Conference explores dimensions of food justice

by Eric Ginsburg

Dozens of organizations and hundreds of people from throughout the area came together in Greensboro last week to talk about an issue central in everyone’s lives: food. The Come to the Table conference, held at UNCG, was designed to assemble people who are working on and concerned with food issues to learn, network and organize around food access and justice.

Pastors, farmers, labor organizers, food-stamp recipients and nonprofit professionals from throughout central North Carolina were joined by keynote speakers from Detroit and Philadelphia to share ideas and experiences.

Presenters drew connections between food, land and justice throughout the day in a series of simultaneous workshops focused on an array of issues from food insecurity in the area to youth organizing.

According to participants, it was a smashing success.

Andrew Young, who moderated a panel about immigrant and refugee farmers and who is a research fellow at the Center for New North Carolinians, said a themed discussion table during the provided lunch was particularly useful.

“It was a really great networking opportunity for our participants [and] for folks to meet one another,” Young said. “Prior to the actual presentation we had a terrific conversation at mealtime.”

People at Young’s table swapped practical knowledge — about sweetpotato leaves, cassava cuttings and more — before heading to the afternoon panel he facilitated. There, immigrants, refugees and advocates shared their work ranging from a group in Carrboro farming with 140 Karen people from Burma to the new Congolina Farm in Brown Summit bringing Congolese families and seeds together with a local farm.

At the core, it is all about empowerment, Young said, adding that many refugees are displaced farmers who could be a part of the “food revolution” in the area.

“As we talk more and more about food issues in the Piedmont, awareness just grows and grows,” he said. “I was really happy to hear the feedback from the people that were in the room; it was really, really positive. I wish we had more conferences like this.”

That’s a big part of the reason Come to the Table is organized in the first place, conference coordinator Sarah Gibson said.

“I think it’s a really fabulous way for people to connect around very complex issues that intersect but often aren’t talked about [in terms of] how they relate,” Gibson said. “It gives people the opportunity to connect across some conventional boundaries.”

The conference, which happens in the western, Piedmont and eastern parts of the state, has been held every other year since 2007. This year is the first time it was held in Greensboro — two years ago it was in Winston-Salem.

It grew out of work by the Rural Advancement Foundation International, where Gibson works, and the North Carolina Council of Churches. Gibson, Come to the Table Director Francesca Hyatt, and many others pulled together this year’s Piedmont conference, co-sponsored by UNCG’s communications department and Wake Forest Divinity School.

One of the keynote speakers, Malik Yakini from the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, addressed the systemic issues plaguing food insecurity in a talk and in a workshop on racism in the food system that he co-presented.

“We can address symptoms for the rest of our lives,” Yakini said during his keynote, drawing a comparison to running on a treadmill. Instead, he proposed getting to the core of the issue.

“The root cause of food insecurity is dispossessing people of their land,” he said in the workshop. “We have to make land and resources available.”

Yakini and the other presenters in the workshop outlined a history of people of color being forced off of land in the United States, saying that everyone has been damaged by institutional racism and illuminating how it manifests in the food system through treatment of black farmers, treatment of people of color working in food distribution and many other facets.

Food insecurity is often compounded by other economic issues, presenters said — more than 40,000 people in Detroit have their water turned off, Yakini said, and a lack of emergency funds to help people with things like high electric bills push people towards food banks and homelessness, Interactive Resource Center staffer Jenny Hudson said earlier in the day.

Speaking on a panel about food insecurity in the Piedmont, Hudson said public housing residents are given the boot after two days without power, pushing families towards homelessness. The rate of food insecurity in rural areas is rising too, Nikki Mc- Cormick with Second Harvest food bank said, with 40 percent of children in some rural parts of central North Carolina that don’t have a dependable food source.

McCormick said recent governmental aid cuts, coupled with a “dramatic increase in need” have been devastating.

“The face of hunger isn’t what it used to be,” she said, explaining that many who are hungry are in a household with a working adult who is underemployed or has been forced to take a pay cut. “It hurts our pride to need to ask for help with something we’ve been able to do for our whole lives. We are a prideful people in North Carolina.”

McCormick said there is a vast number of people in the state who qualify for food stamps but don’t apply, often out of shame. Part of Second Harvest’s work has focused on signing people up who are eligible, contributing to a 279 percent increase in applicants in their coverage area.

During an audience commentary, one woman said she was approved for food stamps after losing her job at a university in Greensboro. A divorcee with two kids, she never thought she would need to apply for assistance. She cried when she realized how much she was eligible for, now able to afford fresh fruit for her kids, which she couldn’t on her university paychecks.

This was the first time Ana Maria Reichenbach, a field organizer with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, attended the conference. Reichenbach, who co-presented with Beloved Community Center staffer Wesley Morris, appreciated the opportunity to make connections and build relationships.

“There were lot of farmers and growers there and I had a conversation with a [tobacco] grower and that was really interesting conversation to have,” she said, adding that small growers and farm workers were exploited by the same larger companies. “It was really important that we had that space to talk about farm workers in a conference that was mostly about food justice issues because a lot of the time we don’t make the connections that our food comes from exploited workers.”

Reichenbach said the workshop on racism in the food system would be very helpful for her work going forward, saying the history of agricultural system and disenfranchisement of people of color resonated with her union’s work.

The conference emphasized the connection between religion — especially churches — and food justice. Various presenters spoke about the relationship between their religious calling and their work, with some workshops explicitly focused on ministry and an opening panel on interfaith perspectives around food. Several attendees said their churches were growing community gardens to feed the hungry — during the opening panel, Rabbi Fred Guttman of Temple Emanuel said his temple’s garden yielded 4,000 pounds of food last year.

“There’s a symbiotic relationship between farmers and God,” he said, adding that the name “Adam” came from the same root word as “land.”

Guttman said there is a movement within Judaism to redefine Kosher food to include what is ethical to eat, taking workers, the environment and other factors into consideration. Switching over to address food insecurity, he touched on a theme that was echoed throughout the day: that ending hunger in the Piedmont is possible, it just requires the proper commitment and dedication.