Q & A with Nancy Romer: The Food Movement - Where Are We Now?
by Rosalin Luetum
Photo: Courtesy of encore.org
In anticipation of the second Brooklyn Food Conference on May 12th, Rosalin Luetum touched base with Nancy Romer (pictured left), the General Coordinator of the Coalition, to learn how the 'movement' has made strides and what the priority areas are now.
Rosalin Luetum (RL): The Brooklyn Food Coalition effort has been an impressive grass roots movement since it kicked off with the 2009 conference. Lots has happened in Brooklyn around food in particular over these last 3 years. As you anticipate and plan for this next and much bigger conference, we have some questions about the developments in this 'movement' from 2009 until now. Over the last three years:
RL: What would you say are the most significant developments in the 'good food movement' in Brooklyn?
Nancy Romer (NR): The biggest change has been in people’s consciousness. It has been a huge leap forward in the food movement. With that change has come the cross-fertilization of ideas in areas such as urban agriculture, providing access to healthy foods for all, sustainable agriculture, school food, and justice for food workers.
Awareness has been the biggest and most important piece, and there are a lot of other smaller pieces under that. For example, in terms of urban agriculture, more people are growing food at home and tending home gardens. The anti-fracking movement is exciting and powerful. With food workers, there are important campaigns shining a lot on sweatshops working to change current work conditions. The food co-op movement has been growing, and parents are working to improve the food in their kids’ schools.
RL: What in your view have been the short term 'successes'?
NR: In addition to what I mentioned earlier, other short term success are less quantifiable. In the last five years, there has been an attitude change towards food. People are eating and thinking differently. There are people who don’t have access to healthy food and others who don’t seek it out. What’s important is to have people that are able to work with each other toward the shared goal of a better food system. Legislatively, two new pieces of legislation are coming up this week in City Council, one on improving school food and the other on living wages for workers—both key demands in the food movement. We’ve also had some small successes around farm to café and local sourcing in the last Child Nutrition Bill. The US Farm Bill will likely support some more small farm initiatives.
RL: What are the most difficult challenges that lie ahead?
NR: The movement is currently very grassroots, hands-on. It’s grounded in projects that are doing very specific things in the community, grounded by real personal relationships. The challenge is how to take the efforts of this really important phenomenon and translate it to policy change, that can facilitate creating unions, co-ops, improved school food and gardens as a right. While we need to always keep engaging in the projects on the ground we need to expand to make changes for the whole of society: we need system change. If I want a salad bar for my child, that means we should have a salad bar for your child. We won’t have to fight for them if they are automatically in place through changes in legislation and/or policy. We have to get out of our comfort zones to get to that point. Personally I love working in small groups and looking at systemic issues that way but I think it’s important for all of us to at least see the significance of connecting policy to our on-the-ground work.
RL: Which constituencies/stakeholders seem 'absent' from the table in terms of really rolling up their sleeves with your movement to create change? What new approaches will you use to engage them? What societal structures make it difficult to engage them or maintain meaningful engagement?
NR: What I’d like to see is more important, big institutions engage in the issues. It would be great to have more school food committees in New York City and across the country! People often think of this as a “middle class movement,” but I don’t agree. It’s just that some people don’t have the tools or opportunities to speak out. I want to see more organizations in schools and faith institutions. I have a tremendous respect for the capacity of a faith organization to reach people. Food pantries and kitchens based at places of worship are already a beautiful act of charity, so this would just be taking it a step further. So many faith organizations have health ministries that are dealing with the constant diet-related health problems of diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and joint disease. Many faith organizations are searching for good ways to engage their people and I would love to see the food movement join together on these issues. Faith organizations are also great potential allies as they should have reverence for the earth and thus be motivated to protect the earth from harmful agricultural and transportation practices of our present food system that accounts for 1/3 of all greenhouse gases and threatens Mother Nature.
I would like to see workers getting living wages and work under fair labor laws so food workers have decent jobs and lives. I don’t think we should try to make food cheaper but rather we should be trying to increase everyone’s wages so that we all can afford healthy food and food workers—agricultural, processing, retail and restaurant— can afford to buy the food they sell to us all.
RL: How do you hope to address and progress through some of these challenges with this year's conference?
NR: This year’s FREE Brooklyn Food Conference has 175 workshops, 20 cooking demos, and a basketball gym full of children’s activities for parents and children to do together and discuss afterward. We’ll have a youth summit organized by and for youth plus films, music, and art throughout. There will be a massive expo with 300 exhibitors and we will be selling lunch for $8 ($5 for children). Everything else will be free. We want to make this a fun, engaging experience, and also as accessible as possible. We’ve worked hard to raise the funds so that all the people in Brooklyn engaged now (or in the future) in food system change will feel welcome and at home.
We are hoping people will pre-register at www.bkfoodconference.org and reserve lunch – omnivore or vegan option – in advance so we can get an accurate estimate of how much to have and how many to accommodate. Upon entering Brooklyn Tech High School, pre-registered visitors will have fast entry. With over 5000 people expected to attend we really need everyone’s help in moving the entry lines quickly. Pre-registration will really help us do that.
There will be 10 workshop tracks: farming and agriculture, environment, food and culture, school food, faith & food, food policy, economic & business development, hunger & emergency food, health, nutrition & education, and labor & social justice.
RL: In terms of local, sustainable food businesses, how can the Coalition help support changes within the borough's infrastructure to ensure more vertically integrated food productions is sustained when it gets to a certain size? Currently local food manufacturers that grow successfully in sales, have to shift production from NYC to facilities in other states to keep their cost of production feasible.
NR: We have a vision that many people share. Progressively increasing locally sourced food should be required of all City and State agencies. On average, 1 million meals are provided by the City of New York each weekday – 850,000 of those meals are provided at public schools, and the rest are at senior centers and daycare, after school and prison facilities. We should look at where the food the government presently buys comes from as the baseline. Then there should be a progressive increase of locally produced food and push that local sourcing as far as we can. From there, we can use the state’s huge visitor population to create markets and create a robust food economy that circulates money in the city and state. We can use the food sector as an economic development initiative that also addresses health and environmental issues simultaneously.
An increase in the demand for local food would eventually lead to an increase in supply. That would certainly stimulate the production and processing of local food and keep more farmland in production instead of using it for fracking or other sorts of development that might harm the environment. There is a great potential to grow local businesses. If we can provide tax breaks to startups and training to small entrepreneurs, production costs can be cut. The problem is getting better access to these things. I’m not convinced there are cheap methods of production, but costs can be cut. We need to change the rules. Food can be prepared locally and regionally; I don’t think we’ll ever get to a point where the city will be able to grow all its own food but it can increase the amount of food it grows and support local farmer and processor working toward that local food vision. Certainly food processing jobs can be brought to New York City because we definitely have the talent and desire here. I don’t believe the market is everything, but we need to figure out ways to change the market so that it provides more good jobs horizontally, so more people get good jobs, and not jobs that are vertical with a few people getting huge salaries and profits while the workers and consumers are stuck at the bottom. A new, more democratic food system has the potential to employ more people in good jobs, use practices for production and distribution that are not harmful to the planet, and that provides healthy food for all our people. My vision is definitely a democratic vision of a fair distribution of power and wealth. We need an active, effective movement of people, especially people most affected by the present system, to make these changes now. And, we need to keep remembering to have fun along the way!