Building Bridges Across Urban and Rural Divides
On May 12, five thousand people from New York City and beyond gathered at Brooklyn Technical High School for the 2012 Brooklyn Food Conference. The conference included a Youth Summit with over 300 youth and more than 150 workshops across a broad spectrum of food systems issues. Workshops topics ranged from discussions about culture, spirituality, labor, health, hunger, emergency food, entrepreneurship and the Farm Bill to hands-on sessions on making compost and fermenting cabbage. Throughout the day, "mega- workshops" took place in the school auditorium on food policy issues, hydraulic fracturing (or "fracking"), and on building partnerships across urban and rural divides.The workshop on strengthening urban and rural partnerships was organized by the Food Systems Network NYC and included a powerful line-up of speakers. The panel was moderated by Sarah Brannen, a member of the Food Systems Network NYC who is currently leading a project to research and develop food hubs in the Hudson Valley. Tanya Fields, a South Bronx activist and entrepreneur who leads the BLK ProjeK spoke about her personal experiences as a mother working to transform her neighborhood to create healthy food access and economic opportunity, especially for underserved women of color. Richard Ball, owner of Schoharie Valley Farms, described his journey from farm worker to farmer. He now employs fifty workers on his farm, including all three of his three children who are active in the farm business. Thomas Forster traced his path as an organic farmer in Washington state who helped to develop national organic certification program to his current work as a food policy expert and faculty member in the Food Studies Program at the New School. Julie Suarez, Director of Public Policy for the New York Farm Bureau, explained her role in representing more than 28,000 member farms in New York State. For example, she explained how farmers were impacted by Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee this past year, and the lack of effective crop insurance programs to assist the diversified family farms in New York who suffered devastating losses during the storms.
Richard Ball's farm is one of the farms that suffered staggering losses this past year in the storms. His farm is also one of the farms working in partnership with Tanya Field's community in the South Bronx to supply fresh vegetables each week through the Corbin Hill Road Farm Share. Richard told the story of how the strong relationships formed between the farming community in Schoharie County and their urban partners in the South Bronx supported his farm and the community in the aftermath of the hurricane.
In the days leading up to the storm, Richard and his neighbors were worried that the NYC communities they work with would be slammed by the hurricane. But it didn't work out that way. Instead, members of the South Bronx community traveled up to Schoharie County soon after the storms in a bus loaded up with toothbrushes, cleaning supplies, and clothing to assist the residents of Schoharie County who lost not only crops, but also their homes and businesses.
Moderator Sarah Brannen asked panelists to imagine that she was a genie who could grant each of them one wish to improve the food system, and challenged them to state that wish in just one sentence. Tanya Fields wished for subsidies as bountiful as those supporting corporate farms to support small-scale farmers to grow healthy food for those who need it most. Julie Suarez wished for more recognition for the work farmers do to produce food for all of us. She wants to see farmers receive fair prices for their hard work. Richard wished for a generation of parents and kids who "know what grandma knew about where food comes from and how to cook it". And, Thomas wished for school lunches full of whole, unprocessed, healthy foods for the millions of children who eat school lunches each day.
The panelists talked about the need for more access to fresh food in underserved communities, consumers' lack of understanding of how difficult it is to create a viable farm business, and the importance of strengthening connections between farms and local markets. In particular, the panelists stated the importance of reducing barriers so farmers can sell food to schools and other institutions and through the Hunt's Point wholesale produce market. The panelists did not, however, discuss two of the most controversial issues: working conditions for farmworkers and other workers in the food system, and "fracking". For these two issues in particular, New York City residents and farmers struggling to remain economically viable do not always see eye to eye.
The conference did feature no less than fourteen workshops on labor and social justice issues. It was refreshing to see such a wide range of workshops with an impressive array of speakers from organizations including the Restaurant Opportunities Center, the Community Farmworker Alliance, Just Food, Rural and Migrant Ministry, the Agricultural Justice Project, CATA, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, VT Migrant Justice, the Food Chain Workers Alliance, Brandworkers International, the Domestic Fair Trade Association, Equal Exchange, and more. Check out the Brooklyn Food Coalition blog for more about information about labor in the food system.
Abby Youngblood is the Food and Environment Program Officer at North Star Fund and the Coordinator of the Community Food Funders project.