This post also appears on Civil Eats. A recent discussion of how to unite food activists in New York City with the larger Trump resistance offers lessons and tools to create positive change everywhere.
By Mark Bittman and Nicholas Freudenberg
In the four months since Trump took office, many of our fears have come true. Spiking deportation activities have scared farmworkers out of the fields and broken up families across the country. The threats to repeal the Affordable Care Act are closer to reality, putting farmers, rural communities, and tens of millions of others at risk of losing their health care. An executive order that claims to promote rural prosperity instead focuses on repealing ag regulations that protect farmworkers, farm communities, and food safety. And, across the board, Trump’s proposed budget would decimate funding to help make healthy, affordable food more available to everyone, especially those already at highest risk of food insecurity and diet-related diseases.
The only silver lining has been the loud, sustained resistance to these devastating policies. Even as this administration works to turn back the progress the food justice movement has made in the past 20 years, many are standing strong and pushing back.
In early May, the City University of New York’s (CUNY) Urban Food Policy Institute hosted a group discussion exploring the ways food activists and their allies could strengthen the food movement in New York City and elsewhere over the next four years. Here are eight ways food movements can create change in ways that could benefit everyone.
1. Link food to other issues and other campaigns.
Living wages, climate change, and immigrant rights are all food issues. By finding concrete ways for activists in each of these campaigns to work together to achieve common goals, we amplify the power of food and other movements and increase the chances of winning meaningful victories.
Take as an example the food workers involved with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union Workers (RWDSU)’s recent fight for decent wages and safe working conditions. Their campaign also includes efforts to increase the availability of healthy food in their communities and to resist deportation policies—two struggles shared by many immigrant and community groups.
2. Build on local struggles.
National campaigns must connect to the local issues that already mobilize people. For example, low-income, immigrant, and Black and Latino communities have long had to fight for affordable housing, decent jobs, good schools, and adequate health care; leaders of activist campaigns should focus on these issues rather than expecting already-struggling people to take up new causes triggered by Trump’s latest executive order.
How can food activists link the changes President Trump is proposing in SNAP eligibility, school lunch policy, or deporting immigrants to existing local issues that are already mobilizing New York City and other communities? One solution is creating sanctuary cities, sanctuary schools, and sanctuary restaurants, places that can provide a somewhat safe space for individualsmobilizing local and national resistance to discriminatory policies.
3. Make moral arguments.
The 2016 campaign showed that facts alone do not win elections. Similarly, it’s not enough to show evidence that changes in policy can lead to increases in hunger and diabetes. We must also appeal to people’s values. Michelle Obama’s recent comments on the Trump administration’s efforts to degrade school food policies were a good example.
“Moms, think about this,” the former first lady told the participants at health conference in Washington. “I don’t care what state you live in, take me out of the equation. Like me, don’t like me, but think about why someone is Okay with your kids eating crap.”
In New York City, Bronx Health REACH and the Brooklyn Interfaith Advisory Group have shown the potential for bringing faith-based organizations into food work, where they constitute a moral voice for changing harmful food policies.
Food is intensely personal, but too often the food movement focuses on issues that seem distant from these intimate concerns, such as menu labels, soda taxes, or agricultural subsidies. By linking these important but less-emotional issues with deep personal concerns such as protecting our children’s health or leaving a better world for future generations, activists reconnect policy debates with moral concerns.
Many food organizations are creating forums where this translation from the political to the personal can take place. Make the Road New York, for example, hosts community meetings every night where volunteers and activists cook and serve meals to 100 people and discuss politics, food, and strategy for their campaigns. In nearby New Jersey, the Syrian Supper Club raises money for Muslim refugees from Syria and Iraq by bringing them together with groups of mostly Jewish residents to exchange ideas, food, and experiences.
4. Recognize racism, poverty, and inequality as underlying causes of all our food problems.
As I wrote with my colleagues in January, “Fighting for real food is part of the larger fight against inequality and racism, since poor diets disproportionately affect economically marginalized and politically disenfranchised populations.”
A food movement that focuses on improving access and equity for all will better mobilize the vast constituencies of food workers, recent immigrants, parents struggling to raise healthy children, and Black and Latino families living in neighborhoods where unhealthy food is the default.
A food movement that does not include these populations will not be able to muster the support to make the changes we want to see. Make the Road New York and Bronx Health REACH are showing that broad-based multi-issue community coalitions can link fights for food justice and a more equitable food system to campaigns for improved health care, labor rights, and immigration policies. One way to keep equity at the center of the conversation is to ensure that members of communities most adversely affected are called on to lead the way when these campaigns are being created.
5. Ask who benefits from the status quo.
Food policies that leave people hungry and put millions at risk of diet-related disease are intentional. They’re the product of a food system shaped by multinational food companies and their political supporters. By identifying who benefits from these policies, we deepen our analysis and identify targets for political action. Trump’s Cabinet—made up of executives and billionaires from the agricultural, energy, pharmaceutical, and financial industries—illustrates the President’s decision to select a fox to guard every henhouse.
In New York City, the #Not62 Campaign, organized by Bronx Health REACH, the Bronx Borough president, the NYC Department of Health, and others with the goal of moving the Bronx out of the lowest health ranking among New York 62 counties, asks, “Who benefits from keeping the Bronx unhealthy?” How much profit does Coca-Cola or PepsiCo earn in the Bronx by marketing sugary beverages, the product most associated with the borough’s high diabetes rates?
6. Focus on families and children.
Many food groups have found that protecting children’s health can be a powerful frame for bringing diverse constituencies together. For the last several years, the Lunch for Learning Campaign has worked to persuade the mayor and the New York City Council to make free and healthy school meals available to all public school students in the city, regardless of income. In 2015, the city agreed to make lunch free for all in middle schools; now they are demanding that the city expand the program to include elementary and high schools.
Free lunch enables children to learn better, decreases the stigma and bullying that low-income children experience, makes kids healthier by making nutritious food easier to get, and eases the burden for immigrant families fearful about accepting other food benefits.
7. Keep our eyes on 2018 and 2020.
A clear focus on local issues should not prevent food activists from also thinking nationally. The 2018 election provides an opportunity to elect senators and representatives who can approve healthier food policies and better protect Americans against the cutbacks and de-regulation that Trump is proposing. The national food policy agenda developed by Plate of the Union can help to align the policy agendas of local food groups with the national issues politicians will be debating in 2018 and 2020. We must hold current politicians accountable and more rigorously vet those running to replace them.
8. Promote food democracy.
The Trump presidency threatens American democracy, challenges the rule of law, and offers unfair privileges and benefits to its wealthy supporters while cutting back basic support for the most vulnerable Americans. The food justice movement—despite its disparate constituencies—stands for the principle that people should have the right to shape their food environment. By finding new ways to preserve and expand our rights to protest, litigate, propose legislation, control our communities, and respect the Constitution, local food movements in New York City and beyond can help expand democracy throughout the United States.
Mark Bittman is a longtime food writer and food-justice advocate, as well as the author of numerous cookbooks, including How to Cook Everything. Nicholas Freudenberg is the director of the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute. His latest book is Lethal but Legal Corporations, Consumption and Protecting Public Health.