Washington state has a well-earned reputation as a place of culinary innovation and an abundance of fresh, delicious foods – from the salmon and oysters of Puget Sound to the hops and apples of the Yakima Valley. But it’s also a place where 1 in 10 people regularly struggle to get enough to eat, and 1 in 6 kids live in a household impacted by hunger.
It’s a shameful inequity that’s only grown wider in recent years amid disrupted supply chains and runaway inflation. But what if we had a fundamentally different local food system in King County? What if we supported all farmers and food producers to thrive while assuring that everyone has adequate access to the food they want? What would that look like, and what do we need to do to get there?
To explore those questions, Solid Ground convened a panel of experts from the worlds of hunger relief, urban farming, public policy, grant funding, and youth advocacy at our March 22 Social Justice Salon on Equitable Eating. The panel was joined in Town Hall Seattle by more than 100 other community members, many of them also working on the frontlines of food justice in King County. Here’s a little of what we learned.
Envisioning a just future for food
Food justice isn’t just about making sure everybody has enough calories at the end of the day. It’s about guaranteeing that all people have both the opportunity to choose what they eat and the means to produce it. It’s about food that reflects our cultures and identities, not just our nutritional needs.
“Our right to food is not a right to be fed, but a right to feed ourselves with dignity,” said Christina Wong, Public Policy & Advocacy Director for Northwest Harvest.
A truly healthy food system would be generative instead of extractive, meaning it would contribute to the wellbeing of the land and the people who work it, rather than just extracting value from them, said Lisa Chen, Program Manager for the City of Seattle Food Equity Fund. It would benefit everyone who works in it, from the people who harvest the crops to those who drive the delivery trucks and stock the grocery store shelves.
“Our right to food is not a right to be fed, but a right to feed ourselves with dignity.” ~Christina Wong, Northwest Harvest
“We are facing the consequences of decades and generations of being incredibly extractive and having cheap labor as the backbone of why we are able to eat right now,” Lisa said. “Language that is often used in our food system – like ‘help,’ ‘hunger,’ ‘emergency’ – is rooted around deficit, and we need to have a more generative way of thinking about this.”
Hannah Wilson, the Yes Farm Manager at Black Farmers Collective, offered their vision for a future in which every community can produce their own food. This means people have access to the land, time, resources, and skills necessary to grow, harvest, and cook what they eat. Hannah said providing communities with the means of food production will ultimately lead to a larger local food system that’s more resilient, particularly in the face of a changing climate.
“Farmers are going to be the ones who can respond to the impacts of climate change and … adapt and pivot better than ‘Big Ag’ can,” they said. “So if we’re able to get these skills in our communities, we can all pivot and adapt to the impacts of climate change, and grow our own food, and build our own power and resources – and we will be better prepared to deal with those changes.”
For Laura Emmerson, Educator & Partnerships Coordinator with Solid Ground’s Community Food Education, a just food system would be one that allows all people to experience eating and preparing food as an act of joy, not just a means of survival.
“At the end of the day, after you’re done working, you’ll have time and energy to have cooking be a big part of your life,” she said.
New ways of thinking about food
Building a truly just food system will require us to fundamentally reorient how we think about food, as a human right instead of a commodity, Christina said. That starts with talking about the ways our society keeps people from getting the food they need. “We are mainstreaming the narrative that hunger is not the result of personal fault, but rooted in systemic racism and other forms of oppression,” she said.
“How do we redistribute power and undo the systemic racism that has been baked into our public policies and investments that are limiting access and opportunity, so that food can be available, accessible, and adequate to meet people’s needs for nutrition and cultural needs over the course of their lifetime?”
We also need to stop thinking of ourselves as divorced from the production of the food we eat, Hannah said. Not everyone needs to be a farmer in order to play a role in our local food systems.
“You can also be an artist, a healer, an educator, an organizer. You can play so many different roles in the food system,” they said. “So I encourage folks to think about all the roles that we can play in the food system, because then it’ll be really hard to exploit people and exploit the land in that way if we all have a role in it.”
Putting communities in control
Our food systems will never become truly equitable until they’re built on solutions designed by the people and communities they serve – not prescribed by people in positions of institutional power – the panelists told us. That’s what community leaders had in mind when they set up Seattle’s Food Equity Fund, which is funded through a tax on sugary beverages and supports community food programs across the city.
“We really wanted people to see themselves in this work. And it’s not about what they do, but more about how they do it and who are they doing it for, and who’s leading that work.” Lisa said. “That’s really been a culture shift I think at the City.”
Empowering community is exactly why FEEST works to train high school students in King County to organize and advocate for themselves on the issues that are most important to them. The organization got its start by supporting teens as they fought for better food in their schools.
“It’s actually amazing to see what happens when young people are given the agency to think for themselves and then to go off to create their own systems and create their own organizations,” said Devan Rogers, Communications & Development Manager at FEEST.
Shana McCann, Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator for Solid Ground’s Community Food Education, was in the audience. She observed that all of the panelists had in one way or another described a shift away from a charity model – in which individuals are expected to eat what they’re given – toward a model that empowers individuals to make their own decisions about food.
“It’s like we don’t really feel comfortable giving people control over what they eat,” she said. “We’ll give money to the food pantry. We’ll give canned food to the food pantry. These are Band-Aid solutions, which are of course super helpful in a Band-Aid way, but don’t actually serve to give people any dignity or control.”
How we get there
So how do we build the just food future our panelists described? It turns out people are already working to make it happen, and there are actions we can all take right now to make it a reality.
For one, we need infrastructure that allows local farmers and food producers to sell directly to agencies working on the frontlines of hunger relief in King County. That’s exactly the goal of the new South Seattle Community Food Hub currently being developed, said Moderator Yamila Sterling-Baker, Program Manager for Solid Ground’s Food System Support. Starting as soon as next year, this 40,000-square-foot warehouse will provide shared space for storing, packing, and distributing fresh produce and goods to people and families on tight food budgets.
Other models supporting healthy local food systems have been around for years. The White Center Food Bank, for example, came up with an idea more than a decade ago that gives its customers better access to fresh produce – always in high demand – while also supporting the neighborhood’s family-owned grocery stores. Under the program, people receive a $5 certificate for produce at any of White Center’s three grocers, which have all agreed to provide an additional pound of produce per certificate.
“It’s giving them that opportunity to not just have to rely on the food bank, but … go out into a regular store and get exactly what they need for their family,” said Carmen Smith, Executive Director of the White Center Food Bank. “And that’s really stimulating the hyper-local economy there in White Center.”
Christina said there are also opportunities to build a better local food system by advocating at the national level, particularly through the Farm Bill, which is due to expire this year. Instead of paying to send unwanted crops to food banks, the same money can be used to better support both local farmers and the people who are hungry for their produce.
Save the date for a community conversation with…
Women of Color Leading Change
Tuesday, June 6, 2023, 7-9pm
The Great Hall at Town Hall Seattle
Join us at our next Social Justice Salon, a conversation with BIPOC women CEOs and Executive Directors of some of King County’s leading anti-poverty organizations, including:
- Janice Deguchi, Executive Director, Neighborhood House
- Shalimar Gonzales, CEO, Solid Ground
- Estela Ortega, Executive Director, El Centro de la Raza
- Andrea Caupain Sanderson, CEO, Byrd-Barr Place
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