Last month, I had the opportunity to join 14 Good Food Advocates in meeting with key White House policy advisors, senior staff at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and members of Congress and their staff to discuss the importance of food equity in the United States. For those who might be wondering, “What is a Good Food Advocate?”, they are local leaders working to make good food—food that is healthy, affordable, and sustainably produced under fair work conditions—available to all people in their community.
Why do we need good food advocates?
We need Good Food Advocates, especially since our food system was built on unfair practices and labor exploitation of certain racial and ethnic groups. Some of the lowest paying jobs in America are food system jobs: food service workers and farm laborers. Fast food workers are twice as likely as other workers to rely on public assistance programs. Farm laborers are at increased risk for poor working conditions such as exposure to agricultural chemicals, workplace injuries and work-related illnesses such as asthma, bronchitis, and some cancers. As I’ve written previously, food inequities have also contributed to diet-related chronic diseases, which disproportionately affect people of color.
Who are the good food advocates?
The 14 Good Food Advocates joining UCS were:
- Andre Barbour, Farmer, Barbour Farms, Canmer, KY
- Carole Colter, Executive Director, GrowMemphis, Memphis TN
- Ann DeLaVergne, Founder & Director, Our Community Food Projects, Stillwater, MN
- Michelle Horovitz, Princess Titus, and LaTasha Powell, Co-Founders, Appetite for Change, Minneapolis, MN
- Lataijah Powell and Princess-Ann Nelson, Youth Leaders, Appetite for Change, Minneapolis, MN
- Karyn Moskowitz, Executive Director, New Roots, Louisville, KY
- DeVon Nolen, Project Manager, West Broadway Farmers Market, Minneapolis, MN
- Esperanza Pallana, Council Director, Oakland Food Policy Council, Oakland, CA
- Sabrina Wu, Project Director, HOPE Collaborative, Oakland, CA
- JuJu Harris, Culinary Educator and SNAP Outreach Coordinator, Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture, Alexandria, VA
- Clayton Williams, Farm Manager, Strength to Love Farm II, Baltimore, MD
Who the Good Food Advocates met with and what they said
On September 29, 2015, the advocates traveled across the country to share their community’s success stories — showcasing innovative and equitable food systems that work for all, and to discuss federal policy opportunities to support an equitable food system. The youngest advocate, 10-year old Princess-Ann, said she came to DC to empower other youth: “I want to make sure that young people see that government buildings are their houses and government officials are working for them. It is our responsibility as citizens to show up and speak out, locally and national, so that the changes we want to see are being advanced.”
And the advocates did just that. They showed up to the White House to meet with Debra Eschmeyer, Senior Policy Adviser for Nutrition Policy and Katharine Ferguson, Senior Policy Adviser for Urban Affairs, Justice and Opportunity. Lataijah Powell, youth leader at Appetite for Change, started off the meeting with her spoken word piece – which received applause from Eschmeyer and Ferguson (see excerpt below):
I’m rooted in the hood
Watch my seeds grow
I’m fresh as kale
This that green flow
You see a food desert
We see progress
And we strive for more
Putting healthy foods in every corner store
For mines and yours
Never had this mind state before
I had to make a change
And that choice is yours
I gotta Appetite For Change
The other Good Food Advocates described work in their communities and asked the White House what they were doing to improve food equity. Eschmeyer said the White House was focusing on science-based solutions that serve the most vulnerable, including the creation of “Promise Zones”, a federal program driving economic resources to areas most in need. Sabrina Wu asked what the White House’s top priorities were for the rest of President Obama’s term, to which Eschmeyer responded securing their progress and preserving long-term successes, such as the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010.
The advocates then headed over to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to meet with Elanor Starmer, Special Assistant to the Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs, and dozens of key staff from USDA agencies. Esparanza Pallana asked how the USDA is working with community groups on the ground, to which they replied that hundreds of Cooperative Extension System offices across the country are meant to serve as local resources for communities. Michelle Horovitz told the USDA staff that her organization benefited greatly from grant writing assistance that the USDA provided and asked if they planned to continue providing technical assistance to potential grantees. Fortunately, the USDA’s response was: “Absolutely!”
After their meeting at the USDA, the Good Food Advocates headed over to Capitol Hill to meet with elected officials. I had the pleasure of tagging along with Karen Moskowitz and Andre Barbour to meet with Congressman Guthrie of Bowling Green, Kentucky. In their meeting, Karen and Andre discussed the importance of supporting small, family-owned farms and getting healthy food into food insecure communities. After the Congressional visit, Karen said, “It was beautiful to see New Root’s Fresh Stop farmer, Andre Barbour, step into a leadership role and educate his legislator. It showed me the importance of showing up in Washington to teach our representatives the reality of food insecurity in the region, and brag on our accomplishments.”
All politics is local—except when it’s not
Our Good Food Advocates have accomplished plenty and definitely earned their bragging rights. But, many of the problems they’re trying to address are the result of deliberate policy choices. These Advocates should not have to work so hard at the local level to redress the damage caused by the current food system and the federal policies that underpin it.
Undoing this damage starts now. This week, the Union of Concerned Scientists, along with Food Policy Action and the HEAL Food Alliance, launched “Plate of the Union: a Call for Action on Food and Farms.” Plate of the Union is a nation-wide campaign to elevate food as a critical issue in the 2016 Presidential election cycle. We are asking the next President to create a food system that rewards farmers and farming practices that protect our environment, provides dignity and fair wages to workers, and ensures that all Americans have access to healthy affordable food.
UCS and our partners kicked off this campaign today, but over the next year and beyond we’ll need millions of voters and eaters—including YOU!—to join us in demanding food system change. You can start today by adding your name to our Plate of the Union petition.