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.