Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sowing Seeds of Change

(this was first published at NEED on July 16)

In our fast-paced culture of product-based outcomes, one Minnesota group is cultivating relationships that break down the barriers to food justice for people of color, women and the poor, something you can’t hold in your hand.

The Minnesota Food and Justice Alliance (MFJA) is a loose affiliation of groups whose primary raison d’etre may be to cultivate community, mostly urban, gardens, but who also recognize the gardeners involved are mostly white and middle class. The groups “each have a special interest in training people of color to garden” and get access to fresh, healthy food, said Melvin Giles, a self-described community peacemaker and coordinator for MFJA. Tom Guettler, the group’s volunteer and workshop coodinator, said, “White folks show up first because we are already tapped into the system. But, there’s something more than just saying we want to be diverse.”

For the middle class, a grocery store that stocks locally-grown produce, eggs and meat, can be easily reached by car and might be taken for granted. But in economically-depressed neighborhoods, where many people of color live, the choices of fresh food are slim, driving high rates of fast-food consumption, leading to higher instances of diabetes, heart disease and obesity. The food justice movement is attempting to address these food access issues. Sarah Claassen, Minnesota-based Land Stewardship Project organizer and MFJA member, said, “There are huge racial disparities in our food and agricultural system today. It’s working real well for some people,” referring to factory farms, “and not well at all for [small] farmers, for eaters, for people who want to grow our food here and for people who want to be in control of their food system.” But she believes that solutions have to be community-based. “Where there are the biggist barriers, there is the biggest innovation. A lot of the solutions being proposed aren’t being decided by those people,” such as how to grow a lot of food in the smallest space with very little waste. “I think the solution is different for every community. We need to maintain relationships with rural communities. I don’t see a food system where everything is grown in the city, but we do need to empower people to make those decisions.”

“Land is the biggest barrier” to urban community gardening, so forming relationships between stakeholders is essential, said Giles. For example, CSA (community-supported agriculture) is a program where local farmers provide what they raise to city dwellers who might otherwise buy supermarket goods that have been shipped from thousands of miles away. Giles said one neighborhood’s answer was to make a deal with a grower to allow them to pay for their CSA in installments.

“Education to action is something we’re committed to, not just talking to talk,” said Claassen. In this spirit, MFJA has agreed to sign on to Homegrown Minneapolis, an initiative to build a stronger local food system, with the stipulation that racial equity and accountability be stated goals. Giles, Guettler and Claassen also offer a workshop for community garden groups in which they talk about white privilege, encouraging the groups to create a safe place for conversations about the barriers to food justice in their communities. “Smart, white folks tend to take a world view of things. They externalize as opposed to looking in the garden and in themselves. Our goal is to get people to look inside and say, ‘What’s going on here? Who’s here? Who’s not here? What can I do about it?’”

Tom Guettler MFJA Coordinator 651-307-5691 (no website, but information will be shared on other group’s websites)

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