The New Food Activism

Beyond the Organic Market

by Myra Saturen,

Dr. Julie Guthman, keynote speakerSince the 1970s, organic farms, farmers markets, soil conservation, and reduction of toxins have improved nutritional quality and increased dietary options throughout the world.  But these measures do not go far enough, said Dr. Julie Guthman, renowned scholar of food justice who teaches at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  She gave the keynote speech, "Beyond Market-Based Alternatives: Toward the New Food Activism," at Northampton Community College's (NCC) Fowler Family Southside Center, on May 20.  

The full-day event, attended by more than 100 people, kicked off a 6-month project, Food in the Public Square, in conjunction with RenewLV, Second Harvest Food Bank, the Hispanic Center, BuyFresh,BuyLocal Lehigh Valley, and the Penn State Agricultural Extension.  The goal of the project is to focus on the human relationship with food across cultures and how we can ensure an adequate, safe, and appropriate food supply. 

Kelly Allen, associate professor of English and founder of NCC's East 40 Community Garden; Breena Holland, associate professor of political science at Lehigh University; M. Dawn King, faculty fellow and lecturer at Brown University; Ben Cohen, assistant professor of engineering studies and environmental studies at Lafayette College; Maria McGrath, associate professor of humanities and history at Bucks County Community College; and Dr. Sandra Aguilar-Rodriguez, assistant professor of Latin American history at Moravian College spoke and/or led community conversations.    

Why is a new food movement needed?   The organic farming movement, which took off after the watershed publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, mostly benefits affluent, white consumers, Guthman said.  It also focuses on changing individuals' eating habits without taking into account the stressors of poverty, which limit choice. 

Moreover, co-optation by large food producers has resulted in intense price competition against small, local farms and the practice of price fixing.  With the proliferation of "organic" labeling, the original intent of organic farming has diminished.  The multitude and complexity of rules and standards have made compliance virtually impossible.     

Strategy and policy are paramount, Guthman said. One model could be the environmental justice movement, which has brought attention to industrial pollution killers in the country's poorest communities. "We must create community and safety nets," Guthman said.  

"We must also make food justice more culturally relevant," she said.  "The organic food movement "has not resonated with people of color."  The older organic movement, she said, has been predominantly led by white advocates who do not share a social history with African Americans or Hispanics.    

Social justice is interwoven with food justice, Guthman pointed out, noting that orkers all along the food industry chain are food insecure, struggling with the low wages and difficult working conditions.  The most dangerous industry of all is meat-packing.  

She described some successful food justice initiatives.  Members of the Chicago Healthy Food Hub on the city's South Side, pool their food resources, allowing participants to purchase food at wholesale prices.  Mostly African American, this collective can trace its roots to migrants from Mississippi who shared fresh food to survive.  A cooking demo by Second Harvest

The Food Chain Workers' Alliance, in Oakland, California, succeeded in levering the purchase power of buyers by patronizing food producers who followed fair labor policies and avoiding those that did not.  

Activists using the Internet started petitions and protests that forced strawberry producers to ban the carcinogen methyl iodide from their fields.  Public concern resulted in fewer strawberry sales, convincing the growers to eliminate the chemical compound.   

"The new food movement is the politics of possible," Guthman said.  "It is not impossible to make change.  We need policies and strategies to move us in the right direction."   

Kelly Allen, who coordinated the day's events, showed how language can affect public policy.  "We can use the richness of our word stock in the food justice movement," he said.  "We use language to understand the world."  The term "food desert," he said, was crafted by someone with lived experience, someone who had insufficient access to food.  

Food scholars collected and audio-recorded personal food stories by attendees at English-speaking and Spanish-speaking tables. The questioners asked: 

* How important is food to you?

* Which are your concerns regarding food?

* How do you make your food choices?

* How have your eating practices changed between childhood and adulthood?

Family cohesion, food traditions, generational eating changes, personal food habit changes inspired by health issues emerged from these conversations.  Several people were videotaped.

"Food is a basic human right," one conversationalist said.  She said that hunger affects the ability of children to do well in school and creates feelings of failure among parents who cannot afford nutritious foods for their families.    

After the shared conversations, poet Marilyn Hazelton led a poetry-writing workshop, "Nurturing Ourselves," and Second Harvest chefs presented a cooking presentation and tasting featuring a healthful barley soup.   

The event went into the evening with a screening of Growing Cities, held at ArtsQuest.  

Food in the Public Square is funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities as part of the "Humanities in the Public Square" initiative, which builds on humanities scholarship to engage the public in understanding pressing issues. 

Upcoming programs in Food in the Public Square include: 

My Grandparents' Kitchen: an Exploration of Food and Cultural Identity - Friday, May 27, 9:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.; Saturday, June 11, 10:00 a.m. - 12:00 p.m.; Friday, July 15, 5:00 p.m. - 7:00 p.m.; Friday, August 12, 5:00 p.m. - 7:00 p.m.  Saturday, August 27, 2:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m. Hispanic Center of the Lehigh Valley, 520 E. 4th Street, Bethlehem. 

My Grandparents' Garden, workshops facilitated by Penn State Agricultural Extension - Sunday, June 5, 10:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m., SoBeCoWorks 1349 Lynn Avenue, Bethlehem; Sunday, June 12, 10:00 a.m. - 2:00, LaFarm, Lafayette College, 3118 Sullivan Trail, Easton; Saturday, June 25, NCC East 40 Community Garden, 3835 Green Pond Road, Bethlehem Township. 

Taste: a Celebration of Local Farms and Food.  The program includes a community conversation, poetry workshops for children and adults by Marilyn Hazelton, a Second Harvest Cooking demonstration, screenings of What's on Your Plate? (children) and Plant This Movie.   Sunday, July 24, 12:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m., PBS studio, 839 Sesame Street, Bethlehem.  

Community Conversation: Closing Forum, Saturday, October 29 at 12:30 p.m. - 3:30 p.m., NCC Fowler Family Southside Center, 511 E. Third Street, Bethlehem.    

See this gallery for more photos of the event. For more information visit