It is a basic tenet that a community's food supply should be healthy and accessible for everyone. The truth is that local communities have very little control over their food. Corporate food producers dominate the American food system by providing cheap and plentiful food. While this may seem to be a good thing, the food and the processes used don't necessarily guarantee the nutrition or health they purport to provide.
The food companies have created an industrialized agriculture system that uses a multitude of chemicals in fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, as well as genetically-modified products. Some people believe these additives contribute to skyrocketing rates of diabetes, obesity, asthma, food allergies, and other health problems.
Accessibility to good food can also be a problem, especially for lower-income groups in large metropolitan areas who typically do not have grocery stores in their neighborhoods. Instead, these "food deserts" have an ample supply of convenience and liquor stores that stock only snacks and processed foods.
Participants in the food movement actively promote "food sovereignty" by creating substitutes to the industrialized food system, including:
· community-supported agriculture (CSA)
· farmers' markets
· local food, family and neighborhood gardens
· farm-to-school initiatives
· food as economic development
· food policy councils
· food assessment programs
· youth programming and training
Here are some good examples of groups that were honored by the Community Food Security Coalition (www.foodsecurity.org) at its recent annual conference in New Orleans.
Family Farm Defenders
Family Farm Defenders (FFD – familyfarmers.org), a grassroots non-profit organization in Madison, Wisconsin, was founded in 1994 to support the livelihoods of small dairy and vegetable farmers. John Kinsman, president of FFD, began pushing for food sovereignty when he helped protest the injection of bovine growth hormones (rGBH) in dairy cows on the University of Wisconsin campus. Researchers there were beneficiaries of corporate gifts that encouraged and affirmed its use. Even the National Dairy Board promoted rGBH. But, according to Kinsman, no one ever asked the dairy farmers if rGBH helped their production despite Monsanto's claims that it did.
Kinsman worked with former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI), who at that time was a state senator, on labeling rGBH milk, which corporate milk producers didn't want to do. A labeling law was eventually passed and it became a model for the organic food movement, which is now trying to label genetically-engineered (GM) foods. Through FFD, Kinsman also worked to re-localize food/farm economies and forge new economic relationships between consumers and farmers. An example of this cooperative effort is the Family Farmer Fair Trade Project that enables FFD to direct market cheese. One outcome of this relationship is that farmers receive a fair price for their products as they provide consumers with rGBH-free alternatives.
"I'm a peasant farmer," said Kinsman who uses this term to differentiate himself from food corporations that are now trying to call themselves "family farmers," just as Monsanto is trying to call itself "green." It is important to note that Family Farm Defenders makes sure that urban people are on its board—40 percent of them—because the board believes that they must be as involved in defending the family farm as the farmers themselves.
Our culture requires us to behave in a certain way and that is centered around food," said Djibo Bagna, of the Network of West African Peasant and Agricultural Producers' Organizations (ROPPA – www.roppa.info). Food policies are usually formulated by people in offices and agriculture is governed only by financial considerations, he said. However, peasants are leaving their farms because they cannot earn a living. "As a food sovereignty council, we first had to decide that we would no longer allow others to speak for us or tell us what kind of agriculture we should have," said Bagna.
Poverty is a rural phenomenon and there typically is no investment in rural areas or credit offered at reasonable rates. ROPPA tried to change this situation and decided that in order to do so, it had to be present at the policy table.
The United Nations Agriculture Policy group was surprised to learn of ROPPA's request. At first it allowed them only one representative, but ROPPA balked. It didn't just want representation, it wanted to shape the policy. When the UN refused to give ROPPA representation, ROPPA promised that it would organize 10,000 farmers to take the streets during the policy group's meetings. The UN capitulated and allowed ROPPA a seat at the table. "You can't have food sovereignty unless you are involved in the debate," said Bagna. "You need funding for farmers to grow food and communication to break down the barriers between policymakers who set the rules and farmers who produce the products. You need agricultural research, value-added products, and dialogue."
Detroit Black Community Food Security Network
Detroit has one of the poorest urban populations in the country. With 50 percent unemployment in the city and a terrible "food desert," a group of school parents, teachers, and administrators decided it was time to act: they would learn how to grow their own food for their children. In 2006, this group became known as the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN – detroitblackfoodsecurity.org). It focuses on urban agriculture, policy development, and cooperative buying. The group observed that "many of the key players in the city's local urban agriculture movement were young whites, who, while well-intentioned, nevertheless exerted a degree of control inordinate to their numbers in Detroit's population," according to its website.
DBCFSN believes that the most effective movements "grow organically from the people whom they are designed to serve." So, the group is creating model urban agricultural projects that seek to build community self-reliance and to change people's consciousness about food. For example, its urban agriculture program planted and maintained a quarter-acre garden in 2006 and a three-quarter-acre mini-farm in 2007. In 2008, it built the D-Town Community Garden where it grows 35 crops, keeps bees, and maintains a vermiculture compost program. All produce is grown using sustainable, chemical-free practices, and sold at the farm sites, the Eastern Market, and markets for urban growers throughout Detroit. The group also holds harvest festivals four times a year.
Policy development, however, is DBCFSN's "jewel in our crown." It has crafted food policy for the city that was adopted by the Detroit City Council. This policy includes provisions for education, economic justice, finding ways to combat hunger, discerning the school's role in food security, advocating and providing for urban agriculture, developing emergency responses to food shortages and food deserts, and forming a food policy council.
With cooperative buying, the network has tried to go beyond the basic co-op model and include food distribution networks. So the network formed a regional system with Detroit, Toledo, Chicago, and Milwaukee in cooperation with the trucking industry. "We didn't do anything that we didn't feel we had to do," said Aba Ifeoma, one of the members of the network.
Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty
Dawn Morrison of the Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty (www.indigenousfoodsystems.org) is a member of the Vancouver Island Network that has mobilized people to define the food system in Canada for the indigenous peoples of 27 nations while also working with non-indigenous people.
Morrison pointed out, "We must be free from corporate control to determine where we get our food and how we grow it. We do this in our day to day actions with family and the community. Our policies, meanwhile, must be driven by practice and be community-based."
Food sovereignty means that people have the right to decide what they eat and to ensure that food in their community is healthy and accessible for everyone, according to the Community Food Security Coalition. As we watch our representative government crumble through corporate influence, political corruption and hate speech, we can look to the food sovereignty movement to remind us how democracy really works. Then, let's hope that spirit will spread.
Olga Bonfiglio is currently a professor and acting chairperson of the Education Department at Kalamazoo College. She is also a freelance writer focusing on religion, social justice, and urban issues.