It was more than a half hour before the start of the program and already a line snaked all the way out the door, by the time I arrived at the Food and Finance High School on Friday, February 25th. Packs of food systems activists filled the school atrium with an excited buzz to mark the start of this year’s Just Food Conference. I has first attended this annual event several years ago, as I got my start working in the food systems field. But this year felt different, and was completely sold-out. As interest in all things food has exploded both locally and nationally, so has the number of students, professionals, and citizens who now view work in this field as a viable academic and career pursuit. This important paradigm shift, clearly demonstrated by the crowds of attendees from all sides of the industry, is an important and welcome development for the dedicated individuals and trail-blazers (and organizations like Just Food) who have spent many years out there on their own, fighting for our food, for our farms, for our urban neighborhoods.
The conference opening ‘food talks,’ featured several veterans of the food justice movement, many of whom built on the idea of food as work. Jacquie Berger, the Executive Director of Just Food, urged us to ‘complicate the food system,’ reversing years of damage done by industrial food’s mission to simplify it. Joan Gussow, whose groundbreaking work in urban gardening and ecology paved the way for so many, spoke eloquently about the hidden organisms in our soil that silently and invisibly work to restore and renew the land that feeds us. Garrett Oliver, a founding board member of Slow Food USA, now best known for his work as the Brewmaster at the Brooklyn Brewery, very handily compared our current food system to ‘the matrix’ of food-like products, facsimiles for what we have considered normal for hundreds and thousands of years. “We must return to normal,” Oliver argued.
A rousing talk from Tanya Fields, the founder and Executive Director of the BLK ProjeK, a food and environmental justice organization in the South Bronx, challenged all of us examine the way in which we work to create change in low-resource communities and communities of color. Because the food justice field until recently has lacked a wide range of employment opportunities for interested individuals, the young people able to pursue it have traditionally come from better-off backgrounds, affording them the ability to take unpaid internships and part-time jobs in service of the movement. Fields, a single mother who built her organization out of her own struggle, urged us all to re-examine the worldview many activists coming into urban communities take in working to solve an extremely complicated issue. “In the hood,” Fields implored, “people don’t need dogma, or sermons on ‘local, sustainable, organic’ products. People need economic changes, sovereignty.” As a community organizer around food justice in the South Bronx, her talk was especially salient for me. The food concerns of the farm-to-table advocate community are often a privilege we take for granted. We must bring everyone to the table. Break bread. Our work should reflect what the people really want, what they really need.
No one, however, addressed the idea of food as important work as eloquently as George Weld, the founder of Egg and Parish Hall restaurants in Brooklyn, and Goatfell Farm in upstate New York. He spoke of the damage caused by the wide-spread view that work in food (namely food service) is transient, a stop on the way to something better. In fact, the people that spend long hours producing, preparing, and serving our food play an extremely pivotal role in enriching our lives. Their labor fosters our connection with our people, our community. George told his own story, of his departure from the food industry after college into a “real job”, only to find his office work numbing and unfulfilling. He went back into a kitchen, back onto a farm-to reconnect with himself, the work he always loved. His commitment to making a life in the food world has resulted in sustainable, justice oriented businesses that provide employment to some and the joy of good food to many more. I found so much urgency in his message, that ideas and conversation-while extremely important, can never duplicate the building power of old-fashioned hard work. We must elevate the people who do the work, as much as we elevate those that set the debate.
I am thrilled to have been part of the 2012 Just Food Conference. I am thrilled to see how much the movement has grown in just the short years I have been a part of it. I attended several workshops that demonstrated the innovative ways nonprofits, business owners, students, and entrepreneurs are joining the food systems fight, from leveraging ‘slow money’ investments into food justice efforts and crowd-sourcing environmental projects in local communities, to offering restaurant space for CSA’s and coalitions to meet and host events. The conference also featured a job fair by an internet start-up, Good Food Jobs, which aims to connect individuals with jobs and opportunities in all parts of the food system, from restaurants to farms. What many organizations and individuals are finally recognizing is that food is not only the essential link between people from every social, cultural and economic background, it is work. Food takes work to produce, work to educate, work to create community. As the movement grows and diversifies, all the while rates of unemployment and diet-related disease remain unacceptably high, more focus on food as a livelihood is crucial for the sustainability of our efforts. We all have so much work to do.
Board of Directors, Queens Harvest Food Coop
Asst. Manager of Community Development, South Bronx at City Harvest