United We Eat

A couple of weeks ago, Washington Post political blogger Ezra Klein and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack had a debate in the Washington Post about rural subsidies; the substance of which was then analyzed and thoroughly skewered in a couple of excellent posts by Brian Depew of the Center for Rural Affairs and Tom Philpott at Grist. The whole affair got me thinking about another urban/rural discussion I read at the end of last year, this one focused on food—and about how counterproductive all of our country/city dividing lines are.

In December, the Atlantic published “The 10 Biggest Food Stories of 2010,” a list that ranged from restaurant trends to food truck and butchery trends, with a smattering of food policy in between. In response, the Daily Yonder (motto: “Keep It Rural.”) ran The (Real) Important Food Stories of 2010, pointing out that the Atlantic’s list included “no mention of either the people or the places that produce food,” and that it was “heavy on New York City.” (Both true.)

The Yonder’s list gave a much more substantive picture of food issues in 2010: the Department of Justice/USDA investigation of corporate consolidation in food and agriculture; the USDA’s proposed fair farm rules, seed and dairy crises, and the skyrocketing price of rural land—all issues that affect not only the Daily Yonder’s rural readers, but all of us who eat. I was all set to recommend the article to all my colleagues, and then I got to the last line. “As you can see,” the writers concluded, “not a one of these stories begins in Brooklyn.” Now, wait just a minute there.

I’ve lived in Brooklyn for seven years, working on food justice issues for most of that time, so I took the conclusion personally. But there’s a larger issue. Brooklyn has a vibrant, diverse food scene that ranges from decades-old community gardens in Bedford-Stuyvesant to, yes, a Williamsburg “butchering icon.” Small snapshots of Brooklyn food have been much hyped lately in both local and national media, but they don’t tell the whole story—and they seem mostly to alienate much of the rest of the country (as well as more than a few Brooklynites). The Daily Yonder was right: the Atlantic list was out of touch. But digging on Brooklyn just exacerbates the problem. Both publications—and all of us who are working for a better, healthier, and more just food system—need to start thinking about food as a way to come together rather than something to divide us. If we keep seeing ourselves as divided between rural and urban, we won’t change anything.

I live in Brooklyn, but I grew up in a mostly-farming community of 350 people in rural western Massachusetts. I work in Manhattan, but my organization, WhyHunger, builds the movement for just and sustainable food for everyone—including a living wage and real market fairness for family farmers. We put our money where our mouth is: In 2010, WhyHunger sent me to four of the five workshops the DOJ and USDA held on corporate consolidation, as part of an organizing coalition that included National Family Farm Coalition, Family Farm Defenders, an Iowa citizens group, an independent rancher association, Food Democracy Now!, and Food and Water Watch—all in all, a pretty rural-focused bunch. By mobilizing a cross-section of our constituents, both urban and rural, we generated over 15,000 online public comments and a total of 240,000 signatures on petitions to reform agriculture and food systems—as well as solid turn outs to give testimony at each workshop.

It was a great privilege for me to attend the workshops in rural Iowa, Wisconsin, and Colorado and spend time with farmers and ranchers on their turf. I now consider some of them friends—and many of them reminded me of the farmers I grew up with. It was heartbreaking and humbling to hear directly about how consolidation in agriculture and food are destroying their livelihoods.

Back in Brooklyn, many of my friends and I are part of some of the food trends the Atlantic wrote about—I cook, compost, grow food, and support local farmers. I have friends in Brooklyn and the Bronx who raise chickens and bees. I also work with many people in the lowest-income areas of the city who are growing thousands of pounds of food to feed their neighbors; who are starting their own farmers’ markets because there’s nowhere else to buy healthy food; and whose families are rife with diabetes because the only food “choice” in their neighborhoods is eight kinds of fried chicken and various flavors of high-fructose corn syrup, all made by the same company. For them, this work isn’t a trend, it’s a dire necessity. I work alongside them and learn from their stories because it’s a necessity for all of us.

What most struck me at the DOJ/USDA workshops in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Colorado (and at town hall meetings held the night before each workshop) was that while the people looked different and the particulars of their stories were different, the anger, betrayal, and desire for a more just food system were the same as that of my friends and colleagues in New York City. Those farmers and ranchers testified because a fair farming system is a dire necessity for them. Myself, I spoke out at each of the town halls to tell the farmers about the struggles that low-income urban eaters face; that people in low-income urban areas are being cheated as badly as farmers are; and that those of us who are lucky enough to have a real choice about our food are choosing to make ethical decisions, pay what food is truly worth, and work for a system in which food is fair for both farmers and eaters.

I’ve also taken the farmers’ stories home with me and shared them with my community–which includes urban and rural people around the country working for a better food system. Articles, Twitter conversation, and video footage of the DOJ/USDA workshops on corporate consolidation have generated much interest in the “foodie” world. A YouTube video of part of the Iowa town hall has had almost 6,800 views to date. Many city folks who care about food care about farms, and increasing numbers of them understand that the health of rural farms and communities is inseparable from the health of our urban communities.

Contrary to the picture painted by the Atlantic, many of us on both sides of the rural/urban “divide” (and some of us who are from both) are working to communicate our common cause, both to each other and to the media. The broad coalition who organized around the DOJ/USDA investigation will continue to work together (with many others) around the Food & Farm Bill in the next couple of years. The only way we’ll have any impact on that huge legislation—and the Big Ag interests behind it—is through a strong movement of united farmers, workers, and consumers; rural and urban; young and old; black, brown, and white.

How about this for the big food story of 2011? “US Food and Farm Movements Unite!”

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