Friday, October 17, 2008

The Politics of Food

Photo by Billie Karel

A few weeks ago, Billie and I were lucky enough to attend the Environmental Leadership Program’s Politics of Food Conference held at NC State. There were tons of workshops and panel discussions on a variety of topics from The Impact of Organic Agriculture, to The Farm Bill Uncovered. My favorite part of the conference, however, was a plenary discussion entitled Equity and Justice in the United States Food System, which had a panel representing three very different efforts to make this title a reality.

Saru Jayaman, co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), was on the panel representing the role of the restaurant worker in our food system. She stressed the importance of economic justice and fair labor conditions for the twenty million people working in the U.S. food industry as integral parts of the food justice movement. Saru also pointed out the link between workers' rights and the quality of the food we eat. She used the term “collective prosperity” to show that fair working conditions and happy, healthy, safe workers in our food system mean safer, cleaner, and in some cases, probably more delicious food. This could apply to the restaurant, food processing, or agricultural settings. When we think about this idea in terms of agricultural workers, a simple connection we can make is between worker exposure to pesticides in the fields and consumer exposure to pesticide residues in the foods those workers grow.

Denise O’Brien also sat on the panel, speaking from the perspective of a female, organic farmer in Iowa. She started the Women, Food and Agriculture Network and nearly became Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture in 2006, quite an accomplishment in a state where agriculture is so dominated by industrial agriculture, not to mention men. Denise works with farmer women to help them realize their power as farmers (rather than just farmers’ wives) and often, as farm owners after their husbands die. The network is used as a tool for giving women a stronger voice in addressing issues of sustainability, as well as gender, within agricultural communities.

The third panelist, Malik Yakini, is chairman the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, which works toward creating a more just and sustainable food system within Detroit by putting some of the city’s 60-70,ooo vacant lots to use in urban agriculture. Malik emphasized the need to connect food-related struggles to struggles for democratic rule, access to true histories, and the struggles of all oppressed people. Clearly, a just and sustainable food system cannot be realized in a world that is not otherwise just or sustainable.

I thought this panel was especially important to include in this type of conference to remind people working for sustainable agriculture (and sustainable food systems more generally) that these issues are inherently linked to social justice issues of all kinds and that these struggles, struggles to protect the environment and struggles for social justice, must be supportive of each other if either are to be successful.

Billie and I were inspired, to say the least. Please check out the work these great folks are doing, and check out ELP, who put on the conference. They give great trainings to awesome people; just ask Billie!

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