Community organizing as points of intervention in the Food System: A Grand Rapids perspective
Editor’s note: I was asked to participate in a series of video presentations that ACCESS of West Michigan is hosting around food justice and food sovereignty in Grand Rapids. The following is what I shared for the video as part of their Good Food curriculum.
My task today is to talk about how we can use community organizing as a way to change the current food system. This is no easy task, since the current food systems has been evolving over the past 100 years, and like any system of oppression, the current food system will resist change.
Before I talk about specific strategies and tactics we can use to change the current food system, I think it is important to talk about some important processes for organizing around food.
First, it is important that we have an intersectional view of the current food system. What I mean by that is that it is essential to look at the issue of food and the food system through a variety of analytical lenses. We can not separate how economics, race, gender, the environment, etc. impact how we understand the current food system and how we want to respond to it. To do so might mean we end up doing either more harm than we wanted to and our actions might be woefully inadequate.
Secondly, it is important that we simultaneously work to create a new food system while working to dismantle the existing one. The current food system will not go away on its own. What we have learned from previous social movements is that we need to not only fight against the current system of oppression, in this case the food system, while simultaneously work to create the kind of food system we want. This two sides of the coin approach is not only necessary, it also provides important entry points for people to become engaged in the work. This idea of creating new models while dismantling the old ones comes from Stephen D’Arcy’s important essay, Environmentalism as if Winning Mattered: A Self-Organization Strategy.
Ok, so now that we have a little bit of a framework about how to organize to change the food system, lets look at actual strategies that will help us to accomplish the goal of changing the current food system. These are not in any particular order, but they do need to be implemented simultaneously if we are to be truly effective in our efforts.
I. Community Skill Building Strategy – In this strategy it is crucial that we create opportunities that would allow as many people as possible to learn skills that are centered around food growing, food preservation and healthy nutrition. With this strategy we can employ a number of tactics to help people learn important food-centered skills. Tactic #1 – Food growing. It is important to create opportunities for people to grow some of their own food. This will not only give them some critical skills, it will them with new ways of seeing how the current food system is unhealthy and unsustainable. People can grow food in containers, raised beds, in the ground directly, through community gardens and be part of Community Supported Agriculture, which often allows those involved to be part of the food growing and harvesting process. Tactic #2 – Food preparation. The more we all have the skills to prepare food from scratch, the more likely it is for us to be dependent on the current food system. Food preparation is an important skill, but in the current economic system it is difficult for many people to eat well based on what they can afford and what they have time for. Therefore, one way to think about food preparation is to view it as a communal activity. If we had community kitchens that were neighborhood based, we could make food collectively to save money and time. Community kitchens could be located in people’s homes, in churches or other community spaces that would allow people to prepare food collectively, share recipes and make enough food for multiple meals. Community kitchens would allow people who work long hours and those who make poverty-level wages an opportunity to eat better, save money, save time and building community. Tactic #3 – Food Preservation – Food preservation skills would help us to become less dependent on the current food system. Food preservation skills would consist of canning, freezing and drying of foods. These skills could also be practiced in community kitchen spaces and would also contribute to community building. We should also think about including seed saving as a form of food preservation, since seeds are increasingly becoming genetically modified as to not allow them to be self-reproducing. Additionally, if more of us practiced seed saving we could create a local seed bank, which would not only preserve biological diversity, it would allow more people access to the opportunity to grow more of their own food. Local organizations that promote skill building around food are: Baxter Community Center, United Church Outreach Ministry, Our Kitchen Table and Gardens for Grand Rapids.
II. Food Worker Strategy – This strategy is important because it exposes how the current Foodie Movement is highly privileged. A food worker strategy would force the larger society to look more closely at the current food system, but it would also create possibilities for grassroots food worker organizing. Tactic #1 – Organizing farm workers – Organizing farm workers is not a new thing, but there is little attention given to one of the few jobs that doesn’t guarantee any minimum wage requirements. Farm worker organizing is an important tactic, because it not only exposes the exploitative nature of this labor force, it would provide an opportunity for the larger society to see how unjust, how racist and unsustainable the current food system is. (See Michigan Civil Rights Commission report on Migrant Workers in Michigan.) Tactic #2 – Restaurant worker organizing – Increasingly, many of us ask if the food served at restaurants is grown locally, but we rarely ask whether or not restaurant workers make a living wage and are allowed to organize as workers. Restaurant workers, like farm workers, make poverty-level wages and work in exploitative conditions. Creating greater opportunities for restaurant workers to organize would not only challenge the chain restaurants power within the current food system, it could lead to more collective forms of organizing around food.
III. Just Food Policy Strategy – The current food system is able to survive, in part, by federal and state policies. These policies, which provide massive subsidies, means that we all pay for an unhealthy, unjust and unsustainable food system. Instead, we need policies and practices that are based on food justice and food sovereignty. Tactic #1 – Direct Action for Just Food Policies – Considering how unjust the current democratic process is in the US and how money largely influences electoral politics, it would be more effective to have a mass movement to force federal and state policy to adopt food policies that are bioregional, that supports small community-based agriculture and redirects tax subsidies for food justice work. If the current Farm Bill funding, which is billions of dollars, were redirected to local food production where everyone made a livable wage, imagine how much new local food could be produced that was just and sustainable. (See Farm Bill subsidies for Michigan.) Tactic #2 – Practicing Food Sovereignty – If taxpayer funds were redirected toward local food sovereignty initiatives, we would not only have more financial resources to make sure everyone eats well, but to recreate a food system where everyone would be allowed to actively participate in decided what kind of food system we want. This is what food sovereignty is, to practice collective decision-making about food, that is local and sustainable. Tactic #3 – Just Land Use – Just land use would mean that the way we use land for food production would be radically altered away from mono-crop food production that is based upon expanding food markets. Just land use would mean food would be grown in both rural and urban settings that produced fresh food that could be more directly consumed, instead of using the bulk of land in the country for mass production of cash crops. Just land use would also mean that food would not have to travel over a thousands miles before it is eaten, since food would stay within the bioregions that it is grown.
IV. Civil Society Food Strategy – A civil society food strategy would mean that more people take an active roll in both creating a new food system and resisting the current food system. Tactic #1 – Creating Food Councils and hold Food Assemblies – As a new food system is created and in the development process, there needs to be localized efforts to create food councils and host food assemblies, which can guarantee greater public participation. These food councils and food assemblies would develop policies and practices to ensure that food justice and food sovereignty principles were enacted. Tactic #2 – Direct Action for Resisting the current food system – Direct action against the current food system could take the form of boycotts, educational campaigns, preventing the misuse of land, community occupation of agribusiness land, shutting down the transportation ability of major food corporations ship food abroad, ending the advertisement of unhealthy/processed foods and any other means of making it difficult for the current food system to continue to exploit workers, create unhealthy food and destroy the environment.
Lastly, it is important to say that we need to continue to provide food assistance programs, such as food pantries and meal sites. But we also need to ensure that these programs make room for equity and food system justice work. Such work facilitates conversations with those experiencing food insecurity. The strategies and tactics just discussed can be implemented at food pantries or food assistance sites and its important to recognize and support both.
We need safety nets to make sure that people are not experiencing food insecurity and malnutrition as we work toward creating new food systems. The kind of food system we create should be a food system that is based on justice, ecological sustainability, good health and compassion for all.