At the 2022 Come to the Table Conference, farmers, faith leaders, and activists call for actions that challenge the root causes of unjust food systems. The Come to the Table Program of the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI-USA) hosted the conference to discuss the key role communities of faith play in cultivating food justice.
Policy experts joined farmers and faith leaders from divinity programs and churches across North Carolina to outline the connections among racial equity, hunger, poverty, and wealth. Over the two-day conference, panelists emphasized that the extreme concentration of the corporate agriculture industry creates barriers to cultivating resilient and equitable food systems.
“A large handful of corporations closely control the food supply chain in ways that block access to mainstream markets for community-based businesses, and also limit choices for farmers and consumers,” says Claire Kelloway, Food Systems Program Manager at the Open Markets Institute. Kelloway says this wealth concentration causes a few large and powerful businesses to center “decision-making on how to feed the world…around the short-term interests of financial institutions instead of public interest.”
Kelloway explains that four corporations sell 60 percent of all seeds in the world. In the United States, six companies control two thirds of all meat production, and one large cooperative controls one third of the country’s raw milk supply. Just four stores sell 43 percent of all groceries, with Walmart alone claiming one in every four dollars spent on groceries.
Despite these challenges, speakers also showcase the ways that food justice initiatives are counteracting the marginalization of farmers of color and rural communities. Several farmers underscore the importance of passing down agricultural knowledge. They also explained that communities of faith helped them create sustainable food environments for future generations. Farmers, faith leaders, and activists shared their own commitments to further shifting power and control to local communities.
Marvin Frink, Co-Owner of Briarwood Cattle Farm, LLC, in Red Springs, North Carolina, says he learned to work with cattle through an older farmer who served as his mentor. “I am able to continue the tradition as an African American farmer and pick up the trades that my ancestors did before me,” Frink says. Through this mentorship, Frink has now become “the hands for [his mentor’s] mind.”
Faith groups like the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry (EFWM) in Dunn, North Carolina, also seek to create long-lasting, mutually beneficial, and self-sustaining partnerships between farmers of color and faith groups in their communities. Irma Juárez, a farm worker from Guatemala joined the EFWM’s sustainable herb garden. She says that collaborating with the ministry and other farming women has helped her leave a lasting legacy in the community. As a migrant farm worker “the boss can replace me,” Juárez says, “but in the cooperative, what I achieve there is an accomplishment for me…I dream for the cooperative to grow so that my children can work there too.”
Natalie Baszile, author of Queen Sugar and We Are Each Other’s Harvest, echoed a common idea woven throughout the conference that “faith communities can be the connector between the farmworker and the community.”
“Owning our food future is an opportunity for individuals to be able to access food that fits their lives,” says Norbert Wilson, Professor of Food, Economics, and Community at Duke Divinity School. To Wilson, “food is communal,” and owning our food future means having “a shared vision that reflects our experiences.”
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Photo courtesy of Erik Aquino, Unsplash