our local communities and economies than consuming the monocropped or factory-raised processed foods that we find cheaper, faster, and more readily available..

Local communities support farmers markets across the country. Through outlets known as Comnunity Supported Agriculture (CSAs), small farmers sell shares of their harvests to season-long customers. And after-school gardening programs teach elementary school children how to avoid diabetes and obesity by eating, and often growing their own, fresh vegetables. 

In New York, the Manhattan Borough President has called for the promotion of urban agriculture to help solve issues of hunger, food distribution, and nutrition education.  Michelle Obama has announced plans to use the White House Garden to educate children about healthful, locally grown fruit and vegetables.

As farmers markets and CSAs, community gardens and urban farms, tiny delivery companies and small locally-minded businesses gain ground, they are creating the potential for service to larger institutions.  Forty-one states have operational Farm to School programs, providing children in nearly 9,000 schools across the country with healthy lunches.  Students from nearly 300 colleges and universities report to the Real Food Challenge, and are working to increase the procurement of “real food” on their campuses.

Despite this progress, there remain two major dots we haven’t quite connected: the institutions that are in the business of serving our health, and healthy food.

Fresh, local vegetables are healthier than processed foods.  We should have them in our hospitals.  Access to nutritious food should be factored into policy as preventative care.

There are several significant reasons why this hasn’t happened yet.  First, four companies control 80 percent of America’s beef production.  Two companies process 75 percent of the precut salads in the country.  The voices of such companies are powerful in Washington.  Second, pharmaceutical companies aren’t big on preventative health care.  Hospitals and pharmaceutical companies are in cahoots.  Third, the industrialization of America’s food system destroyed much of the infrastructure that would have allowed large institutions to source locally.  In almost any region of the country (except perhaps California), it is difficult to coordinate the arrival of enough locally grown food at a hospital kitchen.  Fourth, our policymakers aren’t prone to holistic thinking, and so we are left struggling to find something other than band-aids to help heal our environment, our economy, and our health.  We don’t usually consider the complex options that might help cure, all at once, these ailing elements of our society.  And finally, we need a leader.  We need someone in Washington who will commit to introducing healthy food into hospitals, and who will integrate nutritious food into our health care plans.

Undeterred by these obstacles, little groups of ambitious individuals have begun creating models, hard-earned examples, of Farm to Hospital coordination.  One is in New Milford, Connecticut. 

In 2007, three women — a chef, a pediatrician, and a lawyer — came together to bring local, fresh vegetables into the kitchens of New Milford Hospital.  They found a powerful ally in the hospital’s CEO, a specialist in preventative cardiology.  Their hospital signed the Healthy Food in Health Care Pledge, agreeing to adopt food procurement policies that “provide nutritionally improved food for patients, staff, visitors, and the general public,” and “create food systems which are ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially responsible.” They launched their Plow to Plate program with cooking classes for the community and meetings between farmers, community members, and hospital representatives.  They changed their hospital’s contract to include local procurement policies, and made a request for proposals for a new food service provider.  Eighteen long months later, the Plow to Plate program is serving fresh, wholesome foods to their patients; supporting regional farmers through institutional accounts as well as the Plow to Plate farmers markets; and teaching local middle and high school students how to farm sustainably, cook safely, and eat healthfully.

Many institutions are, in fact, working to create similar systems.  A total of 122 health care facilities across the country have signed the Healthy Food in Health Care Pledge.  The majority of these institutions are in California, Oregon, and Washington, but others are in Nevada, Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.

Hospitals making the transition to serving healthy food have embarked upon a marathon thick with hurdles.  They face the difficulties of finding a food service provider willing to work specifically with regional sources; of identifying regional farmers who can reliably produce enough product to service a large institution; of competing with the growing strength of direct marketing at retail farmers markets and the higher prices farmers receive selling retail.  They have to find the right farmers, distribution centers, and distributors; to retrain their kitchen staff and perhaps renovate their kitchen facilities; and they have to teach their community of patients why healthy food is important.  They face their most daunting challenge in increasingly tight hospital budgets.

Policy could do a lot to eliminate obstacles.  Washington could require hospitals to source fresh, locally grown vegetables.  The immediate force of hospitals’ enormous purchasing power would find farmers ready to cater to their needs, distribution centers built overnight, processing centers and canneries springing up in every region, and food service providers overhauling their systems in response. 

Until Washington sees the light, locally elected officials can connect some dots on their own.  A representative of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets made clear to me this February that the mental and political divide between urban and rural areas is the largest barrier against developing a regional food system in New York City.  Farmers don’t know what hospitals need or how they could propose to service them.  Hospitals don’t know how many farms are nearby or what sort of demand local farmers could meet.  The rural and urban political representatives don’t even realize they have something to talk about.

Hospitals have got to start serving healthy food.  The change will be a challenge, but well worth the effort.  People walk or jog dozens of miles for Breast Cancer, MS, Heart Disease, and HIV/AIDS.  This is a marathon for Diabetes and Obesity, for Soil, for Community, for Local Economy.  We have to run it, for our health, and for the health and future of our kids.

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This is one in a series of short essays related to Annie’s colloquium, Brooklyn Brews and Oyster Pie: Visions for a Local Food System in the New York Region. An explanation of the “colloquium,” as well as a link to download Annie’s topic (the rationale), can be found under Gallatin Colloquium, in the Research section of this site.

Assata Shakur has now lived in Cuba for thirty-five years. She was a Civil Rights activist, a member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army, and is today just 61 years old. State and Federal police departments harassed and assaulted her throughout her years of activism, convicted her of many crimes she did not commit, and victimized her and her community through the FBI’s Counter Insurgency Program (COINTELPRO) in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Cuba granted her political asylum when she escaped from prison. In her autobiography, Assata, she relates the horrors of her time in the hospital and in prison before and during her trial for the 1972 New Jersey Turnpike Shootout. She tells this brutal story in sections, spliced with the chapters of her childhood in New York City, and her youthful years of gradual political and philosophical growth.

The publication of Assata in 1987 gave a powerful, personal voice to the violent and enraging racist reality confronted by black activists during the ‘60s and ‘70s. But the book speaks as much of a woman’s childhood memories and their importance, of her youthful decisions, judgments, and actions, and of her mind, always learning and expanding, even while fighting a world of aggressively closed and narrow mentalities. Assata was a formidable individual, yet she acted as a participant in a movement, rather than a leader. Two years ago, when I first read her work, it was her mention of and reflection on her smallest actions that changed my perspective. Her simplest stories fueled my love of the otherwise humbling, often fundamental, elements of my own social education and participation.

Assata was nearly eighteen when she became friends with a group of African students at Columbia. “One day,” she remembers, “Vietnam came up. It was around 1964 and the movement against the war had not yet blown up in full force. Someone asked me what I thought. I didn’t have the faintest idea. I said, ‘It’s all right, I guess.’” When she justified her stance by saying that, you know, the United States was fighting the war for democracy, against communism, “the brother asked [her] if [she] knew anything about the history of Vietnam,” and proceeded to explain about colonialization, exploitation, starvation, illiteracy, and the long fight waged in the North. “I sat there with my mouth hanging open.” Assata remembers. “He knew all this stuff and he wasn’t even studying history. I couldn’t believe that this African, who didn’t even live in the u.s. or in Asia, could know more than me who had friends and neighbors who were fighting over there.”

She began to read about the war, to educate herself, and found that the Africans had told her the truth. “I never thought I could be so easily tricked into being something I didn’t understand,” she writes. “It’s got to be one of the most basic principles of living: always decide who your enemies are for yourself, and never let your enemies choose your enemies for you.” Five years later, as a member of the BPP, Assata was assigned to the children’s breakfast program in Harlem, and woke up early in the morning to make the kids’ pancakes, eggs, and sandwiches. “Working on the breakfast program turned out to be an absolute delight,” she recalls. “The work was so fulfilling. From the first day I saw those kids, my heart went out to them. They were such bright, open little people, each with his or her own personality.”

Assata’s activism was one of important friendships, gradual education, intent observation, and seemingly intuitive self-reflection. She respected those whose work she truly admired, and voiced thoughtful disapproval of others’ work, even when she knew criticism was not welcome. She volunteered for the groups and organizations that she saw were doing good. She heartily accepted that opening her eyes would mean having to act. The day-to-day construction of her convictions reflects these simple, grounding principles.

Just as Assata built up her convictions, and did not let them make her self-righteous, so should we. By knowing that we do not learn in order to lead, but to open our eyes, and to act as a result. In the social movement towards environmental justice and food sovereignty, we who participate will need to embrace the power and fulfillment to be found in even the smallest forms of participation. The work of this movement will necessarily evolve as we become better informed of opportunities for change, but it will most likely continue to be the work that is least valued in our culture. We will continue to cultivate land, pick tomatoes, organize our communities, sort garbage, drive trucks, set up market tents, weigh vegetables, cook meals at soup kitchens, outdoor markets, senior centers, and at home. None of these constitute or lead to a highly paid or well-respected career. Nor do they give us a specifically strong voice in Washington. But they are each a way of participating in the movement, and each is as necessary as cooking breakfast was for black children in Harlem in the 1970s. Working towards the freedom of all people to understand, decide upon, and control what they will grow, cook, and consume, it is our (ever-growing) knowledge and our fulfillment that will be our strength.

Shakur, Assata.  Assata: An Autobiography.  (Lawrence Hill Books: Chicago, 1987).

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This post is one of a series of essays written for the New Amsterdam Market.  Each essay stems from a conversation between the author and a vendor who participated in the New Amsterdam Market of June 29th.  The essays seek to address each vendor’s (food-related) enterprise, to highlight the reality behind their commitment to sustainability, and to convey the voice and personality that they bring to their work.


Meeting with Jessamyn Waldman was a close-up reminder of the multi-faceted creativity and perseverance it will require to build a new food system in this country.  Jessamyn has her own perspective on sustainability, a powerful one, of immigrant justice and fair labor practices, and one she has made manifest by baking bread, a substance she considers simultaneously cultural and universal, common, and yet symbolic.

Hot Bread Kitchen is a non-profit bakery business that provides employment opportunities for immigrant women while honoring and preserving their bread-making skills and traditions.  Just over a year after founding the Kitchen, Jessamyn now works part-time with four bakers to produce a small set of breads: French baguettes and multi-grain loaves, Italian focaccia, hand-ground Mexican corn tortillas, and an organic, Armenian lavash.  The ingredients in the bread are locally grown and organic whenever possible.  While the women of Hot Bread Kitchen sell at the community market in Dumbo and at the Brooklyn Flea, most of their breads go to wholesale customers.  Their products can be found in Manhattan at Eli’s and Saxelby Cheesemongers, and in Brooklyn at Blue Apron Fine Foods, Foragers MarketGet Fresh,Greene Grape ProvisionsMarlow & SonsStinky BrooklynUrban Rustic, and Victory Café.

Jessamyn rushed in late to our meeting at Blue Marble, and while I was afraid the whole conversation might be conducted out of breath, she was poised and articulate within seconds.  Originally from Toronto, Jessamyn came to New York for graduate school, and previously worked for the United Nations, as well as several NGOs, all of which were primarily related to migration issues.  After finding herself “totally uninspired,” most of her time spent on administration and paper work, she tried education, hoping it would prove to be a more hands-on, satisfying field.  “I did a good stint in New York City public schools,” she said.  “But the bakery idea developed, over years of meeting people – funders and investors – and I eventually came to the realization that I wasn’t going to be happy in any other job until I tried it.”

While working part-time as the administrator at a local high school, Jessamyn earned her Master Baker Certificate from The New School.  She then began work as a baker at the New York restaurant Daniel.  She looked into organizations with moderately similar missions to her own, including Mama’s Hot Tamales in Los Angeles, Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, and St. John’s Bakery in Toronto.  She founded Hot Bread Kitchen in May 2007, and received a grant from the Eileen Fisher Grant Program for Women Entrepreneurs in November 2007.  

Jessamyn attributes the in-progress-success of her business not only to the quality of her breads, but also, primarily, to the overwhelming appeal of the idea behind the bakery. “The last thing I want to do is come across as benevolent, as a do-gooder,” she said.  “But I provide a living wage.  It’s paid training. And I think the women I’ve worked with greatly appreciate the opportunity to have that.”  Jessamyn founded Hot Bread Kitchen with the knowledge that in New York City, immigrants make up 66% of low-wage workers, and the majority of immigrant women get stuck in low-paid domestic work.  She recognized that the overwhelming majority of bakers in the city are men, even while immigrant women often have valuable bread-making skills and experience from their home countries.  New York has hundreds of restaurants, representing dozens of ethnicities, Jessamyn mentioned, “and almost all cuisines include some sort of baked bread-like substance.  But few restaurants actually make their own bread.” “It’s a powerful symbol,” she said.  “Bread works as an image and a concept.  There’s something very visceral about it.  It conveys the message of multiculturalism.” 

Hot Bread Kitchen bakers currently include women from Afghanistan, Togo, Mexico, and Ecuador.  They currently bake bread only a few times a week, in the commercial kitchen of the Artisan Baking Center in Long Island City.  As employees, the bakers are offered weekly ESL classes, taught by volunteers. Jessamyn looks forward to the growth of Hot Bread Kichen, to the establishment of a permanent bakery location, and to offering the bakers full-time jobs. A recent recipient of the 2008 Echoing Green Fellowship, Jessamyn is only now able to devote herself full-time to Hot Bread Kitchen.

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It took a crisis in Cuba for urban agriculture to take over.  The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 cut off nearly all agricultural imports to Cuba, including pesticides, fertilizers, farming equipment, and food.  Not only did organic farming increase, by necessity, but Cubans began cultivating a significant percentage of their food in urban areas.  The government encouraged them to do so.  And in 1998, the city farms in Havana alone produced an estimated 541,000 tons of food for local consumption.  These included 8,000 officially recognized production units cultivated by over 30,000 people.  The population of Havana is 2.2 million.  Today, some neighborhoods in the city produce 30 percent of their own subsistence needs.[1] 


A significant growth in urban agriculture in the US is worth considering for several reasons.  For one thing, such cultivation would be small-scale, and thus would encourage local consumption (the most local, from one’s own garden).  But urban food production would also contribute to community food security, would rescue biodiversity, provide local jobs, create a complete cycle of nutrients and waste, aesthetically improve urban spaces, and increase the freshness and variety of the ingredients in the urban diet.  Increasing a community’s food security would ultimately mean creating a strong, regionally based food system that wouldn’t rely upon imports, or foods that could be prevented from reaching people in times of war or crisis.  Plant biodiversity would thrive as people learned to grow the specific varieties of foods native to their land, varieties that are everywhere disappearing as cities expand and farms consolidate.  Such biodiversity would mean too a greater variety of foods and nutrients, which would contribute immensely to the health of those who ate them.  The complete recycling of nutrients and waste within single households would have an immense, positive environmental impact on food-producing communities.  And, urban spaces could be so much more beautiful!

The next question then is how we in the US might cause a bit of an agricultural revolution in our country akin to that which the end of trade with the Soviet Union caused in Cuba. 

pict5585.jpgWorking at Added Value’s Red Hook Community Farm in Brooklyn has been a personal (tiny) contribution of mine to the growth of urban agriculture in New York.  The hundreds of community gardens throughout the five boroughs are consistently inspirational.  Just Food trains community members to start up “City Farms” throughout the New York area.  And the people working them, and eating the produce they’ve grown themselves, understand the value and joy of providing even a small portion of their own daily sustenance. 

As for California, I’m gradually acquainting myself with the various organizations at work to increase food production in the Bay Area.  Spiral Gardens runs a Community Farm in South Berkeley, producing food for volunteers as well as low-income seniors in a nearby housing complex.  City Slicker Farms helps low-income West Oakland residents build and maintain backyard vegetable gardens.  Beyond supporting and operating four productive gardens in North and West Oakland, People’s Grocery is collaborating with the Sustainable Agriculture Education Center (SAGE) to increase food cultivation in their recently opened 15-acre Agriculture Park in Sunol, which will grow fresh produce for West Oakland residents.  SAGE has developed an “Agricultural Parks Toolkit” as a “comprehensive guide for public and private landowners who want to establish agriculture as a valued urban-edge amenity.”  UC Berkeley’s Institute of Urban and Regional Development has been working with SAGE to develop a policy framework for “New Ruralism,” a concept meant to strengthen the emerging synergy between the new urbanism/smart growth movement and the sustainable agriculture/regional food systems movement.  The Alemany Farm cultivates food on four and a half productive acres, right in the city of San Francisco. 

pict5591.jpgFor a personal take on these efforts…your author here is still a student.  So for the moment, three UC Berkeley courses are contributing to the urban ag vision.  Land Use Controls” is supplying an understanding of the complex laws and organization behind zoning, subdividing, property taxation, and the influences of infrastructure on land use.  Cartographic Representation” is providing skills with which to artistically, persuasively map out what could really happen on urban territory.  And “Urban Forestry” is lending a little more hands-on knowledge about what urban growth actually requires.  Meanwhile, I’ll be eating foods every day that are all grown quite nearby.  Altogether, that’s a personal start.

And this is personal stuff, urbanites.  It’s your property, your garden, your hands in the dirt.  You yourself might never grow enough to supply even an entire meal, but you can contribute to a change in the food system, one that would immensely benefit your community and it’s local health, economy, and security.  Call me crazy, but I believe those are the areas that currently concern our population the most.


Also, my friend Adam Brock recently wrote a (more detailed, less Annie-style-sentimental) four-part series entitled “Why Cityfarming?”  Check it out.


[1] Murphy, Catherine.  Development Report No.12: Cultivating Havana: Urban Agriculture and Food Security in the Years of Crisis.  1999. 

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pollanquote.jpgLast week I attended two events featuring journalist, author, and professor Michael Pollan.  He joined chef and restaurant owner Dan Barber on Tuesday evening in a lecture hall of the 92nd Street Y, and Wednesday he spoke at a Just Food fundraiser, in a beautiful Flatiron District apartment.  Prompted by the queries of Joan Gussow at both events, Pollan had to address the “elitist” question with which he’s become familiar.  Aren’t you (and your ideologies) a little out of touch with the average American eater?  How can the average American afford the foods you recommend we eat?  And she wasn’t talking a meal at Barber’s restaurant Blue Hill.  It’s the farmers markets with $4 tomatoes, and mixed greens at $6 per ¼ pound. 

Barber is finally admitting he’s an elitist.  And, he added, a day at Stone Barns (including enjoyment of the grounds, hiking trails, farm facilities, and food) still costs less than a day at Disney World. 


pollan2.jpg Pollan responded that the prices of local products will go down as demand goes up.  He also pointed out that Americans currently spend 10% of our income on food in America, while “when he was a boy,” we spent 18%.  Meanwhile, while we once spent 5% of our income on health care, we now spend 15%.  According to Pollan, there’s a direct correlation: factory farmed, processed foods lead to diabetes, obesity, and heart problems.  Add the costs together, and we may think (industrial) food today is wonderfully cheap, but our expenditure on food and health care has risen from 15% to 25% in about the last thirty years.

Amidst my Pollan-event-hopping, flush with a Christmas check, and increasingly nervous at the prospect of leaving an apartment in Brooklyn and friends I love (for Berkeley, California), I decided to prepare a farewell feast that would be as local as possible.  Fifteen people, lots of money: it would be a final splurge. After working at Saxelby Cheesemongers for two months, it seemed about time I bought a significant poundage of local cheeses.  Plus, I’d been waiting for a reason to try Karen’s lamb from Three Corner Field Farm. A search for less-than-$12/lb. local honey took me to Marlow & Sons in Williamsburg.  And I bought apples and pears from Migliorelli Farm, to dip in whipped heavy cream from Evan’s Farmhouse Creamery.  I prepared an elitist meal, by all accounts.

As far as I’m concerned, the meal for a party of fifteen cost about the same as one pair of jeans from Seven.  It’s a lot for food, but the evening was worth more than any clothes I’ve ever owned.  Granted, most people can’t afford Seven jeans, and they can’t afford the dinner I served.  The meal essentially spoke to Pollan’s point on the expenditure of our income.  We need to learn to spend more on food.  We will be healthier people.  As Joan Gussow pointed out, we don’t want the prices of local, organic, family-farm products to go down too far with the market demand, because there is a bottom-line cost of production for the types of food we want to support.  For small farmers to stay in business, they must make a profit.  Real food costs something.  What we actually need to work on is the other side of the equation: minimum wage should be enough that people can afford real food.

There is something else to be said, however.  If market demand won’t take care of affordability, and if we agree that minimum wage isn’t anywhere close to paying for $4 tomatoes, we must look elsewhere to defend our local food movement from the damning critique of elitism. 

The connection between health care and what we eat is a pretty good hint at some other solutions.  Medical centers can establish nearby farmers’ markets and source their institutional food locally.  Their patients might get healthier than they do now, eating from nearby falafel and hot dog stands.  The government could increase the allotment of food stamp funding to the Farmers Market Nutrition Programs.  Medicaid costs would go down.  Health insurance programs could support clients who purchase CSAs.  Emergency food organizations, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters can coordinate with local farmers and restaurants that source their food locally, and through donation, receive fresh produce, meats, and dairy products much more healthy for their eaters than the canned and processed surplus foods they are normally given.  Pollan didn’t particularly expand on these possibilities, essential to the movement he has come to represent, even while he spoke for Just Food, a leader of food justice efforts in New York.  But he did say: we need to vote with our votes, not just with our forks.  Those who can afford farmers market prices must learn to accept them.  But we also need to support policies that recognize the correlation between our health and our diet, and that recognize the (financial, and hedonistic) prudence of spending government money to support the production and consumption of real food.  


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A month ago, I wrote an essay entitled Recognizing Accents. I wrote on the importance of knowing and acknowledging all the different voices that contribute to the movement for nutritious food, land stewardship, and local community.I have had to acknowledge recently, while I listen to these voices, that I tend to work hardest on my own, that I resist compromising my ideals and priorities just to collaborate with an existing group or organization, though my contribution to an established system might be more powerful than the actions I take on my own. Admittedly, ego plays a role in how I work, and ignorance too, of those whom I might join. But predominantly there is a feeling of responsibility in me to function independently, so I might control the way I live and act as much as I can. An event this week gave me a perspective on how to achieve something needed in this life of mine, and I think by many of us who are socially and politically active: a balance of personal control, collaboration and solidarity, and appreciation for the variety of actors with whom we collaborate.This balance focuses on biodiversity: a recognized asset of nature, and, as I’m coming to recognize, a value that can indicate a certain way of life.mono.jpg For as long as I’ve been interested in agriculture, I’ve learned why biodiversity is on the top-ten list of the advantages of small-scale family farming, and why monocropping and seed loss are some of the most destructive aspects of industrial agriculture. But only after listening to Andrew Faust this past Wednesday, did I consider that there could be more to supporting biodiversity than staying small, rotating crops, and saving seeds.

Andrew Faust is the founder of the Center for Bioregional Living in Lyndell, Pennsylvania. Faust has recently moved to Brooklyn, and normally leads workshops on bioregional permaculture, or teaches courses on creating self-sufficient, “permanent” landscapes. This week, the Gallatin Consciousness invited him to lead a workshop at NYU on “Permaculture: Natural Design and Ecological Consciousness.” Faust mentioned in the final hour of his talk (unfortunately, the only part I was able to attend) how permaculture is decidedly “anthropocentric.” It focuses on developing a biological infrastructure, or landscape, that is admittedly centered around human needs. But our destructive capacity as humans, Faust said, indicates our generative capacity, and the power we have to affect the environment we inhabit. It is the loss of biodiversity that is perhaps our greatest problem, he said, and a life that encourages biodiversity is the key to caring for the earth and ourselves, and improving our quality of life. For all the ideas Faust shared, about oil use and chemical exposure, agrarian thought and biological philosophy, military infrastructure and the pros and cons of modern technology, these were the two concepts that stuck with me: that he used the word power to describe what we, as humans, have within Nature, and that the best way to focus our efforts for change is to encourage biodiversity.


Similar to the Real Food movement I strive to support, an ecosystem focused on preserving biodiversity has no independent actors. There’s no one who lives “on the outside,” and from there “has an impact” on the environment. Living responsibly in a biologically diverse landscape means acting within it, and being acted upon. It means being a link in a cycle of life, a circle of distinct living organisms without hierarchy or rule. Imagining that we, individually or as a species, are somehow superior, or have the right to take control over this system, separates us from the circle, and disrupts the cycle. We are not superior. What we are is powerful. We have the ability to tear the circle apart, to destroy the biological system, to ignore the way we contribute to a network that we need, and in which we are needed. We are capable too of adopting the responsibility that comes with our power, of controlling not the system, but ourselves. We can play our part, knowing we are a powerful presence on this earth. We can have our ego if we must, and act with proud control over ourselves, knowing we are powerfully dependent. We depend upon others, and others depend upon us.Encouraging biodiversity in agriculture is best for the fertility of our land, the health of our diets, and the security of our farmers. The more crops we grow, the less our land is stripped of particular nutrients. The more variety in the food we eat, the more nutrients we ingest. And the more crops a farmer produces, the less he risks in the failure of a single crop.Whether referring to soil or society, biodiversity indicates a balance in life that we would do well to embrace. Not only do monocropping and genetic modification threaten natural biodiversity, but the modern societal pressures to be independent, and even to make change and have an impact, can be detrimental to our human need to work with each other, and recognize the contributions we each make to each others’ lives. As humans, we can literally protect and support the natural diversity of our landscapes, and socially, we an act in concert as powerful individuals, living with eyes open and hands held, acknowledging our differences, and our mutual dependence on each other. As Faust described to the crowd of NYU students and village residents this week, “We are constantly being indoctrinated” with values and ideas about how we should live. “We need to learn to turn off to the barrage of information,” he said, “and tune in, to what we really need, and what needs us.”

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I’ve struggled over the past few weeks to focus on a single topic about which to write here, but I expected Thursday night’s lecture at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service to provide some specific food for thought. I knew the event had to do with technology and rural development, and I’ve been interested recently in my classes’ discussions about how innovation and technology affect farming techniques and food production. The title of the event was: The Role of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in Rural Development.ncdc_ict_04_640.jpg I should have known what I was getting into. Yet I only registered the situation fully by the speaker’s third reference to an ambiguous “they.” “They” who are so beneficially impacted by cell phones and modern communication possibilities – a vague “they,” eventually identified as rural Indians and Africans (and Central Americans too, if we were being inclusive). The speaker was a professor from NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences. And he led a lecture about affecting the “rural development” of developing countries, of course, and the clever, shocking technologies our avant-garde mathematicians are inventing to connect poor, rural populations with the rest of our “developed” world. In general, I fully support cell phones, particularly cell phones in Africa. And even perhaps $100 laptops. Yet the professor began his lecture by admitting to the failure of most technological efforts in the developing world, “because ‘we’ don’t know what is needed, because we make assumptions and act on them before we know what will really help.” The professor admitted this crucial fault in the ICT profession, and went on to outline his newest projects, in which he’ll make exactly the mentioned mistake. But of course he will. He is excited about technology! And about the potential he can and wants to demonstrate. And so the constituent population, not to mention others who are working on alleviating the same problems of poverty and isolation, fall forgotten by the wayside as he carries on with the excitement of academic discovery and innovation.

This semester, my agriculture professor has pinpointed me as the token idealistic, organic, dirt-loving hippy that clings hopelessly to the goal of a certain unreachable agrarian utopia. While, admittedly, such a utopia may very well reside in the back of my head, I initially stood up to my professor’s subtle bullying because I thought she was just jaded. I thought our differences were like those we see in generational politics, in the sense that even some of the most stubborn conservatives were radical when they were young. They grew up and gave up. They got tired of fighting.  Yet my professor has highlighted in me a naïve energy characteristic of more than youth. It is characteristic of the leaders and do-gooders of the Western world, as well as of many alternative (radical, liberal) movements. I believe so strongly in particular principles, concerning land and farming and food and consumption, that I (even with a perspective I believe is valid!) hugely oversimplify the sides of a complex reality. I limit myself, identifying only the industrial versus the sustainable (straightforward terms much like developed and developing), the mainstream versus the alternative, the corporate– versus the family-owned.seedsofhope2lo_new.jpg These simple sides do not reflect the agricultural community. There exists an endless variety of soils, perspectives, and cultures that lead to innumerable beliefs, ideals, and practices. There are many tenets that I do not profess, lived out in a practical manner that I very well might strive to mimic. There are many different types of farmers, not just “industrial” versus “sustainable.” And there are innumerable changes under consideration – in land ownership, policy approach, farmer collaboration, worker organization, technology use, and acceptance of GMOs. We cannot (and must not) confine this community of people and ideas to one side of a coin or another. We would miss the intricacies of ideas, the unique details of achievements. Our approach would be naïve and simple, as I have come to recognize, even in the classroom.People who value biological systems, health, and community are not all people cut of the same cloth. We have different political views, different cultural values, different income levels, and we are from places where very different things grow. We are of different religions. We work differently, and we eat differently. And so, acknowledging diversity and justice within the local food movement is not just about recognizing violated labor rights, underserved communities, and unjust trade laws. It is about peacecall.jpg opening a dialogue with people of various perspectives, who value nutritious food, land stewardship, and local community as much as we do. If we of these values want to talk about change in the way food is produced, distributed, and consumed, even just in the US, we’re gonna have to start recognizing each other’s accents. For me, this means growing up and out of the idealistic student phase, not into a cynical passive adulthood, but into an active and open-eared role of attention and dedication to realizing exactly what it is we all need. It’s seeing what fits this world, beyond what I want, beyond the change I’m excited about. It is actively not making assumptions based on my own limited perspective, but incorporating new and thoughtful ideas into the structure and future of that which I already believe.

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The Farm Labor Movement in the Midwest This week, the reading for the Food Systems I: Agriculture class at NYU included The Farm Labor Movement in the Midwest, by W.K. Barger and Ernesto M. Reza. The book documents the history of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), particularly the establishment of a national boycott of Campbell Soup products from 1979 to 1986, as well as the method and ideology of social reform adapted by FLOC in their struggle to improve the living conditions of migrant farm laborers in the Midwest. When discussing the method of reform, which they term “sociocultural adaptation,” the authors commend FLOC for working within legitimate channels of the existing social order, and restructuring the system to be more beneficial to a particular group in the society. Stowing away my more revolutionary, socialist inclinations, I finished the book impressed with FLOC’s achievements, and wondering if farm labor and immigration policy will ever be an effective method of addressing the lives and livelihoods of legal and undocumented migrant farm workers.Boycott Campbell'sThe measurable success of the FLOC movement began in 1986 with three-year contracts signed by Campbell Soup (and their tomato and pickle growers), which established set hourly wages for workers on harvesters and for truck drivers, piece rates for hand-pickers (and incentive payments for higher yields), a paid holiday (Labor Day), and an experimental health insurance program. In addition, the contracted laborers were to receive a full, itemized, written report of all earnings and expenses at the end of the season. The less quantifiable and yet more substantial success achieved by FLOC was the establishment of farm worker participation in determining wages and benefits. The victory of those contracts, after seven years of the boycott (and many more of organizing and struggle), lent farm workers a newfound sense of security, and feeling of freedom from the threats and dishonesty of their employers. FLOC established a “more complex, stronger, and democratic organization of Midwestern farm workers.” The unity and solidarity established by FLOC resulted in personal individual growth and healthier lifestyles among its members, as well as a broader identity as part of a community that had organized itself, with mutual dialogue and respect. The greatest gift of FLOC to Midwestern farm laborers was to give them the opportunity to establish their voice within their community, industry, and country.Policy-makers will always be addressing legal and undocumented farm laborers as the other. In migrant farmer communities, politicians may recognize poverty, exploitation, and instability, and will perhaps listen to the occasional testimonial or heart-wrenching story. Yet the constituent population, the migrant workers themselves, will never participate in writing new immigration and farm labor policy. Not only does this make it unlikely that new policies will work in their favor, but it is nearly impossible that any policy will give them the room to establish their voice. So, is it worth wasting our time on policies that can never achieve a goal of empowerment and growth? Perhaps community-initiated, social reform movements are not only a viable way for illegal migrant laborers to struggle for social justice, but are in fact the only means of achieving a sustainable increase in quality of life.Source:Barger, W.K., and Reza, Ernesto M. The Farm Labor Movement in the Midwest(University of Texas Press, 1994).Links:Farm Labor Organizing CommitteeCoalition of Immokalee WorkersSoutheast Georgia Communities Project

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