This month the federal government released two reports which show success as well as challenges for the food justice movement. Real impact has been made in reducing food insecurity and poverty over the past two years. But pre-existing food and economic injustice remains and despite improvements most Americans are poorer and hungrier than before the recession. These recent gains are being lauded as the work of a strengthening economy, but it isn’t just the shifting of markets and decisions of politicians that brought this about. Grassroots organizations, progressive allies and social movements have been working for years to change our food system and get at the root of hunger and poverty.
The first report, released by the USDA on September 7th showed that 42.2 million Americans were food insecure, a shift from 15.4 percent of U.S. households to 13.4 percent between 2015 and 2014. The number of children living in food insecure households dropped to 13.1 million, a decrease from 20.9 percent to 17.9 percent – still disappointingly high, but actually lower than before the recession. An even more thorough economic report was performed by the U.S. Census Bureau and released on September 13th. It shows that after years of economic stagnation, there is finally real growth in incomes and declines in poverty. For example, the median household income climbed 5.2 percent between 2014 and 2015 to $56,516. The poverty rate dropped from 14.8 percent to 13.5 percent, the largest single year decrease since the Census Bureau started recording such data. Even better, these recent income gains largely went to people on the bottom half of the economy – the lowest fifth saw their income grow 6.3 percent while the upper fifth’s grew only 4.1 percent. The benefits of this current economic surge were more equitable than those in the past - Black and Hispanic households saw some of the largest increases in income.
That’s the good news.
But median income still remains lower than it was in 2007, before the recession. Similarly, food insecurity was at 11.1 percent prior to the recession, compared to the current 13.4 percent. One in seven Americans are still struggling to get enough food to eat. Urban areas overwhelmingly benefitted from the income gains and drop in food insecurity, while rural areas saw almost no increase in median income and still have significantly higher rates of hunger. Populations that historically have faced disproportionate rates of hunger still do: the rise in median income did not reduce the gender gap in any meaningful way, and both poverty and food insecurity remain significantly higher among Black and Hispanic households, even with the recent gains. In comparison with past years of similar economic growth and low unemployment, the poverty rate is strikingly high. Income inequality remains a huge barrier, with the top 5 percent holding on to a 21.8 percent share of national income and an even larger share of national net wealth. Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers and other economists have cautioned that another recession may be near, and it would be the most vulnerable – poor people, women, and people of color – who will see their gains disappear first.
What led to these successes?
First, the economy is doing better than it has been for years. Most economists agree these positive effects are the result of wage growth and the unemployment rate falling between 2014 and 2015. Under pressure from progressive activists, labor organizers, and social movements, 25 states implemented or continued minimum wage increases in that time. Throughout the recession, SNAP enrollment increased to support people who found themselves without a job or enough money to put food on the table. As hunger decreased, enrollment in SNAP went down by more than a million people in 2015 – a testament to the fact that these programs serve those who need it and are not widely abused. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act that was passed in 2010, but was implemented year by year, increased access to free or reduced-price lunch at schools and could be responsible for the historically low rate of child food insecurity.
But we should be wary of letting this good news put us at ease. Instead, these recent successes should compel grassroots organizations, social movements and progressive allies to continue our critical work. Over the past few years more and more local communities have been inspired to take back control of their food system. Creative, grassroots solutions have been implemented by our partners, often literally from the ground up in community farms and urban gardens throughout the country. More and more foundations are following WhyHunger’s lead and shifting their focus from solutions that merely hand out food to those bolstering community support and local organizations. Social movements, like Fight for 15 and Black Lives Matter, have brought national attention to the need for a living wage and racial equality. We’ve also seen how real political reform can decrease poverty and food insecurity – and we have to continue holding our politicians accountable to that. But the fact remains that, by most measures we still have not made up ground lost during the recession. And the rewards of economic recovery must be distributed equitably – benefitting those at the bottom half of the economy, women, Black and Hispanic households, and those living in rural areas. The USDA and U.S. Census reports prove that positive change is possible through grassroots action, people power, political will and solidarity. Hopefully, this is the first victory towards a just world where everyone has access to healthy, nutritious food and no one is impoverished.
"Everything the people have comes through struggle." WhyHunger supported the Assembly of the Poor (AOP) through our International Solidarity Fund and went on a site visit to learn from the villagers about their struggle and how they are fighting for food sovereignty. Below is a personal account and pictures from Tristan Quinn-Thibodeau's experience.
When the peasants in Chongtuko village were forced out of their homes and off their farms in 1993, they had nowhere to go. The Thai military wanted their land to use as a training field, and the villagers did not know how to solve their problem. After years of landlessness, they joined the Assembly of the Poor (AOP), a national social movement linking rural peasants and forest dwellers with urban workers and coastal fisherfolk pushing for social justice and food sovereignty. Through AOP, in 1997 they pushed the provincial government to allocate 256 acres of land in the forest for the villagers, who moved in and called their new village Kokedoi.
They set up small farms within the clearings and harvested the wild foods from the forest. They set up a small market along the road, where all of the villagers set up stalls. The villagers, who are peasant farmers and not shopkeepers, had to overcome their shyness and modesty to support themselves in the market. They found out that forest products, which are rare and are hard to harvest, sold really well. Now their market is thriving.
But their success has not come easily. For many years, they faced constant threats and attacks from a logging company that wanted to plant and harvest eucalyptus trees. The company moved in illegally and began to plant industrial eucalyptus on the land where the villagers were growing food and harvesting wild vegetables from the forest. They insulted the villagers and threatened them, and they put pressure on the provincial government to force the villagers out.
The pressure that the villagers were under was so bad that they decided they needed to block the entrance to the forest. In the middle of the night, they moved their entire village – 88 families’ homes – from beside the road to the center of the forest, where the company was trying to cut down the eucalyptus trees. Because of this heroic maneuver, their homes, their fields, and the forest was saved.
It did not come naturally for the villagers in Kokedoi to live in the forest. In fact, when they were first planning their village, some of the families wanted to cut down all of the trees, creating more land for them to plant. But others in the community wanted to protect the forest, and they argued that since so many of the middle class, urban people in Thailand blamed environmental problems on peasants and said that poor people cause deforestation, the villagers of Kokedoi should prove them wrong. They also pointed out that the logging company wanted to destroy the forest, so they needed to protect the forest. They became creative and learned how to sustain themselves from the forest vegetables, the fish that lived in the ponds, and the bullfrogs that lived in the mud and riverbeds.
However, the confrontation with the logging company continued and worsened. At one point, the company even hired assassins to kill the leader of the village, Uthai. Through the support of the Assembly of the Poor, as well as the courage of the villagers, Uthai and the people of Kokedoi survived and held onto their land. They did not give into the pressure, and eventually the assassin actually approached Uthai and told him that he had been hired to kill him but would not go through with it because of the strength and courage of the community. I asked Uthai how he was able to face that danger and what he was thinking. He told me, “I thought about leaving the village, but I realized that this would not solve the problem and would have hurt and weakened the village.” It was only because the people in the village supported him and guarded him that they were able to survive.
They also did it for their kids, to ensure that their children had a good life. If they gave up their land again, they worried what would happen to their kids. Now, they are learning agroecological farming, because chemicals used in industrial agriculture hurt the forest and will kill the forest vegetables. They have traveled to other villages that are members of the Assembly of the Poor, through its Alternative Agriculture Network, and they are experimenting with new crops and new markets.
As I was leaving, the villagers reminded me again the lesson of Kokedoi: everything that they have, they have because of struggle. They showed their flags for the Assembly of the Poor proudly, which hung next to their bustling market.
Hunger is not solved by sympathy or by charity. Hunger and poverty are the results of oppression and powerful interests, and they are only ended when the people who are the most impacted stand up, often in the face of life or death threats, for their human rights and dignity.
WhyHunger partner Community to Community Development (C2C) and the Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ) just announced an important victory in their struggle against Driscoll’s Berries to achieve farmworker justice for the workers at Berry Farm. We congratulate them on this win and look forward to more!
Here is the announcement:
Today, 9/22, Edgar Franks, organizer with Community to Community Development (C2C), the support organization for Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ) reported on historic next steps following the culimination of FUJ’s organizing campaign. The farmworkers at Sakuma Bros. Berry Farm voted in a historic secret ballot election to have Familias Unidas por la Justicia represent them in negotiations for a union contract – the vote represents years of organizing and signals a new era for farmworker justice.
Franks emphasized the historic nature of the win –
“FUJ represents over 500 Triqui, Mixteco, and Spanish speaking workers at Sakuma Bros. Berry, and is the first farmworker union led by indigenous workers. Despite hardships, workers have shattered stereotypes by organizing across languages and identity. This is revitalizing the worker movement in Washington state and beyond.”
This win ushers in a new era for farmworker justice internationally as Sakuma Bros., who supplies to Driscoll’s Berries, is the largest berry distributor in the world. What does the future hold for Driscoll’s suppliers worldwide?
Because FUJ has entered into a new negotiations process with Sakuma Bros. Berry, they have called for an end to their boycott of Driscolls and Sakuma products. Meanwhile, workers and consumers around the world have mobilized – including farm workers who supply to Driscolls in San Quintin, Mexico. As Familias Unidas por la Justicia doubles down in their union negotiations, C2C and other supporting organizations have stepped up to continue organizing and movement building in the food system to win justice for farm workers across the food chain in Whatcom and Skagit Counties, as Franks outlined:
“With limited resources, look what we’ve accomplished. We were able to support historic wins in the courtroom and a 77% majority union vote victory for FUJ. Imagine if you supported us.”
To continue the momentum towards a system wide change, those formerly participating in consumer actions and building the movement for farm worker justice in Washington State are asked to stay tuned for next steps by checking Community to Community’s Facebook page and Familias Unidas’ new website. What is most needed now is financial support to Community to Community Development.
This post first appeared in The Huffington Post.
Doctor Norman Borlaug the Father of the Green Revolution founded the World Food Prize in 1986 to promote the work of scientists and agricultural organizations that promote the production of food through technology. Over the years the prize has been given to dozens of top agricultural scientists and organizations which have pioneered biotechnological solutions for increasing food production, especially in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Yet the solutions and science honored at these ceremonies aren’t solving the hunger problem in our world.
The Food Sovereignty Prize begun in 2009 to champion social movements, activists and community-based organizations around the world working to ensure that all people have access to fresh, nutritious food produced in harmony with the planet. Food Sovereignty means that people should be able to grow, eat and sell their own food in the manner they choose. Members believe that increased dependence on technology, as heralded in the World Food Prize honorees, in the form of pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, and GMO seeds is not the answer to hunger and food production. Control of the food system by large corporations is not the way to protect the environment and decrease hunger and poverty. Access to land, clean water, native seeds and fair markets as well as protection from land grabs and state-sponsored violence are what small farmers need. Millions of small farmers have embraced agroecology, a method of growing food sustainably that combines the best of traditional agriculture with many of the best new agricultural breakthroughs that are affordable and safe for the environment, the food and the farmers. It is a way of life in which whole communities come together to share resources and learn from one another.
The Food Sovereignty Prize celebrates the achievements of organizations that have succeeded in growing food and promoting economic and social justice often in the face of oppression and violence from large landholders and repressive governments.
This year, the Eighth Annual Food Sovereignty Prize will honor The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), which brings together a number of different constituencies: small farmers, pastoralists, hunter/gatherers, indigenous peoples, women, youth, consumer networks, people of faith and environmental activists in the fight for food sovereignty. Small farmers and the poorest of the poor have a strong voice in the Alliance for Food Sovereignty against land and water grabs and for a more just system for its members. As Bern Guri, AFSA chairperson, noted in the official press release, “Africa has a myriad of ways to feed her people and to keep her environment safe. However, a few international corporations from the global North have generated approaches strictly for their own profit by misleading our leaders and our people, stealing our seeds and culture, and destroying our environment.”
Also receiving the prize is the Farmworker Association of Florida (FWAF). Farmworkers all over the U.S. have been unjustly treated for years and those in Florida have suffered from low wages, unsafe working conditions, sexual violence in the fields and illnesses from agricultural chemicals. FWAF has helped farmworkers to gain control of the economic, social, health, workplace and political issues they face such as racism, pesticide exposure, environmental contamination and economic exploitation. It has brought people together in communities to practice agroecology and bring healing to the communities through good food and herbs.
There are few things meant to be as fundamentally universal, as natural and unwavering as human rights. Here in the U.S. we hold these basic, inalienable rights at our core. We’ve used a framework of rights to found a nation, to build our political systems and to develop a shared narrative of what makes us uniquely American. Yet, when we begin to dissect what is meant by human rights in the policies and practices in place in the United States today, we find that access to certain basic needs – nutritious food and clean water – is treated as a privilege, unevenly available among certain demographics. What is possible if the U.S. acknowledged the basic, essential human right to food? Could we reframe the conversation or even end hunger in America?
At the World Social Forum, held last month in Montreal and attended by tens of thousands of activists, organizations and social movements, WhyHunger and La Via Campesina co-organized a round table discussion on the meaning and potential opportunities to use the right to food framework in the U.S. to name and then address hunger as an injustice.
To kick off the conversation, panelist Smita Narula, human rights practitioner, academic and expert advisor in the field of international human rights and public policy, laid out the concepts behind a right to food framework and how it could be used in the U.S. Narula stated, “The right to food is the right of all people to be free from hunger and to have physical and economic access at all times to sufficient, nutritious and culturally acceptable food that is produced sustainably, preserving access to food for future generations.”
Listen to Smita Narula talk about the right to food.
Narula went on to explain that a rights-based approach to food emphasizes the government’s obligation, rooted in international human rights law, to ensure in a non-discriminatory way that food is accessible, both economically and physically, adequate in nutrition, affordable and sustainable in both production and consumption.
“Contrary to popular perception, the right to food is not a right to a minimum number of calories, or simply the right to government entitlements,” said Narula. “It is the right to a political and economic system, including a food system, wherein all people are empowered to provide for themselves in a dignified, healthy and sustainable way.”
When we look at food as one of those inalienable human rights, it becomes impossible to accept that 42 million people, including 13 million children, in the U.S. were food insecure in 2015. Facts that we in the “anti-hunger” community rattle off as talking points so often that they’ve been committed to memory, become unimaginable, even unconstitutional: 17 million children don’t have enough nutritious food to eat; the large majority of households facing hunger have at least one family member who works – often multiple jobs; hunger disproportionately affects people of color, women and children; food system workers face higher levels of hunger than the rest of the U.S. workforce – in fact, just 13.5% of all food workers earn a living wage.
And what these facts and stats can sometimes mask, is the underlying systems-level injustice that is at the root of hunger in America. “People are not poor, they have been impoverished,” said Narula. “People do not lack access; they have been denied access or have been dispossessed of resources.”
What are the possibilities for ending hunger if we stop asking the question “how do we feed the world” and if we stop looking at the hungry in the U.S. as folks who need to be “helped”? What are the possibilities if we reframe how we see those who are hungry as “rights holders who can organize to fight an injustice,” and we start asking why and how the human right to food is being denied? After 30+ years of building the most sophisticated emergency food system in the world, coupled with federally funded benefits such as SNAP (food stamps), we are still coming up short on solving the hunger problem in America.
“Hunger will not be solved by charity or by the commodification of land, but by ensuring rights, by ending social and economic injustice and by ensuring people’s agency over resources that are essential to their survival,” said Narula. “I am talking about nothing less than shifting people’s consciousness.”
It is clear that to put an end hunger in the U.S., we need to change the whole conversation. We need to ask different questions and seek out different solutions. We need a counter narrative. We need a transformation in our approach to ending hunger from a focus on charity to seeking social justice.
While many countries have successfully changed their constitutions with the support of social movements like La Via Campesina, the overwhelming feeling from the farmers, organizers, activists and anti-hunger organizations that attended the discussion in Montreal was that a policy change to codify the right to food in the U.S. was not the first goal, and certainly not attainable in the short-term. Rather, the opportunity in using the framework of the right to food in the U.S. lies in the critical step of building a groundswell of people – the food insecure, emergency food providers, farmers, consumers, activists and communities of color -- who are organizing to change the narrative about what it will take to end hunger. If we shift the conversation enough, can we make room to focus on envisioning and implementing creative strategies, practices and programs at the community level that address the underlying issues of hunger and begin to transform our food system? Can we put people and social justice at the center of our food system, not corporate interests and profits?
Using the right to food framework can help us tell a different story about hunger and what it will take to end it, and while we can hope and even plan for a day when America recognizes all human rights – including the right to food- we don’t need policy change to begin the critical work of changing the narrative, building consciousness and realizing our rights to safe and nutritious food.
This spotlight is a feature of WhyHunger’s digital storytelling that showcases grassroots organizations and community leaders through dynamic stories and pictures, to give a real view of projects that are working to alleviate food insecurity and increase communities’ access to nutritious food. We believe that telling one’s story is not only an act of reclaiming in the face of the dominant food narrative of this country, but also an affirmation that the small acts of food sovereignty happening across the country add up to a powerful, vital collective. Up today: Youth Farm and Market Project; Minneapolis, MN. Story and photos by David Hanson.
“I’m the resource queen,” says Scelena, a large woman with a tattoo on her shoulder exposed beneath a tank-top and between the long braids of her hair. “They’ve got programs for kids out here. You just gotta find them.”
Out here is North Minneapolis, the city’s most drastic low-income zone with a mix of African-Americans, Latinos, whites, East Africans, and Hmong.
Next to Scelena sits Amphavanh, a southeast Asian immigrant who speaks fluent English. She lives in an apartment above a store in a really bad part of North Minneapolis. So bad, she says, that she can’t let her fourteen year-old daughter ride the bus to the grocery store. Another mother nods. She doesn’t let her young teen ride the bus, either. “And she’s bigger than I am,” the mom says.
These five women are seated at a table in a church basement on Emerson Ave in North Minneapolis. They’re here for dinner and dialogue. Their children work with the Youth Farm and Market Project’s (YFMP) new garden at Nellie Stone Johnson pre-K through 8th school, a YFMP expansion project that is a direct result of a CFP grant.The children have been cooking stir-fry chicken, rice with squash and zucchini from the garden, fresh fruit, and a peanut sauce. After the dinner is prepared, the participants split into three groups at three tables: children, teens, and adults. Each table has a leader from “Community Cooks,” a program of the community organization, Appetite for Change (AFC), begun by Michelle Horovitz. The leaders, Tasha, Princess, and Jesse, are residents of North Minneapolis. They come from the same place as the kids and mothers. AFC partnered with YFMP to conduct this dinner and dialogue in the fashion that AFC has been developing Community Cooks since it began with a pilot program in 2011.
So before everyone digs into the food that the children have been tending to all summer, everyone talks about food issues. The young kids are asked what they’d buy if they were given money and sent to the grocery store. These kids have been at Youth Farm and Market long enough to know that tomatoes, green beans, broccoli, onions, apples, oranges are the things they should be eating. Jesse writes their answers on a white poster sheet tacked to the wall.
At the adult table, Princess passes around a sheet of paper with an illustration of two meals (plus their price, and nutrient contents) to feed a family of four:
2 Big Macs
1 six-piece chicken nuggets
Fat: 37 grams
Carbs: 123 grams
Protein: 23 grams
Grocery store $13.78
Fat: 39 grams
Carbs: 80 grams
Protein: 67 grams
As the mothers look at the sheet, Princess continues, asking what the women do to find healthy, affordable food at grocery stores. Someone mentions dried mangos. Another mother wonders where you can get those. Someone says Wal-Mart sells them cheap. Another woman says you can dry them yourself for cheaper. One mother says she grew up in Brazil and they ate all their meat and veggies fresh. Her daughter is big, she says. Really big and she has asthma. She’s worried she might get diabetes. But they have a garden in the backyard and they work together in it. She makes it fun for them.
Amphavanah talks about living in an apartment above a storefront. She can’t grow anything. Years ago she had the chance to get a box for growing veggies, but she didn’t know how to, so she passed it up. Now she says when she can move into a house, her daughter Mela, can teach her how to grow produce like she learned at YFMP.
This post first appeared in The Huffington Post.
How can the richest country in the history of the world that has an abundance of food have so many hungry people? Who are they? How can we change this grave injustice?
Even after a substantial recovery from the Great Recession we still have 48 million people in our country who are food insecure including 15 million children and 5.4 million seniors. That does not mean they are starving but they often skip meals and are forced to buy cheap unhealthy food. The majority of the adults who are hungry work but cannot afford to feed their families. There are also a million homeless people facing hunger including an increasing number of families with children.
There is a growing movement among hunger/poverty advocates, faith based organizations of all denominations, small farmers, environmental activists, labor unions and businesses to vote for candidates for the presidency and other national, state and local officials who support efforts to end hunger, alleviate poverty and create opportunity in the U.S. and around the world.
These are topics that often are lost in the furor of personal attacks and rarely become major issues in presidential and other important elections. Yet in poll after poll, a large majority of Americans say we should and can end hunger in America. Many of these folks support an emergency food program in their neighborhood but after more than forty years with tens of thousands of local food pantries and soup kitchens it has become clear that simply feeding people is not the answer to hunger.
WhyHunger is joining hundreds of organizations and individuals in the Vote to End Hunger Coalition to elevate the issue of hunger with the Presidential candidates during the 2016 election. Consider signing this petition to make hunger, poverty and opportunity a higher political priority and ensure the debate moderators ask the candidates, “If elected, what will you do to end hunger, alleviate poverty, and create opportunity in the US and worldwide?” during the upcoming presidential debates.
We certainly need to ask the candidates whether they support the already successful federal anti -hunger programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program ( SNAP) that has successfully replaced Food Stamps and all the child nutrition programs. But, what about dealing with poverty, the root cause of hunger? Do they support raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour over the next five or so years? Do they support equal pay for equal work for women? What about pay raises for those who are not covered by minimum wage laws like farmworkers? How about supporting paid leave to take care of a newborn child or an elderly parent? Are they in favor of making it easier for workers to join a union? Are they on board to form a bi-partisan congressional effort to fund a massive Infrastructure/Jobs program?