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Four Food Advocates are Speaking Up Against an Unfair System that is Causing Hunger to Persist

May 1, 2019

Four food advocates from across the United States may challenge your preconceptions of today’s farmers. They shared their views recently on the challenges of providing healthy, sustainable food and ending hunger. Each attended the Global Summit on Food Security, organized by Kellogg Fellows Leadership Alliance (KFLA) and supported by W.K. Kellogg Foundation, with media sponsorship provided by Food Tank.


Don Bustos owns Santa Cruz Farming and Greenhouses in Espanola, New Mexico on land farmed by his family for over 400 years. Using the same practices as his ancestors, he grows 72 organic crops all year with solar energy. A Kellogg Fellow, Bustos is a 2015 James Beard Foundation honoree who has trained over 200 new farmers throughout New Mexico.

Denise O’Brien has farmed in southwest Iowa at Rolling Acres Farm with her husband Larry Harris for 42 years. Larry is a fifth-generation farmer and they raise organic fruits, vegetables, chickens, and turkeys on the farm where he was born. A Kellogg Fellow, O’Brien co-founded Women Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN), lobbied with Iowa Farm Unity Coalition, directed Rural Women’s Leadership Development Project of PrairieFire Rural Action, Inc., and was president of National Family Farm Coalition. Denise currently serves as board chair for the Pesticide Action Network North America.

Malik Yakini is founder and Interim Executive Director of Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, which operates a four-acre farm in Detroit and spearheaded efforts to establish the Detroit Food Policy Council, which he now chairs. A Kellogg Fellow, Yakini was a member of the Michigan Food Policy Council, and on the facilitation team of Undoing Racism in the Detroit Food System.

Karen Washington co-founded Rise and Root Farm in Orange County, New York. Her career started with an empty lot in the Bronx. With four other community gardens, Washington later created La Familia Verde Community Coalition and “City Farms Market.” The James Beard Leadership Award honoree founded Black Urban Growers (BUGS) and was named by Ebony magazine as one of their 100 most influential African Americans.

What key issues around sustainable agriculture and ending hunger are people not talking about enough?


“One big issue is climate change. Our political leaders are not actively engaging in the conversation nor looking for solutions to help small or sustainable farmers in the future. There’s no political will to do something about climate change at this point.

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The other big issue is the commodification of water in smaller regional areas. There is a movement to commodify water and transfer it from indigenous communities into more urban settings for what some perceive as more beneficial uses. I believe the most beneficial use is to grow food locally to help protect the environment and ecosystem. Then you can distribute that food locally and regionally, not only to your community members, but also to everyone who needs it in a fair and equitable manner.”


“People aren’t talking enough about the root causes of hunger and poor nutrition. The problem is not that we’re not producing enough food. The problem is we have political and economic systems that exclude certain people from access and concentrate wealth and abundance in the hands of others.

We can’t solve the problem of hunger unless we are addressing, in an unapologetic manner, the question of race and how it affects the food system. In American society, race and class intersect and intertwine, so it’s hard to talk about one without talking about another.

Not all black people live below the poverty level. But a significant portion does. So, race is one of the things that determines poverty. It’s not the only factor. There are white people who are in poverty as well. Looking critically at race and class are essential if we’re going to create a food system that is just and equitable.”

For more on this topic, Ricardo Salvador of the Union of Concerned Scientists talks about how “It’s Power, Not Food” at KFLA Global Summit.


“What we need to ask is what are the communities of privilege doing? How are they discussing this issue at the dinner table? Are they even talking about race and economics? What are they doing within their own communities to share their wealth and set public policy to support low-income people?

That’s where this conversation needs to be heading.

We’re talking about a food system that doesn’t need to be fixed. It’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing. It’s marginalizing the poor. The fact that we have poverty and hunger in the greatest country in the world should be shameful.

We grow enough food. We waste enough food. Everyone can look and see the issue—we need to get better at sharing wealth. We need to have that conversation. Why do we have hunger? It’s not rocket science.”


“People aren’t talking about a living wage. The people who comprise the farm labor barely receive a minimum wage. And the farmers, who are in vegetable farming especially, don’t usually get a wage themselves. They pay wages. Food production is a marginally paid profession.

In our country, we have a cheap food policy. We don’t place a value on the people who grow and harvest the food. There are farm organizations that celebrate how cheap food is and how very little of people’s income goes to pay for food. We have people who have a lifetime of hearing that message. So, people are unwilling to pay what it costs to produce the food that’s healthy and nutritious.

That’s a major issue, overriding all food production—whether it’s organic, sustainable or conventional—the cheap food policy rides the range of all types of production.”

When people can’t access food is it a Food Desert or Food Apartheid?


“I can’t comment much. Where I grew up in rural New Mexico, most people I know grow their own food or share resources. That’s why I think it’s so important to support sustainable farmers, so they can continue into the future.”


“I don’t personally use the term food desert. This term was imposed on communities from the outside to indicate a lack of access to food opportunities. It’s not a term these communities use to describe their own condition. The other problem is that a desert is a very rich ecosystem. Not this barren place that most people expect. So, I don’t think a food desert adequately describes the situation.

But whatever term we use, we know we have large segments of American society, particularly in urban areas with high concentrations of African-Americans, where there is a lack of access to quality food.”


“I coined the term ‘food apartheid’ to shake people up. The problem isn’t that we don’t have enough food. The problem is that we don’t have enough healthy food options.

It’s economics. There needs to be an influx of job creation and resources. Don’t come into our neighborhood and offer a handout. We want a hand in. If you want to do away with food deserts—or what I call food apartheid—than you have to look at the food system in our neighborhood.

Why does our neighborhood have junk food, fast food, and processed food? In affluent neighborhoods, you don’t have that. They have healthy options. People can put on their blinders all they want. They know that crappy food is in low-income neighborhoods, both white and black. So, what are people going to do about it?”


“I’ve been involved with food deserts since the concept was developed in the 1990s. I’ve served on community food security coalitions and different organizations addressing food insecurity. Food deserts seemed then like a logical definition for a lack of access.

But I see now, that lack of access is intentional in the corporate agri-business food system. We have plenty of food production in this country.

I live in the homogenous, white, rural, Midwest, and conservative region of our country. It’s in a county of 14,000 people and all the small towns are losing their schools and their identities. The county seat is about 7,000 people, so half the population is in that one town. Several years ago, a Walmart moved in and many small local businesses shut down because they couldn’t compete with this big box store.

None of these little towns have a grocery store. They have a gas station. Some gas stations offer food, but it’s highly processed and expensive. Dollar Generals and Dollar Trees are starting to come in as the grocery store replacement in these small towns. Some people are thrilled. Yet, they still won’t have easy access to healthy and nutritious foods.”

How can the food movement become more inclusive?


“My experience is coming from a state that has a population that is 91.1 percent white, which makes it extremely important to us in the food movement to include discussions about white privilege. Not only discussion but action.

It is up to us to understand the conditions and policies that exist preventing access to food. Not only do we need to understand, but it is our responsibility to work with our brothers and sisters on policy that will ensure that food is a right. Breaking down institutional racism is difficult work and we cannot turn our backs on the very thing that prevents us from moving forward.”


“Every food-related conference needs workshops dealing with the question of race and food access. Most people in the food movement are well-intentioned, but white supremacy is pervasive in American society. Whiteness is the norm, so white people aren’t challenged to look at how they have privilege in society.

We need to constantly discuss how we’re participating in holding up structures that exclude people from access to the mainstream economy and high-quality food.

Frankly, people of color also need to organize among ourselves, so we build power and aren’t dependent on a critical mass of white people developing the consciousness to understand they have to give up privilege and power to create equity. It would be very nice if that happened, but I’m not really banking on that happening.

The way you gain power is to galvanize your collective strengths. You have professional societies with black people banding together to move in a more powerful way. We need to do that in the food movement and in creating a just and equitable society.”


“The Mindful Eating roundtable at the KFLA Global Summit was the first time I’d seen black men given a chance to be positive role models. I’ve been going to farming and food conferences for years. When was the last time you saw a panel discussion with all black men?

When you watch TV, what do you see? Most chefs are white. We talk about our attitudes about food. Well, young kids are watching and they want to see people who look like them. I felt so proud, sitting in the audience and listening to these black men articulating the truth. Normally when you see a group of black men, they are either in trouble or going to jail. I don’t want this to be a photo opportunity either, or a once-in-a-lifetime thing. This needs to be seen at all farming and food conferences.

That’s why Black Urban Growers (BUG) Caucus shows young kids these educators, chefs, farmers, statisticians, economists, and others who look like them. Not only people looking like them working at a fast food restaurant.”


“There are barriers affecting inclusivity. But I’ve seen a large movement of young adults wanting to engage in agriculture. Twenty-five years ago, you couldn’t find anyone who was interested, except for back-to-the-landers. Now I see national coalitions and different organizations coming up to engage young people in sustainable agriculture.

So, I always say, ‘We have to see how far we’ve come. Look at where we were a couple of decades ago and then do an analysis of where we are today.’

Let’s build on these successes. We should empower higher education to focus more on sustainable ecosystems. We should support the development of small farms’ marketing practices. Land access is a huge problem, so how can young farmers access land that is more affordable and accessible in their regions? There is no one silver bullet.

The United States Department of Agriculture could play a bigger part in leveling the playing field between large corporate interests and small, sustainable agriculture. Beginning farmer programs or farm-to-school programs, which impact local food systems, are a tiny piece of the Farm Bill budget. It’s not in the double digits.

If the USDA and the citizens of the United States really believe in a healthy food system that guarantees longevity and future generations, they should invest in state programs that encourage young farmers and agriculturists just as much as they support large corporations.”

What gives you hope?


“Young people I mentor and associate with are giving me hope. They are focused on resourceful living and frugalness. They want to do their best for the earth and the people who inhabit it. They grow their own food and food for others.

These people are questioning authority and are politically engaged to change the world to be more equitable. Social and political structures that are barriers are being questioned and torn down. Women especially have been boldly stepping forward to take leadership and be changemakers.”


“I’m an idealist, but I’m also a pragmatist. Martin Luther King said, and I’m paraphrasing here, the arc of the Universe bends towards justice. I think ultimately right wins out over wrong. Maybe I’m naïve to believe that wrong things eventually will be overturned over time. But that always gives me hope.

Most people in the food movement are really good people, who want to do the right thing. That gives me hope too. Seeing the developments that have taken place in my own community—where we’ve been able to organize people around farming and co-ops, and thinking about what a just and equitable society would look like—that gives me hope. There are people around the world coming to the same conclusions about creating food sovereignty and equitable, fair food systems. That gives me great hope as well.”


“The many black, brown, yellow faces of men and women coming up to me and thanking me. They inspire me. Our history of agriculture has been stolen from us. African Americans are never talked about in history books. If anything is mentioned, it’s always related to Martin Luther King. But when it comes to agriculture, they talk about Mark Bittman, Dan Barber, and Michael Pollan. Where is George Washington Carver? That man was a scientist.

We’re peeling back layers of uncovered history, and bringing to the forefront why we were brought to the United States. We weren’t brought here because we provided labor. We were brought here because of our knowledge of agriculture. The settlers otherwise would have starved to death. In Europe, they didn’t have a climate like the South. But the Africans did, and they knew what would grow best in that soil. They knew how to take care of that soil.

That’s the history we’re giving back to our people. So, the tan, brown, and black young boys and girls understand their place in American history and agriculture. For years, that wasn’t taught. Now we are discovering the truth about why we were brought here. That gives me hope.”


“Hope to me is these young adults lining up and chomping at the bits to do what we old farts have been doing. And we’re getting tired. I used to go to conferences and it was just a bunch of long grey-haired hippies. Now there are young, educated adults looking for different ways to impact their communities in a positive and grounding manner. That’s what I find so encouraging.

The other encouraging thing is the growing awareness of consumers. Customers are pushing back. The experts said we needed Genetically Modified Organisms to feed the world, but customers in the United States are wising up, just like in Europe. They don’t want GMOs or food additives. They want healthy, locally grown, and organic foods, which are good for the community and environment. This consumer education is a huge and positive step forward.”

Feature Image Courtesy of Michael Schwarz

Tags: building a resilient food and farming system, food justice, food sovereignty