2012 Fellows Forum Speaker Saira Raza Talks Food Justice

2012 Fellows Forum Speaker Saira Raza Talks Food Justice


Thanks to everyone who attended my presentation at the 2012 NLC Retreat “Resistance is Fertile: Growing a Progressive Movement” and for all the great feedback! I was happy to know that my journey resonated so well with other Fellows in Boston, Iowa, and Wisconsin - the NLC Network in full effect! Mark Bittman recently blogged that Progressives are not doing enough to demand changes in our food system - I hope we can prove him wrong!

I started researching agricultural policy in undergrad as side note to my research on development policy and debt. I had no idea that researching this topic would have such an impact on my day to day life down the road. What started out as an academic exercise - reading lots of Vandana Shiva and Samir Amin - became a journey of self-awareness and lifestyle change. I began to ask more questions about the food I was consuming: Where did it come from? What did it take to get it to me? How nutritious is it, really? What kinds of seeds were used? What other inputs were required? How do the people who grew it live? Do they have a good quality of life? What was the REAL cost of this food? To the people who grew it? To the earth?

Unfortunately, most Americans have no idea what’s in or what went into the food we’re eating. Much of what is available to us in stores is highly processed and the original sources may be hundreds, even thousands of miles away from your home. So what? With the current food system, folks in the Northeast of the US to enjoy exotic fruits and veggies fromHawai’i orMexico, and we can send tons of grains to starving people around the world! How could it be bad?

The problem is it wouldn’t take much to completely wipe out a single community’s food supply. In fact, it happens quite frequently in low-income urban neighborhoods right here in the U.S. Grocery stores are closing down, creating food deserts and leaving people in those communities with little to no access to fresh produce, relying on fast food chains and convenience stores as their primary sources of food. Moreover, the rising prices of fuel, issues around agricultural labor practices, and the volatility of using genetically modified seeds, which are often patented and need to be bought every year (versus farmers being able to store seeds from harvest to use in subsequent seasons) move us all very close to a crucial tipping point in food security.

On the bright side, a recent study published by the USDA estimates that in 2008, local food sales grossed $4.8 billion, and over half the farms that produced local foods were located in metropolitan counties. People are not only taking notice, they are taking ACTION! The rise of urban farms and the local food movement is making BIG changes in communities around the country. Talk about job creation and healthcare reform! For example, I love following the work of Will Allen, who has pioneered a great model for urban agriculture in Milwaukee. And getting involved in the local, organic food movement is SO FUN! It involves plenty of sunshine, hands and feet in the dirt, eating delicious food, playing in the rain, playing with worms, playing with neighbors! Most community garden events I’ve been to always have lots of music and dancing too…it’s a party!

Over the past 10 years of researching these issues, the changes in my life have been very gradual. The whole journey is a learning process, and I have a very, very long way to go before I would feel comfortable calling myself an expert. But my goal was simply to share with you the little things I’m trying to do to inform myself, stay engaged in the conversation, and change my behavior to improve the quality of and access to food for everyone in the community. The biggest impact I could probably make would be to get just 10 of you to try it too. Because the thing is, we are ALL going to have to do some work to solve problem of food security. Not one of us is outside of the food system. Everyone in the world may have different ideas about taxes or what a family should look like or what education should be, but we all have to eat! So what am I asking you to do?

1) Push our federal government to require labeling foods that use genetically modified organisms. We would see a big change in consumer behavior if the public was more informed about what’s in their food.

2) Buy vegetables, fruits and other food that are produced closer to your home - you can join a community garden or a community-sourced agriculture group (CSA), for example. These kinds of places can be great family fun, and also a great way to meet some healthy, good lookin’ singles-ready-to-mingle! *wink wink*

3) Seek out farm-to-table restaurants and patronize them regularly. LocalHarvest has a cool online “finder” for CSAs, farmer’s markets, restaurants, and other local food outlets. Check it out!

4) Try growing something! You don’t have to become a farmer, and don’t feel bad if you have to keep trying. But it’s an indescribable feeling to see something start as a seed and then grow and grow - and then you eat it!

5) Get engaged in the conversation by staying informed on the issues and asking lots of questions all the time. I’m always posting articles and sharing information on Facebook, so feel free to follow me and get connected with others who are on this journey!