Julian Agyeman, PhD, FRSA, FRGS, is speaking at the inaugural Boston Food Tank Summit, “Investing in Discovery,” which will be held in collaboration with Tufts University and Oxfam America on April 1, 2017.
Dr. Agyeman is a Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University. He has an extensive background in ‘just sustainabilities’ including promoting food justice locally and beyond. In 1996, he co-founded Local Environment: The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability and is now the Editor-in-Chief. In addition to the Journal and his work in the classroom, Dr. Agyeman has penned and edited many books on topics such as food justice, sustainable communities and sharing cities. Next on the list? The publication of his book, From Loncheras to Lobsta Love: Food Trucks, Cultural Identity and Social Justice, coming this year.
Food Tank had the chance to speak with Dr. Agyeman about his work and what drives his passion for improving local food systems.
Food Tank (FT): What initially inspired you to get involved with your work?
Julian Agyeman (JA): As a kid, I was always interested in nature and the environment. I studied botany and geography at university—looking at natural landscapes, looking at plants, and ecosystems. As I became older and did my masters degree, I got interested in the urban environment. In a sense, it played by a different set of rules. I became more aware of the role of politics in shaping environments and got interested in sustainability as a way of thinking and as a process of acting towards the environment and human systems—and the rest is history. I came up with this idea that social justice doesn’t simply happen, we have to make it happen. This idea that I have of ‘just sustainabilities’ is a way of doing that. My interest in food justice is a result of thinking about just and sustainable human and environmental systems.
FT: What motivates you to want to continue to be involved in this kind of work?
JA: My motivation every day to keep doing this kind of work is seeing the great students that I have had for 18 years, seeing them enthusiastic, mentoring them, working with them, co-editing and co-writing papers with them, and realizing that every generation has its ideas about what a better world can be. I want to do my part to make sure that my students go out there with ideas that sustainability isn’t simply about the environment, it is about social justice as well. When I see the commitment, the intelligence, and the sense of agency my students have, it makes it all worthwhile.
FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?
JA: I’m not sure the food system can be fixed silver bullet style. I think we urgently need to look at new ways of thinking about local foods systems, about what is ‘local’ in an intercultural society. Much greater involvement from a much broader range of people is essential to reimagine local food systems.
My students are always interested when I talk about the city Belo Horizonte in Brazil, which is the city that ‘abolished hunger’. They completely reimagined it by fixing prices for certain food items. The city makes commercial retailers sell food at certain prices to people on benefits. These private sector retailers can sell at whatever price they can get for people not on benefits. This system is a great way of ensuring that all people can eat and they have a system of support for rural farmers to sell produce in the city. What the city of Belo Horizonte has done since the early 1990s is to reimagine the local food system and has inserted social justice, a right to food and food with dignity into the equation. It takes up less than two percent of the city’s budget. I am looking forward to a time when US cities become more involved in local food systems. What shape that takes will depend on where they are, but I am looking forward to a time when municipalities are more involved in local food systems.
FT: Can you share a story about a food hero who has inspired you?
JA: His name was Patrus Ananias Sousa. He was the first mayor of Belo Horizonte in Brazil to start the amazing food policy in the early 1990s. He was a mayor who was born in poverty; he experienced hunger. It makes me and my students think that mayors who come to the office, having experienced something like hunger, can empathize with the need for food systems support. I’m not saying every mayor, to be effective, has to experience that sort of thing, but that when I look around, especially in Latin America, there are a lot of mayors that have done amazing things because they have experienced hunger, poverty, or deprivation of some kind.
FT: What is the most pressing issue in food and agriculture that you would like to see solved?
JA: I think that food access or lack of access for whatever reason is the biggest issue for me. Food access is a gateway to multiple problems, but I think, without going into all of those, that is the greatest issue for me. Who has access, who controls access, why access is denied, in many instances, these are some of the biggest issues.
FT: What is one small change everyone can make in their daily lives to make a difference?
JA: Waste less food. Stop wasting food. The amount of food that is wasted amazes me. We don’t have a food problem; we have a lot of different problems that are caused either by individuals or farm level wastage. I remember as a kid in the 1970s it was all about the Green Revolution. I now realize we don’t need to grow more food, what we need to do is waste a lot less food and stop food wastage. Wastage at the individual level and the farm level and every single level of food is massive.
FT: What advice would you give to President Trump and the U.S. Congress on addressing these issues in food and agriculture?
JA: I would say listen to people, listen to farmers, listen to people in urban areas, and listen to people in rural food deserts. Don’t just go by what entrenched interests are going to tell you because that will maintain the status quo.
FT: Is there anything else you would like to add?
JA: Buy my book: Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability!!
Click here to purchase tickets to Food Tank’s inaugural Boston Summit.