Right to Food Summit: Where Strategy and Hope Convene for a More Equitable Food System

By Debbie DePoala

For an organization that uplifts “nutritious food is a human right” in their official tagline, there was no question that WhyHunger would have a presence at the 2nd annual national Right to Food Summit held in Syracuse, NY in early June.  Sponsored by the National Right to Food Community of Practice and co-organized with leaders in the local food justice movement, the summit was billed as “an opportunity for food justice advocates and practitioners from across the country to come together and share strategies and solutions for progressively realizing the Right to Food in the United States.”  But it was so much more. 

WhyHunger’s Debbie DePoala, Suzanne Babb, Jenique Jones, Lauren McCalister & Lorrie Clevenger at the National Right to Food Summit in Syracuse, NY.

For two days, farmers, food justice activists, students, anti-hunger champions, policymakers, elected officials and community members gathered in the heart of Syracuse, NY to build together, celebrate victories, share struggles, and dissect and debate the role of a rights-based framing in achieving food sovereignty in the U.S.   

What is the Right to Food? 

As Smita Narula, Haub Distinguished Professor of International Law, explained in the keynote panel, the Right to Food means that states have the obligation to ensure that food is accessible, both physically and economically, and adequate in terms of being safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate. It must also be available for purchase, while addressing the availability of land, water and seeds to grow food, and must be produced sustainably. She emphasized the role of power and choice in achieving the right to food stating, “what brings all this together is the idea of agency, dignity and, increasingly, the idea of sovereignty – the idea that we get to choose what those food systems look like.” 

Watch Smita Narula explain what the Right to Food means!

As part of that same discussion, Curtis Waterman, a member of the Onondaga Nation and Board Member of the Syracuse-Onondaga Food Systems Alliance, called out the controversy behind the very idea of “rights” in the U.S. context. “We had food sovereignty before Columbus landed on our shores”, he explained. He shared the history of exploitation that his Indigenous community suffered and the ways that colonialism and policies like the Doctrine of Discovery have stripped his peoples of their land, dignity and traditional foodways in the name of others’ rights. “To me, Right to Food is synonymous with colonize, convert, belittle and enslave.”  

Shared Struggle 

Ashanté Reese, author of Black Food Geographies, and Associate Professor of African and African Diaspora at The University of Texas at Austin, went on to explain what she sees as two truths embedded in the national push to establish the Right to Food in the U.S. One, that anti-blackness encompasses our food system; and two, that food distribution in the U.S. is reliant on grocery stores and “we cannot realize a Right to Food while six corporations control our grocery delivery.” 

The dual call to dismantle the systemic racism and corporate control embedded in our food system rang true throughout the summit. Panelists and attendees alike spoke out about the devastating impact of intentional racism on their communities and their own ability to achieve food sovereignty, calling out practices like red lining, food apartheid, neglect, discrimination in the Farm Service Agency and USDA policies and practices, and more.  One summit attendee, Omowale Adewale co-founder of Liberation Farm in South Kortright, NY shared their on-going struggle with racism and discrimination within the FSA/USDA. Sharing his own story of rejection and eventual appeal with the FSA, he cited stats that show “Black farmers are 66% more likely to be disapproved for FSA funding in NYS.” 

A graphic shared on the website of Liberation Farm as part of the story of their on-going battle with discrimination by the FSA/USDA.


The summit offered a unique cross section of solutions and diverse examples of community-led projects, state-level legislation and local policies that are advancing the right to food in pockets across the U.S.  Furthermore, it provided a national organizing space for practitioners from across the country to collectively build strategies, solidarity and power towards achieving food sovereignty and realizing the Right to Food in the U.S.   

Farmer Heather Retberg who co-authored Maine's groundbreaking Right to Food Constitutional Amendment, the first of its kind in the nation, explained, “the only solution is relentless and continuous engagement.” The hope offered by the example of Maine’s victory was echoed in the energy of Easter Lau, a student organizer with What We All Deserve (WWAD), a youth-led movement to advance economic justice. Inspired by the triumph in Maine, she is working with the next generation of advocates and legislators in California on advancing Right to Food legislation. 

Monu Chhetri, founder of Deaf New Americans Advocacy, Inc, shared her story of creating Asha Laaya “Farm of Hope”, which is led by and designed to support Deaf immigrants, refuges and asylum seekers to grow their traditional foods, regain their sovereignty and be a universally inclusive space for all. 

Tambra Raye Stevenson, founder and CEO of WANDA (Women Advancing Nutrition, Dietetics and Agriculture) encouraged attendees to take a public health approach to transforming the food system by challenging the nutritional divestment that is occurring and “silo smashing” to work in truly intersectional ways. She explained how the Washington D.C. and Nigeria-based organization is working to build “a movement of women and girls of African descent leading as food sheroes in our communities through education, advocacy and innovation” and is leading advocacy efforts for the U.S. to adopt a Food Bill of Rights to create a common framework to visualize and actualize a just food system. Tambra concluded,

“The Right to Food is also the right to have hope in a better food system.” - Tambra Raye Stevenson, founder and CEO of WANDA

And there were dozens more examples of cooperative models, community-run farms, narrative change campaigns, intergenerational farming projects, community grocery stores, advocacy projects and more shared throughout the summit as proof that progress is being made in communities across the U.S. and hope is growing. 

Closing “web” at the 2024 Right to Food Summit.

For many, the examples of food sovereignty in action offered solidarity and resolve to continue working towards realizing the Right to Food in the U.S.  For attendee Adamaah Grayse, a NYS Public Health Corp Graduate Fellow with and Grassroots Gardens WNY in Buffalo, NY, the opportunity to be in community with others in the struggle was powerful. “Coming to the conference let me see all the bad-asses who are committed to lessening the narrative of capitalism and the commodification of food being the driver of food production and consumption.  It was healing to have a public forum to name all the ways that the land and the people have been harmed by these practices,” she shared. “I left feeling encouraged that there is a web of folks willing to work in concert to return our food systems to the commons in a way that restores agency, dignity and sovereignty.” 

To get involved or become a member, visit Righttofoodus.org

The National Right to Food Community of Practice, a membership-based national coalition of organizers with boots on the ground developing solutions, changing public opinion, and advocating for systems change in the places close to home to end hunger for good and make food a human right. WhyHunger sits on the organizing committee. 


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