Food Justice, Food Sovereignty

Many who live in Vermont have unique perspectives on food. These voices are the catalyst that can bring a new narrative of health, empowerment and solidarity to the food justice movement.

By interviewing members of this state’s food system, I have learned a great deal about food justice and public health in Vermont. The stories of food shelf staff, migrant workers, and Abenaki elders reveal the need for a new conversation: one that is more radical and inclusive.

Thanks to the Farm to Plate Network (F2P), Vermont is working to connect all people with their sources of nourishment in the way that upholds the values of public health through wholesome nutrition, affordability, and equity. I invited some of those whom I interviewed to share their stories at the F2P Network’s convening in October 2013. Storytelling proved to be an effective way of engaging with the audience on topics of food justice, culinary traditions, and public health.

At an F2P Food Access Working Group meeting, John Sayles, CEO of the Vermont Foodbank, stated that, “we ought to be working to put ourselves out of a job”. This subtle acknowledgment of the way in which the emergency food system has become institutionalized and thus generated dependency is a step in the direction of identifying pinch points in the system and leveraging them for change. A fellow food activist re-iterated that comment to me later in the day and followed it with his belief that, “we cannot accept the status quo anymore, which is stuck in managing and maintaining poverty”.

To this end, the Foodbank has partnered with Capstone Community Action to create the Community Kitchen Academy (CKA), a culinary training program aimed at providing graduates with sustainable employment in the food system. I conducted an interview with a woman who used to visit the Barre Food Shelf to find supplemental nourishment. Now, she manages it.

As a single mom supporting three children, she realized that change was necessary in order to move from poverty to stability and health. By attending the CKA program, she gained the skills necessary to participate in the local food system and support her family. Because she was once a recipient of the services she now provides, she gave the feedback necessary to change the system. The Barre Food Shelf now distributes whole fruits and vegetables and prepared meals made with local ingredients.

Some of those who labor to cultivate these Vermont ingredients are migrant farm workers. These folks are crucial to the success of this state’s agricultural economy. Yet, their voices may go unheard because of their non-resident status. They endure treacherous travels from Mexico to find work on dairy farms. Often, they leave their homes because their land has been taken and there is not any work available for them any longer. Ironically, displaced farmers who are forced to migrate to support their families are working to maintain many of Vermont’s rural farms, which are also barely able to survive.

“It is essential to educate others about the traditional seeds and honor the native people who have grown and saved them”, one farmer explains to me. This is food sovereignty, which respects the right for all people to define their own food systems from the ground up. Originally elucidated by La Via Campesina in 1996, food sovereignty is rooted in the ongoing global struggles over control of food, land, water, and livelihoods. This international peasant movement focuses instead on people re-gaining and maintaining access to their land, enjoying the food they produce, honoring culinary traditions, and valuing all members of the food system.

Food sovereignty is at the core of the radical approach necessary to re-define food access as food equity solidarity, self-reliance, and inter-dependence. The Farm to Plate Network continues to bolster momentum within Vermont’s food system by collaborating on initiatives that leverage food-related successes as stepping stones towards the goal of all Vermonters consuming 10% of the food produced in-state by 2020.

Vermont needs a new narrative: one that is radical – rooted in prevention and empowerment – and more inclusive – acting on the needs of all people who live here. By updating the food access narrative, Vermont can make significant strides in addressing the root causes of food insecurity and engender system-wide behavior change to meet its goals.

With gratitude:

Barre Food Shelf Coordinator Kristin Hall

Vermont Food Bank CEO John Sayles and staff member Michelle Wallace

Farm to Plate Network Directors Erica Campbell and Ellen Kahler

Migrant Justice Network Coordinator Abel Luna and Farm Worker Enrique Balcazar

Interaction Institute for Social Change staff Cynthia Parker and Curtis Ogden

Food First: statistics from Director Eric Holt-Gimenez (2013)

La Via Campesina: food sovereignty statistics (from 1196 to the present)

Hunger FreeVermont: food access and poverty in Vermont statistics and report (2012)

Farm toPlate Network Report: statistics about local food distribution, access, consumption (2014)

Gottlieb et al. Food Justice. MIT Press, 2013.

Wittman et al, editors. Food Sovereignty. Fernwood Publishing, 2010.