The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy promotes resilient family farms, rural communities and ecosystems around the world through research and education, science and technology, and advocacy.
Founded in 1986, IATP is rooted in the family farm movement. With offices in Minneapolis and Geneva, IATP works on making domestic and global agricultural policy more sustainable for everyone.
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About Think Forward
Think Forward is a blog written by staff of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy covering sustainability as it intersects with food, rural development, international trade, the environment and public health.
June 09, 2011
Looking forward, looking back: the story and potential of food at TEDxTC
Among the varied insightful voices at the TEDxTC event Monday night in St. Paul, I had the distinct privilege of listening to the talks of two giants working on the intersection of food and justice: Winona LaDuke, activist and author from the White Earth Reservation, and LaDonna Redmond, originally hailing from Chicago but recently joining our IATP team here in Minneapolis. Each activist cut the issue of food justice in a personally, culturally and geographically relevant way, and each story resonated close to what our relationship with food could be.
Winona shared the experience of her people, the Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe). Until around one hundred years ago, the Anishinaabeg were entirely food secure and self-sufficient. Diabetes, heart disease and the other rampant afflictions of our modern industrial diet were unheard of. But what's more, the relationship the Anishinaabeg had with their food was truly that: a relationship. Winona expressed that "all food comes from our relatives, whether those with fins, legs or roots." That familial relationship with food continues to this day, despite European colonists, and the American government that followed, working to forcefully eradicate it. With the rise of genetic engineering and the patenting of life, a new kind of threat emerged to that relationship. Winona recounted the stories of the Anishinaabeg's successful fight to preserve Manoomin, or wild rice, against genetic engineering, the success of the Native Hawaiians fight to protect the taro root from genetic modification, and the success of the Maori's fight to preserve the peruperu potato against genetic patenting. So, all of these fights were against commodification, against yet another strain of colonization, and against inappropriate technologies, but what were they for? The answer from Winona was that it's a fight for family, culture and spirit every time: "These are the stories of our relatives with roots."
Where Winona outlined the workings of the food system on cultures, peoples and extended families, LaDonna illustrated the perils of a broken food system beginning through a personal lens. LaDonna shared how she had not been active in the food system until her son was born with extensive food allergies. What was previously a ten-minute stop at the supermarket now became hours-long excursions. She first attempted to decode the labels at convenience stores, then stuck to the perimeter of grocery store aisles, then, learning more about pesticides, antibiotics and genetic modification, was forced to take trips far outside of her neighborhood for healthy food for her family. This galvanized her interest in food access and urban agriculture activism, setting up local farmers' markets, small co-op grocery stores and urban CSA deliveries. Yet, as a now-seasoned food justice activist, she realized the solutions were not to scale. Even with community gardens and new fresh produce stands all around, LaDonna's neighbors were not able to choose healthier food due to income, familiarity or assistance barriers. It also remains possible to purchase a jar of salsa made from local, organic produce, but not possible to know the work conditions, pay, or treatment of the workers who planted, picked and processed the produce. As LaDonna explained, "there is only one food system," and it's impossible to buy or choose your way out of it, so there is still much work to do. And to what end? LaDonna answered in this way: She used to believe that, as a mother, she was there to protect her son's potential and allow it to bloom. Instead, she realized that her son came into her life to help her own potential bloom—that of reconnecting with the land and the earth, of rediscovering the spirit and soul of relating with food, and of loving self, family, and local, global and ecological community.
Each of these stories demonstrated the true depth of our relationship with food, a depth we’ve lost in our current broken system. Rather than merely a boxed commodity to be purchased at the local grocery store, food literally sustains our lives, and food that is culturally, geographically and healthfully appropriate helps us thrive in our lives. Each speaker challenged us to reflect on this vision and turn the questions on ourselves: What is our own story around food? How are we relating with our food? What is our potential to achieve with and through food? And, from those reflections, what is the work we must set ourselves to? Is it understanding the farm bill, creating viable funding for agriculture to adapt to climate change instead of current faulty proposals, starting a business that respects farmers, consumers, and the land, or some other way to get our hands in the dirt? As Winona’s father once put to her, "You're a really smart woman, but I don't want to know your philosophy if you can't grow corn."
April 21, 2011
IATP announces the 2011–2013 Food and Community Fellows
The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) is pleased to announce the selection of 14 new Food and Community Fellows. The 2011–2013 class of fellows is a mix of grassroots advocates, thought leaders, writers and entrepreneurs. You can see the full class below and at foodandcommunityfellows.org.
The two-year fellowship provides an annual stipend of $35,000 in addition to communications support, trainings and travel. The program supports leaders working to create a food system that strengthens the health of communities, particularly children. For this class of fellows, a selection committee focused on work that creates a just, equitable and healthy food system from its roots up. Over 560 individuals applied for fellowships.
“We had more than three times the number of applicants of previous classes. Such a talented and diverse pool of people working for food systems change was exciting and challenging for our selection committee and application readers. We look forward to this class building on the great work of previous classes,” said IATP’s Mark Muller. “The six-person selection committee provided a diversity of expertise and perspective that was essential for the decision-making process.”
“This new group of fellows parallels their predecessors in skill, capacity and experience,” says Keecha Harris, a food systems and public health expert, member of the very first fellowship class and member of the selection committee. “The selection process demonstrates that this country has a cadre of profoundly dedicated individuals committed to better food in their communities and improved food policies in all levels of government.” The new class of fellows represents work from Bainbridge Island, Washington to west Georgia, and from southern New Mexico to Queens, New York.
Another selection committee member, August Schumacher, former USDA Undersecretary of Farm and Agriculture Services agrees. “The caliber of the final awardees reflects extraordinary capabilities, outstanding and innovative proposals, and plain hard work,” Schumacher says.
“The Food and Community Fellows have always been change agents,” says Jim Harkness, President of IATP.” We invest in individuals that have a vision and plan for bettering the food system. These fellowships aren’t about incremental change; we want big visions that have the potential to provide our children with new opportunities for growing, processing, eating and thinking about food.”
Class VIII IATP Food and Community Fellows
Brahm Ahmadi, founder of People’s Grocery and CEO of People’s Community Market in Oakland, is a social entrepreneur redesigning food retail to better engage, serve and support food desert communities.
Cheryl Danley, an Academic Specialist with the C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at Michigan State University in East Lansing, engages with communities to strengthen their access to fresh, locally grown, healthy and affordable food.
Kelvin Graddick, a west Georgia-based, fair food system advocate, manages a cooperative that maintains a local sustainable food system, promotes healthy living, builds cultural and economic knowledge, and creates economic opportunities.
Kimberly Seals Allers, an award-winning, Queens-based journalist and author, is the leading voice of the African American motherhood experience and a champion for children through her work advocating for improved maternal and infant health and increased breastfeeding in the black community.
Valerie Segrest, a member of the Muckleshoot Tribe outside of Seattle, works as a Community Nutritionist and Native Foods Educator to create a culturally appropriate system of health through traditional foods and medicines.
Rebecca Wiggins-Reinhard works with La Semilla Food Center to improve access to healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate foods in the Paso del Norte region of southern New Mexico and El Paso, Texas.
Malik Kenyatta Yakini, an activist and educator, is Interim Executive Director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, chairs the Detroit Food Policy Council and serves on the facilitation team of Undoing Racism in the Detroit Food System.
March 15, 2011
IATP welcomes LaDonna Redmond to lead food and justice project
The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy announced today that LaDonna Redmond will lead a new project focusing on health, justice and the food system.
The project will center on health disparities resulting from the food system, from the farm to consumers—particularly as they affect low-income populations and communities of color.
“We are excited to have LaDonna lead this area of work,” said IATP President Jim Harkness. “A more fair and healthy food system has to include everyone, not just those who can afford it. LaDonna’s extensive experience working at the community and policy level will be a tremendous asset.”
Redmond is a long-time community activist who has successfully worked to get Chicago Public Schools to evaluate junk food, launched urban agriculture projects, started a community grocery store and worked on federal farm policy to expand access to healthy food in low-income communities. Redmond is a frequently invited speaker and occasional radio host. In 2009, Redmond was one of 25 citizen and business leaders named a Responsibility Pioneer by Time Magazine. Redmond is a former Food and Society Policy Fellow.
“We have a food system that has largely been built on the backs of people who don’t have a lot of rights and access to our public policy infrastructure,” said Redmond. “We need to collectively better understand the inequities in the food system and make sure we include people who have faced these inequities in finding solutions.”
Redmond will be leading efforts at IATP to identify research gaps related to health in the food system, and connect researchers with those facing inequities in the food chain, including farmers, farm and food workers, and consumers.
Here is a short video featuring LaDonna talking about food justice, health and what role IATP can play:
February 15, 2011
Upcoming webinar on health, justice and industralized meat production
Today’s predominant, industrialized farm animal production facilities raise huge numbers of livestock in small geographic areas, producing enormous concentrations of waste that pollute air and water. As a result, these Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) create a number of problems for the health of the environment and the people living in it, including increased respiratory symptoms, antibiotic resistance and decreased quality of life. And like other highly polluting industries, CAFOs are disproportionately located in low-income areas and communities of color.
Next week, IATP will host a webinar that reports on the health effects of CAFOs on surrounding communities, and examines how public health researchers can collaborate with affected communities. For more than a decade, Steven Wing and colleagues at the University of North Carolina have been studying the health effects of hog CAFOs in collaboration with community-based organizations in eastern North Carolina. He’ll present their most recent findings, to appear in Epidemiology next month. Naeema Muhammad, from Concerned Citizens of Tillery, the lead community organization in this research, will discuss community involvement and how the research has contributed to organizing and public education efforts. Discussion will be moderated by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s David Wallinga, M.D.
The webinar, Health, Justice, and Industrialized Meat Production, will take place on February 22 at 12 noon- 1pm EST. Join us and register today.
January 20, 2011
Chipotle's "integrity" challenged over treatment of workers
Update: Hear an interview with former Chipotle employee Maria Cortes on the latest Radio Sustain (mp3)!
Ten blocks north of IATP's office in Minneapolis, a boisterous crowd braved 5-degree temperatures to march in front of Chipotle. The restaurant chain, who touts "food with integrity," was under fire over its mistreatment of workers. A few weeks before Christmas, Chipotle fired—without notice—nearly 700 immigrant workers in Minnesota, and at least some were fired without paying back wages.
"We’re seeking the truth and to get the company to sit down and engage in dialogue with us because they have refused to do so," said Maria Cortes, a former Chipotle employee who had been fired along with 13 co-workers at the restaurant where she worked. "We’re here because we are seeking that our rights be respected."
Chipotle has been national leader in sourcing environmentally friendly food from family farms, often within regional food networks. The company has told the media that it is simply following the law after it was subjected to a 1-9 audit by U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE). But it is standard practice for employers to give employees 90 days to clear up any problems with their immigration documents, according to the Service Employees Interational Union (SEIU). Instead, Chipotle fired employees in question immediately. SEIU also believes Chipotle has potentially violated a number of Minnesota state employment laws.
Minnesota's local food leaders, including IATP, have sent a letter to Chipotle CEO Steve Ells, calling for the company to pay back wages to workers, and to stand up for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Signs at today's protest stated, "Chipotle Treats their Chickens and Produce Better than they Treat their Employees" and "Chipocrisy: Selling Mexican Culture and then Selling Out Mexican Workers." A website, Chipocrisy, has more details.
"I worked at Chipotle for over nine years and always treated my job as if I owned the restaurant, wanting to do my best for my managers and for my customers," explained Jaunita Cruz, a Chipotle employee fired in December. "But getting fired so abruptly was a disrespect to my nine years of service."
While the rapidly growing local and healthy foods movement has made many gains over the last several years, food and farm workers are often left out of the equation. But there can be no "food with integrity" without fair treatment of workers.
November 01, 2010
Fairness in food from farm to [every] plate: November's Radio Sustain
This month's Radio Sustain podcast is all about food security and farmworker justice: Why does exploitation of farmworkers and modern-day slavery still exist in the United States, and why do some (both domestically and internationally) go hungry while others have more than enough?
First, IATP Food and Society Fellow Sean Sellers discusses the shocking modern-day farmworker exploitation that takes place throughout the country. In a new campaign, he and IATP Food and Society Fellow Shalini Kantayya have created a video with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to ask for One Penny More for farmworkers.
Domestically, hunger remains—unsurprisingly—concentrated in low-income urban areas. Mark Winne, author of Closing the Food Gap, is a veteran food security and anti-hunger advocate. He's founded multiple food security organizations, including the Community Food Security Coaltion (CFSC). Winne talks about his ideas on where the food gap comes from and shares his insights on what steps must be taken to close it.
Finally, IATP's Sophia Murphy discusses the state of international food security, and why food reserves hold promise as a tool for stabilizing volatility in agriculture markets that devastates farmers and poor consumers around the globe.
September 28, 2010
NAFTA dumping on Mexican farmers
One of the most dramatic effects of deregulated trade has been an increase in agriculture dumping. In agriculture, dumping takes place when an agribusiness firm exports a crop—say, corn—at a price that is below what it costs the farmer to produce it. Dumping gives agribusiness an advantage in the importing country's market—and often puts that country's farmers out of business, making that country more dependent on imports for its food supply. Trade rules at the World Trade Organization (WTO) and regional trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) limit what countries can do to protect their farmers from dumping, including policy tools like tariffs or certain types of subsidies.
A few years ago, IATP published a report looking at dumping by U.S.-based agribusiness on world markets for five major crops: corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and cotton. We found a sharp increase in dumping following the enactment of the WTO's Agreement on Agriculture and the 1996 Farm Bill—which stripped away the last remnants of supply-management programs and encouraged U.S. farmers to over-produce.
Earlier this year, Tim Wise at the Tufts University's Global Development and Environment Institute released a new report looking even deeper into the damaging effects of dumping. In this case, the effects of dumping eight U.S.-produced agricultural products on Mexican agriculture after the passage of NAFTA. The numbers are astounding. Prices paid to Mexican farmers were depressed nearly $1 billion a year from 1997–2005 due to dumping. You can find more details at GDAE's website.
Or, check out the video interview we did with Tim at a major meeting of Mexican farm groups last month.
September 27, 2010
Rethinking the fundamentals of food security
After a lull in public attention over the last couple of years, rising food prices are back in the spotlight. A spike in prices triggered in part by the Russian export ban, and a deadly food price riot in Mozambique have rekindled the debate on global food security. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) convened a special meeting on global grain prices last Friday, concluding that measures are needed to increase market information and transparency in agricultural trades. Olivier de Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, released a new report on the need to address speculation on commodity markets. He called for regulation and the establishment of food reserves, along with a renewed focus on agroecological methods to increase food production in developing countries.
The last food crisis in 2007-08 highlighted some of the underlying problems of the broken global food system: decades of neglect of investment in agriculture; the foolhardiness of relying on trade for food security; and the vulnerability to wild swings in prices caused by deregulated speculation on commodities. World leaders have made some important new commitments to increase spending and attention to agriculture. And there have been some important first steps toward a new approach in the United States.
The recent financial reform legislation increases transparency and puts new limits on commodity speculation. The Obama administration’s Feed the Future initiative and bills under consideration in Congress would increase spending on agricultural development, emphasizing production by small-scale farmers, especially women farmers. The Global Food Security bill sparked a vigorous debate on the kind of research needed to strengthen local food production. Family-farm, faith, environmental and social justice organizations slammed the initial emphasis on GMOs, insisting on agroecological approaches that protect and build upon local knowledge and reduce dependence on imported inputs. Compromise language now broadens the approach to include research on technologies appropriate to local ecological and social conditions, including ecological agriculture, conventional breeding, and genetically modified technology. Of course, how this will all eventually play out on the ground in developing countries is what really matters.
In addition to how food is produced, it is also vital to ensure that people have access to it when and where they need it. Feed the Future and the Global Food Security Act are silent on the question of food reserves. They do provide for some increases in local and regional procurement of food aid. The USAID budget for local food aid expanded to over $280 million last year. This is a breakthrough in U.S. food aid programs, which up to now have overwhelmingly supported in-kind shipments of food purchased in the United States, transported by U.S. shipping companies, and distributed by U.S. agencies and NGOs. Several GAO reports have documented how much more in-kind food aid costs than locally procured food.The USAID humanitarian assistance program is an important step. Unfortunately, it is still dwarfed by the in-kind food aid programs which continue at about $2 billion a year. There is no doubt that food aid saves lives in times of disaster, and that droughts and flooding and the consequent crop failures could become even more frequent as global warming destabilizes production. There will clearly be times when it makes sense to ship U.S. food to respond to a crisis. But the current approach to food aid skips any assessment of whether it would be cheaper or faster to buy food locally or regionally in developing countries. And it is unlinked from the root causes of food crises, including the vital importance of local production of food in markets controlled by local people. The default is in-kind aid because that’s what we’ve always done. Never mind the fact that the U.S. no longer holds public food reserves. Or that nearly all other countries providing food aid made the transition to local and regional procurement years ago.
These first steps towards increased investment in agriculture and experiments with locally procured food aid matter. They just aren’t nearly enough.
By Karen Hansen-Kuhn
September 10, 2010
World Bank on land grabs: Proceed with care
A much anticipated World Bank report was released a few days ago on a controversial but important issue: foreign direct investment in land, particularly in poorer countries. Dubbed "land grabs" by the critics, a surge in investor interest in buying or leasing land abroad was one of the unexpected but dramatic responses to the surge in food prices in 2007-08. For a while, newspapers were full of stories of big but vague deals between foreign companies and governments of land in some of the world's poorest countries (as well as some not so poor countries). In the most publicized case, in Madagascar, it was a bid for nearly half the country's arable land in 2008 by a South Korean firm, Daewoo, that tipped a country already rife with political dissent into demonstrations that overthrew the government. We have commented on the phenomenon from time to time, and Alexandra Spieldoch and I wrote a chapter on the issue for a book published by the Wilson Center in D.C.
It won't be hard to find fault with the World Bank report. It's a highly politicized issue, and the World Bank has a long and controversial history of financing investment in natural resource extraction in projects that fail to meet appropriate social and environmental standards. Too often, the WB fails to meet its internal standards. The audience of NGOs, in any case, is likely to be skeptical at best.
Without jumping into that controversy here, I think it's worth underlining some of what the report has to offer. First, as the authors say themselves, this is an issue where there has been considerably more talk than action. The report estimates that only 20 percent of the proposed ventures have actually started production, for example. Other data, though some of it only goes up to 2006 and therefore predates the big explosion of interest, suggests that a significant share of the investment is actually domestic. That is, while it's clear that a lot of land has started to change hands, it seems not all of it—in some countries not more than 10 percent of it—is being signed over to foreigner entities.
Second, the report does not pull punches as to the (many) areas of concern that the investments give rise to. For example, the report says:
Many of these same countries face chronic food shortages, are regular recipients of food aid from the World Food Program and have suffered from historically poor governance.
Third, the report makes a few points that need attention, with or without large-scale land deals. First, there is a significant gap between the actual and potential output of much of the world's existing farmland, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. This gap should be narrowed. Second, land rights need urgent attention and regulation in many local, national and international contexts, whether it be the struggles of indigenous peoples the world over, of women confronted with patriarchal customary laws, or of the landless, such as Brazil's landless workers (MST), forcibly occupying abandoned land in the name of their right to survive. Large-scale investments by foreign governments and companies bring attention to a much broader set of struggles for justice related to land. The World Bank report makes the point that, looking ahead, land is only going to get more valuable. In that process, the poor (and otherwise marginalized) will be dispossessed unless direct measures are taken.
There's plenty more to say on this topic, and on the report itself. For now, I think it's worth welcoming this contribution to the debate, not least for shining a carefully documented and thoughtful light on what has been and all too opaque and alarming trend.
August 31, 2010
Floods, droughts and famines
In the late 1870s, a series of droughts and famines devastated a broad swath of the globe, including what is now Pakistan. The 1876-78 drought killed 6 million people in India; in China, 12 million people died of starvation and disease. Many millions more were plunged into agonizing poverty. The story of the famines and their connection to extreme weather are the subject of a 2001 book by University of Southern California professor Mike Davis, entitled Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World
In the late 19th century, El Nino cycles were not understood. Today, the world is witnessing the accelerating pattern of extreme weather events, like the floods that have engulfed Pakistan.
What Davis tells us is that the suffering and deaths that occurred were not caused by weather but the colonial and free trade policies of Europe, the U.S. and Japan. In the midst of mass starvation in India, basic food exports continued to flow to England. As whole communities perished, Indian peasants were taxed to pay for British wars against Afghanistan. British policies in India were predicated on the population theories of Thomas Robert Malthus, who was employed by the British East India Company—too many people, too little land, too little food—a description better suited to England.
Today, the flood victims in Pakistan were poor and hungry before the rain started to fall and the rivers and canals overflowed their banks. It is estimated that over 60 percent of the population of Pakistan lives on under $2.00 a day. For many years after partition from India, Pakistan was making strides in its development, but the combination of military dictatorships, corrupt governments and Cold War proxy wars (and now counter-terrorism campaigns) have left Pakistani peasants destitute and under siege.
What is new—and what was unknown at the end of the 19th century—was that the industrial system, then in its infancy, would lead to global warming and extreme weather events. From Katrina to the overflowing Moscow morgues, the industrial model that causes extreme weather is also responsible for exhausting the people, land and resources of the world. When the two meet the consequences are disastrous.
August 10, 2010
Unlocking fresh produce
This month's Radio Sustain is all about farmers markets, community gardens and empowerment. First, we talk with Joe Rice, director of the Na-Way-Ee Center School in south Minneapolis, about the school's garden and how it connects students with the earth, their food and their native traditions.
Next, Pastor Steve Lomen, operator of the St. Olaf Community Campus Mini Farmers Market, fills us in on his expanding vision. What used to be an empty grass plot on the campus grounds is now a 40' by 60' garden providing fresh food to the community—and he has even bigger plans.
Finally, IATP Food and Society Fellow Andy Fisher, executive director of the Community Food Security Coalition in Portland, has co-authored a new report detailing what stands between those on federal food assistance programs and the fresh produce at farmers markets.
Listen to the entire episode here (mp3) and let us know what you think: Radio Sustain Episode 28 (August 2010).
August 03, 2010
Environments, individuals and the food gap
With 30 percent living below the poverty line, Hartford, Connecticut, is nearly the poorest city in the United States according to the 2000 Census. From 1979 until 2003, Mark Winne served as Executive Director of the Hartford Food System a grassroots nonprofit organization “dedicated to fighting hunger and improving nutrition." This experience, as well as co-founding multiple food policy organizations (including the Community Food Security Coalition) has given Winne a unique, multi-level view of food insecurity.
Our food system today is at an interesting junction: While the organic and local food movements are gaining momentum at an unprecedented rate, hunger, food insecurity and obesity are higher than ever. At IATP's event "Closing the Food Gap" last night, Winne continually returned to the central question: Where does responsibility lie? With the individual or in the food environments we have created? Winne proclaimed to have "one foot firmly planted in each camp," despite also being aware that in today's food environment—especially in low-income communities where healthy food is often scarce—one must be extremely strong, and discerning, to make healthy decisions.
So what changes are necessary to make healthy food more accessible and individuals more prepared to make the decision to eat healthy? Winne listed environmental changes as simple as building more supermarkets, altering bus routes to reach healthy foods, building farmers markets in food-scarce neighborhoods and efforts like community-owned grocery stores like People's Grocery in West Oakland.
On the individual level, Winne spoke of competing with the barrage of billboards, soda machines and television ads that children are exposed to by including more food education—cooking, preparation and nutrition—in our schools' curricula. And, on a larger scale, encouraging participation in "food democracy." As the food industry becomes more centralized, and more powerful, are we truly able to impact what food enters our communities? Yes, Winne admitted, as consumers we are able to vote with our dollars, but we are competing with powerful corporations. Low-income neighborhoods often become overrun with fast food operations while supermarkets are nowhere to be found—what good is a vote when nothing on the ballot is beneficial?
Winne's answer? Food Policy Councils. Yes, the national fight must continue through avenues like the Farm Bill and the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act, but local change can happen now. State and local policy councils are springing up across the country thanks to Winne's model of interacting constructively with local and state government to bring about change. Justice, not charity: Individuals, taking responsibility for the environment in which they live, to help bring healthy, sustainable solutions to hunger, and diet-related illness.
For more information, check out Mark Winne's books Closing the Food Gap and the upcoming Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners, and Smart-Cookin' Mamas: Fighting Back in an Age of Industrial Agriculture.
July 23, 2010
Shedding a light on race, equity and food
A couple of years ago I took on an in the food movement. I have to admit that I didn’t know much about the United States assignment to write about racial equity and social justiceDepartment of Agriculture or its history of inequity. So I started with what I knew to do: research. I typed in race and farming. It made sense to me. I needed a background, a point of reference. To my surprise there was entry after entry on discrimination against black, Native American and Hispanic farmers. The discrimination resulted in a class action suit filed by black farmers, known as the Pigford Case. I went on to interview a few black farmers to get their take on this. For more information on the Pigford Class Action Suit go here.
Fast forward to July 21, 2010. Shirley Sherrod, an employee of the USDA was asked to submit her resignation because she told her truth. Back in March she made an honest and open speech in front of the NAACP about her personal journey and evolution around race while she was working in rural Georgia at the Federation of Southern Cooperative/Land Assistance Fund. So she lost her job at USDA for an experience she had when she was employed by another organization 24 years ago.
I am sure that Ms. Sherrod never set out to be the next Rosa Parks. And I am sure that she never expected to lose her job for telling the truth. Instead, the head of the USDA reacted to a snippet of a tape of her speech. The NAACP reacted as well, throwing her under the bus for a speech that Ms. Sherrod made at one of their meetings months before. One that she says she has made several times to illustrate her change of heart.
I am sure it couldn’t have been easy for her to work with farmers in rural Georgia. I bet she has some stories about being called names and threatened by the white farmers she tried to help over the years. Whatever she saw, and felt, she clearly was able to move past it. It is a lesson that we all need to hear. And we could have heard it, if the tape hadn’t been edited.
The rest of the tape addresses lots of things including Sherrod’s story of the death of her father in a racist act. She talks about having crosses burned on her family’s lawn and about her commitment to stay in the South to change things. Yet, if you read the Tea Party blogs, or watched only Fox News, you would have heard only a couple of lines of her speech—out of context.
When a spokesperson for the Tea Party admitted that it was their intention to embarrass the NAACP by editing and sending this tape out virally, they set in motion a firestorm that made a whole lot of people look bad. The house may be on fire, but remember there was somebody standing there with a gas can and a match. Will we continue to let the flame throwers set the Shirley Sherrods of the world on fire for sport?
If you think that we live in a post-racial society, now that we have the first African American president, then think again. My heart broke a little when I heard Ms. Sherrod say “I can’t believe I am out of a job.” Shirley, I can’t either. I am not surprised that extreme conservatives work tirelessly to stir up the tensions of race. But I am horrified that the NAACP and the USDA were so reactionary. Right now I am sure that Tea Party members all over the country are having a great laugh at the expense of a woman in her 60s who told a story about how she has come to view race and poverty.
As a child of the 60s, I have seen hate around race. I have seen how far we’ve come. But I see how much healing we need to do. As of this writing, Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack has apologized to Ms. Sherrod and offered her a job. Not her job, but a job. The NAACP also apologized. But when will we stop being a PR machine, reacting to save funding and chase a few public opinion points? I am sure that the USDA acted to curb any embarrassment to the administration. How’d that work out USDA? Are you willing to shake the trees and go back to and chase out the hundred or so years of discrimination against black, Native American, Asian and Hispanic farmers?
I also want to thank CNN for doing real journalism. They teach us a lesson. Blogs and tweets are just sources—not the story. Real journalists roll up their sleeves and vet stories. They look at real tapes. They give balanced coverage. In fairness to other media outlets, it is true that there is a rush to get the story out there as quickly as you can in the 24-hour news cycle. We feed the beast as fast as we can. Maybe we need to slow down and ask some questions, especially when we call for someone to get fired.
The media has a lot of work to do. And so do we: the food advocates, the innovative thinkers, the food and public health policymakers, and the pundits. Race is an uncomfortable conversation. But I am now convinced that we need to have more conversations, even in the food world. When the food advocates talk about where our food comes from and where it goes, we need to talk about disparities and equity. We need to address our humanity and our diverse American culture. We need to find our own courage to let this moment be the catalyst for change. It’s easy to get angry about injustice. But it is difficult to be a part of the change. Let’s take a deep breath and move forward in truth, honesty and equity in food. Thank you Shirley Sherrod for the lesson.
This blog post was written by IATP Food and Society Fellow Andrea King Collier.