Thursday, September 22, 2011

The 2012 Farm Bill: National food policy debate sparks local food justice concerns

By the time the organizers finished laying out the snacks, an array of fruits and vegetables, crackers, almonds and pistachios, over forty people had settled into the plastic chairs at the West Oakland library meeting room. It was a little after 5 pm on August 25th and the predominantly female attendees had gathered from all around the East Bay. Many had children attending Oakland schools and several were frequent Farmer’s Market shoppers or ate organic food. Some of the community members were on food stamps or once relied on WIC (short for Women, Infants, and Children, a federal food supplement program) to make ends meet, several were farmers or community gardeners. All had gathered there to participate in the workshop: “The Farm Bill: What does it mean for me?”

The event was sponsored and facilitated by the HOPE Collaborative (Health for Oakland’s People and Environment) in partnership with California Food and Justice Coalition (CFJC), Oakland Food Policy Council and People’s Grocery, a non-profit whose mission is to improve the health and economy of West Oakland through the local food system.” As an anthropologist and Oakland resident interested in food justice, I came to the meeting to learn more about the specifics of the bill and how local food groups and concerned individuals related the national policy with local concerns.

The event “hoped to clarify some of the complex language of the 2008 Farm Bill, relate it to our daily lives, engage residents in discussion surrounding food access, quality and nutrition, and bring people together to create solutions and positive changes in our food system,” Lotta Chan, a member of CFJC and workshop co-facilitator, wrote in Oakland Local. Every four years, the United States Department of Agriculture reviews their budget, the primary farming and food policy tool known as the Farm Bill. The 2012 Farm Bill, which is supposed to be voted on before the next election, synthesizes many consumer fears about nutrition and obesity, farm subsidies and access to healthy, organic food.

Jumoke Hinton-Hodge, a co-facilitator and the Program Director at People’s Grocery, began the workshop by having the attendees go around the room and say their names and a bit about themselves so that we would “know who’s in the room, ground us… [and] set some intention.” “Setting intention” is a phrase commonly used in consensus decision making, a popular organizing tool for progressive groups. The goal of consensus decision making—a model that has been practiced by Mennonites, Quakers and some Native Americans—is not necessarily for everyone to agree to the same conclusion. Rather, it is a process of discussion which allows each member to express their opinions and concerns in order to reach a satisfactory resolution. Many have embraced the model because unlike voting, a quantitative method in which there are “winners” and “losers,” consensus decision making is qualitative process in which dissenting members opinions are taken into account.

The facilitators invocation of consensus terminology opened a space for dialogue about wants and desires for the next Farm Bill and how the community could create that change. Phrases focused on inclusion or “togetherness,” such as “coming together,” “learning together,” “interconnection” and “coalition building,” showed a desire for community derived solutions rather than a top-down call to action from any particular workshop sponsor or participant.

Many of the attendees were active in local food groups already invested and engaged in the Farm Bill debate. A few were community members genuinely learning more about the particulars of the bill, its’ history and potential allocation of funds. Discussion topics included the lack of federally mandated labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) and the difference between food grants (given to organic agriculture) and subsidies (given to the “big five” commodities: corn, rice, wheat, cotton and soy). Facilitators were careful to make sure that the terminology was well-defined and that expertise of non-facilitators was valued as well (some participants had a strong knowledge of international GMO standards, for example).

The organization of the workshop and discussion questions focused on the belief that access to healthy food is a human right. This is a primary tenant of food justice, a concept which recognizes the centrality of food in terms of nutritional quality, accessibility and environmental impact as a barometer of social justice and community development.The organization of the workshop and discussion questions focused on the belief that access to healthy food is a human right. This is a primary tenant of food justice, a concept which recognizes the centrality of food in terms of nutritional quality, accessibility and environmental impact as a barometer of social justice and community development. As an example of food injustice, Chan held up a box of eight Kellogg’s “blueberry” Pop-Tarts and a half pint of organic blueberries. She asked the group to guess the prices and one woman said it depended on if you got them at the dollar store or the grocery store.

“If you get them at the dollar store,” another woman responded, “it won’t be Kellogg’s. It’ll be some no-name brand.”

As Hinton-Hodge read through the ingredients to determine if there were, in fact, any blueberries in the Pop-Tarts, Chan announced that the blueberries were approximately three times the price of the packaged pastries. (Which contained less than 2% dried blueberries and artificial blueberry flavor.)

The workshop was simultaneously a place to learn and a space to organize around food justice. Access and price of healthy, un-processed whole foods were discussed, as were the environmental implications of factory farms and subsidies. A diverse array of Oakland residents was present, with differing concerns and interactions with the food community and food politics. The workshop wrapped up with some suggestions on what the community could do to influence the next Farm Bill. Ideas included talking with friends and family about the importance of the Bill, organizing a march on Washington, and writing elected officials. Although a first step, (and the first of the two Farm Bill focused workshops- the second was held on August 31st in East Oakland) the workshop created a space to start discussing food justice as it pertains to the Farm Bill while setting the stage for further social justice work.

As anthropologists, the food justice movement offers an opportunity to examine how consumer activists organize, around what issues, and how food justice is connected to social justice. It is an opportunity to document and evaluate consumer activism and for activist anthropologists to utilize their expertise to outreach and assist in the coalition between and among communities. My goal with this column is to discuss issues of consumer activism and critical consumption organizing both at the local, grassroots level as well as the national discourse around the protection and consumption food, space and resources. Consumer activism and food justice is an exciting area of study for anthropologists interested in social movements, social justice and grassroots organizing.

This column also appears in the online edition of Anthropology News, the official newspaper of the American Anthropological Association.

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