Reflections from the Road October 2017

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Tacoma Washington was the site for the third iteration of the Closing the Hunger Gap conference. The largest one to date, this event brought together 600 food bankers and others to discuss how to move from charity to solidarity.  Having attended all three of these meetings, I have seen hat over time attendees are taking on meatier questions about the very model of food charity. While four years ago they were discussing the side programs that food banks operate in economic development or food production, they are now talking about the inherent racism of food banks and how that oppression can be addressed. They discussed the class and racial disconnect between food pantry/food bank employees and boards and their clients.  One thread throughout the conference was whether anti-hunger groups should take money from hunger-causing corporations such as Walmart. Farmworker advocate Rosalinda Guillen was clearest in her urging of groups to stand up to Walmart and collectively refuse their grants. Malik Yakini gave a rousing speech about the roots of hunger in oppression and the capitalist economy: He noted: "You can’t be anti-hunger and pro-capitalism.”

Each of the major university systems in California (Cal State, community colleges and Univ. of Calif.) have an advocate working to reduce student hunger. They are engaging in some very sophisticated and high-level action at the campus and statewide levels, including facilitating student enrollment in CalFresh (SNAP).

East Coast

I had the good fortune to meet two amazing Witnesses to Hunger: Tianna Gaines from Philadelphia and Kim Hart in New Haven. These women are powerful advocates for improving the well-being of families living in poverty. Kim emphasized the importance of living wage jobs over being on SNAP or having to rely on food charity. “I could get a job at McDonalds but would still need assistance.”

 

 Kim Hart

Kim Hart

 

Check out the New England Food Vision. It lays out a picture for how the region could produce half of its food by 2060 while ensuring the right to food. Its co-author, Brian Donohue and I gave a joint talk in Western Massachusetts for Berkshire Agricultural Ventures.

 Brian Donohue expounds on the New England Food Vision, Sheffield MA

Brian Donohue expounds on the New England Food Vision, Sheffield MA

Morocco

 Yellow pomegranates for juicing in Casablanca

Yellow pomegranates for juicing in Casablanca

I had the good fortune of being invited to participate in a dialogue about food security in the Middle East and North Africa hosted by the Hollings Center and the University of Central Florida. Held in Casablanca, Morocco, the dialogue brought together about 25 academics, government officials, businesspersons, and NGO staff from across the US and the Middle East to discuss the most pressing challenges to food security in the region. It was a fascinating lesson to an incredibly complex topic. Some highlights:

§  The region is facing a great demographic shift, as the population will go from 400 million to an estimated billion persons. Simultaneously, the agriculture sector has declined as a share of GDP from 25% to 11% in recent years.

§  Climate change, land degradation, labor shortages, urbanization, and water scarcity (80% of water usage in the region is used by agriculture) are all constraining factors on the ability of the region to grow food for its burgeoning population. By one estimate, agricultural output could decline by 20-40% by 2080 because of climate change.

§  Poor infrastructure has resulted in a loss of up to 40% of food grown in the region.

§  Conflict is integrally linked to food insecurity. In Yemen and Syria, 70-80% of residents are food insecure.

§  Corrupt governments limit the ability of the public sector to be a strong presence for rural and agricultural development.

§  The region is one of the most dependent on food imports of any place in the world, making it more vulnerable to price spikes as seen in the 2007-08 food crisis.

§  The triple burden of food insecurity, obesity, and micronutrient deficiencies are prevalent in many parts of the region, such as Egypt.

I learned of three very divergent approaches to addressing food insecurity in the region.

§  The World Food Program has developed a school lunch program in Tunisia, based on a Brazilian model to source 30% of the food as locally as possible, starting with neighborhood gardens managed by parents.

§  The High Atlas Foundation works with rural communities in Morocco to develop organic supply chains for produce such as figs, dates, and walnuts for European markets.

§  The Saudi company Almarai has purchased over 17,000 acres of land in Arizona and California to produce water-thirsty alfalfa to feed dairy cows located in Saudi Arabia. It is part of a broader plan to secure a stable food supply for the heavily-import dependent country.