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Urban Farming and Rural Workers’ Rights: Food Sovereignty in Action in the US

From WDM.Org.UK, World Development Movement, Dan Iles, 22 Aug 2011.

Dan Iles, WDM’s south-west mobiliser, interviews Christina Schiavoni of the US Food Sovereignty Alliance.

On day four of the European forum on food sovereignty, I met Christina from the US. I was very interested to find out about what sort of actions are happening over in the US as well the aftermath of the Wall Street Reform Act passed recently to limit financial speculation on food. In this interview she talks about the urban and rural movements for food sovereignty across the US, including dairy producers, supermarket workers and anti-food speculation protests.

What does food sovereignty mean to you?

To me it means the right of people to define their own agricultural policies, rather than those policies being defined by the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank and the IMF, or multinational corporations.

Can you give me some examples of local initiatives that involved with enacting food sovereignty in the US?

These are local manifestations of food sovereignty, because I really think that food sovereignty has to be about local transformation as well as broader policy change. But at the local level we actually have a lot of innovative work being done in urban areas around the US. We have a huge problem in most of our cities, in the lack of healthy food. We also have rising rates of poverty right now that is only making it harder. And of course also major healthcare issues: situations in which people are actually dying from what are preventable diet related illnesses; diabetes, heart disease, etc. And at the same time some communities are completely out of the interest of politicians, mainly communities of colour, immigrant communities and low income communities.

So many of them have taken it upon themselves to reclaim land in their areas, to claim abandoned lots, clean them out and transform them into amazing community spaces which are actually quite productive in terms of food, but they are also a safe space for communities, there is space for the youth as well as intergenerational exchange. And also there are urban farms and community markets where, increasingly, people are coming together to sell and buy their stuff from their neighbours, generally at solidarity prices. We also have an exchange of knowledge going on; so for instance in New York City, we have the New York farm school, where urban farmers can come teach each other and learn from one another; I see this as a really powerful initiative.

And then there are many others in rural areas as well. We have a movement for domestic fair trade. Especially right now in the midst of the dairy crisis we have in the US, where dairy farmers are getting paid below the cost of production and going out of business in droves.  So people are trying to form cooperatives, to do value added products and to struggle to get fair prices for their products.

One other is in a rural community in Maine, where they managed to pass the first ever local food sovereignty ordinance. There is a group called Food for Maine’s Future which is doing excellent work. One phenomenon we have in the US is a criminalisation of small farmers, for instance we have a lot of laws restricting or prohibiting the sale of raw milk, and farmers have actually been arrested and their supplies destroyed just for trying to sell milk in their communities. There are also regulations that are called ‘food safety regulations’ but often they are nothing to do with making our food system safer, they are regulations that really fit the needs of large scale agro-industrial models and just make it very hard for small scale farmers to do direct marketing of their products. So there are these restrictions in the state of Maine, where farmers simply wanted to be able to sell their own products from their own farms and in many instances there were laws restricting this. So this local food sovereignty ordinance that was passed was to give farmers the right to sell their own products from their own farms. So that’s a really big deal.

One other example is the issue of workers’ rights. There is a powerful alliance being formed that is actually part of the food sovereignty alliance but is called the food chain workers’ alliance. It’s an effort of workers from across the food system including farmers, factory workers, retail workers and restaurant workers, to try to increased their collective power in unity.  A specific one of these is called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. In Florida we have these massive tomato plantations and the labour to pick those tomatoes is almost entirely from immigrant workers, where the conditions are horrendous and the pay is horrible; there have even been documented cases of modern day slavery on the fields of Florida. So this group of workers have organised themselves to take on major corporations.

We have very few laws protecting farm workers in the US, most farm workers are exempt from regular labour laws. So they knew with the government they weren’t going to get very far. So they went straight to the corporations that were benefiting from their labour, the first being Taco Bell. Then they went for McDonalds, Burger King, Wholefoods and from there they intend to take on the rest of the supermarket industry. They’re doing campaigns in a really creative, fun and engaging ways that are building all sorts of alliances between the farm workers, other workers in the food chain and religious groups.

In what ways do you see food being treated as a commodity instead of something with a cultural and social value?

The main group in the US that is really challenging the idea of food as a commodity is La Via Campesina North America, and they together with others are part of the US food sovereignty alliance which is definitely challenging the commodification of food, denouncing the rampant speculation on commodities and promoting fairness throughout the food system. Arguing that food needs to treated like the basic human resource that it is and as a human right, not a commodity. That is one of the core messages of the US food sovereignty alliance.

In terms of the issue of commodity speculation, it is something that, unfortunately, is not as much on everyone’s radar at a grassroots level as it should be. The laws to regulate commodities have just been loosened or ignored over the passed few administrations since the Regan era. And so groups such as the Mary Knoll Centre for Global Concerns are calling for existing regulations to be enforced as well as new regulations to be in place. Each time a promising piece of legislation is going through congress there are sign on letters, petitions, collections of testimonies and recently there was a day of action against commodity speculation, with actions in New York City, on Wall Street, and in front of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and a few other locations across the country calling for an end to the use of food as a commodity.

How do you see the future after Nyeleni 2011?

Well I definitely see things moving forward in a positive way because this event wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for Nyeleni 2007. And I see that same sort of momentum coming out of this event. In Europe there is now more coordination moving forward, more feeling of commonality and togetherness. On a practical level as well, we now know each other’s campaigns, know what’s happening and are now better placed to support each other in the future. There is now a sense of being a broader movement. It has also been a positive inspiration for other movements around the world. I think Nyeleni 2011 provides inspiration but it also provides concrete examples; how this forum was run from the meals to the methodology, to actions and the site visits, is all concrete guidance that we can take home to the US.

Christina Schiavoni works for the New York-based WhyHunger and also represents the umbrella organisation, US Food Sovereignty Alliance.

Source: WDM.Org.UK, World Development Movement, “Urban farming and rural workers’ rights: food sovereignty in action in the US” by Dan Iles, 22 Aug 2011.

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