May 2, 2010
I was on the road yet again this week, attending the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s 10th annual networking meeting for people working on a variety of food system issues at the Gila River Indian Community outside Phoenix. The focus of the meeting has shifted over the years. For one thing, WKKF grantmaking has moved toward a greater emphasis on diet and health, generally, and this has resulted in a de-emphasis on rural communities and small-scale farming. This participants in this year’s conference seem centered around addressing childhood obesity, especially among racial minorities and marginalized groups.
There is a prominent place for local food systems in this picture. Putting people who live in urban cores, and who have had limited access to healthy foods often means getting them into closer contact with farmers through the mechanism of CSAs, co-ops and farmers’ markets. Given the new emphasis on people placed at the margin, the groups who convened on the Gila River also included a significant number who were focused on farmworker rights and quality of life. There is also a nod to the long-term sustainability of the food system, with attention to energy use and the commercial infrastructure that is being built. But it is also true that many of black, latino and Native American groups represented were focused on securing their own food security through urban agriculture and community gardens. The group from Detroit provides a model of how to go about this.
The overall tone of the meeting was inspiring and celebratory, at times verging on the self-congratulatory. Yet the conversation over coffee told a more nuanced and less naïve story. I will recount just one example.
The founder of a farm-oriented civil society group based in Iowa recounted to me how her group had attempted to “partner” with an urban group trying to establish a community garden in an urban core. The idea was great: the farm-oriented group would support an attempt to build community and improve food society in the city by providing cash and food production experience in building the urban garden project. The first several years of the project were bogged down in restrictive red tape, jumping through hoops set up to regulate squatting on abandoned land in the urban core. Finally, they were clear to move forward with the garden, which the farm group supported with tools, plants and even a gazebo.
Unfortunately, the people who had been the initial contacts on the urban side had all moved on by this time. The individual heading the city neighborhood group by the time that the garden actually got started had considerably less enthusiasm for the idea. Claiming that the gazebo was being used by prostitutes to service their clients, she sold off the assets donated by the farm group (gazebo and all) to a third party. When the farm group attempted to recoup its donations, the response was “Sue me!”
I think it’s important to tell these stories of failure as part and parcel of food ethics even if they don’t involve salacious references to gazebos. I think they provide a base of realism that shows why successful food system reform should be viewed as deeply worthy of our respect. I don’t think that they provide reasons to denigrate or curtail the efforts or intentions of reformers. On a slightly different note, I was impressed by the young woman from the Gila River Indian Community who stood up and the meeting and protested the use of term “food desert”. Among food system activists, a food desert is an urban area where, often due to redlining, access to a full range of healthy foods simply does not exist.
This young Native American told us how offended she was by this term. “I live in the desert. I get my food there, and my people have been getting food from the desert for over a thousand years.”
We can all learn to respect deserts, I think, by recognizing that there are many potential routes to food security.
Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University