In our community and likely in yours, too, food banks are seeing record numbers of people in need of help getting fed. According to a Brookings report published in late November 2020, food insecurity among all households with children has been hovering around 28% since the summer. This is roughly double the rate of food insecurity in 2018, meaning that in the last two years or so, twice as many American families don’t have reliable access to nourishment in sufficient quantities.
We realize that here on our website, where one generally peruses pottery, recipes and the goings-on of our company, a Journal post about hunger might seem out of place. We contend, however, that the work being done by the food sovereignty movement and for food justice is very much of a piece with the narratives we share with you about the generations of artisans crafting objects in the old ways and the reverence they have—and pass on to us—for their materials, their tools and for the ways of working that were passed on to them, specific to their culture and place, maybe even their own families.
The food sovereignty movement is people working in their own communities to build their own systems that will last, working side by side for common goals, sure, but also for a way of life that will sustain them and future generations. The joy that follows isn’t merely the relief of solving problems caused by lack or reaching an end to fear. It’s the joy of creating, sharing, amplifying and sustaining abundance.
Let’s begin with the definition of food sovereignty crafted at the first global forum on the subject in Mali in 2007. Nyéléni, the network established to work for food sovereignty, writes:
Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.
The U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance describes the movement as growing from the bottom up, as all who grow, harvest and process food reclaim their power through relationships with one another, with the land and water, and with those who consume what they cultivate and harvest. It’s farmers helping one another at harvest time or when equipment breaks down. It’s getting to know the people who grow your food over the weeks you visit local farmers’ markets. But it’s also fighting systemic prejudice and white supremacy. Discriminatory lending practices prevent farmers of color from being able to purchase land. Globally, land grabs uproot the lives and livelihoods of peasants (the term used by the La Via Campesina movement uses) and indigenous and rural communities. When a handful of large, powerful corporations dictate payment scales, determine what will be grown (fewer crops, no due consideration for indigenous foodways) and choose to contract with fewer, larger growers that have the capital to buy huge plots of land and machinery, small independent farmers lose their way of life, their land, their financial security, their right to farm. And all of us lose the stories, culture, history and human connection when the foods we eat are but global commodities.
It’s clear that the profit-driven apparatus isn’t going to pull an about-face. Activists in the food sovereignty movement aren’t waiting for a miracle; they are working together to bring change within their communities.
We would like to share some resources so that you can know about the people who have dedicated their work to food sovereignty:
La Via Campesina: The international peasant movement that in 1996 framed food sovereignty as rooted in the ongoing global struggles of control of food, land, water and livelihoods.
National Black Farmers Association: a non-profit organization focused on civil rights, land retention, access to public and private loans, education and agricultural training, and rural economic development for black and other small farmers.
National Family Farm Coalition: A national coalition representing grassroots farm, ranch, and fishing organizations “fighting for farmer rights, fair prices, clean air and water, strong local economies, the right to sell and buy locally-grown and -processed food, the right to be free from corporate domination, the right to live in vibrant and healthy rural communities and much more.
From Civil Eats: a daily news source for critical thought about the American food system
‘Farming While Black’ is a Guidebook to Dismantle Systemic Racism
Whetstone Magazine: A print magazine and media company dedicated to food origins and culture
In learning about food sovereignty, you’ll run into the related concept of food justice. When food justice is present in a community, its people have access to fresh, healthful, affordable food that is culturally appropriate to them because this is a basic human right. It goes far beyond petitioning grocery stores to open new locations in what used to be called “food deserts.” The food justice movement identifies and works to dismantle long-standing barriers caused by systemic inequities brought about by harmful stereotypes about the eating and cooking habits of people who live in under-resourced communities, people of color, the elderly, children and people who live in rural areas.
There’s a catch-22 at work here: companies don’t sell fresh food in places where fresh food isn’t a proven seller. But when there is no fresh food to buy, there are no purchasing patterns to study. It’s why in a monied neighborhood, you’ll see several grocery stores on a short stretch of road and maybe a boutique-y cheese shop or two, but out in the country, people are shopping for food at dollar stores and in urban neighborhoods where people don’t have a lot of financial resources, it’s the convenience store. The movement also fights for the rights of people who work in the food industry.
Here are some resources about food justice:
Civil Eats: Food Justice section
Union of Concerned Scientists: Food Justice: In the United States, we aspire to “liberty and justice for all,” but in our food system, as elsewhere, reality too often falls far short of that aspiration.
Applied Research Center: The Color of Food: This pdf contends that racism and exploitation exist in our food system and suggests ways to transform our food system into a vehicle of justice.
Institute for Food and Development Policy: Youth and Food Justice: Lessons from the Civil Rights Movement (pdf)
The Breakthrough Institute: The Soul of Food Justice
Food First: U.S. Food Justice