I had the opportunity to visit & volunteer at ‘Our School at Blair Grocery’ – one of the most innovative and inspiring home-schooling/after-school program I have ever heard about. Young farmers started the project interested in teaching sustainable agricultural skills to youth. Surrounded by abandoned homes and properties, a dilapidated grocery store in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans has been developed into a thriving and colorful urban farm! Here, motivational farmers and interns from around the country have come to teach full and part time students (mainly middle and high school students from NOLA) about sustainable agriculture, composting, business, ethics and economics! Thanks to Will Allen, the farm has an aquaponics component, amazing hot houses and vertical gardens, and what looked to me to be the world’s largest compost pile – the students have worked out an arrangement with the local Whole Foods to pick up food waste every day!
OSBG pays $2 per year in rent. No joke. Like most land owners in NOLA whose property was destroyed by Katrina, it proved to be too financially difficult to independently rebuild homes and businesses… so why not practically give it away to a community organization that has the time and energy to invest into rebuilding the property for you?? OSBG’s rent will remain at $2 as long as they continue to work towards rebuilding the grocery store. But unlike the few sad corner stores in the Lower 9th, this grocery provide fresh produce to it’s community grown right out of its back yard!
The project is financed by it’s own produce sales – mainly sprouts and micro greens which they sell for top dollar to the high-end restaurants in NOLA. This income (up to $3000 a week!!!) not only helps pay instructors and subsidizes the full time ‘home schooled’ students tuition ($50/week), but it is also used to pay youth who come work and learn on the farm in the afternoons and weekends! OSBG’s students take great pride in their projects and their sprout business. Spending an afternoon with the group, and also attending their youth-led workshop at the conference, was a true inspiration!
I got back on the bus headed back to the French Quarter, sitting next to another volunteer who asked me “Have you ever heard of such a school? Does this exist anywhere else in the world?” We were both dumbstruck … perhaps Will Allen’s project, Growing Power, comes the closest… but we couldn’t think of anything exactly like Our School at Blair Grocery. Maybe one day soon, more alternative learning centers like OSBG will pop up in other underserved communities around the globe!
Erica Bacon: Food Movements Unite!
The “Food Movements Unite” panel kicked off my workshop experience last week at the Community Food Security Coalition’s annual conference. With a diverse panel of powerful and inspirational speakers from across the globe, it provided a very clear lens for the way that I now see everything that I learned throughout the conference. The discussion began with an exploration of the differences between a project and a movement. While it was asserted that projects are important in that they can help to educate and activate-promote discussion and constructive conversation-we realize that the projects that we are involved in must be part of a larger diverse and united movement for social change.
We heard from Rosalinda Guillen, who was born in Mexico and grew up as a farm worker in Skagit County. She was inspired by Brazil’s landless workers movement, which helped her realize what movement building really is. She told us that she fears movement building has gone awry because she knows of the suffering of workers who do not have enough food, whose traditions are being destroyed by not being able to eat what is culturally appropriate. Grassroots movements, she told us, must come from the bottom up but are being “swallowed up by structures and put into a square containment of organized movements”; we must allow grassroots movements to grow on their own accord, to set them free of their enclosures. Movement, she declared, requires great sacrifice and “we have to stop eating food that is hurting another person or the Earth before it is too late”!
Two women from the Detroit Black Community Food Security Coalition continued the discussion of movement building and linked its limitations to a lack of realization about how we participate in continued oppression. They see some projects as convergences without relationships, the biggest problem being that those who are hungry and oppressed are not present within many of our projects. Self determination must be brought about from the perspective of the community- we must work for change with one another not for others, doing for is not movement building! They described the failure to address race within movements as “the conspiracy of politeness”, we must explore issues of institutionalized racism in a collective dialog and move from that dialog to action!
Joanne from the Food Chain Workers alliance went on to describe how our food system, built on slave labor and subsidized by the exploitation of minorities, perpetuates structural racism. Food workers need to be organized and we need to support and work with them. Djibo, from the Peasant Workers Alliance in West Africa (ROPPA) left us with hopeful visions of a unified movement rooted in family, community and commitment.
The last question posed to the panel was “what will it take for food movement to unite?” There is obviously not one easy answer to this question, but among the many that stood out and really resonated with me are that we need many diverse food movements and there is no room for complacency within these movements, we must take advantage of moments of political opportunity as they arise (i.e. obesity riots), and that to ensure food sovereignty, we cannot look to the people and institutions who take it away, we must be a strong movement rooted in community and inclusiveness. A personal goal of mine in the coming months is to really examine the awesome projects that folks in the Seattle area are involved with as part of the food movement and begin to open up a dialogue that addresses how these projects fit into the larger movement for food sovereignty, how we can best converge all of our diverse movements through building relationships and working together to address the systemic problems that cause food insecurity. To achieve the real social change that many of us want to see we must help to cultivate the unified local and global movement for food sovereignty, now!
There were some great workshops in New Orleans, but I truly learned the most from what was absent there. Walking in the hallways between sessions I had a lot of interesting conversations with people I met, and it was these connections that provoked the most thought and had the most value for me.
One thing that has been on my mind for much of the last week exemplifies the divide that we must address before we can move forward in unison toward justice. It is a simple framing of the work that we do in our movements: Are we working toward a more just food system, or are we working toward a more just world? (In which food systems play an important part). In New Orleans one man said to me in the hall that “the discussion we really need to be having is completely absent here: why aren’t people talking about how we can work with the environmental movement?! They should all be here. That is the conference we really need to be having.”
We often suffer from tunnel vision in our work, but the mindset that “we just need to accomplish this one piece of the puzzle before we can tackle the rest” is what leads us to creating movements that are just for some, but ignore the broader connections between movements across the world and therefore fail at creating justice for all. If we do not consciously connect our own work for justice to the work that everyone else across the globe is doing, then are we really creating the world that we want to see? Before New Orleans I was at an environmental justice training that was well attended by members of the direct action environmental group Earth First! In New Orleans an important contributor to the discussion and workshops were people from the food justice organization Food First. I think it is an epic mistake to not bridge this divide in our framing (Earth First! or Food First?) and in our common dialogue about the movements we are part of.
Both of these are inspiring groups, but what about justice first?
The conversations that were framed at the workshops in New Orleans simply weren’t the conversations that are most important for us to be having. If we are truly to be a cohesive and successful movement we need to talk at a different sort of level about what we are actually doing and how we can better strategize and work together. While there is a lot to be said about today’s technologies, nothing can replace the level of sharing and collaboration that takes places in face to face interactions and I believe these are what it takes to truly build a movement. This is why these conferences are so important. In New Orleans there was amazing potential for discussion and connection. This is what inspired me. And in the hallways there I could see the start of the conferences that our movements really need to be having.