The answer is, very. I came to this conclusion after a recent trip to Detroit, MI, also known as the “motor city.” I was there to attend the Detroit Food 2017 Summit and participate in WhyHunger’s Midwest Gathering of emergency food providers who came together to discuss the emergency food system and think about how we can collectively transform it to one that focuses on long-term solutions and is socially just, to truly end hunger. With that purpose in mind, learning about using narrative change as a strategy to achieve that transformation was a key activity. Narrative, or stories, influence our perspectives on every issue, including our view of hunger and poverty, and we hear them every day, be it through the media, friends, family, coworkers, books, etc. As we take in news we should think about the words used, how they were said, who is saying them and why.
Think about the stories you’ve heard of about Detroit. Now, what immediately comes to mind? Perhaps bankruptcy? Abandoned homes? Urban? Poor? Well, I’d like to help shift that narrative a bit by giving examples of a resilient community, thriving businesses, urban gardens and hope. Below, are the community-led organizations and businesses I got to learn a little about during my time in Detroit. Hopefully, even as short summaries, they leave you as inspired as I was.
Resident Mark Covington started The Georgia Street Community Collective (GSCC) in 2008. Originally, it was meant to be a beautification project but as they cleaned up the empty lots in the neighborhood Mark became inspired to start a community garden. He wanted to help the elders in the area who struggle to pay for both medicine and food, and empower the youth and provide them with structure. GSCC is achieving that by focusing on health, education, leadership skill development and protection to rebuild and sustain their community one house at a time. They offer school supply giveaways, holiday dinners, Easter egg hunts and more – all free to residents. They sell honey and eggs, and one of their goals is to have a fully functional greenhouse by next year. You can give a donation or learn more here.
Located in Detroit’s Hope District, Detroit Friends Potato Chips. Co. is a wonderful example of a locally-grown, sustainable business that gives back. So wonderful in fact, that Oprah even knows about them! Detroit Friends is the brainchild of Michael Wimberley who wanted to renew his relationship with the earth and think about ways he could help fix Detroit’s economy by creating work and opportunity for those around him. Detroit Friends started growing potatoes on a vacant lot and soon realized making potato chips could be the right business model for them. Mike enrolled in a food lab business incubator, and after many tries and failed experiments; their potato chip was born. Their story caught attention of Oprah Winfrey and in 2016 they made it into Oprah’s Favorite Things list. Mike’s advice, “Be entrepreneurial, and never give up.” Detroit Friends gives back to the community by sourcing their Russet potato from a 3rd-generation farmer in MI and has become a community hub by having a soup kitchen and senior program. Order these delicious chips here, I personally recommend the Lemon Pepper flavor :)
Last, but certainly not least, is the woman-owned The Farmer’s Hand located in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. Founded by Rohani Foulkes and Kiki Louya, The Farmer’s Hand is part grocery, part café, and part farmers market that is dedicated to selling 100% locally grown and produced goods. As Kiki explained to us, they believe in growing agriculture in Michigan and helping farmers earn a living wage to create a better ecosystem. Developing personal relationships with farmers and telling their stories is essential, so people know where their food came from. They have over 100 different partners, 70 cents of each dollar goes directly back to their partners and they focus on providing seasonal, culturally appropriate foods. Check out their website to learn more and be sure to visit next time you’re in Detroit!
After reading a little about these community groups and organizations, I hope now when you hear “Detroit” you think about something different - the amazing people, thriving small businesses, food justice and self-determining communities. We should all think critically and evaluate the different narratives we hear and challenge ourselves to speak up or add new perspectives to conversations when we can.
To culminate Black History Month we interviewed mother, farmer, activist and scholar-in-training Shakara Tyler and asked her to share her thoughts on the impacts and work that Black people have contributed to our food system. As we continue to fight hunger and poverty, it’s important to recognize the multiple intersections with other struggles within the food justice movement and embrace solutions developed by grassroots leadership. Hope you enjoy and learn something new!
For Black History Month, we want to share important contributions that African Americans have made to our food system/agriculture…what is one of your favorite historical facts or someone whose contribution you wish more people knew about?
There are not enough word space to fully expound on Black peoples’ contribution to our food system and agriculture. Black people have provided the foundation – in conjunction with other indigenous people across the globe – of our agricultural system through labor, cultural knowledge and emotional and psychological sacrifice. A significant part of this foundation is the forgotten, silenced and ignored lives and work of Black women who I believe to be significant birthmothers of Black agrarian land-based resistance. Like Araminta Ross (Harriet Tubman) and Fannie Lou Hamer, the Freedom Quilting Bee (FQB) was a handicraft cooperative (and a member of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund) that also used their artistic knowledge to develop land-based resistance strategies in 1966. ). Comprised of 60 sharecropping women from across the Southern Black Belt region, the cooperative was housed in Alberta, Alabama and, the collective centered black land ownership in their handicraft efforts. The women sold quilts to supplement their families’ farm incomes. The seed money for the cooperative came from an initial sale of 100 quilts. In 1968, the cooperative bought 23 acres of land. They sold eight lots to families who had been evicted from their homes for registering to vote.
See Jessica Nembhard’s Book, Collective Courage, for more information.
How are you working to connect the black community even more to agriculture and the importance of taking control of your own food system?
I work with Black farming communities on whatever issues they request help with such as financial capital and marketing access, cooperative development, and community outreach and engagement. My primary focus is exploring the development of Black agrarian pedagogies by co-assessing how Black agrarian communities’ personal, cultural and technical capacities can be employed to transform our lived realities.
It is imperative that we pay special attention to how teaching and learning occurs in Black agrarian spaces. In many Black agrarian educational spaces, participants feel the soil, taste the foods grown in that soil, share stories, transform as individuals in community with one another, which in turn transforms our communities themselves. Often times, the socially constructed dichotomies of urban and rural, youth and elder, global north and global south and capitalist and anti-capitalist create barriers that inhibit our teaching and learning in solidarity with one another. If we are going to fully reap the benefits of the self-determining food economies and land-based resistance measures we continue to embark on to transcend the intertwined systems of oppression, we must work in greater solidarity through the dialogue of our various ways of being and knowing.
What are some challenges facing the black community in agriculture and what do you see as possible opportunities or solutions? How can people get involved?
In addition to the common issues faced by many agricultural communities like racism and sexism, land access, financial capital access, marketing access and product viability, the Black agricultural community is also struggling with the need to engage those who are not already aware and committed to principles of Black agrarianism. When we begin to revalorize labor of the land and become more keen of how to systemically exchange our knowledge of the land with one another, we achieve many of the goals and objectives of Black food justice and food sovereignty.
Folks can get involved by getting their hand dirty because many farms are in dire need of labor assistance. If you cannot get dirty on the farm with us, money and equipment donations are deeply appreciated as well. All in all, what is most necessary is rerouting time, labor, money and other resources towards food justice and food sovereignty projects. Our liberations are bound and cannot be attained without working together.
What do you enjoy most about your work in the food justice movement?
One of the most fulfilling components of working for a community self-determined food system is honoring the blood, sweat and tears of my ancestors who fought for food justice and food sovereignty through community land trusts, land and food cooperatives, nature-based spiritualties and more. These blueprints illuminate how our liberation is tied to the land but also extend far beyond the land. By walking the paths of our ancestors, we know we are not alone in this struggle for control over our destinies – our head, hands and hearts have been here before. For this reason, my work with food justice and food sovereignty movements has become a spiritual work of ancestral remembrance and embodied healing.
What’s your favorite traditional meal?
My favorite traditional meal is more of a process than particular cultural dish. I enjoy cooking in community with others with food that was grown with our hands on Black cultivated land. There is no meal more powerful than the one prepared within spaces anointed with Black ancestral knowledge and the unrelenting spirit of Black community self-determination. Black soil, Black land, Black-kept seeds and Black labor prepare the most delicious meals!
#BlackLand, #BlackEcology, #BlackFarmers/Gardeners/Growers, #BlackChefs, #BlackKitchens, #BlackHistory WILL matter!
Shakara is a mother, farmer, activist and scholar. She obtained her B.S. at The Pennsylvania State University in Agricultural Sciences and worked as an urban farm educator for a youth empowerment organization in Philadelphia, PA, and obtained her M.S. at MSU in the Department of Community Sustainability, focusing on Black farmers and civil rights. She is now pursing research in the arenas of food justice and food sovereignty, while working with under-served farmers around land, financial capital, and market accessibility. Regarding our work on Black agrarian pedagogies, she currently employs decolonial theories in her food justice and sovereignty work.
Thank you so much for Shakara for sharing your knowledge with us!
This post was initially published by our partners at Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW)
Wendy’s issues statement on boycott after months of silence. Silence was better.
As we write this on Wednesday evening, the nation prepares (and by “prepares” we mean curls into the fetal position on the couch in front of the TV…) for the third and final presidential debate.
But if you are like us and happened to catch Wendy’s new statement on the Fair Food movement’s national boycott, published yesterday on an obscure public relations blog dedicated to the discussion of Corporate Social Responsibility, then you were treated to a sort of pre-debate hors d’oeuvres plate, a similar mix of cheap innuendo, half-truths, and outright fabrications, just in smaller bites.
In any event, now that the Wendy’s statement is out there, we face the thankless task of responding to mountains of misinformation without just throwing up our hands and walking off stage. We’ll do our level best.
Before we get started, you should first read Wendy’s statement, entitled “When the Easy Answer Isn’t the Right One,” by Wendy’s Senior Vice President for Communications, Liliana Esposito, for yourself. Go ahead, we’ll wait…
Ok, here we go.
Let’s start with the cheap innuendo…
And it happens to be the one passage Wendy’s chose to bold in the entire statement. It reads:
So why does CIW have a problem with Wendy’s? Because we buy a lot of tomatoes for which they don’t receive any money. The Fair Food program primarily operates in Florida and Wendy’s does not currently purchase tomatoes in Florida… and that’s at the heart of these protests.
Anyone without knowledge of how the Fair Food Program actually works reading this bolded passage would reasonably conclude that, a) when participating buyers pay the Penny-per-Pound premium on purchases of Florida tomatoes, that money goes to the CIW, and, b) Fair Food protests were designed solely to force companies to pay money to the CIW. Wendy’s strongly implies that the protests are not motivated by the imperative of social and economic justice for the workers who pick Wendy’s tomatoes, but are rather some sort of elaborate corporate shakedown.
This is a recycled version of the accusation made by a former corporate vice president of Burger King (right) during that campaign back in 2008. Using his daughter’s online alias to post comments anonymously, the Burger King executive wrote of the CIW’s campaign and the protests:
“The CIW is an attack organization lining the leaders pockets … They make up issues and collect money from dupes that believe their story. To (sic) bad the people protesting don’t have a clue regarding the facts. A bunch of fools!” read more
His words echoed the approach of Burger King’s CEO at the time, John Chidsey, who made similar statements in public to those made online above:
Chidsey delivered a lecture at his alma mater, Davidson College, and made statements almost identical to the ones now linked to Grover. Chidsey said of dealing with CIW, “The union said the money has to go in the union coffers and ‘we’ll decide what’s better for the workers.’” read more
Of course, even casual observers of Campaign for Fair Food history know how that chapter turned out. The executive vice president responsible for the anonymous comments was fired, Burger King signed a Fair Food agreement with the CIW and is today an important partner in the Presidential Medal-winning Fair Food Program, and the CEO made the following statement in the joint press release announcing the company’s agreement with the CIW:
“We are pleased to now be working together with the CIW to further the common goal of improving Florida tomato farmworkers’ wages, working conditions and lives. The CIW has been at the forefront of efforts to improve farm labor conditions, exposing abuses and driving socially responsible purchasing and work practices in the Florida tomato fields. We apologize for any negative statements about the CIW or its motives previously attributed to BKC or its employees and now realize that those statements were wrong. Today we turn a new page in our relationship and begin a new chapter of real progress for Florida farmworkers.” read more
That history might profitably serve as a cautionary tale for any Wendy’s communications executives who might be contemplating further exercises like the cheap innuendo bolded in today’s statement.
And now for the outright fabrications…
The Wendy’s statement also displays little concern for the truth. It claims:
“… The CIW requires participants to pay an additional fee directly to the tomato harvesters that work for the growers, on top of the price we already pay for the product… but we don’t believe we should pay another company’s employees”
“…the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), an activist group that represents tomato harvesters in the Immokalee region of Florida…. Where we differ with the CIW is in their belief that we should focus on a single group of people – in this case, tomato harvesters in one region in Florida.”
Participating Buyers do not pay farmworkers directly. The Penny-per-Pound premium appears as a separate line item on a buyer’s invoice or is built into the price (as the buyer prefers), and so is paid to the growers through regular business channels. It is then pooled by each grower with the premium payments of other Program buyers and distributed by the grower to its workers in the form of a bonus, through regular payroll channels. In fact, Participating Buyers have no direct contact of any kind with workers in the FFP. [Again, like the innuendo echoing Burger King’s earlier missteps, this one isn’t even original, but simply borrowed from Publix’s tired bag of public relations tricks — “However, we will not pay employees of other companies directly for their labor” — and thrown out there in hope that it might fool anyone new to the campaign.]
The CIW’s Fair Food Agreements cover nearly 35,000 workers in seven states, not “one region of Florida” and one crop as Wendy’s statement would have it. Today the Fair Food Program operates along most of the East Coast (in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey) and in three crops (tomatoes, peppers, and strawberries).
And finally the half-truths…
First, a small, but not insignificant one:
“It sounds simple enough, and you may wonder why we have resisted this demand, particularly since some of our competitors joined the Fair Food Program after they were protested by the group.”
Of course, all of Wendy’s key competitors — McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Taco Bell, and Chipotle — have joined the Fair Food Program, not “some.” At this point, Wendy’s is deriving a real competitive cost advantage from fostering farmworker poverty in its supply chain by refusing to join the FFP.
But the following half-truth is perhaps the most significant passage of the entire statement. Here’s how Wendy’s describes the company’s efforts to monitor its supply chain in Mexico — a country, it bears repeating, whose produce industry was the subject of a horrifying four-part series by the LA Times just two years ago that exposed widespread human rights violations ranging from endemic child labor and sexual assault to unimaginable living conditions and even modern-day slavery:
All of our suppliers, including those in Mexico, are subject to the same quality and food safety standards, and we actively perform over 1,000 audits annually against those standards. We spend a LOT of time with our suppliers and their teams – on farms, in fields, in processing houses, and with distributors – it’s truly a farm to fork commitment for us. Our professionals are constantly on the road visiting or auditing suppliers because we believe that’s the best way to ensure that our standards are being upheld. I believe that our team of road warriors is the absolute best in the business.
But, it doesn’t stop there. Every Wendy’s supplier must go through a rigorous certification process, voluntarily participating in a whole host of auditing processes. We visit the farms and ranches where our fresh produce grows (iceberg, romaine, spring mix, tomatoes, strawberries, blackberries, etc.) in order to assess quality and food safety, and to ensure everyone in that operation – from business leaders to farm workers – understands and follows good and safe agricultural practices. We have a comprehensive Supplier Code of Conduct which requires our suppliers – for tomatoes and everything else we buy – to adhere to high standards for integrity and business practices.
In context, Wendy’s statement strongly suggests that its auditing processes in Mexico and its freshly minted code of conduct are the equivalent of the Fair Food Program’s monitoring and enforcement of human rights and the Fair Food Code of Conduct. The statement doesn’t come right out and say that, of course, because to make that patently false claim would be laughable on its face and far too easy to debunk. But by repeating, and repeating, and repeating… how much time their “team of road warriors” spends visiting their suppliers, one is left with the impression that any violations of human rights would naturally come to light during their “quality and food safety” dragnet.
But that’s not how human rights monitoring and enforcement works. In fact, when read carefully, the statement does not even pretend that Wendy’s audits for workers’ human rights. Despite significant emphasis on their auditing efforts in Mexico, even Wendy’s can’t bring itself to claim that fundamental labor and civil rights — which are the central focus of the Fair Food program — play any meaningful role in the company’s auditing process. And that’s why this half-truth ultimately falls short, because the effort to equate “quality and food safety” audits with the kind of in-depth, worker-driven, market-enforced human rights audits at the heart of the Fair Food Program just won’t hold water, and even Wendy’s knows it.
Meanwhile, here’s the truth about the Fair Food Program: The Fair Food Program is the most effective, indeed transformative, 21st century paradigm for the protection of human rights in corporate supply chains. It has been recognized by human rights observers from the United Nations to the White House, the US State Department, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, and the Department of Labor. The Program has been acclaimed by two former presidents, and most recently received the Presidential Medal for “extraordinary efforts in combating human trafficking” from President Obama. Moreover, leading academic researchers have called the Program “the best workplace-monitoring Program” in the U.S.; “the best working environment in American agriculture,” and most recently, “substantially more successful than other corporate compliance programs.”
In short, whatever it is the company audits in Mexico, Wendy’s monitoring program doesn’t hold a candle to the Fair Food Program.
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: Indian Health Care Resources: Food For Life; Tulsa, OK. Story and photos by David Hanson.
Ms Campbell’s Earth Science classroom in McClain Junior/Senior Magnet High School looks huge and spotless without the students in it. They’ve gone home for the day. The tools of the modern high school science lab are everywhere: gas outlets and computers on the wide, black desks, microscopes in back, the chemical shower for emergencies. Ms Campbell uses all this to teach her courses, but one of the best parts of her curriculum is in the garden and greenhouse just outside the school’s walls. That’s where the students can get their hands dirty, breathe fresh air while learning, even go find relief and escape from the realities of north Tulsa’s harsh neighborhoods.
Behind the McClain building, tucked into a nook of the school and the parking lot, an old greenhouse had sat dormant, overgrown, and near-collapse for years. By 2009, a community organizer named Steve Eberly had begun a sweeping healthy food initiative across Tulsa and especially north Tulsa. His program (recipient of the USDA's Community Food Project (CFP) grant), called Food for Life, had the goal of affecting positive change in what Eberly called a “three-prong approach.” The three prongs were the basic tenets of many food security initiatives: improve knowledge of healthy foods through cooking and nutrition education outreach for adults and children, establish and maintain community gardens, and encourage better food policy on a local and state-wide level.
So Eberly embarked on a fervent mission through north Tulsa, installing dozens of community gardens and raised beds, pushing, with other community members and organizations (including Demalda Newsome’s son Chris Newsome – see the Newsome Community Farms profile) for Representative Seneca Scott to sponsor a bill that would secure agricultural funds for a healthy corner store initiative. He led the charge to create the Tulsa Food Security Council. His group organized North Tulsa Eats, a community dinner open, free of charge, to all of North Tulsa. Owners and cooks from the soul food restaurants that dominate the neighborhood volunteered their time and worked with Eberly and others to make small, healthful changes to their dishes. Residents gathered in the McClain High School gymnasium for a shared meal and a chance to see healthy food, culturally appropriate food options.
Eberly’s ambitious, “shotgun” approach intended to spread as much seed for change as possible. Some of the gardens and raised beds failed, either due to poor training of the immediate residents, misguided placement within the community, or, it could be argued, a lack of cultural literacy. Going into a foreign community with an outside idea of what’s best for those people has its obvious pitfalls. And with Eberly’s broad-sweeping approach, some gardens weren’t completely seen through. But many of the gardens stuck and many children, as Eberly and Food for Life hoped, began to see for the first time where real food comes from.
North Tulsa has a life expectancy rate fourteen years younger than the rest of Tulsa. The city is as segregated racially and economically as any in the country. Bringing different groups together around food, from ground-level growing to legislative policy changes, is a monumental effort in uncharted waters. Eberly’s passion for change and for action generated a lot of momentum in a short time.
Unfortunately, Eberly passed away from brain disease in August of 2011. The grant had over a year left and things were just getting ramped up. The McClain greenhouse project had been completed with help from Ms. Campbell’s and other classes’ students. A Greenhouse Council was set up to maintain it. The Tulsa Food Security Council of over 30 community organizations had coalesced and found a pivotal awareness cause in the Buy Fresh, Buy Local marketing campaign to connect consumers to farmers and farmers markets. And North Tulsa Eats had become an annual event, attended by hundreds of residents. The three prongs were taking root.
So when Eberly passed away, he left a powerful wave of energy and conversation among organizations and individuals fighting for the same food security balance throughout Tulsa. Fortunately, Eberly’s passion was somewhat contagious and many Tulsans caught it. Katie Plohocky was in commercial real estate until she found herself becoming increasingly involved in the community grassroots efforts around healthy food. Her husband, Scott Smith, was a community organizer and entrepreneur. He’d opened the Blue Jackalope in downtown as an alternative grocery store with healthy, affordable options and local produce. But its small scale limited access to the large-scale distribution center, meaning the Blue Jackalope couldn’t get the products it needed at the price that made sense for the neighborhood. So Scott had to close it.
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.
Dona Sofia and children: ""I never thought that we could become a community of strong women, with our heads full of ideas. I may not have any money but I am a wealthy woman because of my ties to AFEDES." Photo credit:WhyHunger
This post first appeared in EcoWatch.
The Kaqchikel women—one of 23 Mayan cultures in Guatemala—are fighting to protect their collective intellectual property rights to their traditional Mayan textile designs. Led by the Women's Association for the Development of Saquatepéquez (AFEDES), an organization with a membership of more than 1,000 indigenous women and supported by an association of Mayan lawyers, hundreds of Kaqchikel women artisans of all ages took their case to the Constitutional Court in Guatemala City this past June. They are asking the court to push the Guatemalan Congress to enact new laws that would protect their intellectual property rights over the intricate woven designs that have become ubiquitous in the tourist markets and are a direct reproduction of their heritage and cultural identity.
Reproduction of the Mayan textiles has become increasingly controlled by just a handful of companies that hire Mayan women and pay them very little (around 10 quetzales or just more than one U.S. dollar) for a design that might take days, even weeks, to weave. The products are sold at a much higher cost to tourists and textile buyers around the world. But this isn't just an economic issue to the indigenous women who flooded the courts this spring. Dressed in their traditional hand-woven blouses known as huipils—each design emblematic of the life in their particular community and worn every day by these women and their children as they work, play and go to school—they argued that the real value of these iconic textiles is the preservation of a way of life and the protection of a living culture.
In a recent field visit to accompany and support AFEDES and their efforts on behalf of indigenous women's social, cultural and economic rights, the AFEDES' Director Milivan Aspuac explained to me and my colleagues from WhyHunger that at its core their struggle is to protect the very heartbeat of Life. According to the Mayan Cosmovision, everything is connected and human beings are charged with engendering reciprocity, solidarity and harmony in all of the elements—physical and spiritual, matter and energy—that make up Life. The story of Life and the principles of their Cosmovision are revealed in the designs of the vibrantly-colored textiles that women have been creating for thousands of years—each one unique and representative of a particular time and value-system of a particular community. Protecting and preserving the way in which these designs are reproduced and the huipils worn (from adult to child, from generation to generation, from community to community) is to protect, repair and preserve Life.
There is much Life to repair in this mountainous region of Guatemala in the department of Saquatépequez, home to one of the tourist meccas in Central America, the carefully restored colonial city of Antigua which is a designated World Heritage Site. Since 1993, the AFEDES members have been organizing indigenous women throughout this state to join them in their efforts to envision a way of life that aligns with their Mayan Cosmovision while not wholly rejecting a modern world. Decolonization and reclamation is at the heart of their strategy to confront the gender, economic and racial oppression that has left them in extreme poverty and is slowing appropriating their culture. We saw evidence of the strategic ways in which AFEDES confronts oppression that reflect the holistic, complex and at times heartbreaking circumstances of women's lives. As Milvian explained: "AFEDES can't work only with food sovereignty or economic development or violence against women—we have to work on all these fronts because that's the reality of women's lives." The struggle is arduous, the losses are many, but with each win against the oppression that the women of AFEDES describe as patriarchy, capitalism and colonialism, one more strand of colorful cotton can be woven back in to their story.
Resisting Patriarchy: Self-Worth and Power in Numbers
The struggle to end violence against Mayan women in the village of San José Pacul is at the foundation of the organizing work that AFEDES does in this village and dozens of others just like it. Angelina Aspuac, one of AFEDES' organizers, tells us, "The main issue here is machismo." Sofia's story, who Angelina introduced us to, is representative, she said, of many of the Mayan women who have now come together to pool resources, share assets and work together to collectively improve the quality of their lives. "I never thought of becoming a wealthy woman," Sofia said. "The idea at the start was to start a community bank to make small loans." She explains that the men stepped in soon after and started to dictate what the loans should be used for and yet the women were still held responsible for paying the money back. Not alone in her predicament, Sofia's husband would confiscate the loan money she had intended to use for investing in a small cottage industry to make enough money to send her kids to school. She endured regular beatings and became isolated when he forbid her to attend any more of the women's meetings. Since she couldn't pay back her loans, she couldn't bring home any more funds for him to spend or invest in his own failed ventures. Eventually Sofia made the very difficult decision to separate from her husband despite the fear of retreating further into poverty. She left their home with their seven children and no money. She was emboldened to take her life in her own hands, she said, because she had the support of other women in AFEDES.
AFEDES has established "safe houses" for women when they report domestic abuse to the local police and their claims are dismissed. The police will often say the beatings are justified because the women did not prepare good food or did something else that provoked their husbands. AFEDES has become a space that abused women can retreat to for emotional and legal support. AFEDES is stretched thin in their attempt to attend to all the women who show up on the doorstep of the safe house. The organization does not yet have enough legal or counseling capacity to thoroughly support each woman's case. But they can listen to every woman's story with integrity and compassion and connect them to other women in their community for support. This is the first and often the most important intervention, one of the AFEDES organizers named Justiniana told us. Learning to value themselves and the other women in the community is a core aspect of the consciousness-raising work that AFEDES brings to the organized groups in each village. The issue of self-care is a part of that. "It's important that women learn to take care of themselves so they have the energy to do the work of preserving and protecting Life," she explained.
As colonialism ushered in western values, women began to be seen only as useful for work in the kitchen and the fields. Because of AFEDES the women have been able to organize, receive training in agroecology and homeopathy, learn a new trade and participate in leadership development. They recognize their own value and now their families and communities recognize their value. Sofia concluded her triumphant story with the following: "I never thought that we could become a community of strong women, with our heads full of ideas. I may not have any money but I am a wealthy woman because of my ties to AFEDES. I don't have a lot of income, but I have a community and my children are going to school. My children are behind me and supporting me. My children know that I have skills, knowledge and value. Because my children know that I have value, they come to recognize their own value and their own power."
Beatriz Beckford is a force in the movement for American food sovereignty. As Director of the Grassroots Action Network (GAN) at US-based WhyHunger, Beatriz creates vital alliances and coalitions to lift up the leadership of historically marginalized communities. In doing so, she helps build power and capacity for grassroots groups to organize effectively, developing strategies rooted in the collective wisdom of communities.
A featured panelist at our upcoming event, Mobilizing for change: Lessons from the frontlines, Beatriz will share how marginalized, racialized, and allied communities across the United States are successfully activating on the ground. We’re looking forward to having her join us on the stage here in Toronto on April 1st . But in the meantime, we couldn’t help but ask her a few questions to give us a taste of what she’ll be speaking about.
How do you think social change really happens?
Change comes from the grassroots, from people who are the most affected. People closest to the issues are best adept to address them, but they’re continuously marginalized from the resources to implement solutions. It’s up to all of us in the food movement to ensure any table created is an equitable table that includes and lifts up marginalized people in the same space as think tanks and government entities.
This is something everyone knows on some level but millions of people are persuaded by bluster, lies, half- truths, distortions and out and out attacks on a person’s integrity. This is something we have sadly learned to live with although it has become worse and all- consuming with the advent of social media.
It is part of the political and media landscape of our lives.
However, spin scams go way beyond politics, invading the everyday concerns of our life such as our food.
In the last decade a relatively new phenomenon has emerged: The Food Spin Scam. It has precedent in the Cigarette/Tobacco Spin Scam of the last century that was responsible for the suffering and death of millions of smokers and non- smokers. In retrospect, that one should have been a no-brainer. Science had proven that tobacco kills but what a long hard battle against the tobacco companies it has been and continues to be for millions of people who still smoke.
The Food Spin Scam is more subtle and has several incarnations. Chemical companies, food companies, industrial agriculture and big pharmaceutical companies have developed a high powered, all pervasive, highly funded and effective media and political campaign to convince the American public that they are the guardians of America’s food and health.
All their chemicals, GMO products, antibiotics in animals and livestock, pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer are perfectly safe and absolutely necessary to protect our food sources and fight climate change and hunger. Just give them a fair chance to make their case. They have science and scientists on their side. We should not be science deniers.
This post first appeared in The Huffington Post.
The way to end hunger is to feed people, right? That may seem like a no-brainer but it is not enough.
When Harry Chapin and I co-Founded WhyHunger in 1975 we knew that hunger in America had become a major problem. From the beginning, we believed that the root cause of hunger is poverty and the root cause of poverty is powerlessness in the face of economic injustice. We also knew that racism was at the core of hunger and poverty for tens of millions of Americans. Tragically, that has not changed in more than 40 years even though progress has been made on several fronts.
Federal nutrition programs were in their infancy or adolescence in 1975. Food stamps were not free. The Women, Infants and Children Nutrition Program (WIC) had only started in 1974. The School Lunch Program had been growing for almost 30 years but was still not universal. The Summer Meals Program was just beginning and the School Breakfast Program was almost ten years old but still reached a small percentage of children.
Food banks were just sprouting up here and there around the country and in most cities and rural areas soup kitchens and food pantries were few and far between. When WhyHunger started the New York City Hunger Hotline in 1978 there were only about 28 emergency food providers in all of New York City. Now there are well over a thousand. There were virtually no emergency food providers in the suburbs which now have the highest growth rate in the country for hunger and poverty.
Over the past 40 years thousands of community based organizations and dozens of national anti- hunger/anti- poverty organizations have worked tirelessly to strengthen the Federal Nutrition Programs with continuing success. Food Stamps have been replaced by a much more efficient and user friendly free debit card, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Some 45.5 million people are now served by SNAP. Child Nutrition and Senior Nutrition programs have grown and improved as well.
Meanwhile, we have created the most effective system of Emergency Food Providers in the world, some 60,500 soup kitchens, food pantries and homeless shelters and more than 200 food banks run by the most hard working, well intentioned charitable people imaginable. Every year they serve more food to more people, most who are also being helped by one or more of the federal food programs.