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April 2006
Just Food for All
By Sangamithra Iyer

 

stuff
Wycoff Farm House. Photo courtesy of Just Food

Just Food was established in 1994 to develop a just and sustainable food system in New York City. At the time, activists were meeting as part of the Big Apple Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, trying to address three major trends in food production. First, the number of small farmers in the New York region was drastically declining; they were losing markets and not getting fair prices for their goods. Second, there were looming concerns about environmental issues affiliated with large-scale industrial agriculture. And third, hunger continued to be on the rise. Just Food sought to promote a holistic approach to food, environmental and hunger issues. Today they are doing this by promoting community supported agriculture and urban farms in New York City.

Over a cup of tea in a small Brooklyn café, I met with Ruth Katz, the Executive Director of Just Food to discuss her take on just and sustainable food. Katz spent nearly three years living and working in Central Africa where her interest in the connections between agricultural issues, hunger and nutrition first piqued.

We started out talking about the film Darwin’s Nightmare and its poignant portrayal of the fishing industry on Lake Victoria, representing some of the horrors of a globalized food system. It reminded Ruth of her stay in Kenya many years ago during a period of extreme food shortage. While people were struggling to find food to eat, tea plantations were lush and thriving creating cash crops for export—a result of the structural adjustment policies of the World Bank. Those resources could have been spent growing sukuma wiki, the local collard greens. She comments that many of the factors disempowering farmers and creating hunger in the global South are affecting farmers and perpetuating hunger here as well.

Ruth notes that most people—even progressive activists—“don’t often think of food as a social justice issue.” While awareness of sweatshop conditions and fair trade is growing, most people aren’t thinking about fair trade on domestic issues, particularly with respect to their food and farmers in the U.S.

When I asked her what many small farmers think Americans should know about their food, Ruth replies, “high prices don’t mean that farmers are getting a fair share.”

Just Food is helping regional farmers get markets and a fair price for their produce, as well as ensuring NYC communities have access to affordable, healthy food. What worries Ruth is the “gentrification” of the organic and natural market sector. In many instances, healthy foods are marketed to niche communities and sold at a premium price. And while a large number of New Yorkers have little access to affordable fresh produce, Just Food seeks to prove that doesn’t have to be the case. With their Grow More Food campaign of their City Farms program, urban farmers are actually encouraged to grow food. Today, hundreds of gardens throughout the city provide open space and food for neighborhood families. Some of these urban farms are also getting their own urban markets.

Community supported agriculture in New York is another example of a successful win-win situation for local farmers and urban consumers. When Just Food first started, there was only one functional CSA in the city. Now there are over 40, with two or three providing produce year-round. The growth of CSAs in New York is very exciting for Ruth. Now about 10,000 city folks are supplied food from CSAs. “That might not seem like a lot compared with the eight million residents, but when you think about the neighborhoods many of them serve—many are predominately low income and communities of color that don’t have much access to affordable fresh produce—it is a big deal.” Just Food helps make CSAs more accessible by promoting use of different payment plans and accepting food stamps.

Educating adults and children are part of Just Food’s mission. Jumping jacks, strawberries and pennies are how Katz explains the importance of buying local produce to kids. In one workshop, children evaluate strawberries from different parts of the world in terms of food miles and the energy required to get berries to their tummies. Kids do more jumping jacks to demonstrate energy used to transport fruit from far away and quickly discover the value of local produce. In the same activity, kids get to play farmer and experience how different market models affect farmers’ profits. They also realize that the locally supported farmer takes home the most pennies at the end of the day.

For educating adults, Katz thinks everyone should read Monsanto vs. U.S. Farmers published by the Center for Food Safety, highlighting one of the injustices of genetic engineering. “Monsanto has around 100 cases against farmers for patent issues. There is something wrong with the patent law or the way it is being interpreted.”

Furthermore, Ruth notes that “more than we’ve ever done before we need to really look at the research infrastructure because it is unjustly impacting our access to healthy food.” Land-grant universities should use public funds for agriculture that is beneficial to the public; but this is often not the case, as they too often support big business profit over our public good. “It’s almost like we are nibbling at the edges by focusing on markets. We really need to get to the core and that would be looking more at where this all starts in the first place. Why does that lead to us not having access to organic, local food?”

Ruth dreams of a day when our government and research institutions address the environmental and justice issues related to our food infrastructure, and she envisions a New York City in the foreseeable future where farmers markets and CSAs are the norm. And better yet, a CSA for every city building.

To learn more about Just Food and NYC’s city farms, greenmarkets and CSAs visit www.justfood.org.