Transforming the U.S. Food Supply Chain
The U.S. food system is both causing suffering around the world and suffering greatly itself. As in other countries, small farms here are steadily disappearing - 33,000 of them between 1993 and 2000 alone. Migrant workers continue to toil in conditions and with payment (or actual non-payment) that is usually deplorable at best, and literally constituting slavery at worst. Unequal access to food, and the prevalence of unhealthy food, are creating unprecedented levels of obesity among some (in 2007, 34% of adults, while others go hungry or even starve to death (in 2007, 11% of households were food insecure at some point during the year.
In response, a tremendous movement towards food sustainability and food justice in the U.S. is transforming the national food supply chain. Though its members may not always know it, their work is in many ways closely intertwined with the global South-led food sovereignty fight. There are many dimensions to the improvements in growing, harvesting, and marketing systems, including:
- Who controls production and the profits made from it;
- Who shapes the trade rules that govern agribusiness;
- How far food travels to get to market;
- The health of that food and the land on which it is grown;
- How consumers - especially the poorest - access the food;
- The survival of small farms; and
- The rights of the workers who plant and harvest.
Each of the dimensions is in a different stage of transformation. A few initiatives are:
- Local, organic farming. Some farmers are moving away from the environmental and health costs of industrial agriculture, both by eliminating toxic pesticides and by reducing the environmental impact of trucking food for many miles. Local farms are now supplying restaurants, grocery store chains, schools, universities, and hospitals;
- Native and traditional peoples reviving old land, water, and agricultural protection practices, thereby putting the culture back in agriculture and putting the agriculture back in local hands. As one example, the White Earth Land Recovery Project in Minnesota is recovering healthy stewardship of Native peoples’ original land base with a range of projects including: selling locally grown foods such as traditional wild harvested rice; organizing a farm-to-school and feeding-our-elders program; monitoring the effects of pesticides sprayed at nearby industrial farms, with the goal of stopping this practice; raising greenhouses and planting gardens; putting solar panels on homes in the community; and much more;
- Small farmers banding together through marketing cooperatives to gain greater power in determining costs of inputs and prices of products;
- Predominantly poor and people of color neighborhoods organizing to make healthy, fresh food accessible and affordable to all. Just Food in New York City, for example, links upstate farmers with low-income urban communities thru CSA’s and farmers markets, starts and supports community gardens, and advocates for systems that allow food stamps to be used for farm food. People’s Grocery in West Oakland is starting a grocery store – the first in the neighborhood – that will include nutritional education, job training, social enterprise development, and policy advocacy. This ‘food justice’ movement is exploding like zucchini in the summer garden;
- Programs for immigrant farmers who may have farming skills from their home country but lack financial resources to buy or lease land in the U.S. These programs give immigrants access to acreage, the use of farm equipment, and technical assistance in order to open an otherwise closed opportunity.
The wave of change is also addressing the reality that farmworkers in the production chain are still underpaid and exploited on both conventional and organic farms. As Neneide Eliane, a Brazilian farmer, says, "You can't grow healthy food with bloody hands." The Florida-based farmworker organization Coalition of Immokalee Workers is addressing this in a powerful way. Through grassroots pressure and, in one case, a 4-year boycott, in the past couple of years alone farmworkers have compelled Burger King, McDonald's, and five other major fast food chains to almost double tomato pickers' wages and to sign onto a "zero tolerance for slavery" policy which allows the Coalition to be part of monitoring. In September of 2008, Whole Foods was the first to bring those changes to the organic grocery world.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is building on a long history of demands for greater rights and fairer wages for farmworkers. We see that history in the pioneering activism of Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and thousands of others in the United Farm Workers beginning in the 1960’s, and in the advances made by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC). In 2005, FLOC even opened offices in Mexico to organize migrant workers before they cross the border.
In addition, merry bands are leading letter-writing campaigns, lobbying legislators, and holding demonstrations in front of their state capitols. Their goals are food safety, labels that certify that a food item was produced with fair labor, government policies that promote community-based farming, more effective means of fighting hunger, reorganizing the subsidy system to benefit small instead of large growers, and more restrictions on agribusiness. The advocacy addresses policies that affect the global South, too, because much of what happens there is determined in the U.S. The foci include cutting overproduction, banning international dumping of surplus food, and eliminating U.S. food aid policies that undercut local production. PTA mothers, residents of low-income neighborhoods, home chefs, food workers, naturalists and a whole lot of others who eat are commencing to vote with their fork, their feet, their wallet, their pen, and their upraised fists to ensure that the U.S. food supply chain is just, equitable, and ecological.