Mark Hellermann teaches sustainable food systems, research, pastry arts, and confectionary classes in the Hospitality department at New York City College of Technology. He is a member of the Sustainability Council at the college and also advises the Garden Club
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Book Review of Good Food, Strong Communities: Promoting Social Justice through Local and Regional Food Systems
Reviewed by Mark Hellermann
Published November 2019
Good Food, Strong Communities: Promoting Social Justice through Local and Regional Food Systems edited by Steve Ventura and Martin Bailkey. University of Iowa Press, 2017, 304 pp., $35 (paperback)
Food activism in the United States took off in the late 1960s and early 70s when groups like the Black Panthers started their free breakfast program in Los Angeles, the Diggers organized free meals in San Francisco, and buying clubs morphed into the Mifflin Street Co-op in Madison and the Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn. (Kramer; Noble; Pulido; Falkowitz) The food revolutionaries behind these institutions were rooted in a range of philosophies from socialism and cooperation to sisterhood and love. One goal was to construct alternative systems and institutions inside inclusive communities where food was available to all. Since the 1980s, that focus on equal access has sometimes taken a backseat to the organic, local, anti-genetically engineered, or the health food movement. Food inequalities are now viewed as both symptom and cause of the injustices people see around them, especially as social, cultural, and racial injustices are perceived to be increasing.
In the last ten years, a number of scholarly works have come out that together provide an update on the front lines of community food organizing. Mark Winne’s Closing the Food Gap (2008) begins his analysis with a look at food and social movements in the 1980s and moves up to the late 1990s and the focus on food deserts. Crisis and Opportunity by John Ikerd (2008) connects sustainable agricultural systems to the health requirements of our citizens. Recently-published books that examine theory and practice in this movement include More Than Just Food by Garret Broad; A Foodies Guide to Capitalism by Eric Holt-Giménez; The New Food Activism edited by Alison Alkon and Julie Guthman; and most recently, Good Food Strong Communities, edited by Steven Ventura and Martin Bailkey. These books start with the premise that issues of food insecurity and the lack of food equity are the result of economic and racial inequality. All of the authors argue that neoliberalism props up this inequity, and a lack of government oversight allows it to continue. And they present the reader with numerous examples, from one local battle to the next, of community–based work that is meant to create real community, empower citizens, and provide them with access to healthy food.
Compared to the other books on this list, Good Food Strong Communities provides a broader perspective on food activism while it introduces readers to a large number of specific on-the-ground action projects. The book came out of the work of the Community and Region Food Systems Project (CRFS) that started in 2011. The CRFS project received USDA support in order to explore and support local food initiatives; Good Food, Strong Communities is a wide-ranging report on six years of work with community advocacy groups across the US. Editors Martin Bailkey (project co-manager) and Steven Ventura (project co-director) are involved in food and agriculture issues in Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin respectively. Bailkey is a food systems planner and consultant. He is focused on urban agriculture and was a manager at Growing Power, Will Allen’s urban farm and community outreach center. Ventura is a professor at University of Wisconsin, Madison, specializing in environmental studies and land tenure. The CRFS partnered with projects in their home cities and in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles. Twenty-eight authors from colleges, universities, community groups, policy institutes, and urban farms contributed in a range of styles. The book’s fourteen chapters include first person narratives, observational reports, theoretical expositions, and traditional case studies.
One of the challenges of the CRFS project was that community groups made it clear they did not want to be studied. As a result, the CRFS core group viewed advocacy groups and organizations not as subjects but as organizations they could engage with, listen to, and most importantly, support. The support aspect is specifically addressed in the CRFS mission and it fits well with one of Will Allen’s philosophical tenets. In his forward to the book, Allen believes that academics need to be invited into the community by its leaders and offer advice only when their expertise is requested. According to Allen, the CRFS academics embraced this philosophy wholeheartedly, and consequently their field work includes real support and advocacy. This endorsement, coming from a longtime community leader and urban farmer, says a lot about the value of CRFS-sponsored community projects.
Readers from a range of backgrounds will find ideas and inspiration in the case studies and theories presented here; policy makers will find examples of community organizations that work; academics in the social sciences can see ideas for the structure and types of organizations; community food groups will get ideas for funding and may also learn from the interpersonal conflicts that are part of can; and students just beginning to consider the complexity of food systems are presented with numerous approaches to making a more equitable food system.
In the first chapter, the editors describe the structure and components that make up the system, giving much needed definition and context to terms like food sovereignty, food justice, supply chains, accessibility, and land tenure. The authors reiterate the rationale behind a food system that provides food security for community members. At the heart of their argument is the philosophy that only a food system that takes into account the needs of all stakeholders, regardless of color, class, or ethnicity, can truly empower the community. The chapter also includes a useful graphic representation of the components and interactions that make up this value-laden food chain.
The groundwork laid out in the first chapter is essential. One concept that Bailky and Ventura present is the addition of a ‘value metric’ to the food supply chain. They use a graphic of interconnected wheels as a way to illustrate how social justice, health, and sustainability can actually drive the food chain. It becomes clear, as subsequent chapters develop, that adding this value metric to any part of the food system makes the system exponentially more complex. The remaining thirteen chapters examine different aspects of the food chain by exploring the breadth of components within that chain, arguing that these components need to be approached from a justice and equity framework.
The second chapter, by Nate Ela and Greg Rosenberg, gives an overview of some models in existence for securing and maintaining farm land in Chicago, Rhode Island, and New York City. Sections on ownership and marketing offer valuable insight into some links in the food chain that are often given short shrift. For instance, one type of land tenure agreement that preserves land for an urban farm, may, by its structure, limit the long-term viability of the urban farm. A different type of land tenure may make it easier to transition to a for profit entity when it becomes well established. Discussions of the social mission and job training goals of Growing Home in Chicago and Uprooting Racism, Planting Justice (URPJ) in Detroit, with examples of buy-in, empowerment, and project ownership are equally valid but perhaps more familiar.
The multitude of forces that drive a successful food initiative are well illustrated in many case studies. In chapter seven, for example, the success of the Middleton Outreach Ministry near Madison, Wisconsin depends on a conglomeration of religious, community, government, and academic groups, which provide fresh produce to needy families at its food pantry. Also in Madison, Field to Foodbank has successfully mustered the help of farmers, food processors, and truckers to make use of harvest windfalls at its food pantry. This is a useful lesson for both students and seasoned community organizers, one that illustrates the value of cooperation, long term relationships, and volunteerism.
Community activists with minimal interest in academics can read about strategies that have yielded positive results and might be replicated in different regions. A lengthy chapter by co-editor Martin Ventura, titled “It All Starts with the Soil,” spells out the intricacies of composting. It is weighted towards the how-to end of things, funding plans included. However, Ventura’s plans rely completely on community-based efforts. It would be instructive to include government efforts in some cities (such as New York) that are embracing organics collection as part of their municipal sustainability goals.
Navigating the layers of government institutions is essential to many food system initiatives. Chapter twelve, “Community and Regional Food Systems Policy and Planning,” by Lindsey Day-Farnsworth and Margaret Krome, does a superb job of explaining the administrative, regulatory and legislative structures—from local to federal—that affect the food chain. Day-Farnsworth and Krome also elaborate on the huge impact the Good Food Purchasing Program in Los Angeles has had on local sustainable agriculture. They also explain how this model is being applied in New Jersey and the San Francisco area.
Chapter ten, “Achieving Community Food Security Through Collective Impact,” is for academics and others who want to explore some theoretical constructs within food systems. Written by Greg Lawless, Stephanie Calloway and Angela Allen, this chapter provides a thorough examination of the collective impact model as it applies to the community food council in Milwaukee. The model is seen as an important tool for including multiple stakeholders in food policy decisions. It relies on a cadre of business and community leaders who have one particular goal in common and also have a certain level of civic clout. The authors analyze the complexity of gathering leaders from business, government, academia, and community. But after describing the historical reconfigurations and machinations of this diverse group, the authors do not address the efficacy of this model. It may be that CRFS project participants are too invested in the theory to critically evaluate its effectiveness.
In chapter thirteen, “Cultural Dissonance: Reframing Institutional Power,” racism is discussed in the context of food insecurity and food injustice. Chicago-based authors Erika Allen, Rodger Cooley, and Laurell Sims speak about the culture of racism within academic institutions, funding organizations and community nonprofits and how these attitudes affect food issues in communities of color. Although the authors do not offer specific ideas for promoting equity in the food system, they do call for more cultural awareness on the part of white privileged stakeholders.
In the final chapter, “Innovations and Successes,” Ventura presents a realistic overview of CRFS successes and challenges. He puts the work of these projects in the context of food awareness and global issues; and this is how it should be. His solutions-based approach to food access issues leaves the reader with a positive view of how to deal with the roadblocks in our food chain. He shows how inspiration comes from both the grassroots organizers and theoretical examinations of various models that contribute to a more just food system. Because food equity and security are affected by diverse cultural and structural phenomena, we need a variety of strategies to address the inequalities that are part of the system. This book provides just that: covering a broad range of approaches and solutions it offers insight into food system issues, inspiring the food activist in all of us.
Alkon, Alison and Julie Guthman, editors. The New Food Activism. U of California P, 2017.
Broad, Garret. More Than Just Food: Food Justice and Community Change. U of California P, 2016.
Falkowitz, Max. “Birth of the Kale: How a food-loving community center became the most infamous—and best—socialist grocery utopia in America.” Grub Street. 19 Apr., 2018.
Holt-Giménez, Eric. A Foodies Guide to Capitalism: Understanding the Political Economy of What We Eat. Monthly Review P, 2017.
Ikerd, John E. Crisis & Opportunity: Sustainability in American Agriculture. U of Nebraska P, 2008.
Kramer, Michael, J. “Hot fun in the Summertime: Micro and Macrocosmic Views on the Summer of Love.” Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics & Culture , vol. 10 no. 2, Dec. 2017, pp. 221-241.
Noble, Molly. “Food for the Revolution: The Story of the Mifflin Street Community Cooperative.” Exploring Cooperatives: Economic Democracy and Community Development in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Social Science Computing Cooperative, 2016. pp. 39-48.
Pulido, Laura. Black, Brown, Yellow and Left: Radical activism in Los Angeles. U of California P, 2006.
Winne, Mark. Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty. Beacon, 2008.