This spotlight is a feature on WhyHunger’s digital storytelling website, Community Voices, 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: Sustainable Food Center, Austin, TX. Story by Andrianna Natsoulas.

 

While the students at Pecan Springs Elementary School in east Austin went through their mid-day class routines, eleven women graduated in a small portable classroom beside the playing field. Each woman was called up to the front of the room to receive her diploma. The rest of the class applauded between bites of food. For the final class, instructor Lorena Cruz taught them to make two dishes: whole wheat penne pasta with tuna, olives, lemon-olive oil dressing, parsley, onions. That meal, using ingredients from the local HEB grocery store, cost $1.48 per serving The other meal was a salmon salad with fresh radishes, celery, parsley, mustard and lemon juice served over corn tortilla or whole wheat pita. It costs $1.09 per serving.

 

Lorena, has been working for ten years with Sustainable Food Center (SFC) of Austin’s The Happy Kitchen/La Cocina Alegre® (THK), a program of community-based healthy, affordable cooking courses. She’s seen hundreds of women graduate with the knowledge and confidence to use easily accessible ingredients to make healthy meals for well under $2 per serving. Lorena’s husband left Mexico for Texas before she did. He'd call her and say he missed her, of course, but that he really missed her when it was time to eat. She always cooked for the family in Monterey.

When she moved to Austin to be with her husband she didn't speak English. She got her GED with Buen Samaritano, an Episcopal service organization in town. They pointed her to the new cooking classes being offered by SFC. This was over ten years ago. Lorena attended one where she and the other Latina students learned to cook from instructors who only spoke English. They'd show photo cards of ingredients with the names written in Spanish. She said there were a lot of charades in those first classes. Regardless, Lorena learned to speak English and to read American food labels and to cook healthy on a budget.

SFC has been working for over two decades in Austin. The non-profit’s motto sums up their mission: Grow, Share, Prepare. SFC encourages residents to grow their own food by supporting community-entrenched gardening education courses. To share, they work with farmers to streamline connections with local schools, worksites and food service providers. SFC also manages four weekly farmers markets. Finally, THK uses six-week cooking courses, taught by trained community members and facilitators, to provide free instruction in healthy, affordable food preparation for low-income residents.

THK cooking classes comprise the “Prepare” part of SFC’s multi-pronged approach to improving food security. THK focuses on adults, the people buying and preparing the household’s meals, for the most part. Other programs have focused on integrating food and health education among kids and parents. SFC’s USDA Community Food Project grant from 2007 funded a pilot study for middle schoolers, hoping to figure out ways for the students and their parents to cross-pollinate among the numerous facets of SFC’s programming, from gardening to the farmers markets to cooking lessons.

 

Read the full profile at Community Voices, a WhyHunger digital storytelling site showcasing voices of leaders and communities across the country on the front lines of food justice.

While the students at Pecan Springs Elementary School in east Austin went through their mid-day class routines, eleven women graduated in a small portable classroom beside the playing field. Each woman was called up to the front of the room to receive her diploma. The rest of the class applauded between bites of food.

For the final class, instructor Lorena Cruz taught them to make two dishes: whole wheat penne pasta with tuna, olives, lemon-olive oil dressing, parsley, onions. That meal, using ingredients from the local HEB grocery store, cost $1.48 per serving The other meal was a salmon salad with fresh radishes, celery, parsley, mustard and lemon juice served over corn tortilla or whole wheat pita. It costs $1.09 per serving.

Lorena, has been working for ten years with Sustainable Food Center (SFC) of Austin’s The Happy Kitchen/La Cocina Alegre® (THK), a program of community-based healthy, affordable cooking courses. She’s seen hundreds of women graduate with the knowledge and confidence to use easily accessible ingredients to make healthy meals for well under $2 per serving.

Lorena’s husband left Mexico for Texas before she did. He'd call her and say he missed her, of course, but that he really missed her when it was time to eat. She always cooked for the family in Monterey.

141207 Austin SustainableFoodCenter0103When she moved to Austin to be with her husband she didn't speak English. She got her GED with Buen Samaritano, an Episcopal service organization in town. They pointed her to the new cooking classes being offered by SFC. This was over ten years ago. Lorena attended one where she and the other Latina students learned to cook from instructors who only spoke English. They'd show photo cards of ingredients with the names written in Spanish. She said there were a lot of charades in those first classes. Regardless, Lorena learned to speak English and to read American food labels and to cook healthy on a budget.

SFC has been working for over two decades in Austin. The non-profit’s motto sums up their mission: Grow, Share, Prepare. SFC encourages residents to grow their own food by supporting community-entrenched gardening education courses. To share, they work with farmers to streamline connections with local schools, worksites and food service providers. SFC also manages four weekly farmers markets. Finally, THK uses six-week cooking courses, taught by trained community members and facilitators, to provide free instruction in healthy, affordable food preparation for low-income residents.

THK cooking classes comprise the “Prepare” part of SFC’s multi-pronged approach to improving food security. THK focuses on adults, the people buying and preparing the household’s meals, for the most part. Other programs have focused on integrating food and health education among kids and parents. SFC’s USDA Community Food Project grant from 2007 funded a pilot study for middle schoolers, hoping to figure out ways for the students and their parents to cross-pollinate among the numerous facets of SFC’s programming, from gardening to the farmers markets to cooking lessons.

“We found that the middle school age is when the kids are pulling away from parents,” says Joy Casnovsky, THK program director. “It was difficult to get parents involved in a garden or cooking class. After we finished that three-year pilot, we shifted to elementary schools where we saw much more involvement from the parents. If you get a parent involved when the student is in first grade, you have the chance to work with them and their parents for the next five years.”

THK began in the late ‘90s when SFC, along with other social justice organizations and researchers around the country, began to recognize the connection between health-related disease and food security. It was a bit of a rocky start, especially in the Hispanic communities where women like Lorena struggled to understand the English-speaking chefs. SFC recognized the disconnect and eventually shifted the approach to train women like Lorena to become the Facilitators. The new approach proved successful and now Facilitators are compensated with a stipend, though they can also choose to volunteer their time.

The classes took off, mostly by word-of mouth. Lorena has led as many as ten in one year.

Forty-three Facilitators lead twenty-four six-week courses throughout the year, plus numerous one-time classes. The student limit is capped at 25. They are now offered at churches, recreation centers, schools and in the new teaching kitchen at SFC headquarters. The HEB grocery store, a community-involved company, provides funding and offers break rooms for use by the cooking classes. Perhaps most importantly, on the second Saturday of each month, HEB offers free health screenings and they allow SFC to host a table to recruit newcomers to cooking classes. This past year, HEB distributed hundreds of THK flyers at registers. There is now a waiting list for the courses.

141207 Austin SustainableFoodCenter0179The demand has spread into more market-rate populations. Joy and the SFC crew realized a need for fee-based cooking classes ($30-40 range) open to the public. In their modern kitchen space, SFC now offers anything from tamale classes to how to utilize a whole chicken from the farmers market. “We get people who want to sign up for a CSA but they don’t know what to do with all the veggies,” says Joy. “So we have a class for that. It helps the customer prepare healthier food and it brings a new consumer to the farmer. We want to meet people where they are, whether they’re buying from HEB, the farmers market or a food pantry. We just want to help people learn to cook and build that confidence.”

The small classroom behind Pecan Springs Elementary School is ringing with confidence.

Diplomas sit neatly on the tables beside a feast of affordable, eclectically placeless American meals: tuna sandwiches, guacamole, penne pasta salad, salmon salad, whole wheat crackers, pita chips, arroz con leche, cabbage-corn salad. The brightest and most popular dish glistens in a pink, quivering circle. Graduation day is a special occasion and some rules around sugar are bent. The helatina jelly cake commands attention, a national flag planted in the soil of this new land's nutrition revolution.

 

Karen Washington’s community did not have access to fresh, healthy food, so she started changing that, one garden at a time. Karen has farmed in the Bronx for over 20 years and was an original member of La Familia Verde Community Garden Coalition, which consists of five community gardens. Karen is also a member of a new farm: La Finca del Sur and serves on several Boards.

Karen and I meet at a pizza parlor in the Bronx, down the street from La Finca del Sur community garden. She sells some of her bounty to the parlor, so people in her neighborhood can enjoy fresh food from their neighborhood garden. The money earned goes straight back into growing. Karen is straightforward and begins with the basics.

She says, “I grow food. I feed people - body and mind. We started to see the health problems and the lack of fresh produce and so, at first, we asked Greenmarkets1 to help out, but they said they didn’t have any farmers, didn’t want to come to the Bronx or were scared to come to the Bronx. So, we decided since we were already growing food, let’s form our own farmers’ market. That’s what we’ve done.”

New York City has gone through tremendous ups and downs, shifting racism and varying degrees of gentrification. In the early 1970s, the city had over 15,000 vacant lots as the middle class was migrating to the suburbs. People believed houses were being torched for insurance claims. As a result of the desolation and empty lots, low-income neighborhoods began to see an influx of drugs and crime. Karen lived in the Bronx then, as she does now, and she could not just sit back and watch the deterioration of her community without doing something significant.

KarenW3There were two things people had to do, number one, they could move, or number two, take back their community. A lot of people gathered together to turn those empty lots into community gardens and that’s how it started. It was basically on squatters’ rights, because no one was claiming it. The city didn’t have the manpower to get in there and clean up. It took the power of community to gather together, brick by brick, mattress by mattress, tire by tire, to clean the empty lots and start growing food. Food that meant something, that meant hope, that meant survival, that had a connection to where people came from. That’s where the community garden movement really started. People think that this urban agriculture phenomenon that’s happening is new and trendy. I tell people not to forget the people there from the beginning.”

There are still vacant lots alongside the train tracks and adjacent to housing projects all the way to the Bronx on the 5 train. At the 138th Street station, across the street, there is a vibrant sign announcing the Finca del Sur garden. The garden occupies a once vacant lot. Even though the growing season was over and brown leaves cover the ground, the garden still transforms not only the physical appearance of the neighborhood, but also the spirit and health of the community.

Despite many areas of New York City undergoing gentrification, the Bronx remains one of the poorest boroughs of New York. The latest unemployment statistics lists the Bronx as the county in New York state with the highest unemployment rate, at 12.8%.2 The median income of a family of four is less than $20,000. It is within those streets where communities often feel neglected and powerless.

Let’s face it, food is political: where it’s distributed, who has the rights in terms of zoning, who is able to have loans. Food is politically tied; who gets the best vegetables and who gets the leftovers. The area that I live in is one of the poorest districts in the Bronx. We’re surrounded by an epidemic of fast food and fast chain restaurants and there are no healthy food stores. Many of the produce that you see in our supermarkets travel from far away, are moldy, not fresh at all.”

Right next door to Karen’s community is Hunts Point Terminal Market. Hunts Point is an enormous warehouse where produce from across the country, and around the world, enters New York and is then transported to over thirty million consumers. Neighboring communities receive the leftover fruits and vegetables after they find their way back into the Bronx. When Karen describes Hunts Point to me, I can feel her anger and determination to improve her community.

KarenWWhere else, what other neighborhood would that happen? Could that happen in an affluent neighborhood? Heck, no. But it’s happening to us. So, food is political. Those that have affluence and money and connections do much better than those that don’t. Food and housing and education are all tied into one.”

The challenge is how to educate people about that. Karen is a physical therapist, so she talks about health as connected to daily lifestyle choices. Karen lets people in her community know there are options and resources to improve the quality of life, but it takes hard work to change the current norm.

How do we open up the dialogue, open up the doors to make it an equitable food system that transcends color, that opens the opportunity for all people, even women farmers, to farm? All I want is fairness. All I want is the opportunity for people who have been disenfranchised to be part of this food movement and not to be a statistic or pawns in people’s projects. For too long I’ve seen outside organizations use the statistics that they find in low income neighborhoods to get their grants, but yet they don’t empower those communities of color to take on those issues themselves. What happens is that once the project is over, the community is still left poor because you haven’t transcended that project. You haven’t made the people the stakeholders. They have been the bystanders. Until we become the stakeholders, I am going to challenge.”

Karen’s passion, determination and political savvy make it clear she is not one to give up the fight. She will succeed.

“I’m on this crusade of food and social justice and if I make people feel uncomfortable, that’s good because then I’m doing my job. I’m on a journey. I’m riding the wave. As I continue to grow food and really give thanks to elders, the people that came before us, I will continue empowering people to have a say and have a stand for what they feel is right and just. End of story.”

New York City network of city farms and farmers’ markets.

New York State Department of Labor.State Labor Department Releases May 2012 Area Unemployment Rates. Albany, NY: June 19, 2012. Web. //labor.ny.gov/stats/pressreleases/prlaus.shtm.

Juan Uyunkar is an Uwishin, or natural doctor, of the Shuar people of the Ecuadorian Amazon. He has been trained in agronomy, attended veterinary school and extensively studied natural medicines. He gathers herbs from the Amazon to treat people with illnesses that range from cancer to paralysis to spirit possession.

De-contamination of the body is a part of the basic principle of nutrition. The first nutrition received with natem is the premiere nutrition, complete nutrition that feeds the body, feeds the soul and gives salts and minerals. In total, it harmonizes. Nourishment is medicine for the body and medicine for the soul. Food has to be balanced, in accordance to the necessity of the organism.

Food should not make one fat, nor should it make one skinny. The food source should not cause someone to be addicted. The food should not cause any sicknesses. All of the foods we use here carry calories, vitamins, salts, minerals. Every day you have to eat foods that have all of these things; therefore, we shouldn’t eat vitamin pills.

Every food has a lot of things that are very important – especially yucca. Yucca is the first food planted in the earth. It is the most important food in our culture. It is the fountain of our culture, fountain of life. The yucca is the fountain of nutrition. It is the food of Nunqui. She is an entity. She is the Mother of the Earth. She delivered yucca and plantain, camote, tujo, pineapple, papaya and all the fruits that exist in the native farms.

In the old days they were wild, then Nunqui blessed us and taught us what plants we should have in our farms, how to grow, how to harvest, how to process the yucca. The leaves serve for nutrition. The flowers are medicinal. The bark is for tea. The tuber is a food. It is the first food in the native life. It is also the maternal milk. Instead of cow’s milk, the milk of yucca is what we give babies. It is very sweet. It protects the intestinal bacteria. The yucca is curative. It cures cancer. It cures gastritis. It cures intoxication. It cures constipation. The yucca is like daily bread.

On the Ecuadorian coast, they are making yucca, but it is another variety of yucca. On the coast they use chemicals and it damages the food. It makes the yucca hard. It doesn’t cook well. Here, it is delicious and we use no chemicals. The corporations are growing yucca and they are fumigating the earth and making it poisonous. They have destroyed banana plantations to plant yucca and they had fumigated the land for the bananas. They had corn, where now they are growing yucca and before they had beans and peanuts and now they are growing yucca, but the land is poisonous. That earth has been poisoned. The yuccas at the big supermarkets have chemicals in it. None of the original people – the Aguarana, the Quichua, the Shuar, the Huaorani, the Achuar, Huambisa - are using any fumigation. Their food is clean.

Every year, food production is getting smaller. Every year, the yucca and plantains are getting less and less. Other fruits – like oranges are being fumigated. The original people don’t do that. Those who are from the city, when they make farms, they fumigate. People brought cows in that killed a lot of the jungle, and then they fumigate near the cows. The corporations, transnationals and the foreigners are damaging the land. They are damaging our products and our foods.

This is what we are protesting. Not only the chemicals, but also the oil people and the companies that extract metals - those that are taking out bronze and gold. The mines are damaging the rivers, because they are throwing mercury into the rivers. They are here now to extract copper. These people are contaminating the land and the water.

Normally, the original people’s gardens are near the riverside. Now, toxins come down from the mountains for kilometers of contamination. Besides this, the tourists leave plastic, cans, cigarette filters. That is also contaminating the land. The plastics take more than 400 years to disintegrate. It is all turning into pollution. But, the most damage comes from the oil companies.

The water is not drinkable because of the petro companies and the mining. We can’t drink the Pastaza or Puyo rivers. It is all contaminated. We eat the fish from there, but they are contaminated. In the future, it is going to get worse. Once they take the petroleum, the earth becomes unbalanced. The petro pits are here and the trees are over there and the trees have a temperature that is calibrated. Without the petroleum, there is not enough heat to keep the trees calibrated. It ruins the equilibrium. When they take out the petroleum, they put in salt and other chemicals. They put in water. It causes the earth to tremble like an earthquake. For us, that oil is the fat of the earth. The oil moves through the earth and keeps everything balanced. It protects Mother Earth.

Now, the state is trying to control the steel chainsaws. The government is starting to take the oil out themselves in the Yasuni Park, which is known as the lungs of the world. It is not just in that territory, it is here too. We are fighting this. We are saying NO! And the government is against us.

When they come, we protest. We close the airports. We have demonstrations. We get up and stand. There is always a confrontation. We stop the government, the police, the military. There are always deaths after the demonstrations – police dead, original people dead. In February 2010, there was a confrontation in Macas because of the mines. They killed a Shuar professor. The Shuar Federation has a satellite radio called Arutam. When it was announced on Arutam that this professor was killed, the Shuar got up with their lances and walked to Quito, protesting. Three thousand Shuar armed with lances and painted walked to Quito.

Instead of investing millions of dollars to develop the atomic bomb, produce arms, airplanes, rockets, the United States, Europe, China, Japan, the most industrialized countries should invest millions of dollars to grow all kinds of trees and raise all kinds of animals. If you destroy a giant tree, you are destroying the medicinal properties that grow in the branches. Orchids, plants, frogs, birds, monkeys, insects, animals grow and make their homes in those giants, ancient trees. If you kill a branch, the tree dies, as do all of the habitats down on the floor of the Amazon where there are medicinal plants that only grow in the jungle. The biodiversity of the Amazon will become extinct. The Amazon should be a garden, should be a paradise. It must be protected.

Dena Hoff has been farming on Sand Creek Farm since 1981. She grows beans, corn, tomatoes and an array of produce, while also raising lambs, chickens and pigs. Dena coordinates with the international food sovereignty movement and then brings the principles back home. She is an active member with local organizations, the National Family Farm Coalition and La Via Campesina.

Food sovereignty is something I never named. It is something I grew up with and thought that is the way life should be. My grandparents came from eastern North Dakota. We always ate out of Grandma’s organic garden. It was always my intention to feed ourselves as much as possible, the way my Grandma fed us. She is the one who taught me about food preparation, canning, soap making and about being self-sufficient.

All I wanted to be was a farmer. While raising my children, we had at least one garden, and we hunted and fished. I taught my kids and they are pretty self-sufficient. I thought most people lived the way I did from their gardens and the land. Then, I found that even my farm neighbors weren’t living that way. The farm agencies told them it was not efficient to grow their own food, milk a cow and it was much better to buy it at the grocery store. That was in the late '70’s and I started to question the whole system.

Now, you read reports that nutritionally, food is much poorer today than it used to be. We don’t pay attention to healthy soil, and then we don’t have rich soil full of nutrients. Soil is becoming a medium to hold plants upright, and not a living entity in its own right. If we are looking for the earth to feed us, then we need to take care of it.

Unfortunately, it takes dead bodies and people dying from e coli and listeria to see that the food supply is not as safe as people think. Because of convenience, people have given up their responsibility for a safe and nutritious food supply. Now that food nutrition deficiencies, like obesity and diabetes, are an epidemic in this country, people are beginning to pay attention. But the infrastructure is gone, and so are the people--the family farmers and fishermen. The corporate food system has destroyed the small infrastructure. They pay off Congress to pass rules in the guise of food safety, but it is really about getting rid of competition--small producers and small processors.

We teach other generations that they can grow food and take care of the land and learn growing methods and animal husbandry. We teach people on our farm. People are coming from the town to learn, and even children from neighboring farms. We have a farm to table organization, farm to school project and community kitchen. The community is starting to rebuild the infrastructure for a local food system that used to exist thirty years ago.

Dena CarrotsThe important thing is that we have to teach people about how government policies, on every level, impact the quality, the safety and the availability of our food. We have to connect food to policy, involving as many people as we can and influencing policy is what will rebuild local systems all over. So, it is more than growing our own food and buying at farmers' markets. People have to realize that there is a direct connection between the quality and the availability and the safety of the food they eat and the policies at all levels of government.

Mostly, I want people to know that the policies we have in this country are keeping people from making a living. Under the corporate dominated political system, people have to be willing to get involved at the policy level if there is going to be better food for everyone and economically and environmentally sustainable rural communities. Because farmers cannot make a living, we are going to lose the knowledge and skills necessary to create and maintain local food systems and care for the land sustainably. I want people in Montana to know that a lot of their same concerns and dreams and hopes are shared by people around the world.

I want people to have a focus that goes from local to global and realize that everything is connected. People need to change their own diets and reform will work its way up the political chain, and hopefully, generations after me things will be better. If we all give up hoping that things are going to be better then things are never going to get better. We have to believe that by standing in solidarity around the world, it can happen. But Americans want instant gratification and we want it easy. That has to change.

Ben Burkett’s family has been farming since 1889. Over the years, each generation bought more land and he now runs B&B Farms on 296 acres. He grows 15 different varieties of vegetables, as well as timber. He is active in local, regional, national and international organizations.

Ben Burkett is President of the National Family Farm Coalition and he represents the NFFC on Via Campesina’s Food Sovereignty Commission. As if he has too much time on his hands, he is also the current director of the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives, the local arm of The Federation of Southern Cooperatives. The Federation, an umbrella organization composed of 35 co-ops, representing 12,000 African American farm families from Texas to North Carolina, assists farmers in land retention and the development of economically self-sufficient communities. Member co-ops purchase supplies and receive marketing, financial and technical assistance through the Federation. Ben believes the co-op structure is the only way to survive in the rural south.

BenBurk2For the past 20 years, Ben has been a leader on many issues – the biggest of which is the Black Farmers Lawsuit, which compensated black farmers for years of institutional discrimination across the country. They started the lawsuit back in 1988, and were finally successful after three appeals. Ben could not believe it: “I never would have thought the government would have paid anybody any money. At the beginning, I would say, ‘you’re never getting a dime.’ But, I was wrong.”

The final settlement ended up allocating about 16,000 farmers nationwide about $50,000. But, Ben would have preferred the money was pooled and went into a trust to borrow against or to use to help new and beginning farmers. That would have allowed the money to help future generations and offer a layer of security to current farmers. Ben tells me that was how the Native Americans handled the case.

I ask Ben why even file a lawsuit? He explains how it began and where they are today:

“The lawsuit was about discrimination in the county office of the USDA. I got a loan to buy my equipment, my seeder and fertilizer. I couldn’t write no checks. I had to write a check and somebody in the [USDA] office had to sign it. They were only doing black farmers like that, they weren’t doing the white farmers like that. Say, if I wanted to buy $5,000 worth of soya bean seed, I had to go find the seed that I’m getting from the Forest County co-op and he get an invoice. I go back up to the office and he write a check. They sign, I sign and then I have to take it back down to the store. I’m just one.

“A lot of farmers, they go in and get their loan approved. This happened to me too. My loan approved in February or March, but I didn’t get the money ‘til July the 15th. That be cutting time. Planting is over. It was several things like that, that brought the suit about. A lot of them went into the offices and they denied them, wouldn’t even give them the application. They say, ‘You can’t make no money farming, so. . .’ In the lawsuit, it had to happen to you between ’81 and ’96. It was happening before then and it is happening now--after the lawsuit. That’s just the price of doing business, I suppose.

“They pass some kind of rule in Washington, USDA, or Congress. Then it come to the state of Mississippi and the state said, they don’t want to do it, they don’t have to do it. The cost share program, and things, if they don’t want it, they don’t have to do it. We have a County Committee made up of five farmers--do the hiring, the firing, everything. Those fellows up in Washington talking about all that their going to do--they can’t fire nobody. Can’t fire a soul in the state of Mississippi.

BenBurk“As long as it’s set up that way, we can’t change. Discrimination, morals, ways people think--you can’t policy or legislate that away. That’s just the way my heart is. All kinds of laws about discrimination, regardless of race, religion, creed or color. All the USDA rhetoric. But, it is much better. I remember the ‘60’s, I remember segregation and all of that. It is better. Not as good as we want it to be, but it ain’t as bad as it was.”

Ben Platt is a second-generation fisherman on the fishing vessel Sea Star. He trolls for salmon and albacore, longlines for black cod and traps crab from California up the coast to Washington and over to Alaska. Ben feels the current fisheries management system is devastating the communities and the environment. Ben is on the Board of the Salmon Trollers Marketing Association and a member of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

On his 47-foot troller, F/V Sea Star docked at the sheltered harbor in Fort Bragg, Ben is always working, even if it’s not yet fishing time. He maintains his vessel and gear in proper sea-faring condition. This keeps him and his crew safe, and helps them catch more fish.

Ben starts talking about various problems – those his father encountered, the ones he still faces today and what he anticipates will be the issues for the next generation of fishermen. As Ben starts thinking about the management system, he shakes his head repeatedly. Decision makers often do not listen to fishermen because they think fishermen are motivated by self-interests, rather than by stewardship of the seas. Ben believes that is a missing link in proper fisheries management. “It is within our best interest to promote sustainable fisheries in whatever fishery we are involved. If our fishery isn’t sustainable, then we will be out of a job and our kids won’t be able to do it. We spend more time on the ocean than any policy makers or biologists or managers or policy advocates. If it is going to work for everybody in the future, there should be more trust put on the fisherman’s point of view. Utilize our knowledge. If I fish year round, I’m spending at least 200 days a year on the ocean.”

BenPlatt3The hot issue in the fishing world is individual transferable quotas (ITQs) also known as individual fishing quotas (IFQs) or catch shares. When I spoke with Ben, the west coast trawl fishery was just about to implement it’s first program and Ben is worried about the effect it would have throughout all the fisheries.

Ben believes it will have a ripple effect throughout all the fisheries. Once the big boats in the west coast trawl fishery catch their quota – their allocated catch, they will go after other species they typically do not fish hard for, such as crab. Crab is important for Ben, and the other small trollers, but if the large boats start fishing harder for crab, it could wipe them out. Essentially, Ben views this as serious mismanagement.

“This is modern management backfiring on the fisheries. Even the people that are trying to do the right thing for the resource and the fishing communities. I believe a few of those people at least think they are doing the right thing. But, they aren’t looking at the whole picture when they are making these policies. They’re not looking at the reverberations throughout the fleet and the other fisheries. We have to make a living with these boats. If you take away a third of my year, I’m going to try and find that in another fishery if I can, which puts more pressure on that fishery. It throws every thing out of balance and in my opinion that’s what management has been doing to this fishery for the last 15 years.”

So what are the options? He says:

“In terms of managing the resource, it’s not that hard to figure out. What we call the three S’s: Sex, Size and Season. In my opinion, you really don’t need anything more than that to manage a fishery. If you have to throw everything back under a certain size, you are protecting your brood stock. You can’t keep female crabs, you’re protecting the reproductive crabs. If you are only fishing during a certain time of year, you’re not harvesting during spawning season, for example. If there’s other problems, you don’t have to cut out half the fleet. That’s what IFQs does. It consolidates the fleet. I don’t think that’s necessary to manage a resource. Fishing is not a one size fits all. Everybody has different needs.”

Ben is concerned that individual quotas will consolidate the fleet. It is difficult to talk about fisheries management without talking about consolidation, because often management decisions relate directly to it. Consolidation cuts the diversity of a fleet and means fewer boats on the water. For example, five large boats each would have five crew. This, in turn supports 25 families with a decent income. But, five boats also would require less infrastructure, less stores, less support. If there were 30 boats with three crew, that would support about 150 families and would require more shore-side jobs to keep them going. In Ben’s opinion, “It’s way preferable to have more boats, even if they’re not making as much money. It’s better for the community –the more people that are working and the more families that are supported. It’s less people on welfare and unemployment and everything else.”

BenPlattSalmon fishing has typically attracted a wide range of people where some fish all year long and others only fish during the summers, while they have a different profession, such as teaching, in the winters. That diversity is what Ben hopes to maintain with a better management system. Sitting on his boat, gently rocking in the harbor, Ben remembers, “That’s the kind of diversity we had in this fleet. We had guys that are Type A’s who want to be the highliners and drive the biggest truck, and then you’ve got everybody else in between. Once you start doing [IFQ] kind of management, it’s only going to Type A, corporate mentality. What a lot of the hot shots don’t realize is that a lot of them get pushed out too. It changes the whole nature of the fishery and it’s not good for anybody.How fun is it going to be when you are out there and you’ve got no one to talk to on the radio?”

Bob St. Peter is the director of Food for Maine’s Future, a board member of the National Family Farm Coalition and active in La Via Campesina. Bob led a community effort to pass a law, known as the Local Food and Self Governance Ordinance, which allows Maine farmers to assert their own independence and implement local control over regulations.

Bob, his wife and two young daughters live very connected to the earth and the community. They all help with the farming and support the political work Bob does at home and afar.

Bob advocates for food sovereignty on various political platforms, but it is deeply personal for him: “For me, food sovereignty means being able to farm and care for that piece of land in a way that I feel is appropriate and to not have market forces dictate what I grow or how I grow. I get to make those decisions as a steward of the land here in this place with my family in this time. And we are not pushed into the market economy or into the labor force, simply because we can’t make enough money in the cash economy. First and foremost, it’s being able to be on the land and doing that work.”

Over the previous couple of years, Maine has seen more and more restrictions on poultry processing. Essentially, the only way a farmer can sell is to construct a building to do the evisceration. That is expensive. Bob gives an example: “Here, we’ve got 30 chickens. If we wanted to sell half of them, just to pay for some of the feed cost, I would have to put up a building. It’s not scale appropriate. And there is nothing unhealthy about what goes on.”

The other crack-down is on raw milk dairies and raw milk buying clubs. Bob continues, “The FDA has as one of their stated goals, the elimination of raw milk by 2020. There have been raids and shut downs and some people refusing to go along. Even here, just down the road, a farm was served a cease and desist order for selling raw milk off the farm, but they refused. So, the regulations are making it difficult for small diversified farms who do a little bit of this and a little bit of that. The regulations are taking that away by making everything so specialized. They say it is in the name of food safety, I think it is in the name of efficiency. Same thing with loans. You write one big loan rather than a bunch of small loans.”

Rural Maine is known for being fairly independent, for example, it has a history of home schooling, which is how Bob’s children are taught. But, regulatory crack-downs are infringing on people’s ability to be self-reliant and to live lives their own way. It has been a wake-up call for small farmers and farm advocates.

How will that spirit of independence manifest itself in the political world? Bob says, “We’re going to have to do something collectively about it. We have people from across a political spectrum getting together and saying that we want to preserve this way of life. A group of us have crafted a local ordinance [See Appendix 3] that would exempt direct farm sales from many state or federal licensing and inspection. Basically, regulations that are usurping our self-governance, our right to govern our own local food supply and to not have any undue burdens placed upon that. We are asserting our food sovereignty and saying that we have it under control and we can do a better job than the state and the department of agriculture, and certainly, the USDA and FDA.”

Bob weaves stories from history books into his comments. He often draws on tales from the past for his own inspiration. In that vein, he explains, “There’s been an ongoing debate in this country since it was officially founded about the role of farmers. Thomas Jefferson (and I don’t usually quote slave holders), but he made a really good point in a letter he wrote to George Washington. They were talking about how they were going to preserve the democracy from tyranny. Jefferson point of view was that you needed at least 25 percent of the population engaged in farming and agriculture and as yeomen farmers. If you are going to colonize or conquer people, you take away their ability to feed themselves and that has been shown time and again. That pretty much has happened in this country for the last 70 years. Rural communities have been stripped of their ability to feed themselves, because of very specific policy choices at the highest levels of government.

“We have this simultaneous consumer demand for local food. If we are effective as food sovereignty advocates, we are going to help those people understand why we need a local food movement. Because, we have lost our ability to feed ourselves. If you say we are subject to tyranny, then you usually get lumped in with the tea party. It’s not so much as tyranny of government per say, as it is tyranny of the corporations who are aided and abetted by the government. That’s what’s undermined our ability to feed ourselves. Whether it was coincidental or intentional, people have to make up their own mind about motivation.”

Although, there is still a need for cash for certain necessities, Bob is focused on influencing local, state, federal and international policies to loosen the tie to cash economies. “The more we attach ourselves to the cash economy, the more dependent we are on the people who control the cash economy and we have to play by their rules. History has shown that their rules haven’t favored rural people, small farmers, peasants. If the direction of our movement is to commercialize and market and prioritize that, then we are going to be missing a lot of the security that comes with being able to make your own decisions in our own community about what gets produced, for who and at what price.”

So many of the regulations are dictated by those with money. The corruption on Wall Street is on the news. This provides more fuel to Bob’s fire, which inspires his final thought: “The bankers should really find something better to do with their time. Growing potatoes, raising chickens. There are all kinds of things people could be doing better with their time than finance capitalism. ”

Ana Luisa Trevino came to the United States in 1972 from Matamoros Tamaulipas, Mexico. She was eleven years old at the time. At thirteen, she started working as a farm worker, and did so until age twenty-five years. Ana finds that immigration rules and regulations are the biggest injustice for migrant farm workers, plus the lack of environmental and safety regulations.

My mother decided to come to the United States for a better future for us. We were very poor. The poorest of the poor in Mexico. Three of my brothers died because of little food, no medication. My mother worked in the fields for us to legalize our status. We stayed in the border, in Brownsville, for a year or so. The following year, we came as seasonal farm workers. I was thirteen.

Right now, we don’t find children working in the fields. Sometimes on the holidays, the

Most of the children are getting lost in the system or are staying behind with families that don’t have extra money to support them. There should be restrictions. Back in the day, they did not deport a mother or a father. They let you stay with your children. Now, you are in a car with your children, they don’t care. The children will be crying and they take both of them: the mother and the father. children work and help the families, but not during the week. The laws are different now. It is not permitted. When the police see a child not at school, they ask. But, they don’t take into consideration the young children and the babies that are being separated from their parents, now, with all these deportations after 9/11.

Because of the deportation, families are taken advantage of. They are mistreated. They work overtime. The way they look at you, the way you dress, you are a target. People are afraid of talking. Even people who are legal citizens, legal permanent residence or in the process of getting legalized. They are afraid to report any wrongdoing.

Many of the workers are women and many are being abused verbally and physically. They don’t want to report. Even if the women trust you and they give you the whole story, when you are going to put it in writing, they say everything is okay. You call the Department of Labor and they don’t have any reports. A lot of women are getting sick because they don’t drink water; they don’t go to the restroom because of the workload.

In Apopka, we have the forest and nursery industries. They are working under the sun and are getting exposed to a lot of heat and pesticides. The impact and the evidence of the pesticides on the women are children born with head problems, respiratory problems, rashes. There are so many chemicals and pesticides that you don’t know what they were exposed to.

We have some cases of women who have children that are born with no brain or with birth defects or heart problems. These are women who have been working in the fields and the nurseries more than 15 years. This is the proof that we see. It is not scientific or a specific study.

I faced a lot of discrimination when I arrived as a child. I saw a lot of things I did not like. Long hours, no breaks, a lot of hard work. I said, ‘This is not right.’ I went through a lot and I do not want anybody else to go through that. I decided enough is enough. I lived in one of the camps provided by the company and I was afraid my family would get fired, but I decided not to follow any more. I joined the Farm Workers Association as a volunteer. Little by little, I started learning and helping the community.

The work that I do with the community as an organizer is to be there. Sometimes just listen. Talk about the rights. You are a human being. You are in a country that has rights and laws that can protect you. It is education. You tell them and give them the tools, but you cannot force them to use them. We organize the community. We go to the fields and talk to the people one on one. We show them avenues. Fear is always there. We do what we can do. If you give information for eight people, one will come back and be a leader. We have women--very strong women that are leaders and they are helping others.

Sometimes, people ask, ‘why are you here, you suffered that much?’ Because, in your country, you are the poorest of the poor. You work in a week and you get paid less than $5 and you work very hard. With that money you cannot provide for a family. You always look for the best future. You always look for that little light at the end of the tunnel.

It is important to see the face of the farm worker. They take away our pride and whatever we have when we come here. Sometimes even our clothes. And sometimes we are abused. Treated less than animals are treated, because animals have rights. Human beings suffer a lot. I want people to know that.

When you see a flower, vegetable, remember a face. A child, a woman, a man that worked hard to harvest that vegetable, that plant.

Since 1977, Carlos Marentes has organized work stoppages, aka “strikes” in the border region between the United States and Mexico to gain basic rights, higher pay and better conditions for farm workers. Carlos also is organizing to fight the consolidation of agriculture. He is a member of Sin Fronteras, Rural Coalition and is the North American delegate of Via Campesina.

Too often, when you think of the U.S.-Mexico border, images of midnight dashes across the desert and poor border towns teeming with drug cartel operatives, prostitutes and signs for cheap medicines come to mind. What many do not know is that thousands of people cross the border regularly to work on farms on the U.S. side of the border.


Carlos Marentes has been fighting for the rights of farm workers for over three decades. He is a thoughtful, insightful leader.

The salaries in the border region are very low. The average annual income for a chile picker is less than $6,000 a year, which is far below the U.S. federal poverty income guidelines. This has been going on for decades.

Carlos says, “For many years, our enemies were the farmers and producers. We were on one side, demanding the rights of workers, better wages, improvements of working conditions. On the other side were the farmers protecting their fields and crops. We organized many labor stoppages for better pay. Often we won, increases of 5 cents here, 10 cents there. Little by little, we were improving the wages.”

In 1992, Carlos was in a field, mapping out another work stoppage. It was the first time he saw people testing the chiles, seeing if they were ready to harvest. When the farm owner arrived to discuss the state of the crop with the testers, Carlos asked him what was happening. Carlos explains, “At the beginning of the year the farmer signed a contract with the company to set the price, what to grow, when and how. The contract clearly specified the quality of the product and told the farmer what kind of seeds to use, the fertilizers and the chemicals. Everything was imposed upon the farmer.”

It was then that Carlos realized the situation was much deeper and more complicated than farm owner versus farm worker. “At that point, I realized the farmer did not have control over production or the price. He was also a victim of the food system controlled by a few corporations and food processors who set the rules of the game. At that time, we changed our attitude towards producers and realized they were not the enemy. We started to understand the plight of the agricultural worker in a bigger context. We were so focused on the conditions of the farm workers that we did not realize that it was a system.”

It was then that he started developing relationships with small farmers across the nation and, eventually, the world. “We realized that we can fight all we can for the rights of farm workers and that we will not make any advances if we fight in isolation. Out of this relationship, we discovered the big picture, that is was a global problem,” says Carlos.

He knows that only a united force could ever dismantle the corporate giants that not only control life on the farms, but also regulations passed in Washington D.C.; negotiations set at the World Trade Organization; projects funded by international and regional finance institutions; and, free trade agreements. For example, the North American Free Trade Agreement forced millions of Mexican farmers off their land.

Until 1994, the Ejido system prevailed in rural Mexico, where communities, rather than individuals, owned land and natural resources. In 1993, the North American Free Trade Agreement was negotiated and that changed the entire rural landscape in Mexico. One of the conditions of NAFTA was the modification of Article 27 of the Mexican constitution. That modification abolished the Ejido system, and immediately allowed widespread land privatization. As a result, nearly 5 million peasants are landless.

Carlos explains the human impact. “Those policies were also responsible for the displacement of peasants from rural Mexico who came to the United States, to cross the border, to risk their lives, to work in intensive industrial agriculture. We realized that our life was connected to something bigger: to change the neo-liberal model of agriculture.”

Carlos will continue fighting in the border region for better wages and improved working conditions for farm workers. He will also organize and stand in solidarity with peasants around the word to change the system and stop the policies that are barriers to food sovereignty.

Our fight, our struggle includes two aspects. The first aspect is the day-to-day fight to protect the rights of the workers for better working and living conditions. That is something we don’t give up on, we keep fighting. That only alleviates the problem in the short run.

The second aspect, in the long run, is to fight and organize to rebuild the peasant economies that have been destroyed and where these workers are coming from. This is the root of the problem. If many of the farm workers are able to survive in their own land, they will not have to cross the border, they will not have to become part of the cheap labor that is the foundation, the backbone of industrial commercial agriculture.”

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