Rethinking the food system
Photo by Wenbo Fan May 22, 2018
Symposium engages food justice scholars, students and activists
Chanowk Yisrael first met Lindsay Naylor, University of Delaware assistant professor in the Department of Geography, when they were both touring Cuba to study the work of its smallholder farmers. The self-described agro-revolutionary and the scholar of food justice, led others on the trip in discussions critiquing the dominant global system that grows and provides the food most people consume. Naylor returned to Delaware with an idea to share what Yisrael was doing at his home near Sacramento with her students and the community to start a conversation about how we can build a food system that works for people, rather than one that allows billions to go hungry, damages the environment and harms the health of consumers.
Yisrael noticed about 11 years ago, that the food system was not working for him or his family. He was working 50 hours a week in an IT job and decided to move to a plant-based diet for health reasons. But eating a good vegetarian diet was expensive, and Yisrael realized he had a choice: he could work even more hours or he could start to grow his own food.
At first, he just planted his small yard with a few garden beds, the first of which failed. After learning to care for the soil, Yisrael started growing more than 100 pounds of food. He expanded to the lot next door and now gets 40 percent of his families’ food from half an acre. Last year they grew 4,000 pounds of food, as well as raised bees and chickens. They started selling handmade soaps and preserves. Eventually he began helping others start urban gardens elsewhere in Sacramento.
Yisrael shared his story and led a Community Voices Workshop earlier this month at the Food Intersections Symposium. For the event organized by Naylor, she brought together scholars from across the country, students and faculty from UD and other area institutions. Additionally, the event featured two keynote speakers—a woman who was instrumental in launching the food justice movement more than 40 years ago and her daughter, who has continued the work.
While there were differences in approach and areas of study, everyone attending the event not only agreed on the need for change, but also saw in their own ways the potential for change to lead to a better society as well as a better diet.
As he opened the workshop, Yisrael noted when he started growing food, he found he was also growing community. The desire to see that continue led him to agree to facilitate the workshop — just as a desire to engage and build the community led Naylor to invite him.
“What I really wanted to do was, one, just be on the East Coast as far as seeing what efforts are taking place, and two, be an ambassador to bring what I am doing in Sacramento here to Delaware,” Yisrael said. “Hopefully it will cultivate some new ideas … or even just inspire people: There is a way to do this.”
It became clear after the workshop that he had done just that. Following almost two hours of work in which students, faculty and community members wrestled with questions about what change is needed, what assets they have and how they could connect to bring that change about, Yisrael asked them to reflect on what they got from the experience or how it made them feel with a word. Participants offered that they felt clarity in what they wanted to do to make progress. They felt daring, excited and ready to grow food and inspire others to join them. They felt inspired, educated, challenged, political and energized.
Nathan Thayer, a doctoral student studying with Naylor, said the workshop gave him “hope in the face of what seems like a daunting challenge [thanks to] the diversity of creative ideas and approaches to understanding what we need and how to get what we want out of the food system.”
The keynote speakers who closed the symposium provided a philosophical framework that explained the power of the Community Voices Workshop.
Frances Moore Lappé helped launch the food justice movement in 1971 with the publication of her book, Diet for a Small Planet. She remains active in advocating for changes not only to the food system, but also to our political system, believing the two are deeply intertwined. She spoke at the symposium with her daughter, Anna Lappé, who has continued her mother’s work with an eye to how storytelling, critical thinking and strategy can empower people and effect change.
In describing how the same forces lead to people going hungry in a world that grows more than enough food and to the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, Frances Moore Lappé explained her belief that a scarcity mindset in the dominant culture has led to a spiral of powerlessness that keeps people from working for a better world – people believe there is not enough of either goods in the world or goodness in human beings to solve problems, and those beliefs then become self-fulfilling. She said that thanks to the understanding we have gained largely from ecology that the nature of the world is interconnected and evolving, there is the potential to shift to an eco-mind that emphasizes relationship and builds a spiral of empowerment as people work together and have success in making things better.
Students and researchers familiar with the problems of a profit-driven, global food system were given an example of a half-acre urban farm on the other side of the country showing another way. They were then asked to engage with one another to imagine something that could work here.
Yisrael closed the workshop by encouraging participants to take the work into the community by going to the East Side of Wilmington, where he had spent the day before talking to urban gardeners. He said among the most important things participants could do are to learn more, make connections and find ways to engage. A video presentation from Allison Karpyn, associate director of The Center for Research in Education and Social Policy at UD, gave an example and an opportunity for people to engage in that neighborhood. The video described the work of Conscious Connections, a nonprofit that supports a community garden on East 23rd Street and for which Karpyn serves as a director.
The Food Intersections Symposium was sponsored in part by the Department of Geography, the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment and the College of Arts and Sciences. Its primary funding came from the Office of Graduate and Professional Education, which supported not only the public symposium, but also two preceding days of academic paper development for scholars and graduate students, who started the symposium by presenting on their research.
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