The Best Food Fight Ever

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Conferences have a tendency to attract like-minded thinkers. When I registered for The Food Justice Summit, I knew I’d be in the company of community supporting, food loving, farm friendly folk like me. However, when  I got the topic list I knew I had to make space in my luggage for some big girl panties. I could tell they were going to go at the issues others have been dancing around…HARD.

Power to the People:

I started the first day of the conference  with this interactive workshop. Amber Burns of New Roots Inc., challenged us to share our food stories with randomly assigned members of the group. It was nice to hear the unique experiences that brought others to the conferences. Again, I am reminded that everyone has a story waiting to be told.

Here I am flanked by two powerhouses: Karyn and Amber of New Roots, Inc.

Here I am flanked by two powerhouses: Karyn and Amber of New Roots, Inc.

#quinoaguilt: Problems and Solutions for Conscientious Consumers

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I met Pilar Eguez Guevara(Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign) at the Ancestral Health Symposium in 2013.  A few of us connected through our love of food and the study of cultural food patterns. I have learned so much from Pilar; I was happy to be able to hear her speak.

Pilar gave a thought provoking talk on trending discussions(articles, social media, etc..)  that highlight the guilt some consumers feel about how the boom in the sale of imported quinoa las led to food gentrification (yes that is a real hashtag). A similar phenomenon is seen with coconut. Pilar has done extensive research on coconut consumption in her home country of Ecuador; particularly the northern coastal province of Esmeraldas.  The elders of the community explained to her that 50 years ago coconut was consumed at virtually every meal. Today, however, it is consumed (at best) once or twice per week.

While the economy in these regions have benefited from the increased demand in the area of job creation, the dramatically higher prices of the crops have made it challenging for those who live in nearby cities to afford them.   What were once staples in their diet are now reserved for special occasions.

It was clear that the presenters at this conference (at least the ones I had the pleasure of experiencing) were calling for more than food justice. They were highlighting the need for  food sovereignty.

I started day two with a potentially polarizing talk:

The Whitest Profession: Combating Racial and Class Inequities in American Agriculture.

Nathan Rosenburg, Fink Fellow, Natural Resource Defense Council outlined how modern U.S. agriculture policy was shaped in crucial ways by Southern elites during the Jim Crow era. It turns out, that these lawmakers decided that keeping black farmers from achieving success was more important than the clear need to support small scale farming in general.  The result was massive land loss for black farmers and a reduction in aid and support for all small scale farmers. The effects of this are seen in the challenges the majority of farmers face today.

When I walked in and saw Jennie Stephens (Executive Director of Heirs’ Property Preservation) and Natasha Bowens (Author of The Color of Food) on the panel, I did a little happy dance inside. I had the pleasure of meeting Jennie at breakfast that morning. The preview she gave me about her work left me wanting to learn more about Heirs’ Property Preservation.

The organization helps low income land heirs protect their interest. For many, this means helping them understand the true value of their land as well as helping them navigate the sometimes choppy waters one can find themselves in with shared land ownership.

Natasha  is definitely a kindred spirit.  She has spent the last four years gathering stories from Black, Native, Asian and Latina farmers and food activists who are revolutionizing the food system and preserving cultural food ways. She started her project after exploring the intersection of race, food, and agriculture on her Blog: Brown. Girl. Farming.

At this discussion, she shared the story of one of the farmers and it made me remember an excerpt from her book I read recently in Mother Earth Magazine.  There, she shared the story of Sandra Simone.  I related to Sandra immensely. She was an unlikely candidate for farming (a jazz singer) who stumbled into her calling.  Natasha showed tremendous honor and respect for Sandra in that piece and she is just as gracious in person.

I took my silliness with me to Harvard. Thanks Natasha for being a good sport.

I took my silliness with me to Harvard. Thanks Natasha for being a good sport.

Her book is scheduled to be released on April 10th.  I pre-ordered my copy here.

I ended my conference with my dear friend and (traveling companion)Karla Blaginin’s talk:

Bringing U.S. Latinos into the Sustainable Food Economy: The end of nutrition sciences as we know it.

Karla insists that we reconsider commonly understood concepts of health and well-being.  This means, as Karla puts it,  “Deconstructing nutrition science’s notion of food as an entity separate of its social and environmental space.”  In other words the idea of broad, national nutritional/ health standards like BMI and Obesity need to be challenged. We need to consider how people (specifically cultural groups) interact with their food. In doing so, we can support communities as they set their own standards.

Karla and I bunked together at the hotel. My thoughts on nutrition and wellness  are forever evolving… spending the weekend with Karla gave me tons more to consider.

And she made sure that I ate… well and often.

A sampling of the snacks Karla brought from the amazing breakfast offerings from our hotel.  I think I ate every fig and piece of cheese.

A sampling of the snacks Karla brought from the amazing breakfast offerings from our hotel. My portion is to the far right: figs, cheese and dates.

A few notable conference takeaways:

  1. It turns out Diana Rodgers (author of The Homegrown Paleo Cookbook: Over 100 Delicious Gluten-Free, Farm-to-Table Recipes, and a Complete Guide to Growing Your Own Healthy Food)  is responsible for me being at the conference! She told Pilar about it, Pilar told Karla and Karla told me. Ha! Talk about degrees of separation!
  2. You need to check out Equal Exchange. I am not just saying that because they gave be a bag of their organic, fair trade, Congo Coffee and a really yummy chocolate bar.  Okay, I don’t blame you for not believing me but their mission statement says it all:

Equal Exchange’s mission is to build long-term trade partnerships that are economically just and environmentally sound, to foster mutually beneficial relationships between farmers and consumers and to demonstrate, through our success, the contribution of worker co-operatives and Fair Trade to a more equitable, democratic and sustainable world.

How sweet is she? The sweetest for giving me chocolate and coffee!

How sweet is she? The sweetest for giving me chocolate and coffee!

4. I  learned about gleaning from the Boston Area Gleaners. I had no idea that there are people who currently  practice this accent method of improving food security.  They come behind farmers and harvest that which would otherwise be plowed under or what has been planted expressly for donation.  Pretty cool,  huh?

Personal Reflections

Right before I came to this conference I had begun to have conversations with my cohorts and colleagues about the inequities and imbalances I am noticing in my quest to support our local food system. I am finding that I must demand a place at the table. At times, I have to fight for the smallest level of consideration for my organization and the farmers, farmers markets, and communities we serve.  Sometimes I feel like a petulant child with a utensil balled-up in each fist. It was comforting to know that this fight is happening on a larger scale. That people recognize the challenge farmers face. That others are sensitive to the fact that certain populations have been largely left out of the discussion. That people want to fix these problems that affect us all.

I also left the conference with a better understanding of the right to food.

It is not just a right to not be hungry.

It is a right to decide what to feed your family.

A right to not have someone else’s values imposed upon you.

A right to have your voice represented in your community.

Boston was awesome but I’m glad to be home. Not only did I fully embrace the sweet sun that greeted me after 3 days of snow, I returned with a more tangible understanding of my role in  my community.

It’s Spring and there is a lot of work to do…

I think I’ll start in my own back yard.

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