Food Tank, NYU Steinhardt, the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center, and Salon.com co-hosted the first talk of a series of conversations about food live in New York City. Speakers Noreen Springstead, Executive Director of WhyHunger; Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America; Raymond Figueroa, Jr., President of the New York City Community Garden Coalition; and Qiana Mickie, Executive Director of Just Food each considered the status of equity in the food system.
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Moderators from Salon.com, Forbes, Reuters, and Food Tank guided speakers to identify the changes that solve hunger. “If we define the problem as hunger, then we limit ourselves to food charity and distribution as the solution…But hunger is a symptom of an unjust system,” says Springstead.
According to the speakers, racism, discrimination, and labor exploitation—rather than a struggling economy or dwindling agricultural production—cause hunger. With a national unemployment rate below four percent over the past year, 40 million Americans still face hunger. “So we need to stop looking at food as the answer, and look at social justice,” says Springstead. WhyHunger participates in social justice by publishing the stories of community members, connecting grassroots leaders in justice movements, and contributing to advocacy addressing poverty, racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and hunger.
The conversation about hunger is intertwined in the conversations about housing, land access, and livable wages. And in these conversations, the speakers hold policymakers, landlords, wealthy property developers, and employers accountable. “This is really about oppression,” says Mickie. “In building our power, we need to see amongst ourselves and our strengths to work together, to see how we are able to shift that power back to us and back to the masses that really deserve it.”
For Mickie, the first step toward solving hunger begins with community-lead initiatives. While philanthropists and organizations may want to implement their solutions within communities, Mickie suggests they offer help in other forms. Mickie leads Just Food in its mission to build resources supporting an equitable local food economy in New York City, including with a service that connects people to sustainable farms and farmers markets. “Be willing to liberate your resources and your capital, and give them to the people who have the understanding of a community’s needs and of how they can move forward,” says Mickie.
Community farms are not only a way to grow food for a community, but they are also a place to “harvest peace” by generating community-inspired solutions to hunger. “We wouldn’t have a claim to the name community farm if we weren’t being responsive to the issues that are confronting our community,” says Figueroa. “There is a multiplier effect on benefits from community gardens as a result of being visible and being responsive [to the community’s needs].” At the New York City Community Garden Coalition, these responses include providing fresh produce but also include improving nutrition education and reducing gang violence.
Berg notes that there is still a place in advocacy for philanthropists and organizations to contribute to hunger, housing, racism, and equity. Berg’s Hunger Free America hopes to end hunger in this way, playing key roles in recent nutrition assistance, school meals, and anti-hunger policy decisions. “The difficult thing is the most important thing we need to do and the hardest thing to get funding for,” says Berg. “More people would rather provide food for a food drive than fund advocacy. So that’s our biggest challenge: getting groups around the country to engage and organize people.”
Photo courtesy of Jeenah Moon.