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Photo by Jodi Bart.

Since its founding in 1996, the Community Food Security Coalition has been the leading voice for people of color and the poor in a food movement that often marginalizes them in favor of well-heeled “foodies.” This summer, the coalition announced that 2012 would be its last year of operation. The announcement left those of us in the food movement reeling.

Although the timing was not deliberate, it seemed fitting that a gathering about the future of the food justice movement, Food + Justice = Democracy, had been planned to take place just months after the coalition’s announcement.

What was next? Would private-sector solutions, such as Wal-Mart’s expansion into urban markets, pick up the mantle? Would well-known personalities in the consumer-driven foodie world, such as Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, develop solutions capable of addressing the needs of those outside of their white middle-class audience? Or would the answer come from somewhere else?

The organizer of the conference, LaDonna Redmond, was clear about her intentions. A former urban farmer in the west side of Chicago, Redmond was inspired to grow vegetables in her backyard because she was unable to buy pesticide-free food in her predominantly black and working-class neighborhood. She is now a senior program associate with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).

“This is the first-ever conference of this kind,” Redmond explained to me over the phone. “The goals are to change the narrative around the role of people of color in the food system, to give voice to how the exploitation of land and labor are at the core, to build a national movement led by people of color and tribal communities, and to move federal policy.”

Redmond takes inspiration from the history of the environmental justice movement, when people of color converged in the early 1990s to craft the principles of environmental justice. This was a key milestone because the principles unified people of color into a multiracial movement. The principles elevated the leadership of those most affected by ecological and economic catastrophe and asserted the right of peoples for self-determination.

Urban origins of the food justice movement

Twenty years ago, Los Angeles was ablaze. The story of Rodney King’s violent beating by a group of white officers, their subsequent acquittal, and the community uprisings that followed, are widely known. But what you may not know is that the modern food justice movement took root in the wake of the uprisings.

The 1992 uprisings put hunger and poverty in Los Angeles on the map: in the following year, a group of environmental justice students from UCLA, under the supervision of professor Robert Gottlieb, released Seeds of Change, a report on food security in the South Central neighborhood, which found that more than one out of three residents surveyed lacked funds to buy food. In addition, community members didn’t have access to supermarkets to buy healthy and fresh food because they had no supermarkets nearby or lacked transportation. 

The students placed their findings in a framework they called “community food security.” This concept became the organizing principle for a national movement, which coalesced in the form of the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC). Advocates defined community food security as “all persons obtaining at all times an affordable, nutritious and culturally appropriate diet through local, non-emergency food sources.” The same definition was later embraced by the USDA, and has guided the food justice movement ever since.

These days, we’re seeing signs that this notion may need an update that incorporates increasingly popular ideas about local ownership and environmental sustainability.

Injustices of the past

Conference attendees were divided into “people’s movement assemblies” grouped into themes such as historical trauma, hunger relief, and the right to food. I co-facilitated the assembly on labor and immigration, along with organizers from the Food Chain Workers Alliance, who build solidarity among workers from seed to table, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, best known for successfully winning better pay for the people who pick vegetables for the likes of Chipotle and Taco Bell. I was asked to head up this team because of the research I’ve done to map out food chain workers in terms of race, class, and gender.

The labor and immigrant assembly started with a mapping exercise in which we asked participants to visualize, and then draw, the food system in three stages in time: past, present, and future. The past brought up images of indigenous peoples massacred and expelled from their lands by colonizers. Others thought of Africans arriving to the U.S. in bondage as chattel slaves, and forced to labor for white settlers.

This history is still present with us, as many of the speakers alluded to. Bill Means, an Oglala Lakota and co-founder of the International Indian Treaty Council, talked about how food can be used as a weapon or an instrument of imperialism. When Means served in the Vietnam War, he saw the U.S. military systematically destroy that country’s agricultural production and distribution hubs, forcing the Vietnamese to rely on U.S. foreign aid for sustenance. The same thing had happened to his tribal nation.

“The Lakota had food sovereignty and our land taken from us,” Means said. “Then, our people were forced to depend on food stamps.”

When food is turned against the people in this way, said Sam Simmons, a counselor with Community Empowerment through Black Men Healing, it leads to historical trauma and unresolved grief regarding people’s relationships to land and agriculture. White slave owners used food to punish and subjugate slaves, a collective memory that still haunts blacks today.

“Africans brought watermelons here as chattel slaves,” Simmons said, giving an example of cultural trauma. “Yet, we’re ashamed to eat it.” Likewise, urban blacks who moved north during the Great Migration tend to disavow farming today as a painful reminder of sharecropping.

Visions for the future

In contrast, our visions for the future involved a big table, where everyone had a seat and helped make decisions about a food system that was diversified, healthy, and community-owned. The people in our assembly drew stick figures sitting in a circle sat around a tree, representing human synchronicity with the tree of life.

In that future, we were no longer divided by our various identities—farmer, fisher, rancher, worker or consumer—and pitted against each other, but united to ensure collective prosperity. Corporate consolidation in the food system would be dismantled in favor of sustainable and local economies that respect the rights of all to healthy and accessible food.

If this was a vision of a revolution, many agreed it would not come about through funding provided by the nonprofit industrial complex, the interests of which often veer away from food justice. For example, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a major philanthropist in the areas of food and health, provided a five-year, $5 million grant to Growing Power to replicate the success of their Milwaukee urban farm in places such as Detroit, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Delta. At the same time, the Kellogg company, substantial equity in which is owned by the foundation’s trust, sunk over $632,500 into a campaign opposing the labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in California, along with the likes of pesticide conglomerates Monsanto and DuPont.

“The goal of the food justice movement should be to make nonprofits and their staff obsolete,” said Brett Ramey, a member of the Ioway reservation and founding director of Native Movement’s Urban Lifeways Project.

From security to sovereignty

The time is opportune to look again at the root causes of hunger and poverty, given that the conditions that led to the 1992 uprisings in Los Angeles still persist today. Poverty in that city actually increased between 1990 and 2000, and unemployment persists at levels higher than the national average, especially for people of color. On the national level, 40 million in this country suffer from food insecurity, which is expected to worsen with rising food prices and nearly 29 million out of work.

We know where we’ve been: a past of historical trauma, unresolved grief, and food used as a weapon. And, just as surely, we know where want to be: a future with an equitable, democratic, and just food system.

To get there, we might update the notion of “food security” with “food sovereignty,” defined by Via Campesina as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.”

Whether it’s food-chain workers demanding control of the workplace and walking off when they’re not treated with dignity and respect, or people seizing land and using it to farm, food issues are looking more and more connected to labor issues. If we want food sovereignty, we need to build political power, now.

Yvonne Yen Liu is the outgoing senior researcher at the Applied Research Center and the incoming director of global movements at WhyHunger. Yvonne has been published in, In These Times, and Alternet. She serves on the board of Smart Meme and the advisory committee for the Food Chain Workers Alliance