The Next Step in Food Justice: A Discussion
February 25, 2011
In a past life, Weekly staff writer Sara Rubin oversaw the local-food sourcing efforts of a big restaurant chain (Chipotle) trying to do right by its community. So she was just the gal to sniff out a new framework through which to look at food justice in our society, which was the spotlight of a local author talk last night. Here's what she found out:
The food movement is already enough of an institution that it's well on to its own second wave of sorts: A backlash against elitism and an effort to embrace an inclusive "systems approach" to growing, marketing, preparing and eating is food justice, "a systems-oriented" movement.
"It isn't simply looking at one issue or outcome, say, obesity. You wouldn't want to see obesity as separate from how McDonald's has changed the potato industry in this country."
That's Robert Gottlieb, director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College, speaking about his new book, aptly titled Food Justice, in Monterey last night. Hosted by Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA), the event featured a decadent display of locally grown fresh snacks, from berry-purple carrots and tart oranges to Salinas Valley wines. A group of about 20 foodie types, munching on Monterey County's organic bounty, heard Gottlieb talk about transcending issue-specific activism. Issues like public cross class, age and gender, and—perhaps most importantly to the culinary-minded—issues like flavor and freshness, too.
Gottlieb spoke about the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute's research and advocacy efforts to improve the abundance and offerings of grocery stores in food deserts, areas with no easy access to fresh food. (Gottlieb also proposes redubbing such areas "food swamps," noting that where there is a lack of fresh fruit and vegetable options, there is often an excess of soft drinks and junk food. Limited access to food correlates with unhealthy eating habits, and those habits correlate with obesity and diabetes.)
Gottlieb spent years gathering uplifting tales of "food justice champions" across the country, and now brings his forward-thinking message from the Center for Food & Justice to audiences like Monterey's. Put simply, that message is this: It's all about the children.
In one success story, a group of middle schoolers in Post-Katrina New Orleans prepared a list of demands, among them textbooks, fresh food at school, and gardens. They did not get everything they asked for—but they got some local foods, and a lesson on the systems nature of things. "It wasn't Katrina that was undermining the shrimpers in New Orleans, it was a history of changes," said Gottlieb. The "changes" are those we're all familiar with: consolidating businesses from few to many, increased global trade, unsustainable systems.
Gottlieb is not alone in spreading the gospel. In Philadelphia, the seminal Food Trust is trumpeting policy recommendations into Michelle Obama's ear as she leads the Let's Move! initiative. In Milwaukee, Will Allen's Growing Power brings city kids to urban greenhouses. In Salinas, ALBA is implementing a wholesale model for small, organic growers. Represented in last night's audience by Mike Leone of Tanimura & Antle, even Big Ag has caught on. T&A's artisan line is a move to embrace the food justice movement's insistence that not everything has to be a compromise: a big company doesn't have to give up on flavorful varieties.
Gottlieb's own epiphany came after his elementary school-aged daughter complained that her school salad bar "sucks."
Gottlieb took Farm-to-School action. First, he says, he was dismissed as "another wealthy white parent with too much time on his hands," but after a test showed kids preferred fresh salad to pizza, Gottlieb's early salad bar experiment was rolling. Today, in thousands of school districts, Farm-to-School programs bring fresh, local foods to students in all 50 states, including a program in Monterey County.