This weekend I joined many other Brooklynites at the Brooklyn Food Conference, where we all gathered to discuss local, national and international food policy. The event assembled community activists, urban farmers, chefs, congressional representatives and Park Slope moms to talk about the ins and outs of food democracy.
Food democracy is the idea that everyone has the right to safe, nutritious, high quality and sustainable food. I belong to a community-supported agriculture program; I shop at local farmers’ markets and health food stores. I feel pretty self-satisfied, but according to many Brooklyn Food Conference activists, that’s not enough. Food democracy is more than just my right to make persnickety personal choices about what I eat. It means that even if you live in a poor neighborhood, you should be able to go to your corner store and find fresh fruits and vegetables in addition to all those chips and cookies. It means that if you’re a small-scale organic farmer, the Green Giants and Earthbound Organics of the world shouldn’t block you from selling to supermarkets. It also means that farmhands should get paid fair wages and that our agriculture shouldn’t harm workers or the environment.
“We have never had a food system in this country that was just,” said LaDonna Redmond during the opening plenary. She’s president of Chicago’s Institute for Community Resource Development, a group dedicated to redeveloping inner-city food systems. She said that what we have (and what we have always had) is a system that allows the poor and vulnerable to grow and gather our food—from slaves in early America to immigrant farm workers today.
I started to think of other parallels: do we still give poor people scraps and leftovers and things with dubious nutritional value? Are corn syrup and excess sodium the new hog maw and rendered meat? Maybe. Redmond said that there sure is a lot of unhealthy food in her old neighborhood on the west side of Chicago. “I could buy every variety of chicken imaginable,” said Redmond about her neighborhood. She said she could find potato chips, candy, fast food and heroin but couldn’t find tomatoes or lettuce. “If you have choice, it’s because someone else doesn’t have choice,” Redmond said, noting the proliferation of farmer’s markets and community-supported agriculture programs in wealthy areas. She encouraged attendees to not be satisfied until we’ve expanded those opportunities to other needy communities.
The conference also included a full roster of workshops on everything from chicken husbandry in the city to New York City food policy to transnational food companies. At a workshop on food rebellions, Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, suggested that the food riots last year in world cities like Casablanca, Mexico City and Port-au-Prince weren’t just about hungry, angry people. They were also about people trying to access this elusive food democracy. “Food rebellions are a fight for the right to politics,” Patel said. Many of those countries were the unintentional victims of a world gone biofuel mad, and of rampant speculation that increased prices of staples like rice, corn and wheat.
A workshop on hunger in New York City highlighted the “epidemic of hunger” in the city where more than a million New Yorkers rely on aid from food pantries and shelters, according to the Food Bank for New York City. That number is only expected to go up as the economic crisis affects people who have never had to stand in line at a food pantry before. Rev. Melony Samuels, the director of the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger said that they just don’t have enough food to keep up with current demand in the city.