Food Justice and Building a Movement in Arizona



The food justice movement is alive–and growing–in Arizona. This, despite, or perhaps even due to, a political climate that, at least at this moment, is chilling.

For example, just last Thursday, when I was returning back to L.A., less than two months after Gabrielle Giffords was shot and nine people were killed in Tucson, the Arizona State Senate debated legislation that would allow students to bring guns into the classroom. When the measure was finally passed, the legislators decided to modify the bill to allow students to bring guns onto campus on the sidewalks and into the common areas but not yet into the classroom. “Sometimes you have to take baby steps,” the bill sponsor Sen. Ron Gould told the local Fox news station, asserting that he still eventually wants to give those gun toting students full access to the entire campus, including the classrooms.

If it’s not guns, it’s subsidies for the Tea Party. Arizona Senate Republicans introduced a bill to create a Tea Party license plate, with the Tea Party slogan, “Don’t Tread on Me.” The bill seeks to create a fund from the proceeds of the “Don’t Tread on Me (DTM)” license plates that would be administered by a state appointed Arizona Tea Party Committee which would in turn have available $17 out of the $25 payment for the plates. Those funds could then be distributed by the Tea Party fund managers through grants to any non-profit dedicated to promoting “Tea Party governing principles.”

The Arizona legislature has also led the way in establishing what can only be called a campaign of terror against immigrants, especially those without papers but ultimately against all Latinos. More than 100,000 immigrants left the state in the first several months after the passage of SB 1070, the racial profiling and criminalization of immigrants legislation currently held up in the courts. And while the numbers of those exiting the state has since declined (although there is still net migration out of state), the mood of continual vulnerability pervades Latino and immigrant communities. This is terror in the guise of the legislature’s immigration policy and it has come to symbolize, along with guns and Tea Party subsidies, a right wing politics out of control.

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Yet the mood at the various talks and discussions I had in Tucson, Flagstaff, and Phoenix last week, was upbeat, and the level of participation was high, both at the campus and community events. There’s a lot of passion about food issues and it’s also clear to many of those who came to the events, that food issues are part of a larger social change agenda; an agenda that is also about changing the politics–and the mood–in the State.

In Tucson, at the community gathering sponsored by the Community Food Bank where I spoke, there were dozens of ideas, programs, policy approaches, and related on-the-ground initiatives talked about and new connections made. There were also those engaged in border and immigration issues, health issues, and political mobilization. In a community still shell-shocked about the shootings in January and horrified by the right wing Tea Party takeover of the Legislature, the passion for engagement and desire for change was palpable.

In Flagstaff, community food activists from groups like Foodlink who have embraced a food justice agenda have teamed up with several of the faculty and students who are part of what they call action-research teams, based at programs ranging from the Program for Community, Culture and Environment to a Holocaust-focused program that is highlighting issues of human rights. There was a clear desire of many of the participants who came to the talks on food justice to want to see themselves as change agents, and to help bring about a change in the politics of the state.

In Phoenix, more than a hundred students and faculty came to hear a quickly organized Food Justice talk at Arizona State University, sponsored by the Global Institute of Sustainability. There was also an afternoon event at the Public Market, an innovative outdoor market and indoor alternative food store located in downtown Phoenix and an evening book talk at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, a surviving independent book store that has become an important community gathering place. Like the events in Tucson and Flagstaff, where participation exceeded organizer expectations, there was a strong sense of commitment and desire to make things happen. Immigrant rights continued to complement the focus on food justice along with the desire to kick the rascals out, symbolized by an emerging recall campaign against State Senate Majority Leader Russell Pearce, the leader of the war against immigrants. This is the face of Arizona that gives one hope, even–or especially–for those who might otherwise be assumed to have abandoned hope.

At the Changing Hands bookstore event in Tempe, a question was asked about the problem of issue silos, whether those in the food movement, or the immigrant rights movement, or the environmental movement, had weakened their own advocacy by focusing on their single issue. I answered by talking about the need to make connections, and gave an example of how some community-based environmental justice groups had come to be involved in issues around global trade and freight traffic impacting their communities. Afterward, I thought that perhaps the answer was too limited, that the challenge for each of those movements was the need to not just connect the dots but see the work as part of building what used to be called in the 1960s, the Movement for Social Change. This would necessarily become a redefining of politics in an age of Tea Partyism, the war on immigrants, and a food system that is neither just, nor healthy, nor meeting the needs of the producers or the eaters. And there’s no place better for that to happen than in Arizona.

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