Food Access the Main Course at Farm to Plate

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Posted: November 3, 2014

Food Access the Main Course at Third Farm to Plate Gathering

The following is a guest post from Emerson Hunger Fellow Nora Leccese. She has been working to identify opportunities for the charitable food system to collaborate with the local food system to make fresh food more accessible to low income Vermonters.  She is focusing specifically on how the Vermont Foodbank could use the Venture Center to minimally process (chop, freeze and bag) fresh produce to reduce waste and provide more nutritious food to clients year round.

Last week, nearly the whole staff at CAE attended the Third Annual Farm to Plate Gathering which was an opportunity for educators, farmers, organizers and small business owners to share developments from the year, make connections, and set goals for how we want to cultivate agriculture based projects and relationships in the coming year. We heard an upbeat address from Governor Shumlin filled with playful jabs at Vermonters aptitude for making (and consuming) craft beer, in which he commended the Network members’ efforts to make Vermont a leader in food system innovation. There were “Blue Ribbon” stories about the roll out of the Universal Recycling Law, and Farm to Hospital Initiatives, and presentations on how data gathered by Farm to Plate can aid food organizations in our outreach and marketing. It was a time to recognize that Vermont has built a sophisticated and resilient local food movement over the past ten years, and our capacity to start, finance and sustain complex food systems has expanded more each season.

I was surprised to see a pre-conference email instructing us to follow a link called “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person,” which is an article I’ve seen plastered all over the pages of social media, but one I didn’t expect to show up in a professional conference setting. It set the tone for a sharp focus on food access and inequity in the food system, which was lead by skilled facilitators Cynthia Silva Parker and Curtis Ogden of the Interaction Institute for Social Change.

Throughout the Farm to Plate Gathering, we were encouraged to look at the differences between equality (sameness) and equity (fairness), and ask ourselves which we’d rather strive for. Are we working for a world where everyone has equal access to a farmers market? I am convinced that the end goal should not be parity; simply holding a farmers market does not address the structural and cultural barriers like transportation, work schedule and perceptions of being unwelcomed that exclude low income folks, people of color and people with disabilities. To strive for equity, we need to look at where communities already get their food and work with community leaders to ensure that culturally appropriate, healthy, affordable food is available there.

Cynthia and Curtis reminded us that working for food justice is not about addressing suffering at the margin, it’s about undoing suffering for everyone, and in order to do this work we (as the predominantly white and majority middle class conference attendees) need to move past our collective guilt and towards action.

    One opportunity for action was presented by Abel Luna, a lead organizer with Migrant Justice. He spoke on the indignities and dangerous working conditions faced by dairy workers in Vermont;  40% make less than VT minimum wage, 27% have never had a raise, and many endure wage theft and unheated living quarters throughout the winter. Abel introduced us to Migrant Justice’s response to this maltreatment, the Milk With Dignity Campaign, which calls on consumers to pressure milk producers to adopt responsible, transparent, and just employment practices. Abel and the other leaders at the gathering challenged us to think expansively about how food access can be a companion to farm viability and not an afterthought.

The Farm to Plate Gathering was an excellent opportunity for us to reflect on who is included in the plans for future food systems, and how food systems are intimately connected to labor justice, racial justice, fair housing, and the future of Vermont’s economy.


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