Monday, December 10, 2012

Ad-hoc intern Kendra Dawsey ‘14 on her trip to a conference on racial equality in the food movement:

On October 5th, college students and others with an interest in the food movement gathered for a panel on Race and Place in Food and Co-op Movements, which doubled as a fundraiser for CoFed. CoFed, short for ‘Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive’, is an organization that started on the West Coast, devoted to equipping college students with hard skills to create cooperatively-run food enterprises on their campuses. The event took place at Colors restaurant in New York City, a restaurant that uses local ingredients and trains local employees, and is owned by a national organization that prides itself on respecting restaurant owners. I was fortunate enough to attend the panel with the help of the Yale Sustainable Food Project, and it was so exciting to see tons of young people interested in promoting racial equality in this movement.

The speakers at the panel included many prominent people in the current food movement such as Kolu Zigbi, the Program Director for Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems and EAT4Health and the Jesse Smith Noyes Foundation, Curt Ellis, co-director of King Corn and The Greening of Southie, Tanya Fields, an entrepreneur who founded both Black Girl Inc. and The BLK ProjeK, and Karen Washington, founder of two farmers markets and a board member of NYC Community Gardens Coalition. To start the night off Yoni Laudau, co-director of the organization, spoke about CoFed with praise. He noted how much the project had blossomed from its roots in a borrowed minivan. Then Christine Johnson, the Northeast Region Organizer for CoFed, greeted the excited crowd. Afterward a brief speech, she sat down and asked the panelists questions on their experiences.

The first was a personal moment when they became interested in the intersection of race and place. Karen Washington, who has been growing food for 20 years, realized the importance after calling the census bureau for statistics on farmers. She was astounded to find out that there were only 110 black farmers in in all of New York State. She said, “We have to do something … We are talking about an equitable food system but it can’t be equitable if a portion of people aren’t farming.”

Curt Ellis became interested during the production of King Corn. In one town where filming took place, all of the farm workers were from the same town in Mexico, one that had its own corn to be harvested. However, working in America gave the families of workers enough money to send back home. Curt Ellis is currently co-director and Executive Director of Food Corps, an organization that seeks to address systemic food issues at the local scale. The organization takes into account the realities of race and poverty and how it affects food access. He says, “It is our priority to understand how the food movement discriminates in race and in class.” Food Corps uses service members with a specific knowledge of the area they are to be placed in, and involves schools in the process of giving youth a lasting relationship with healthy food.

Perhaps most illuminating was the situation described by Kolu Zigbi. At the age of 17, before attending college, she went to visit her father’s rural village in Liberia. The farmers of the village constituted most of the population, and they grew enough native rice to feed themselves and also sell outside the community. However, the people lacked the automobiles and other means take their goods to the market, located far away. There was one bulldozer available in the entire village, but to use it, you had to take out a loan from the World Bank in the form of expensive seed—despite the fact that the farmers had seeds of their own. Therefore, they had no means to sell their natively grown rice without being forced into debt by the World Bank.

Additionally, US aid to Liberia is frequently given in the form of free rice. This rice was sold by the government to the citizens to pay off loans.   Zigbi asked herself why international aid was putting farmers in debt instead of helping them develop. Reflecting on this point, she concluded, “race is a tool for exploitation.” She went to talking about her experiences with organizations in general. “Too many foundations are colorblind … the idea of talking about race becomes so personalized, no one looks at it like an academic reality.” By claiming not to see race at all, some organizations turn a blind eye on the unique histories and realities of each race, especially with regards to the food movement. Lack of access to healthy food disproportionately affects people of color in America, due to the complex way race and city planning have played into each other in this country.

Tanya Fields was the last to come in due to a babysitter flaking out; she walked into the room with apologies and two of her children. Hearing her speak from experience as a single mother and entrepreneur in the food movement was an excellent and moving way to end the night. Fields talked about how she had struggled to get grants when she wrote honestly about her background. “I thought I would list what I had done and people would make it rain,” she said, drawing laughs from the audience. “But that did not happen … ” She went on to explain that those who give out money for grants will still go for a college graduate over someone with a lot of experience, but less formal education. There is also the constant barrier of try to get jobs as a black woman, when many in charge place stock in having a white face on their organization. Later, she said, “When I submit a proposal to philanthropist … we have to start dealing with institutional racism.”

The panel ended with a conversation on how to start change. Washington said that overall, movements need to be grassroots, not political, and change must start within communities. Fields reiterated this point: “There’s a myth that people in poor communities don’t know anything, or they need help. They don’t need help, they need liberation.”

The entire night, I heard comments that articulated feelings I had regarding the general food movement in America, and helped open my eyes to the complexity of situations regarding race in the environment. I get to spend more time at Yale and afterward learning about these issues. I hope everyone in the room came away from the meeting with a desire to continue this very important discussion.