The Food Justice Movement and the Community Food Security Coalition

In February 2013, a new paperback edition for my book, Food Justice, (co-authored with Anupama Joshi from the National Farm to School Network) will be released. In the new preface to the book, we pose this question; a question that’s relevant to the debate about the dissolution – or the recreation/reinvention – of the Community Food Security Coalition.

Here’s what we have written:

 ”…The biggest challenge we found was the uncertainty about how to translate food justice’s increased visibility and the proliferation of interest and activism and the excitement it has generated into the development of a coherent social movement and force for social change. In some ways, food justice has become a way to express discontent about the food system and the desire for change, without necessarily providing a clearly defined agenda for how to bring about that change. Even among advocates and groups that have adopted the term food justice, there remain contradictions or at least differences in translating understanding to action. Is food justice  a movement about relocalizing the way we grow and produce our food? Is it about the fight against corporate power, the food version of the 1%, an Occupy the Food System trajectory? Is it a struggle against disparities, the food system’s discriminatory and exploitative ways in which communities are disadvantaged in what food is available, where it can be accessed, and how it is grown and produced? Is it a desire to bring about a cultural shift, a different way we experience food, a new ethic of food? Is it the entry point for a broader social justice movement, linking, for example, worker, immigrant, and food issues and organizing into a unified argument? Is it, somehow, all the above?”

In its fifteen year history (since its first annual gathering inLos Angeles in 1997), the Community Food Security Coalition became the place where many of those questions were debated and the program, policy, and organizing work of food activists was shared. That was the intent of the organization from the very first gathering in 1994 of the individuals from around the country who saw the need for a central place for food justice activism (though the term of the day was community food security). The 1996 Farm Bill became the occasion for the initial work of the CFSC and an initial document was produced called “The Community Food Empowerment Act” that was initially drafted by myself and Andy Fisher (who became the organization’s first Executive Director), with input from many of those who participated in the 1994 gathering, such as Mark Winne, Kate Fitzgerald, Kathy Ozer, Hugh Joseph, Duane Perry, and Rod MacRae – people who already had a history in what we would today call food justice organizing and program and policy work. Even after the Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, took over the House, those early efforts still paid off, leading to the passage of the Community Food Projects legislation within the Farm Bill, which became a crucial source of support for the new food justice-oriented work beginning to emerge around the country.

Another key moment in that history, as Hank Herrara often explains, was the debate that occurred at the first annual meeting in 1997, where it was clear that the organization needed to be both transparent and open to new energy, including those working in low income communities and communities of color. As a result, a more democratic process of selecting board members, empowering staff, and having an active membership was established. The one major failing that emerged over time was the inability to create a more active process for membership participation (whether by groups or individuals) and movement capacity building, such as through a regional chapter structure or some other process.

The other major concern that emerged over time, as the organization grew in both staff, policy, and program resources, was the periodic divide between the organization’s board and its staff. For example, in the period from 2000-2002 there was skepticism on the part of some board members of the value of the emerging farm to school program, although there was strong support for this program from the staff. In this case, the staff succeeded in identifying the importance of farm to school as a crucial program, reaching thousands of low income children in public schools, while also providing a potential market for small, local farmers.

Despite these concerns, the CFSC flourished, and its annual meeting was perhaps the most important and expansive place where the food justice issues were debated, and also where linkages with other social justice activists and global players like Via Campesina, could be made. The difficulty for CFSC was that it represented both a place where movement networking and capacity building could take place, but also where the classic pressures of a NGO-type organization were experienced – continual need for fundraising where funds were primarily available for projects rather than general support and movement building and outreach.

These tensions came to head in the last eighteen months where the clash between board and staff intensified, leading to the departure of Andy Fisher, its long standing ED, as well as several other staff, and a board that increasingly sought to play a role in directing the organization, as funding became more precarious.

Now we have the crisis where the new ED and the board have announced that CFSC is dissolving and that the pieces of the organization will be parceled out to other organizations, leading to a classic NGO territorial effort to pick up the pieces. However, the crisis has also led to some passionate voices stating that the history of the organization is crucial, that its role as a central “common front for the food movement” (as one of our European food justice allies characterized CFSC’s role) needs to be re-envisioned.

To make this happen, we need a new gathering to discuss these issues and identify next steps. It should be, as many have said, a culmination of conversations occurring regionally and nationally, but should ultimately lead to a gathering (and perhaps one of several) where all those discussions come together. The conversations should assume that the CFSC is not dissolved but rather suspended due to lack of funding and the laying off of staff as has already occurred. The conversations should take place with the intent of identifying what new forms CFSC would take (or any future group that gets identified in the process). It should, from my perspective, be a “no cost” or “low cost” form initially, so that we can escape the NGO predicament and concentrate on what types of federal policy advocacy, food movement networking and capacity building are possible. It’s possible such discussions would lead to a decision to formally dissolve the CFSC from its suspended state and create a new organization that could provide an entry point for many who have not found a place to discuss their own work and/or are searching for ways in which they can be part of a food justice movement.

The last statement of the CFSC board was the request that former board members play a role in helping convene folks to discuss those next steps. As a co-founder and early board member, I think the CFSC board needs to make good on their request and formally acknowledge that a new process for what to do with the suspended CFSC (e.g., reinvent it, dissolve it, and/or create whatever organization should succeed it). In acknowledging this new process, the current CFSC board should pursue these steps, given the absence of staff and any mechanism currently in place to have the CFSC members weigh in. Those steps include:

1. Do not formally dissolve CFSC and don’t rush to give off its parts. As I’ve been told by the ED and a board member, there are no financial debts or liabilities; just no money to support staff and run programs. It’s one thing to lay off staff and close an office, but another to formally dissolve the organization, which, in any case, should reside as a decision of its members. The board could state that the organization is thus suspended, pending a decision by the membership to formally dissolve the organization.

2. Make transparent the information that’s needed by posting it on the CFSC website. That includes, as a start, the organization’s Articles of Incorporation and bylaws, so that a process to formally decide what to do with the suspended organization can be put in place and any related decision to launch a new organization could be made as part of the discussion about what should happen with the CFSC. This should be public information, in any case.

3. Formally acknowledge that a working group is being created, initially of former board members (and any current board members who wish to participate) as well as general members and staff and anyone who identifies with CFSC’s historical role as a common front for the food movement.  This working group would be given the task of identifying where and how a gathering could take place, to decide the next steps (or reinvention if you will) of CFSC. At such a gathering the current board members could then resign (or before then if they wanted or needed to) and then either a new organizational role or structure could be created or the decision could be made to formally no longer use the name “Community Food Security Coalition” and dissolve the organization, even as the work it helped initiate continues in whatever form emerges.

I would want to participate in such a working group and I’m sure others will want to as well. But we also need to hear from the current board about the three immediate steps described above, and to begin the discussion about the future of the movement networking and capacity building work that remains as crucial as ever.

Bob Gottlieb

Urban & Environmental Policy Institute, Occidental College

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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