Growing Food, Growing a Movement

Until recently, I’ve been largely ignoring the movement to change how we eat.  Too much of the movement focuses on upper-middle class denizens of big coastal cities, people sipping on soy lattes as they drive their Volvo stations wagons out to do a shift of sweat equity on a small community-supported farm and who pay twice what I’d be willing to spend for organically-raised free-range buffalo meat.  Of course, I sort of belong to that group.  I love to cook, I grow my own poblano peppers and Japanese eggplant, and I can be as much of a snob as Alice Waters when it comes to what I eat.  But I just couldn’t embrace a movement to improve the eating habits of wealthy white people, even though I’m one of them, because it mostly ignored the fact that thousands of people eat poorly or go hungry in this country every day because they either can’t afford good food or don’t have access to a decent grocery store, much less an organic farm.

But lately I’ve been hearing about a different version of the good food movement, a version that explicitly addresses the needs of poor and working-class people of color in urban communities.   And clearly I’m not alone: the September 21 issue of The Nation focuses on food, with a cover headline promising to tell us “how to grow democracy.” The food movement, it seems, has discovered the working class.

In the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with two men who are part of the working-class wing of the good food movement, men whose work goes far beyond feeding people.  They also foster cross-class coalitions in support of good wages, fighting crime, and improving the environment.  Their work reminds us that some of the most promising organizing in working-class communities these days is happening on street corners, in food pantries and shelters, at schools, in churches, and on empty lots transformed into community gardens.

Joel Berg is the executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.  When I interviewed him in July, he told me that more than 36 million Americans can’t afford to buy enough food, and about a third of them are children.  Food banks help, but he says the real problem is low wages.  Most of those who don’t have enough food live in families where at least one person works.  The problem is that too many working-class jobs won’t support a family.  His answer to hunger in America:  livable wages.  In All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America?, he describes the problem, explains why so many people are going hungry, and challenges President Obama and other political leaders to eradicate hunger by ensuring that workers are paid enough to afford to feed themselves and their families.

Will Allen runs Growing Power, Inc., a multifaceted urban agriculture project that not only raises thousands of pounds of good food in the heart of urban Milwaukee and Chicago every year but also provides good jobs for 35 full-time workers and summer jobs for hundreds of urban teenagers.  Allen “grows soil” through a massive composting program, but he also grows community by teaching young people from schools and juvenile justice centers how to plant and raise their own food.  His farm provides fresh organic vegetables, honey, and even meat and fish to low-income families.  Best of all, Growing Power has designed a sustainable non-profit organization, supporting most of its programs by selling the food and gardening supplies that it produces.  Urban agriculture expands on the model of community gardens, demonstrating that feeding the hungry can also provide jobs and contribute to local economies.  Allen has been spreading this model around the US and around the world.  He’s helped local groups start urban farms in places like Arkansas, Mississippi, Kenya, and the Ukraine.

Allen was in Youngstown earlier this month, in part to help a local organization, Grow Youngstown, develop its urban agriculture program.  Grow Youngstown is just one part of an emerging movement to stop complaining about how economic change has battered us and start finding creative ways to transform the local economy and the local landscape.  In Youngstown, as in other cities built around the steel and auto industries, neighborhoods are full of abandoned houses and empty lots.  When their laid-off owners could no longer make payments, the houses fell to decay, arson, and demolition.  While many have noted the ways that these vacant properties undermine community agency as well as property values – indeed, John Russo and I have made that argument ourselves –, organizations like Grow Youngstown view them as resources.  In a low-income neighborhood near my house, amidst too many trash-strewn empty lots, a small plot is being transformed.  For now, it’s mostly about growing soil – composting, bringing in worms, preparing the ground for planting – and planting a few trees and small gardens.  Neighbors, community organizations, and a summer day camp have all been involved.  And the organization will soon hire its first employees.

One more urban farm won’t, of course, revive our national economy, nor will it soon solve the problems of hunger among poor and working-class residents of the city, or even of this one neighborhood.  But livable wage campaigns and sustainable urban agriculture programs offer good models for how to improve the quality of life in low-income neighborhoods.  Together, they combine advocating for policy change with grassroots economic development, working from both sides of the economic system to foster concrete, realistic changes.  And that I can embrace.

Sherry Linkon

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7 Responses to Growing Food, Growing a Movement

  1. Hispanic Farmers Fight To Sue USDA
    by Wade Goodwyn

    October 12, 2009

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    text sizeAAAOctober 12, 2009
    In Texas and across the Southwest, Hispanic farmers have been fighting the Agriculture Department for close to a decade.

    The farmers say the department’s Farm Services Agency discriminated against them — denying or delaying loans, and refusing to investigate when they cried foul.

    Enlarge Kemp Davis for NPRModesta Salazar stands in front of what’s left of the farm in Pearsall, Texas, that her father bought in 1952.

    Kemp Davis for NPRModesta Salazar stands in front of what’s left of the farm in Pearsall, Texas, that her father bought in 1952.
    The government settled a similar complaint brought by African-American farmers for $1 billion. And while the claims of discrimination and other factors are almost identical, the Hispanic farmers have gotten nothing.

    ‘Always No’

    Noe Obregon, 47, looks exactly like the South Texas farmer he’s been all his life: cowboy hat, blue denim shirt, jeans and cowboy boots. Obregon says that in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, it didn’t matter what you looked like or how good of a farmer you were. If you were Hispanic in Texas, getting a farm loan from the USDA was like the quest for the Holy Grail.

    “I would go and apply, and it would take about two to three weeks,” says Obregon. “Then they would turn me down, say it was a high risk crop or different reasons. But it was always, ‘No.’ Then I would appeal, and it would take 90 to 120 days, and by then my planting season was over.”

    Instead of getting his loan in the spring, Obregon says his money would come in November. He would use the late arriving loan to get his family through the winter, and then he’d apply earlier the next year.

    But Obregon learned it didn’t matter how early he applied. While his white neighbors got their loans in February and planted and raised crops, Obregon seethed and his debt mounted. By 1990, he owed the government $150,000, and the USDA moved to foreclose on his farm. He says it was the same with nearly every Hispanic farmer in the county.

    “They were either foreclosed, or they’d take their lands, put them up for auction, and Anglos bought them because they had the finances and they had the way to buy them,” he says.

    ‘No Help For Them’

    Down the road from Obregon’s farm, 65-year-old Modesta Salazar tells the same story.

    “They would give the loans late when the Anglos were already raising their crops,” Salazar says.

    Enlarge Kemp Davis for NPRSalazar and her brother Modesto Rodriguez grew up on the 523-acre farm.

    Kemp Davis for NPRSalazar and her brother Modesto Rodriguez grew up on the 523-acre farm.
    As some scraggly cows gather around her, Salazar looks out over her 500 acres of mesquite scrub, tumbleweeds, ruined barbed wire fencing — what’s left of the family farm. For more than 30 years, this was a vast expanse of cotton, maize and vegetables, with hundreds of horses and cattle. Now it’s mostly brush.

    Salazar says the farmers who sat on the local USDA loan board were made up of the most prosperous farmers in the county. She says these men gave the government loans to other white farmers — the people they’d gone to school with and known all their lives — while Hispanic farmers slowly went broke.

    “All the farmers, from Cotulla, from Bigfoot, Devine, from everywhere — all the farmers were in the same situation; no help for them,” she says.

    A Long History Of Discrimination

    Both Obregon and Salazar’s families filed discrimination complaints with the USDA, but say they never heard anything back. The agency refuses to comment about specific cases.

    But if you’re expecting the Agriculture Department to issue an indignant rebuttal to the overall accusation that it discriminated for decades, you’re going to be disappointed.

    In 1997, then-Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman testified before Congress and conceded a long history of discrimination in the loan program. He talked about “good people who lost their family land, not because of a bad crop, not because of a flood, but because of the color of their skin.”

    “[Agriculture] Secretary [Tom] Vilsack often talks about how the department is known in some quarters as ‘The Last Plantation.’ That’s a reputation that’s unfortunate and one we intend to fix,” says Justin Dejong, Vilsack’s spokesman. “By empowering the Office of Civil Rights at the USDA, Secretary Vilsack is laying the foundation for people to be treated better in the future.”

    No Class Action

    Soon after President Reagan took office in the early 1980s, the USDA’s civil rights division was quietly dismantled. Nevertheless, the agency continued to tell farmers that if they felt they weren’t getting loans because of their color or gender, they should file a complaint.

    Enlarge Kemp Davis for NPRLike his sister, Jesus Rodriguez laments the loss of their family farm.

    Kemp Davis for NPRLike his sister, Jesus Rodriguez laments the loss of their family farm.
    But for the next 14 years, those complaints were put into an empty government office and never investigated. By the 1990s, black farmers filed a lawsuit — Pigford v. Glickman. Because the USDA failed to investigate years of discrimination complaints, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman certified the black farmers’ case as a class action. And with that ruling, rather than risk a trial, the federal government settled with 15,000 black farmers for $1 billion.

    The next year, Hispanic farmers filed their lawsuit. And although their discrimination complaints had been thrown into the same empty USDA office, the judge in their case decided the Hispanic farmers would not be allowed to sue as a class.

    The federal government has opposed them in court for the past nine years. Matthew Miller, spokesman for the Justice Department, is forthright about the government’s reasoning.

    “Unlike in the Pigford case, the court has rejected the plaintiff’s request for class certification,” he says. “Which means their claims will all be litigated on an individual basis. Because of that, because of the judge’s ruling, we will not be able to negotiate a class wide settlement.”

    It’s the same response from the USDA. The government is open to settling individual claims on a case-by-case basis, but unlike the black farmers, there will be no settlement as a group for Hispanics.

    A Bitter Disappointment

    This response — that it’s not the principle of the thing but the legal ruling that matters most — outrages the Hispanic farmers. What’s made them even more furious is that within months after taking office, President Obama decided that the $1 billion the government has already given to the black farmers is insufficient, and he’s requesting an additional $1.25 billion for them.

    It’s been a bitter disappointment to the Hispanic farmers who fought the Bush Justice Department for eight years. They thought it was going be different after Obama was elected.

    “It makes no sense legally, morally or even politically to treat these farmers the way they have thus far been treated,” says Stephen Hill, lead counsel for the Hispanic farmers. “The claims are exactly the same as the claims as the black farmers, and they’re entitled to the same recompense for their injuries.”

    Lawyers for the Hispanic farmers have filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court asking the court to review the court’s ruling that the Hispanic farmers can’t sue as a class.

    In spite of the settlement with the black farmers and the USDA’s public admissions of guilt, no USDA employee has ever been fired, demoted or reprimanded, according to the USDA.

    In fact, lawyers for the farmers say some of the worst discriminators in the Agriculture Department have been promoted.


  2. Erin says:

    I had the oppportunity to live in a country that was part of the Soviet Union…and I saw first-hand that local food (and there were “community gardens of a sort) was not just a life-style it was often life-saving. That being said, and as you point out, joining a CSA and drinking “soy lattes” or even starting a community garden in a poverty-stricken area is not enough to ease the effects of poverty for so many people. Nice post, thanks for your insights about the possibilities and limitations of urban farming.


  3. First of all, what exactly are “…cross-class coalitions in support of …. fighting crime…”???

    Is that a euphemism for sending more Black people to jail, and having more cops on the streets of the inner city?

    If so then you can count me out!

    Second, so called “community gardens” on privatized inner city public land not only will NOT solve inner city poverty they also waste land that should be used for the construction of municipally run public housing.

    Stoop labor farm work was the form that Black and Latino poverty took in this country for 300 years – going back to stoop labor is NOT going to make things better for us!!!!!

    And Brian?

    We don’t need do gooders from outside the community giving us cooking lessons – what we need are jobs that pay good money, and increased cash benefits from social service programs.

    Give us the dollars, and we can solve our own problems, without any help from condescending saviors like you, thank you very much!


  4. Pingback: Working-Class Blog Highlights Berg’s Ideas on the Relationship Between Living Wages & Hunger « New York City Coalition Against Hunger Blog

  5. brian says:

    Thanks for this very insightful article. I found those presentations by the guests you mention to be helpful in understanding how we in social services could possibly better work with and serve our clients: engage them in better purchasing and processing of food in concert with nutrition education; connect with community gardens; use some of our monies to fund urban farming/farm markets (actually the local Catholic Campaign for Human Development provided early start up monies over several years for the Northside Farmers’ Market…a great investment)


  6. Another movement addressing healthy food for ALL people is the increasing number of farmers’ markets who are accepting EBT (ElectronicBenefitTransfer) cards (food stamps).
    Oxford Farmers Market Uptown is the first in this area to apply for assistance from Ohio Dept of Ag to set up the electronic swipe machine which is plugged into a phone line run from a pole near the market.
    Specially printed “greenbacks” vouchers are handed to the person swiping their EBT card and the greenbacks can be redeemed at any OFMU vendor.
    This program just started at our market in summer season 2009 and is picking up speed fast. I truly believe MOST people are concerned about ALL people having access to healthy foods.
    Thank you for your writings…


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