Organizing for Sustainable Food

Honorees Lucas Benitez (left) and Greg Asbed, cofounders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, with Kerry Kennedy, the president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. | CLAY WILLIAMS/ COURTESY: JAMES BEARD FOUNDATION

Honorees Lucas Benitez (left) and Greg Asbed, cofounders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, with Kerry Kennedy, the president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. | CLAY WILLIAMS/ COURTESY: JAMES BEARD FOUNDATION

The queerest thing about last week’s James Beard Foundation conference in Manhattan was the ginormous photograph of a brown-black human turd, pictured underneath a similar-looking red sausage. The photo was displayed on a huge screen by public policy academic Raj Patel, who announced to the assembled corporate honchos, entrepreneurs, and bland food-nonprofit wonks, “I’ve come to be the turd in the punch bowl!”

The James Beard Foundation is the most prestigious organization for American chefs and gourmands, and every year since 2010 it’s been holding an “educational” conference about food activism — a really, really tame one, if this year’s confab was any indication. The turd Patel had come to deliver was the message that the sustainable food movement must be grounded in, er, politics — and not just any politics, but a progressive “politics of justice and equality.” Otherwise, the handsome Patel said in his lovely Brit accent, food activism can be used just as easily by the fascist right — as in Italy, where haters of Muslims have passed laws banning kebabs, and in India, where the Hindu right has beaten to death Muslims accused of eating beef.

Unfortunately, the message most conference-goers seemed to take away from the author’s exciting but rambling speech was simply not to be Islamophobes, which the chefs, food-service companies like Aramark, Dunkin’ Donuts brass, and school-garden advocates in attendance seemed to feel they could sign on to just fine. The larger message of Patel’s excellent food writing — that systemic economic inequality is the biggest barrier to food justice, not poor people’s confounding failure to educate themselves about kale –– was lost at a conference whose stated goal was “to explore the genesis and lifecycle of trends and apply that knowledge to food system issues. We’ll draw on the experience of other trend-focused industries, such as technology, fashion, and design, to understand why some trends last and others fizzle.”

James Beard Foundation confab nodded to the activists, featured the branding strategists

The conference was entitled “Now Trending: The Making of a Food Movement,” and the people in the room were almost exclusively white people with very well-paying jobs.

At one discussion at my table, I heard white attendees earnestly debating how to get “people from the inner city” aware they should eat vegetables, as though people of color had no awareness of good health practices. When we finally discussed the need to increase free school meals for hungry children, a man at my table dubiously asked if there was any “empirical data” that they improved test scores.

A few tips for the James Beard folks for organizing future activist conferences:

1) Don’t have a dress code (“Business casual attire”). Most of the people you want to get in the room will be wearing jeans and T-shirts or low-end dresses. They will be most comfortable (and most ready to fight the system) if they’re not forced to dress as if for a job interview.

2) Don’t charge your attendees $500 to attend ($600 if they’re unable to pay by the “early bird” date).

3) Have nitty-gritty sessions on how to lobby, how to organize other human beings, how to organize mass demonstrations. Don’t waste chefs’ and advocates’ time with hours devoted to “hot brands” like Gordon Ramsay and “the Internet of things” and wondering how we can make the movement for food justice just as um, “exciting” and sellable.

4) Learn the difference between a market and a movement.

In the queer movement, we know a little bit about that last bit. Not everyone who wants to sell things to us has our best interests at heart. People can really want our dollars and not have the faintest interest in our health, much less our liberation. People like, for example, Monsanto, that had a representative at the conference (Janice Person, the pesticide company’s “online engagement director,” whose Twitter profile says she has a “passion for connecting #food and #farm”). Or business institutions like Campbell’s Soup, the American Dairy Association, and Coors, that three major speakers at this conference had worked for as branding strategists, advisers, and senior executives.

The “market or movement?” question genuinely confuses some would-be food activists because food is something most of us buy: Doesn’t that make us primarily a market? The answer is no. Even a consumers’ movement is not the same as a market. And food activism is about so much more than our rights as consumers. We eat not because food is a nifty thing to buy, but because we are human beings and we are alive. Our need for a food system that stops poisoning us and our soil and drinking water with pesticides is an urgent need, no matter how much we have to spend at the supermarket. Our need for a food system that stops killing the planet is a burning one, and we have a right to demand it no matter how much cash we have.

Honoree Raj Patel, who teaches at the University of Texas’ Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. | CLAY WILLIAMS/ COURTESY: JAMES BEARD FOUNDATION

Honoree Raj Patel, who teaches at the University of Texas’ Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. | CLAY WILLIAMS/ COURTESY: JAMES BEARD FOUNDATION

In fact, there are other actions we can take besides buying “sustainable” new Campbell’s products or selling “artisanal” products in “the food space,” the hideous new term the fooderati are using for the explosion of capitalists marketing trendoid grub stuff. Actions like organizing, protesting, and fighting, as Coalition of Immokalee Workers cofounder Lucas Benitez told the crowd of 250. Until as recently as three years ago, the tomato industry in southern Florida was “ground zero for modern-day slavery” in America, according to the Justice Department. Thousands of immigrant tomato pickers were literally enslaved by local farmers (never paid, bought and sold by crew leaders, and locked into their trailers and workplaces and never allowed to leave). Many thousands of others were subjected to frequent physical abuse, constant sexual harassment and assault of women by bosses, and withholding of pay.

Benitez and fellow farmworker Greg Asbed organized the tomato pickers along lines of the “popular education” model developed by Paulo Freire in Latin America, which is slow and ultra-participatory and democratic. It involves consciousness-raising (people speaking the truth about their lives to one another and learning from one another). Most notably, this model is not trend-driven or top-down. The group eventually became strong enough to force most growers to adopt a code of conduct with zero tolerance for sexual harassment, physical abuse, or bullying, and a guaranteed minimum wage with strong enforcement procedures.

By pressuring large corporations that buy tomatoes — including Walmart, McDonald’s, and Whole Foods — and employing the threat of boycotts, they were able to inaugurate something called the Fair Food Program, which now operates in seven states and has expanded to other produce besides tomatoes. Most job protections under federal law do not apply to farmworkers, including overtime and the right to organize and press grievances without fear of reprisal. On small farms, workers do not even have the legal right to minimum wage. Now, because of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, some of the people who pick our tomatoes, strawberries, and bell peppers can’t be hit in the face or denied enough pay to eat after a 70-hour week in the fields.

To be fair to the James Beard Foundation, the group gave Benitez and Asbed Leadership Awards last week at an event held in the evening after the conference’s first day. They gave many other excellent activists awards, too. But they gave more time to speak at the conference to Mitch Baranowski, a brand marketer whose achievements include developing a program for Walmart employees called My Sustainability Plan, to “help associates live healthier, safer lives” by playing a little game for which they would get points for “eating right and exercising daily.” Unfortunately, they were still paid so little that most Walmart employees had to rely on food stamps and other forms of public assistance just to eat, but they had My Sustainability Plan to help them in their struggles toward the light.

If you’d like to help support the farmworker movement, you can come hear social justice drag queen Lady Quesa’Dilla and DJ Beto at Who Feeds the City, a party Thursday, November 10, 7-10 p.m., with open bar and neato, sustainable food to support the farmworker justice movement in New York State. At 176 St. Nicholas Ave., btwn. Wyckoff and Cypress Aves. in Bushwick. Tickets are $50, $20 for students at