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Why we can’t go back to the way things were in Grand Rapids: Part II – Re-imagining a new food system

May 6, 2020

Last week, we posted an initial article about Grand Rapids can’t go back to normal after the COVID 19 crisis. We made the argument that the inequities that existed before the crisis which amplified with the crisis, but they would continue to exist long after COVID 19, unless we begin to radically re-image another way of organizing ourselves. 

In Part II, we want to focus on food, the current food system and why we need to radically re-imagine a new food system in this community. Food insecurity has been amplified during the current crisis, with thousands of people in the Grand Rapids area not being able to access food or struggling to access food. There has been inspiring efforts to make sure that people are getting access to food, like food pantries changing how they distribute food, to people volunteering to bring food to families, to various groups making sure that children who relied on school meals could still get the food they needed. A great deal of food triage has been happening, work that is very important, but it does not address the larger issue of food insecurity in the Grand Rapids area.

Another thing we have seen in the past 6 weeks is, with the closing of restaurants and other sectors in society, many farmers have been forced to dump or destroy the food they have produced, because they could not get rid of it. This dynamic exposed the major flaws in the food supply chain. Essentially, the food supply chain is based on seeing food as a commodity, rather than seeing food as a human necessity.

Lastly, there has been a great deal of interest on social media about the interest of people to learn gardening skills, even calls for people to grow victory gardens. As a long-time gardener, I completely support people’s desire want to grow more of their own food, but individual responses will not be adequate and we need to come up with solutions that will be collective solutions, since virtually no one I am aware of can take care of all of the own food needs.

So, when the COVID 19 crisis is over, which doesn’t seem to be anytime soon, we will still need to address major flaws in the current food system. In fact, it is arguable that we need an entirely new food system, a system that is not driven by the profit motive, a system that exploits agricultural workers, a system that values and promotes highly processed food over fresh food and a food system that relies on fossil fuel-based transportation and food traveling thousands of miles while it is consumed.

So what might a radically re-imagined food system look like in the Grand Rapids area? Here, we offer 10 ideas about how to move in that direction.

  • We do need more people to question the existing food system and learn food growing and food preserving skills. More people growing and preserving food is an important step, but it is only a first step and not the end goal.
  • We need large, fully functional farmers markets in a sectors of the Grand Rapids area, which will make it easier for more people to access fresh food that is in their neighborhood.
  • We need to guarantee that people have access to land to grow food, particularly to grow food collectively. I support people turing their lawns into spaces of food production, but this is often a privileged response, since many people do not have lawns. Vacant lots, church property, green space that exists at commercial facilities, all need to be made available for people to collectively grow food.
  • Right now, a great deal of food that is grown in West Michigan, does not stay in West Michigan. Many of the area farms grow mono-crops, like corn and apples, which are either used for animal feed (in the case of corn) or the food is sent abroad to be used in the creation of highly processed foods. Current, the food system is not bio-regional and this also means that the average food item grown will travel 1,000 miles before it is consumed. This is not sustainable, nor should it be desirable. More farmers would use a CSA model (Community Supported Agriculture), but this requires that thousands more need to join a CSA.
  • Food waste is built in to the current food system. Food that goes bad before it gets to consumers is expected and used as a write-off in the current food system. Then there is the amount of food that grocery stores throw away because it has expired and all the food that is thrown away by restaurants and other institutions that prepare thousands of pounds of food every day. So much food ends up in a landfill, food that could be used to meet the nutritional needs of so many people.
  • We need to rethink how we access food and move beyond supporting the large grocery chains, moving to other food distribution models. We need more food coops, food buying clubs, more CSAs and more neighborhood-based farmers markets. 75% of the food sold in Grocery store chains is highly processed foods that we don’t need, and if fact, the highly processed foods is what has led to a major health crisis, especially for those experiencing poverty.
  • The Slaughterhouse industry has also now being exposed to its brutal and dysfunctional nature. For years we have know that a meat-centric diet in the current food system is a major contributor to climate change. Moving forward we need to come to terms with the fact we need to significantly reduce animal consumption to truly have a just and sustainable food system.
  • Right now it is apparent that agricultural workers/migrant workers are “essential workers.” However, agricultural workers/migrant workers have always been essential to the current food system, despite the fact that they are exploited on a massive scale. Food worker demands should be met, which includes a livable wage, safe working conditions, just housing conditions and the elimination of the threat of ICE arrest, detention and deportation, since many workers in the food system are undocumented. Farmworker unions should be a priority.
  • Farmworker labor improvements are a good first step, but it would still not do much to challenge the existing food system. We need massive land reform, which includes a longstanding tradition, particularly in the Global South, where those who work the land should own the land.
  • We also need to challenge the massive subsidization of the current food system, also known as the Farm Bill. Billions of dollars of taxpayer money is used to support a dysfunctional, exploitative and unjust food system. Instead of ending the Farm Bill, maybe we need to radically re-imagine a new Farm Bill that would redistribute the billions going to support the agribusiness sector and redistribute that money to fund all of the other ideas listed above.

These 10 ideas are just the beginning of what a radically re-imagined food system might look like, but it is just that, a beginning. We need to have a collective conversation about how to move forward from here and take advantage of the opportunities that the COVID-19 crisis is providing us, in order to radically re-imagine a just food system. Ultimately, we need to practice food sovereignty, which essentially means that every community would have a direct say in the kind of food system we want. Let’s embrace the ideas that groups like Via Campesina have been giving us (the idea of food sovereignty originated with Via Campesina) and collectively practice the radically re-imagine new food system we want!

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