Growing a Movement: The Just Food Conference 2012

Margaret Riche is GRACE’s Public Service Scholar. Riche is in her final year at Hunter College, where she is studying public service and creative writing and is participating in the interdisciplinary Thomas Hunter Honors program.

A more sustainable and equitable food system is not only possible, it’s necessary, and in the face of many challenges, a genuine – and inspiring – food movement working toward that system is flourishing. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the heart of New York City at this year’s Just Food Conference. With over 1,500 attendees and more than 1,000 waitlisted, the gathering attracted rural and urban farmers, local food lovers, community gardeners, CSA members, food professionals and even a few key politicians. Early one recent Friday morning, I joined this diverse mass of advocates who convened in the High School of Food & Finance on the Upper West Side, ready to learn, network and brainstorm.

The event was extremely comprehensive – with over 80 different workshops, a careers panel, five “food talks,” a job fair and a farmers' panel, there was definitely something for everyone. To sum it all up would be a truly Herculean task, (and no doubt would still fall short of capturing its spirit) so instead, here are some highlights from the event:

  • City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s opening remarks highlighted the food movement’s potential to improve New York City. She also talked about several city-wide programs, including the Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) Program, through which six groceries have expanded and four new stores have opened in the city; the HOPE Groceryworks job training program, which helps “job seekers find, keep and move up in grocery store careers,” and FoodWorks, a comprehensive plan to reform every level of the food system, from school lunches to compost programs.
  • Just FoodExecutive Director Jacqui Berger compared “healthy” farms, which incorporate many related, interdependent elements, with “unhealthy” ones, which create vast monocultures, illustrating the vital ecological principle of complexity, and how it doesn’t fit into the industrial-scale model.
  • Tanya Fields, Executive Director of The Blk ProjeK, shared her own personal story, drawing laughter, tears and finally cheers from the crowd. A single mother displaced by gentrification into the South Bronx, Fields turned to community organizing and environmental justice work, finding in food work a means for liberation, and she urged the crowd to see it that way, too. She also drew important distinctions between food security and food sovereignty, particularly for low income communities and communities of color, warning against “missionary-style” tactics, which pathologize the poor rather than empower them.
  • Author, educator and Ecocentric Hero Joan Gussow spoke movingly of the megafauna beneath the soil and the complex interdependence of these subterraneous organisms, and also described the dangers of genetically modified organisms and the rampant use of pesticides in modern agriculture.
  • In a workshop called “Five Borough Farm: Strengthening Urban Agriculture in NYC,” I learned about the ambitious Five Borough Farm collaborative research project, which includes documentation of urban agriculture in New York City, a careful study of municipal policies that support urban agriculture and infographics illustrating key elements of the urban agricultural system. The vast scope of their research is truly commendable, and I expect to see great things come out of their work.
  • The “Racism in the Food System” workshop was one of the most constructive in my experience at the conference, providing a platform for open communication about the deeply entrenched racial inequities that persist today, examined through a food lens. We heard from speakers from the Food Chain Workers Alliance, Community/Farmworker Alliance and Brandworkers International. We learned about the revolutionary work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (who, after their recent, hard-won agreement with Trader Joe’s, begin a Fast for Fair Foodthis week). The conversation was so compelling that many felt it was important enough to continue outside the conference. So began an email list, a Facebook page and plans for future potlucks.
  • Jacquie Berger, before introducing welcoming remarks from Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer, New York State Agriculture Commissioner Darrel J. Aubertine, and keynote speaker Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen A. Merrigan, stressed that it takes an entire movement, “from farm to classroom to the houses of government” to create change. She said that flawed policy is a large contributing factor to the problems of our food system, but that there are elected officials who understand the problems and are working hard to reform the system.
  • Scott Stringer, who has worked on shaping sustainable and socially equitable food policies in New York City through programs such as “Go Green,” mentioned some interesting facts for New Yorkers in the movement:
    • In New York, 1 in 5 people do not have an adequate supply of food.
    • 25% of those without are children.
    • NYC is the largest buyer of food besides the US military.
    • There are over 500 community gardens in NYC.
    • He also stressed the importance of policy that connects upstate farmers with urbanites and voiced his support of urban agriculture and vertical farming, linking such new ideas to New York’s potential to lead the world in urban food system
  • NYSA Commissioner Darrel J. Aubertine spoke of the dangers of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and the need to protect our food and watersheds, to a vocally supportive audience. He also noted the increasing popularity and demand for fresh food, and the importance of addressing increased support for local foods and farmers' markets when reauthorizing the Federal Farm Bill this year.
  • The event’s keynote speaker, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan, acknowledged the revolutionary atmosphere of the moment by humbly describing herself as a mere representative of this country’s food renaissance. She spoke of the power of the food movement to create jobs, and elaborated on how the federal government is working to help farmers through various programs, including the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food campaign, which has since released its “Compass,” which among other things, presents case studies and visualizes local food job in a truly innovative presentation of sorely needed data.
  • In NYU Food Studies professor Jennifer Berg’s workshop, “One Square Foot: Grow & Own Your Food in the Big Apple,” I learned how to grow food in a single square foot of soil. Berg demonstrated how to create small planters from newspapers (which will eventually dissolve in the earth), and how to grow seeds in them. Everyone in the class made his or her own container and chose from a selection of radish, pea, coriander and cilantro seeds. I had a lot of fun finally getting my hands in some dirt, and in about three weeks, I'll have a cilantro seedling sprouting in my kitchen!
  • The “Introduction to Permaculture” workshop inspired me so much, I've been daydreaming about food forests ever since. To quote our speaker Michael Burns of the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute, permaculture is “a socially and ecologically conscious design method for sustainable and regenerative productive systems.” Burns told us of permaculture’s proven ability to reinvigorate land previously considered un-plantable. I was so excited to hear the examples of permaculture food forests and land restoration, seeing in permaculture a design philosophy works with nature to feed people.

For me, this conference felt like an important convergence of the many efforts to protect the environment, promote local food, end hunger, establish fair wages and create a more equitable food system. Within this complex web of political, economic and environmental goals, we found real grounds for hope and change. Over the course of the two-day event, I heard about many of the deeply entrenched problems with our food system, but I also heard so much good news. Everywhere I went I saw people having light-bulb moments and making important connections with others for potential future projects. A lot of seeds were planted in the form of lessons learned and partnerships formed at the Just Food conference this year, and as always, I look forward to watching this movement continue to grow.