In February, Winter Storm Uri brought record low temperatures to Texas, creating a preventable disaster as the state’s electric grid failed. The power and water outages that affected millions of Texans exacerbated another crisis that the pandemic had already made worse: food access during and after the storm.

The Dallas Food Justice Coalition, a coalition of grassroots organizations that work to improve the local food system, stepped in and distributed food to over 97,000 residents. They also provided water for lower-income residents in older apartment complexes suffering extended water disruptions.

The coalition was able to respond quickly because the relief effort was a continuation of the crisis aid work they had been doing since the onset of the pandemic. The Covid-19 pandemic made accessing healthy food even more difficult for many residents who were already food insecure. In the face of this disenfranchisement, the coalition sprang into action, filling in the gaps as best they could. Pre-Uri, they were already providing produce to up to 10,000 individuals a month.

However, the coalition understood that the food distributions, as crucial as they were, would never solve the underlying problems that led tens of thousands of residents to rely on nonprofits just to get food on the table.

It was the pandemic that opened the space for these organizations to unite and realize each offered a different key to repairing the food system. They began to build a vision for how their network of community-based organizations could be a catalyst for transformational change. They sought to educate and empower community members to grow and consume healthy foods while preventing waste.

As Hyiat El-Jundi, the executive director of Farmers Assisting Returning Military (FARM), says, “Our mission was not just growing food and feeding people, but cultivating community to bring people together to create effective change.” This is how the Dallas Food Justice Coalition was born.

In the Food Wasteland

In the Dallas Fort Worth area, access to healthy food is a major equity problem that local governments have yet to adequately address. An undersupply of healthy food options mixed with an overwhelming availability of unhealthy food sources disportionately affect the wellbeing of low-income communities and Black and Latino neighborhoods.

This map displays the extend to which food deserts (urban areas where it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food) plague the general DFW area. Credit: USDA Food Access Research Atlas

At the same time, donatable and compostable food discards are landfilled in the region at an alarming rate. The historic availability of cheap land to build landfills has created a mentality of burying waste at the city level, and no municipality in the area has a comprehensive food waste policy. Many landfills, like the City of Dallas’ McCommas Bluff Landfill, are located in food-insecure communities, meaning thousands of tons of usable food is discarded right next to communities that lack easy access to healthy food.

As coalition-member Chef Diana Zamora explains,

“The amount of food that is thrown away is offensive. People are facing food insecurity not because the food isn’t there, we just can’t get it to the people.”

The Dallas Food Justice Coalition represents a diverse mix of organizations that share a mission to transform this bleak food landscape.

The Harvest Project Food Rescue distributes healthy produce baskets to thousands of food insecure residents, many of whom live in predominantly Latino and Black neighborhoods, while also promoting zero waste. FARM uses cultivation as a therapeutic practice for returning veterans and focuses on developing sustainable practices that rehabilitate soil as well as communities.

The Oak Cliff Veggie Project focuses on community building by educating residents on how to grow their own food. Project La Familia, founded by out-of-work and furloughed restaurant workers, reuses food donated by restaurants and distributors to create meals for food-insecure families, undocumented restaurant workers, and school children while providing education on how to cook with healthy foods. Finally, 4DWN, a nonprofit founded by skateboarders, fights addiction through different types of therapy, including meditation and gardening.

A Spontaneous Community Around a Cooking Fire

Despite operating in the food justice space, these organizations didn’t work together until the pandemic when they started a weekly food distribution at the downtown Dallas location of FARM. Each week volunteers convened to meet the overwhelming demand for food by providing produce baskets using food that groceries and restaurants were planning to toss in the garbage.

The impetus to form a coalition, however, came from the meals volunteers shared after each distribution. Chef Diana Zamora, founder of Project La Familia, recalled,

“We started feeding our group of 30 to 40 volunteers that were there every week and cooked family meals around the fire. That brought the sense of family together. That was how the food justice coalition started: How can we help our communities help themselves?”

Danae Guttierez, co-founder of Harvest Project, explains,

“We started realizing that we all had a part when it comes to food, from FARM growing it, Project La Familia cooking it, and Harvest Project saving it. We were part of the wheel of the life of food.”

Coalition members also have deep roots in the community. Although they didn’t meet until the pandemic, Diana Zamora and Danae Guttierez grew up in immigrant families in the same primarily Latino neighborhood. According to Chef Zamora, she and Danae knew what it was like to depend on the school for meals five days a week.

“All of us who were involved in the food justice coalition were part of the community we’re serving.”

A Vision for Food Justice 

While the first year of the coalition focused on food distributions and composting food waste, their vision for a new food system was taking shape. Long term, they wanted to empower community members to grow and cook healthy food without having to rely on aid.

According to Guttierez, the combination of their different skill-sets offered the possibility for a holistic approach,

“You can have [a program] at FARM or 4DWN focused on mental health, and then the Harvest Project supports them with healthy food to nourish their bodies. We want to help the community whether it be growing good food or coming up with a healthy hobby like yoga or container gardening and provide them with a solution that they can do for themselves.”

Coalition members created a vision of a circular, zero waste approach to the food system. Food could be grown at FARM Harvest Project and Oak Cliff Veggie Project would distribute the food while also building community. Chef Zamora would provide education on how to turn produce baskets into healthy and culturally-relevant meals. Food donation baskets could include seeds from FARM with instructions to grow them or healthy recipes from Chef Zamora. Finally, unused food could be composted at FARM.

The Dallas Food Justice Coalition has actionable ideas, but they need time and funding to further realize their goals. Gutierrez, El-Jundi, and the other coalition leaders are stretched thin running their operations with limited capacity of existing volunteers. In some ways, the lack of manpower hinders the coalition’s ability to progress and expand.

Despite the challenges, the coalition is building a food justice movement to fight climate change. El-Jundi explains,

“Once you start learning what’s going on in your soil, you’re helping the environment. The way we deplete our soil is single handedly contributing to climate change. We stress that everybody should be growing their own food in whatever capacity they can. Even in spaces where people aren’t food-insecure they still need education.”

The Dallas Food Justice Coalition provides a simple but powerful model. By bringing together community advocates from different areas of food justice, they’ve begun cultivating a grassroots solution to our broken food system that focuses on empowering and educating the community rather than simply providing aid.

 

This article originally appeared on Shareable.net.

 

Teaser photo credit: A trilingual sign featuring English, Spanish, and Amharic at a Dallas grocery store. By Pete unseth – Photographed the store, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37996233