Farm Apprenticeship Commencement Talk at UC Santa Cruz

I gave the commencement talk for the 38 graduates of the farm apprenticeship program at UC Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems on June 20. Here’s the synopsis of the talk:



June 20, 2012

We began to do research for our book Food Justice in 2007. UEPI then had all its various food projects housed within an entity we called the “Center for Food & Justice”. We saw the various projects designed to help empower people to bring about specific changes and ultimately a broader and more radical transformation of the food system.  This included a focus on those most vulnerable and exploited along the food chain, and programs and activities and community organizing connected to our other social justice-based programs, such as immigration, transportation, or housing.

Few groups used the term food justice at the time in 2007. It was not widely used by the press or as part of common discourse. We’d constantly be asked “what is it”? So the first task for us was to see how others used the term and to compare it to the definition we had developed in relation to our own work.

t’s extraordinary to see how much has changed in 5 years, or even in just the two years since the book was published. There’s been an explosion of use of the term. As we describe in the Preface to the paperback edition of Food Justice that will be released in February 2013, examples include: A food justice school garden program. A health and wellness food justice group at a high school and another at a community college. A food justice conference focused on seed saving. A food justice festival with local farmers. A Food Justice Urban Hike-A-Thon. A food justice bike ride. An Occupy Wall Street food justice committee. A Labor Center researcher who argues “why food justice matters.” A Princeton University student organization that has created a Food Justice Foundation. And today, we have 38 UC Santa Cruz farm apprenticeship graduates who want to know, not just what is food justice, but how can they continue to be involved as participants. Should they hung out a sign that says, “Will Work for Food Justice?”

Why the explosion of interest and an embrace of the term?  Our definition of food justice developed for the book may provide some clues, given the possible entry points for food justice engagement. We define food justice as:  (i) seeking to challenge and restructure the dominant food system, (ii) providing a core focus on equity and disparities and the struggles by those who are most vulnerable, and (iii)  establishing linkages and common goals with other forms of social justice activism and advocacy -  whether immigrant rights, worker justice, transportation and access, or land use. In the past five years, each of these entry points for food justice has in turn become increasingly visible, providing language and opportunities for more groups and people to become involved.

Let me go through each of those entry points and give examples of how the food movement generally, and food justice as an orientation of the food movement has expanded. But also let me identify some of the challenges that have become visible with that expansion. And then let me get back to the comment I made about people like yourselves entering or about to re-enter the food justice world; namely how can one engage in this movement (or emerging movement), given those challenges.

Here are examples of that expansion:

1. A changing discourse about the food system and what’s wrong with it.

2. Hundreds, if not thousands of projects and programs and events designed to offer some kind of alternative

3. Increasingly, a youth movement

Regarding disparities:

4. Organizing around food access and food desert issues

5. Organizing around school food, particularly in K-12 public schools, with their substantial population of low income students who qualify for free and reduced lunch

6. Organizing workers along the food chain, such as the extraordinary 20 year campaign of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers

Linking with Social Justice Movements

7. Food and Labor connections (e.g., UNITE HERE’s Good Food initiative)

8. Linkages around Housing; Transportation; Immigration

The Challenges

A. Organizational and Issue silos

B. NGOs, not a social movement

C. Need to create a new political culture and community

D. Weak Labor Movement; Lack of a Social Democratic Tradition; Individualism as an ideology and Hostility to Public Roles and Social Governance

E. The power of the food industry and global players; foodwashing; Walmart divide

So What’s a Food Apprentice to do?

  • Think like an organizer
  • Help create that new political culture, sense of community
  • Think and act like a change agent
  • The need for Food Justice – and Social Justice – is everywhere; make it happen
  •  Empower others; empower yourselves

Bob is Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute. He is the author and co-author of twelve books and numerous other publications, including Food Justice with Anupama Joshi (MIT Press, 2010), Reinventing Los Angeles: Nature and Community in the Global City (MIT Press, 2007), The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City with Mark Vallianatos, Regina Freer and Peter Dreier (UC Press 2006); Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement (Island Press, 1993); A Life of its Own: The Politics and Power of Water (HBJ 1989), and Environmentalism Unbound: Exploring New Pathways for Change (MIT Press, 2001). He is also the editor of two MIT Press series, “Urban and Industrial Environments” and “Food, Health, and Environment.” A long time environmental and social justice activist, Bob Gottlieb has been engaged in researching and participating in social movements for more than 50 years.

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