As the Executive Director of NESAWG I feel extremely lucky to learn from and partner with hundreds of dedicated and passionate people making the food system more sustainable and just. Our network includes labor activists fighting for farm and food chain workers’ rights, youth leaders growing food on urban farms, civil rights leaders fighting against black land loss, anti-racist activists fighting against gentrification and food apartheid, dairy and poultry farmers fighting for fair pricing to hold onto their farms, health care practitioners examining the link between chronic disease and environmental factors, food distributors trying to get a higher price for their farmer suppliers, and planners considering how land use and development impact healthy food access, to name just a few. Each of these stakeholders likely has a different take on what the words ‘sustainable’ and ‘just’ mean, and what the most pressing food system issues are.
Today, sustainable food system advocates, especially those focused on social justice, are working in a context where consumer preferences are disconnected to the reality of agriculture yet are a major driver of how our food is produced. My observation is that consumer demand, at least affluent, mostly white consumer demand for local, artisanal, ecologically produced food is not just about the food. I see it also as much about a connection to an idealized fantasy of what farming was like in the past and what it should continue to be.
I see this in the Hudson Valley of New York, where I live, and where old farm properties are being bought up by higher income people to fulfill this fantasy as farmland remains unaffordable for new entry farmers in our region. But for most of us, our connection to agriculture is likely part of our ancestral past, and that misinforms our understanding of what it takes for farmers to actually grow food for people while meeting variable consumer and buyer demand, stewarding air and water, managing pest and disease challenges, and remaining economically viable.
Of course we should demand that our food is grown in ecologically sound ways, but if we lay that demand solely at the feet of farmers, with incomplete understanding of agriculture as an imperfect, nuanced, and mercurial system, using only regulations as our tool for change, we risk hastening the loss and consolidation of our farms. Instead, my hope for the next 25 years of the food movement is that those of us in the non-farming public, and especially those of us working to change the food system need to deepen our understanding of the complex, regional, and crop specific challenges farmers face and how we can work with farmers to make agriculture more ecological and economically viable. It’s a systemic issue as much or even more than an individual one, and demanding increased funding for research programs that support sustainable agriculture and marketing programs that support small and mid-sized farmers is one place to start.
On the positive side people do care more about where their food comes from, want to get more engaged in producing it, and are fighting for better quality food in schools, hospitals, elder and day care facilities, correctional facilities, and other institutions responsible for feeding large numbers of people. Young people are highly energized to change the food system (NESAWG’s conference is now 25-30% people under 25). Urban agriculture is on the rise around the Northeast, as is interest among young people in becoming farmers. Healthcare practitioners increasingly see the connection between healthy food access and positive health outcomes, and fresh produce prescription programs and programs that allow food stamps to have double their value at farmers markets, once a privately funded initiative, now receive funding through a USDA Farm Bill program.
There is also a slow but growing awareness of the connection between racism, intersectionality, and food system injustices. Simply and incompletely put, this is the idea that institutionalized racism is deeply interwoven in our access to healthy food, arable farmland, and food sovereignty on an individual, community and systemic level. Moreover, if one is not white and also has another traditionally marginalized identity (female, poor, disabled, LGBTQ, immigrant, etc) the experience of that marginalization is amplified. However it cannot be overstated that we as a movement (if we can say that a cohesive sustainable food system movement exists) are woefully inadequate in how we acknowledge and address this rampant injustice and this is in large part because the very groups who are marginalized in the food system are underrepresented in the sustainable food movement. However, people of color, immigrants, rural communities, indigenous communities and other are leading their own farm and food justice and food sovereignty movements, and it would do those of us who identify as white (and especially privileged) to spend the next 25 years (and beyond) listening to those voices, letting them define their own problems and solutions, and supporting them as much as we can.
These are just a few of the challenges I see and wishes I have for the future of the food movement. As someone who has worked for progressive social and political causes for my entire career, I have learned that this work is incremental, and we experience losses as much as we do gains, but revolutions also do happen. In 25 years I’ll be in my late sixties. I hope I can say that the food movement has embraced the idea transforming how and where food is produced is strategy for how we can achieve the things we all deserve – vibrant communities and cultural practices; viable livelihoods; clean water, air, and soil; healthy, well-fed bodies; and, perhaps most important, autonomous control of our lives – and that in my work, I helped to contribute to that. This vision is what motivates me and what I hope to lift up in NESAWG and all the work we do.