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Taking Back the Food System: Organizing for Food Justice in California

On the stately, many-fountained campus of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles last week, a revolution was brewing. Organizations and individuals from throughout the State gathered to challenge our current system of growing, distributing, and eating food. The aim is to provide affordable access to fresh, locally grown, healthy foods, especially fruits and vegetables, for all Californians. Equally important goals are to foster ecological, sustainable farming practices, as well as to protect family farms, agricultural land, and biological and cultural diversity for future generations. A big vision, and one that generates a great deal of heat as well as light.

The Summit was co-sponsored by the California Food and Justice Coalition (CFJC), and its parent organization, the national Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC). Bringing together many diverse organizations focusing on sustainable agriculture, nutrition, education, public health, school food services, community organizers, public policy, and growers, these coalitions collaborate to create a socially just, ecologically and economically sustainable food supply that is healthful, and community-driven.

While I had attended national conferences of the CFSC, I had not caught up with the California branch. The CFSC hopes to create such statewide coalitions throughout the nation, but, as in so many other areas, California got there firstest with the mostest. I was both amazed and inspired by how much has been accomplished by the CFJC in barely three years.

Both the national and state coalitions provide information and support to local organizations planning their own initiatives. What this Summit drove home to me was the extent to which larger forces — globalization of the food industry, poor coordination between various State departments dealing with differing aspects of the food system, scanty knowledge among legislators about alternatives to current food and agricultural practices, resulting in inconsistent policies regarding food access and food security — play such a major role. CFJC notes in their policy initiatives paper, “These issues are complex and systemic in nature, and require a public policy response that is equally systemic in nature.”

Anuradha Mittal, keynoter, underlined both challenges and progress made in this movement. Our Oakland analogue to Arundhati Roy, Mittal spoke of a new face to agriculture, one that will link justice with sustainability. A registered dietician, Mittal was co-director of Food First, and is founder and executive director of a new policy think tank, The Oakland Institute. She is also an internationally renowned expert on trade, development, human rights, and agricultural issues.

Beginning with Wendell Berry's comparison of industrial agriculture to a one-night-stand — no commitment, you won't see me the day after — Mittal barraged us with fallout statistics from a callous system: in the 1930s 25% of our farms were family-run, today less than 2%; the sector with the greatest job loss is agriculture; the number one cause of death among farmers is suicide; and tax laws allow large corporations to buy up family farms, turning our farmers into share croppers. She then tied these American facts to the impact on worldwide agricultural systems. India, due to U.S. agricultural corporations dumping subsidized grains, stringent contracts with transnational companies, and failures of Green Revolution industrialized agriculture, has seen 20,000 farmers committing suicide since the 1960s, many by drinking pesticides. In Mexico, 600 small farmers are displaced from their land every day.

However, the situation is not hopeless, Mittal said, given these indicators of change: Increasing realization that factory-produced agriculture is not cheap, given externalized costs. Grassroots support for the organic food movement stopping deleterious changes in the organic standards. Increasing Farmers Markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), and a Farm to Cafeteria bill. Nine other California counties beginning initiatives against genetically engineered crops, after one in Mendocino passed.

Anuradha also laid out our work for the future: Realizing we are the civil rights movement of today, the worlds largest social movement. We are not consumers, but creators of a local, just and sustainable food system.

• Rethinking priorities for our local, regional, and national markets based on local food production
• Recognition of local, regional, and national food access needs
• Acknowledgement and support for farmers rights
• Direct, decentralized relations between farmers and their communities
• Genuine land reform

Given this vision of the larger system in which CA and the US are embedded, we then learned, from speakers representing health care, disease prevention, hunger action, sustainable agriculture, and food policy efforts, about linking various California organizations to the Coalitions aims. Moderator Joy Moore from Berkeley Public Health wound up this session with an impassioned, heartfelt lesson on how use of terms such as “low income,” “poverty,” “average American,” and “bleeding heart liberal” can impede the forming of community-based coalitions. She inspired our movement to come from a place of love and caring.

Following a slide presentation featuring community food system projects around the state, we dispersed to concurrent sessions to help us learn first hand about community organizing, media advocacy, how the global food system affects local food security, how to make community food assessments, examples of community-based programs improving food access for both urban and rural com munities, and the successes and challenges of farm to school programs across the state.

At the Farm to School session, we learned nitty-gritties about starting and maintaining a comprehensive program in the schools: garden-enhanced learning, classroom nutrition education, farm tours, farmers visits to schools and farm-to-school salad bars. With leaders of successful programs in Compton, Ventura; Ojai; and Berkeley we discussed delivery and transport challenges, getting kids interested in new foods and healthy choices, how many schools makes farmer participation financially worthwhile, coordinating farmers seasonal offerings with food service menu-planning; and where the money can come from. Particularly impressive was how Ventura was able to include all 17 elementary schools in three years, while developing a farmers cooperative of organic growers, pay for the driver of a refrigerated vehicle, and train food staff, teachers, and volunteer parents. Recently NPR did a story on their program, asking children whether they would prefer a pizza or the school salad bar. Kids universally chose the salad bar!

Late afternoon sessions focused on food assistance programs; activist farmers; reparations and land reform; big picture issues GE-Free agriculture, pesticides, irradiation; food policy councils; and tools for grassroots lobbying. At the lobbying session we role-played meeting our elected officials. Day Two focused on policy matters, splitting us into work groups to brainstorm solutions and ways to gain political, financial, and technical support for four initiatives: Farm to School, Land Access for Food Production, a State Food Policy Council, and Access to Healthy Food.

Between these information-packed and motivational sessions, we enjoyed organic fresh foods donated by local farmers. Day One ended with a lively evening at the Mercado La Paloma, hearing local musicians and performers while eating fresh Mexican foods. Here we had a chance to get further acquainted on a casual basis. I learned all about food forestry from Adonijah Miyamura el, part of the team who helped create the forest garden at Crenshaw High School, featured in an urban agriculture field trip on Day Two. I came away grateful for the dedication and spirit of all these active folk who are the ground soldiers of the peaceful, heart-filled food revolution sweeping California.

Liana Forest, Ph.D. is an independent educational consultant specializing in collaborative dialogue, cooperative projects, and crafting creative community. She is involved in the Community Food System Project of SLO County, whose goals are educating the public about access to fresh, local food and developing farm-to-school programs to link students, teachers, farmers and parents in SLOs various school districts. She can be reached at (805) 528-4510 or bearforest @ earthlink.net.

Editorial Notes: This article, reprinted with permission, originally appeared in HopeDance Magazine issue #46 September/October 2004. The next issue, November/December, will be themed - The Collapse of the US Empire and How to Survive and Thrive. It will feature the new book by Richard Heinberg called Power Down: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World.

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