Food and Justice in a Wintry Boston

March 4, 2011

The Northeast Food and Justice Summit was the final act of an incredible month.  In February, the Real Food Challenge held five inspiring student-led Real Food Summits in all corners of our contry. 

Over 550 young people converged on Boston summit.  From as far as D.C. to northern Vermont, these young leaders were making incredible change in their communities--a spectrum that spanned from our nation's most elite universities to its impoverished urban centers.

The message was simple.  As students and youth, we are powerful.  And together we are prepared to fight for a food system--on our campuses and in our communities--that fundamentally respects our deepest values. 

The Northeast Food and Justice Summit took months to prepare for--and was planned by college students, teen leaders and other young organizers from the greater Boston area. 

When February 25th finally rolled around, all the details were in place and an unstoppable team of volunteers was in place, ready for the crowds to arrive.

As more and more people streamed in from their rainy travels, Friday night kicked off the summit with a potent mix of youth speakers, spoken word poetry and 'get-to-know-you' activities.

The evening was MCed by two rockstars--Alvin and Keely--who work at The Food Project in Boston. 

Together they led the assemble group in a chant that would reverberate throughout the weekend and beyond: "Unity. Community. Movement."

Beats from South Africa and poetry from ARTiculation (a local group) graced the stage.

As did Romeo Ramirez, a farmworker and organizer from SW Florida who has led the Coalition of Immokalee Worker's Campaign for Fair Food. 

He would open our weekend, as well help close it out--with a massive march through the streets of Boston (keep going for pictures!)

On Saturday, February 26th, the 550+ attendees assembled once again, ready to dig into the meaty topics of the day--what is "real food"?  What does food justice look like?  How can we as a generation act strategically for change?

But before things got too serious, David and Phil helped the crowd rev up with a 500-person rock-paper-scissors tournament called "biggest fan."

 AMAZING.  Most likely a world record.

The message, Phil explained: we're in this movement together.  Social change isn't easy.  So we've always gotta be each other's 'biggest fan' in the best way we can.

The day progressed with workshops on everything from how to grow your own food; how to challenge the fast food (i.e. McDonalds) and food service (i.e. Sodexo, Aramark) industry to change; how to create healthy corner stores in your neighborhood; the efect of industrial food on Black food culture; how to start campaigns and cooperatives on college campuses, and more!

But, of course, some of the best learning happened in the countless one-to-one conversations throughout the day as well as moments of quiet reflection.

For lunch, attendees got to try Clover--an innovative small business in Boston--which combines creative vegetarian fare and local/organic ingredients with a stripped down, non-nonsense fast food ethic. 

At the Community Speak-Out session, attendees stepped up to share their own thoughts on the Real Food Movement.

Here one attendees declared "I believe in Real Food because I am Real!"

Another poignant metaphor came from this young woman who explained that our food system is simply upside down. Backwards.  Our first step in making change is recognizing how what we see as "normal" all around us is actually the opposite of what it should be.

The evening closed out with a showcase of talent from within our community.  MCed by two leaders from the Urban Nutrition Initiative in Philly, the crowd heard some brave vocalist, guitarists, dancers, comedians, and much more.

On Sunday, summit attendees turned their attention to what lay ahead.  How can we take this information, these connections, this community and use it to nourish the work we're doing on our campuses and in our communities?  People started talking strategy.

 And as the Summit came to a close-in what was perhaps the most emotional moment of the summit--Anim Steel, Director of National Programs at The Food Project and a Real Food Challenge Co-founder--took to the stage.

In his talk, entitled "Food Justice in Civil Rights," the group heard the powerful story of a 16 year old African American woman in Farmville, VA in 1950.  Barbara Johns, amidst brutal repression an generations-old segregation, knew something was wrong.  She took action; she stood up and led a student walk-out at her school. 

A seemingly isolated event--her actions eventually reached the Supreme Court in the form of Brown vs. The Board of Education--the legal case that officially abolished racial segregation in the USA.

Using powerful simulation, Anim urged the crowd to reflect: who are the freedom fighters who've come before us?  What responsibility to fight for justice do we hold because the privileges we now hold?

And, when we look back 50 years from now--and see the insanity of a time when farmworkers were treated so brutally; when a food apartheid divided the wealthy and the poor; when food, which is suppoed to nourish us, made us sick and die--will we be able to count ourselves amongst those who said, "enough," "no more"?

As the summit ended with these powerful messages thick in the air, many attendees made their way to the CIW's "Do the Right Thing" March.  There, farmworker leaders and Slow Food USA's president Josh Viertel echoed a message in his powerful speech, "We are all Farmworkers."

The March, attended by nearly 1,000 students, clergy and activist had a simple message.  They were calling on the grocery chain Stop & Shop, and it's parent company Ahold, to pay just a penny more per pond of tomatoes--ensuring that farmworkers are paid a just wage and can work free of abuse and exploitation.

The CIW has already won campaigns targeted at giant tomato purchasers like Taco Bell, Burger King, Sodexo, Whole Foods and others.  The reality for Florida farmworkers is already changing as a result of this worker-led campaign.  But Stop & Shop and the rest of the super market industry refuses to come to the table and negotiate.

The March was colorful and boistrous.  Chants cried out by hundreds of voices filled Boston's streets. A full report (and more pictures) from the Student-Farmworker Alliance can be found here:  The response from Stop & Shop?  More of the same: silence and denials.  As the Sunday March wrapped up, everyone called out, slow and determined: "We'll be back. We'll be back.  We'll be back."

I am the Food Justice Movement

All in all, it was a poweful weekend.  Countless connections made; great food; interesting workshops; and new projects hatch and campaigns kicking off. 

It was all best summed up by these shirts from the Urban Nutrition Initiative in Philly: "I am the Food Justice Movement."

The fight doesn't stop here--expect to see many new developments across the northeast as 550+ newly-inspired, young food justice leaders hit the streets ready to challenge and change their universities and their communities.

We are the Food Justice Movement.