On Monday, July 25th, Pursuers gathered at the Sixth Street Community Center in Manhattan for Chewing on Food Justice: Got Access, the second installment of the New York series on food justice. The space was a synagogue turned hip community center, a creaky, colorful old building whose walls were equally marked by old Hebrew and Aramaic letters and vibrant murals of figures like Emma Goldman and Zora Neale Hurston. It was a fitting context in which to wrestle with the intersection of Judaism and justice and to awaken our inner rabble-rousers.
The evening featured four change-makers doing wildly different work on food justice issues both locally and globally. Melissa Extein, the Associate Director of Grants at American Jewish World Service, began the night by getting us on our feet with an exercise on power. She symbolized power and stood in the middle of the room, challenging us to choose a spot that signified our relationships to her. The reflections that followed were insightful; we collectively explored our feelings about power, influence, and control. Does power mean dominance and coercion? Are we skeptical of power or drawn to it? How much power does each of us, with our unique positionalities, actually have?
Melissa brought an international lens to food justice, discussing the blunders of Food Aid, and how what looks like a basic charity program actually seriously undermines the livelihoods of local farmers in the Global South. Using Haiti as an example, she complicated the simple idea of dumping loads of free rice, and shared what Haitian farmers are saying about their inability to compete with free foreign produce. In exploring food sovereignty and discussing what gets in the way, we got inspired to advocate for concrete changes in the Food Aid program in the Farm Bill of 2012.
Up next was Mara Gittleman, the director of Farming Concrete, a research project that aims to measure how much food is grown in New York City’s community gardens. She certainly brought it close to home, taking us on a tour through New York City’s history with community-based agriculture, the mass abandonment that came with the fires of the 1970’s, and how finally, these no-man’s lands naturally morphed into a sort of “communal backyard,” areas for voter registration, community gatherings, and of course, gardening. Her presentation shed light on how data can be leveraged as an advocacy tool, and illuminated just how gigantic the yields of the humble raised beds scattered all around the city are all put together. She told us of Puerto Ricans in the Bronx growing sugar cane and Brooklyn gardens sprouting callaloo, fearless planters producing kiwi, gooseberries, and pigeon peas, and the hefty bounty that results from all this hard work (I’m still trying to get my head around the 29,628 lbs of tomatoes produced in 2010!).
Next, Steven Deheeger of the South Bronx CSA connected the dots between all of this community-based food production and issues of access. Calling 10 volunteers up to the front, he illustrated how, despite having some of the highest rates of diabetes, childhood obesity, and other serious health conditions related to malnutrition, the South Bronx continues to lack the healthy food options found in other parts of New York City, rendering it a “food desert.” There are 12 (low-quality) grocery stores in the South Bronx for 88,000 people, compared to 35 on the Upper West Side for just 60,000. So what would food sovereignty mean for the South Bronx, Steven asked? Not being forced to use assistance income on junk food at bodegas. Not needing to rely on private, for-profit supermarkets to fill the gap. More fundamentally, food sovereignty means that healthy food should be a right instead of a privilege for a few wealthy citizens of New York.
Reverend Robert Jackson, the director of Brooklyn Rescue Mission, stepped in to add a race and class analysis to the concept of food sovereignty, to combine what he called a “foodie movement” with the civil rights movement. “The reality of poverty is not a theory; it’s not in a book. Food is access. You have to connect the dots between food, equality, and access,” he said. As a farmer, reverend, and community leader, he seeks to bring fresh food to low-income areas of Brooklyn, and supplies the food pantry program with produce straight from his Bed-Stuy farm. He spun the story of Joseph that we had looked at in our text study, advocating for all people to have the power to make decisions about their food, regardless of their income level. The late civil rights leader Bayard Rustin famously said, “We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers.” Perhaps that was Reverend Jackson’s point when he urged Pursuers to wrestle with food justice, confront their privilege and choices, and gather up some chutzpah. “I want you guys to leave here bigger troublemakers than you came,” he said, smiling mischievously. And judging from the spirit in the room, I think everyone did.