Seattle-based Food Action has been supporting sustainable farming and food systems in the Pacific Northwest for more than two decades. Formerly the Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network (WSFFN), Food Action is dedicated to food system transformation through advocacy, education, and consumer mobilization. The organization aims for a food system that is just and sustainable, and one that provides access to good food for all.
Food Action has been involved in many aspects of the food system, from the Washington Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) policy changes to founding the Good Food Coalition, which is comprised of organizations committed to affordable, healthy, and ecologically and socially regenerative food.
Food Tank spoke with Russell Lehman, Food Action’s Executive Director, and Arianna Muirow, Food Action’s Communications and Policy Director, about their mission and the importance of mobilizing for Good Food.
Food Tank (FT): Why is supporting sustainable food and farming important in Washington?
Russell Lehman (RL): It is important in Washington no more or less than anywhere else. The resiliency of our environment to offer a nourishing life source for the seventh generation from now and the good health of all people is such an imperative the question should more accurately be ‘how could it not be of vital importance to everyone?’
Arianna Muirow (AM): I see Washington as a great example for the nation in terms of food issues. We are in many ways a rural and agricultural state. The type of agriculture that we celebrate and promote here has value not only for our region, but for the country as a whole. Both big and small-scale agriculture play important roles in our food system, and I see our job at Food Action as making sure that all of these processes are taking place as equitably and ecologically sustainable as possible. We also have dense urban areas and globally-connected cities in this state, especially along the west side, with organic markets and ‘foodie’ cultures and celebrity chefs. Right now, the east and west sides of the state are very divided. Connecting about food as part of an interconnected system, and breaking down the silos of consumers and producers, health and hunger, seafood and farming, etc., is an essential part of bridging the urban-rural divide and strengthening our overall health and wellbeing as a state, and as a nation. If we can succeed in making Washington State’s food system stronger (in terms of being more ecologically resilient, more equitable, and more healthy for the environment and for people), it will be a great model for strengthening the nation’s food system as well.
FT: Food Action sees three core tenants of good food: health, sustainability, and justice. How do you find these three components together define good food?
RL: They are inextricably intertwined. Food that is grown in a manner such that the soil is degraded or where the people who grow and pick the food are mistreated creates an unhealthy society, and one that is by definition is unsustainable. ‘Good food’ means food that enriches us personally and as a culture. ‘Good food’ is that which enables my grandson’s great granddaughter to enjoy a food system at least as good as mine.
AM: ‘Good food’ needs to be for everyone, for now and into the future. That’s why we are so committed to breaking down silos. We can’t talk about organics and sustainable agriculture without also having conversations about farm labor and fair pay, and about hunger and making sure that everyone has enough to eat. ‘Good food’ for all is deeply tied to issues of justice and systemic poverty, and it is also tied to emotional and physical health and wellbeing, and long-term environmental stewardship. It can feel amorphous and overwhelming to try to tackle all of these issues at once, but without any one of these three core tenants our platform becomes unstable, like the three legs of a stool needed for it to stand.
FT: Is there one Food Action project that you are particularly passionate about? Why?
RL: Creating the Washington Food Bill, the first for the nation, which incorporates those things we know comprise a truly healthy, sustainable, and just food system, affords us the opportunity to put words into action and help create the food system we all deserve and require.
AM: Our statewide Washington Food Bill is the first time, as far as we know, that anyone has tried to advocate for a whole systems approach on a state scale in this way. I’d like to see more (or any) politicians with a food platform. Perhaps the Washington Food Bill will pave the way. We need to advocate for a better food system both broadly, with that whole systems approach, and specifically, with clear key action items for change. We are attempting to do exactly that with the Washington Food Bill. Also, there is a lot of talk about changing the food system, but little movement or action. We are attempting to create a platform that we can build campaigns around and actually cause change.
FT: What do you find most challenging about your work in promoting and advocating for good food?
RL: Engaging people in an issue that, though they interact with it multiple times everyday, can feel overwhelmingly large and complex.
AM: Everyone is promoting their own agenda within the food space—health, hunger, organics, etc.—and the idea of a whole-systems approach makes some people nervous. It is a fine balance to bring everyone to the table and help make sure that we are aligned for action.
FT: Food Action is the former Washington Sustainable Food & Farming Network. What was behind the recent change in title and what does it mean for Food Action’s work?
RL: We decided that to effectuate real and meaningful change we would likely be more impactful if we were advocating for food system reform from the consumer side as opposed to the producer side.
FT: How have your background and experiences shaped your interest in supporting sustainable food and farming?
RL: As someone with a legal and public policy background and a deep commitment to making my community, both small and large, a better place, I am passionate about sustainability in energy, food, and transportation. A society that puts the health of people and the planet before profits is one where happiness and health pervade.
AM: I started my career in public health, working with community health centers and populations living in the highest levels of poverty. I got interested in food that way: from talking to the providers (physicians and nurses) at the health centers we were working with. This was in 2007 and 2008, when there was a lot of talk about the obesity epidemic and obesity’s negative effects on people’s quality of life and long-term health. For the providers at the clinics I was working with, this was an infrastructure issue, not a medical one. They felt so frustrated because there was little they could do as clinicians to help their patients considering the food system their patients lived in. I wanted to understand this system better and work towards creating healthier food environments, so I went to graduate school for a degree in Regional Planning focused on planning for healthy food systems (much like Urban planning, but on the regional scale). In graduate school, I realized that our food system issue went way beyond the region, and that it was deeply tied to our political economy and global power structures. Food is on the one hand so deeply cultural and personal, and on the other so global and systemic. That’s why it’s so interesting and fun to work on! What we eat and how we grow and make our food can nourish and sustain us, or it can kill us. Our current global model is killing us. We know that, and yet so many of us participate in perpetuating this model every day. I have dedicated my career to trying to understand how we can change the tide of this powerful system that rewards profit over people and the planet. Bringing people together to advocate for food that is just, fair, and good for ecological and human health is one of those ways. Actually, it is the best one I know of.
FT: How can consumers get involved with Food Action or otherwise support your mission to reform the food system to increase access for all to good food?
RL: Organize, mobilize, and join Food Action. We must leverage the enormous economic power of conscious consumers into political power so policies that put the health of people and the planet first are the guiding principles. Those who want to treat our land as merely a vehicle for their short-term profit and who subsume public health to sell more products will always have more money. The only thing more powerful is the voice (and votes) of people.
AM: We are a membership organization. Our power lies in our collective voice and advocacy that we deserve and demand better. The more people who join us and stand with us, the more powerful we will become.