BAG’s 2019 Apprentices, Kate Morse and Sam Balka, have spent the season learning as much as they can about gleaning, agriculture, and sustainable food systems. Each week they explore a topic through readings, videos, podcasts, and other media. In this piece, Sam reflects on different visions of what sustainable food systems should be, what the challenges are, and how we should get there.
This week we were learning all about sustainable food systems, and unpacked the buzzwords a bit to explore the nuance. First, we watched a presentation on the EAT Lancet project, a multi-disciplinary and multi-cultural effort to identify a healthy diet that would simultaneously be sustainable for the environment. The report concludes that if people worldwide adopted the healthy diet that they came up with—which cuts down meat and dairy consumption—then the world would remain within a healthy boundary of climate change patterns. If we also eliminate food waste by half and reform food production, these three changes could fix all of the environmental concerns associated with food waste and animal agriculture. This study is exciting and shows just how influential our global food systems are, but it also puts an extremely difficult feat to the forefront. What does it mean to get the whole world to adopt this diet? Is it truly everyone? Or something more like three-quarters or even a half? Realistically speaking, encouraging all cultures around the world to adjust their cooking (and eating!) to this diet might be more difficult than working at the level of bigger corporations.
Another topic of discussion this week was the production and exportation of food systems. These processes are also an important part of sustainable eating, rather than just individual dietary habits. The importance of local food systems isn’t always due to the food traveling shorter distances to arrive at its consumer. The reason is often related more to smaller farms adopting more sustainable methods of agriculture, as well as eliminating the middlemen in the food distribution process, as farms package, store, and sell their own products, producing fewer GHG emissions in the process. In fact, local food systems are not a more sustainable way to produce food if the crops grown are not suited for the environment (for example, if they have excessive water requirements), or if they are grown in heated greenhouses throughout the winter. At that point the process is probably less energy efficient than importing the product from elsewhere.
On the other hand, groups like the Nature Conservancy are advocating for creating long-term impact through increased engagement with the agribusinesses that dominate our food systems. I find this to be an interesting and unique perspective because of its assertion that these big corporations are going to play an equal role in the food systems in the end as they do now. From what I’ve read elsewhere, I got a feeling that a large part of working and focusing on smallholder farmers is to increase their power to completely change and rewire the food system to focus more on small-scale production, not simply changing the growing practices within the food system.
In thinking about sustainable food systems, I’ve also been reflecting on gleaning. It seems to me that smaller farms are the ones already doing well in terms of sustainable practices. The food waste produced on bigger farms could be of greater concern because their practices may be more inherently harmful. Should the future of gleaning be targeting these bigger farms? Groups like Boston Area Gleaners already work with food waste on smaller farms, but is that where the most impact can be made? I have a feeling that these questions will become a point of disagreement, contention, and possibly growth within the world of sustainable agriculture—if they haven’t already.
By Sam Balka
BAG’s 2019 Apprentices, Kate Morse and Sam Balka, have spent the season learning as much as they can about gleaning, agriculture, and sustainable food systems. Each week they explore a topic through readings, videos, podcasts, and other media. In this piece, Kate reflects on the whirlwind tour she took through U.S. agricultural policy and government intervention in agricultural markets.
One of the highlights from this week was an episode of Planet Money titled “Government Cheese,” which detailed the U.S. government’s attempts to help the declining dairy industry. Basically, they offered to buy cheese from farmers at a fixed price, so that if they weren’t able to sell their dairy products elsewhere, they could still make money by selling cheese to the government (cheese because it is one of the only dairy products that can be stored for any length of time). So the government became overrun with cheese. They bought so much cheese that they had to start storing it in huge caves in Kansas! However, there wasn’t nearly enough demand in the market for all that cheese (hence the farmers having to sell it to the government in the first place) so the government was faced with the problem of what to do with caves full of cheese. They turned to the food bank system, and started sending what came to be widely known as “government cheese” to food banks across the country.
To me, this is just ridiculous. I wouldn’t even call this a solution to the problem of the failing industry. The government is spending tons of money to buy cheese that nobody wants and then essentially finding a way to force it on to people. On top of that, cheese isn’t a very healthy food, and could be contributing to chronic disease that the government ultimately has to spend more money on in healthcare costs. In my view, this is just turning one problem into two. In addition, the dairy industry is still failing, and dairy farmers and their families are hurting. So clearly, “government cheese” did not solve the problem.
At the same time, learning about the Wisconsin Dairy Crisis really took me aback. As a dairy-wary semi-vegan, I had previously celebrated the decline of the dairy industry. While I’m certainly still glad that we’re decreasing our dairy intake for the sake of public health outcomes and the humane treatment of cows, I’d never thought about what that means for the thousands of farmers whose livelihoods depend on dairy.
In the end, I’m baffled by crop insurance programs. I think the idea behind them is great, because farming is hard and risky and we should support farmers who are willing to take on that burden in order to make sure that we all have the food we need to live. However, in practice, they seem to do more harm than good—and not just with the dairy industry, as corn has undergone a similar process. We’ve ended up with way more corn than we can consume and have had to start finding ways to sneak it to consumers in disguise. As a result, we have ended up contributing to our ongoing epidemics of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Is there really no better way to handle this? What if, instead of feebly propping up a declining industry, we found a way to redirect farmers into a new industry, such as solar or wind farming? I think we can and need to do better!
By Kate Morse
In October 2018, when Greg Voss arrived at Autumn Hills Orchard in Groton for his very first glean, it was hard to tell that he was new to Boston Area Gleaners. Greg learned about BAG through friend and long-time gleaner Sally Thompson—and like Sally, Greg exuded an aura of enthusiasm and preparedness, dressed for success in his practical Carhartt gear and clearly game for anything. Before long he was on a ladder in an apple tree, harvesting like a professional. But we knew for certain that Greg was a true blue gleaner when he returned the very next day to keep picking apples: he just couldn’t get enough of it.
One year later, Greg has volunteered an impressive 21 times, each time bringing his trademark grin and team spirit to the fields. He’s a proud grandfather, skilled woodworker, and passionate home gardener, yet he still finds the time to give back to his community by getting out the vote and volunteering with his co-op. Quite often Greg arrives at a glean on his trusty old bicycle, having enjoyed a bracing ride from his home in Acton to the farm location of the day. Needless to say, his energy motivates everyone around him!
What inspired Greg to come glean with us so many times in the past year? “The people at BAG, the volunteers and staff. It’s great fun even when you’re working hard. It’s so rewarding!” Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the beautiful view from Autumn Hills Orchard is best enjoyed from the top of an apple ladder. But Greg even likes the messier, muddier, colder gleaning trips: he makes a point of mentioning how much he enjoys “pulling carrots from the semi-frozen ground.” Many gleaners would break with him on that controversial subject. Yet most would agree that it’s much more fun to glean when Greg is around, thanks to his infectious laugh, generous spirit, and zeal for learning something new at every glean. We’re lucky to have him—and lucky to have our whole “gleaner family” of devoted volunteers who make our work possible.
By Leah Costlow
The backwater region of Kerala's western coast, with coconut palms in the background.
My dad's side of the family originally hails from Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the two southernmost Indian states. After moving from India to England and then to Trinidad, my grandparents ended up in the Boston area, where they stayed while raising their family and pursuing their careers in medicine. I grew up eating my dad's home-cooked Indian meals, and I still consider these dishes some of the most powerful comfort food: mince curry, shrimp biryani, and a plethora of vegetable dishes featuring whole spices, shredded coconut, and bright flavors like lime, curry leaf, and tamarind. The following recipe is one of my absolute favorites--and since it uses butternut squash, a New England fall favorite, I feel it encapsulates the story of my family's journey from India to Boston. It's a journey I think of each time I enjoy this dish.
Leah Costlow, Outreach Coordinator
Winter Squash Erisheri
(Winter squash with toasted coconut)
1/2 cup whole mung beans
1 medium butternut squash, pumpkin, or other winter squash
1 cup grated unsweetened coconut
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons coconut or vegetable oil
2 teaspoons mustard seeds
2 dried red chiles
1. Toast mung beans in a dry pan, stirring constantly until light brown. Rinse in a strainer, then place in a saucepan with 1 1/2 cups water and bring to a boil. Simmer, covered, for 20 minutes or until tender.
2. Peel the squash, remove seeds, and cut into large chunks. I always use the whole squash, but if it's much more than 5 cups, set aside the excess for another time.
3. Blend 3/4 cup of the coconut, garlic, and ground masala in a small bowl with 1/2 cup water. Set aside.
4. Combine squash with turmeric, cayenne, salt, and 1 1/2 cups water. Bring to a boil, then simmer until squash is tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Add the cooked mung beans and stir well. Return to a boil, then remove from heat.
5. Make the tadka: heat the oil in a small frying pan. Add the mustard seeds and cover while the seeds pop. After a few moments, toss in the dried red chiles, then add the remaining 1/4 cup of coconut. Stir constantly over moderate heat until the coconut turns cinnamon brown. Stir this mixture into the cooked squash and heat until warmed through, adding water if necessary--the consistency should be akin to a thick sauce or stew. Check the salt and enjoy!
Adapted from Savoring the Spice Coast of India, by Maya Kaimal. This wonderful cookbook is one of my favorites, and although it's out of print, it can sometimes be found used.
If you’ve gleaned with Rebecca Leong, odds are that you’ve seen her way, way up at the very top of an apple tree. Rebecca is in her sixth season of volunteering with Boston Area Gleaners, and she’s honed her skills with many crops…but apples are her specialty. “I enjoy the outdoor activity,” she says, “successfully getting the last apple off a tree (every once in a while).”
It’s true: on more than one occasion last fall, Rebecca stayed in the orchard long past the official 3 hour mark, working with staff until twilight to clean up those last few trees. She’s modest about her level of skill and commitment: “I am way too slow and weak to do this for a living, and I appreciate the folks who do every time I am out gleaning.” Still, she’s so deeply committed to BAG’s work that she brushes off gleaning incidents that might put others off, including a tipped picking ladder, a dead porcupine under an apple tree, and an especially lengthy day gleaning corn at Verrill Farm, “with rows of corn that seemingly had no end.” As far as she’s concerned, it’s all in a day’s work.
Of course, there are other responsibilities that occupy Rebecca on a typical day. As an anesthesiologist, she primarily cares for cataract patients. while periodically working at Franciscan Children’s Hospital, anesthetizing patients with intellectual, behavioral, or psychiatric issues so that they can receive badly needed dental care.
Her connection to the BAG community goes back even before her first glean in 2014. She was a member of the CSA at Waltham Fields Community Farm, where BAG’s founder, Oakes Plimpton, was also instrumental. “I read an article about BAG which mentioned him, and at some point I asked for more detail from the volunteer staffing the BAG information table.”
Now Rebecca is a fixture of BAG’s gleaner family, and comes out regularly every year. “I am pained by the idea of crops rotting in the field, especially when there is a needy community that lacks sufficient fresh produce.” This feeling motivates her to pick one last apple tree or fill one last crate with ripe tomatoes. And that’s not all: she forages for wild foods, fishes from the beach, and generally thrives in the outdoors. “Dedicated, capable, and entertaining”—Rebecca's description of the BAG family, and a great description of Rebecca herself.
By Leah Costlow
In our work as well as in our lives, food is a common thread that connects us all. Here at the Boston Area Gleaners we are obsessed with how food is grown, harvested, cooked & shared. We have the extreme privilege of visiting many different farms and handling many different kinds of produce, from which we draw a great deal of inspiration. We want to chronicle your food knowledge, stories and recipes in your own words, in your own style. Here BAG's Outreach Coordinator, Leah Costlow, shares her own food story.
Before I moved to Massachusetts and started working for BAG, I spent more than a few years living and working on diversified farms in Maine. My longest stint was 3 years on a horse-powered farm in the midcoast town of Wiscasset. I spent the summers managing sheep pasture and growing veggies with the aid of Bill, Perry, and Millie—three tall, brawny, russet-colored Belgian draft horses. Winters were busy, too, with livestock chores, winter markets, and sustainable logging on the farm’s large woodlot. I lived in a tiny cabin heated for the winter by a tiny wood stove, hauling water in 5-gallon buckets from the farmhouse a quarter mile away, and grabbing veggies every day from the farm’s walk-in cooler. I slept on a futon in the cabin’s cozy loft, accessed by a ladder through a hole in the floor. And let me tell you: I slept very well.
With so much to do from dawn to dusk, it was usually a challenge to actually cook for myself and enjoy the fruits of my own labor. Whenever I stumbled across a quick, delicious, nourishing meal, I would file it away in my mental catalogue of easy recipes. Over time this catalogue became (in my mind, at least) a collection I called “The Apprentice Kitchen.” These aren’t recipes so much as an odd assortment of ideas and guidelines for feeding yourself quickly and seasonally, without too much fuss or mental energy required. And who wouldn’t want to cook like that?
As an apprentice, I had full access to what we called “home use” farm produce. Any gleaner would be familiar with this food—it’s the stuff that would otherwise go to waste! In August and September, this often means ripe, ripe, RIPE tomatoes. Cracked, juicy, fat, heavy tomatoes, at the peak of perfection—but too good to survive a trip to market. Here’s what to do for a miracle meal that's good at any time of day:
Drizzle olive into a small or medium cast-iron pan. When the olive oil is hot, add thick slices of ripe heirloom tomato: I’d go with ½ inch or thicker. Your pan should be small enough that you can cover the bottom with tomato. Season the tomatoes with a little salt and pepper, then crack eggs on top of the tomato slices. Keep the heat at a moderate level, so the olive oil and tomato juice bubbles up around the bottom of the egg, but not so high that the eggs cook too fast. If you like your eggs well done, put a lid on top of the pan after a few minutes. Otherwise, take the pan off the heat when the yolks feel springy. Scrape onto some good sourdough bread and season with salt, pepper, and whatever fresh herbs you might have around.
Whether you’re a farm apprentice or a gleaner, this is a meal to satisfy...no matter how tired, hungry, and sore you are.
By Leah Costlow
Simple or complex, innovative or an old standby, we want to know what gleaned dishes you love! Contribute to the upcoming BAG cookbook, and have your recipe featured here on the blog!
Email your recipes to Miss Jeanie at missGLEANie@gmail.com
Since 1988, Fair Foods has been rescuing high quality surplus produce from the landfill and bringing it to communities across the Boston metro area. Each year they distribute as much as 5 million pounds of fruits and veggies that would otherwise end up in a dumpster. Here Leah Costlow, Operations Team Leader, describes the day that BAG staff spent volunteering at a Fair Foods market.
Whenever we bring volunteers out to glean, there’s one question that always gets asked: “Where is this food going to end up?” Harvesting fresh, local produce is just one side of the gleaning equation, and our volunteers are eager to learn about when and where the delicious food we glean will be enjoyed.
But it’s not just volunteers who want to better understand how gleaned produce gets from farm to table. On July 19th, BAG staff got a ground-level view of Fair Foods, one of the many hunger relief agencies in our distribution network. As part of an ongoing effort to get acquainted with our partners, the whole Operations crew spent the afternoon volunteering with Fair Foods at one of their dozens of pop-up farmers market locations. Every day, Fair Foods staff and volunteers bring fresh fruits and veggies to schools, churches, public housing, and senior centers all over Boston. Much like the local produce that BAG rescues, this produce is high quality food that cannot be marketed—whether due to cosmetic imperfections, reduced demand, or an overabundant supply that drives down market prices. Fair Foods receives this food and brings it into communities where affordable food is in short supply. Preventing food waste and bringing food to families all at the same time… Makes sense, right?
Fair Foods’ signature offering is their $2 bag of produce, which BAG staff helped assemble during our afternoon of volunteering. Neighborhood patrons can stop in at a market location and pick up as many pre-packed grocery bags of produce as they need, at the amazing price of $2 a bag! Other deals are available depending on what’s abundant, but the $2 bags are what keep people coming back every week. For this particular market, BAG contributed bunches of Red Russian and Lacinato kale, and helped unload a large truckload of grapes, peaches, cucumbers, zucchini, and tomatoes at First Church in Dorchester. Tasks were efficiently divided up, and an assembly line of volunteers was able to quickly pack enough grocery bags of produce to fill several long tables. Even in the blazing July heat, shoppers began showing up before the market had opened—a tell-tale sign of how popular these markets are.
All the BAG staff in attendance were impressed by the unique blend of community spirit and no-nonsense efficiency on display. The line between shoppers and volunteers was completely erased, as local people worked assembling grocery bags in return for some additional produce. Not everyone spoke the same language, but some things didn’t need translation—like the crisp, cold sweetness of a grape, which one local volunteer insisted on sharing with BAG staff each time she passed by.
The heat of the day meant that the market slowed down after a couple hours, giving us a chance to chat with Fair Foods staff about the history and singular vision of the organization. At a time when it is all too easy for nonprofits to lose sight of their mission, Fair Foods is laser-focused on doing whatever it takes to make nutritious food available to all who need it. The $2 bag of produce is a simple but ingenious answer to the widespread stigma associated with receiving free food. At Fair Foods, the community is vibrant, the produce is fresh, and the deals can’t be beat. And who can argue with that?
By Leah Costlow
Click here to read more about Fair Foods
This year we've been making an effort to volunteer as a group more frequently. These outings represent an important opportunity for staff bonding and for improving our understanding of the larger food system and what others are doing to address similar problems. Below Operations Assistant Manager, Courtney Mussell, talks about the experience.
A few of our BAG staff members and volunteers recently had the opportunity to spend a day volunteering at one of our partner-agencies, Community Servings.
Community Servings is a non-profit whose mission is to provide “medically tailored meals and nutrition services to homebound individuals and their families coping with critical chronic illnesses.” The organization started out serving 30 people in the city of Boston and have expanded to reach 2,300 people throughout the state. Community Servings is preparing 2,500 meals per day which are then distributed their clients and families. They tailor meals to fit the nutritional needs of over 35 illnesses and provide food to clients of any age.
Located in Jamaica Plain, Community Servings recently renovated and expanded their facility to fit their continuous growth. We were greeted at the front desk and guided back to their volunteer space. There were storage lockers provided for personal belongings and their volunteer coordinator taught us about their history, mission, and kitchen safety protocols. Once we were ready to start working in the kitchen, we were assigned tasks by their executive chefs. Some of us were putting together containers of salads and sides, while others made scratch-made brownies. We later put together bags that would be distributed to families. A typical bag includes 5 entrees, 5 salads, 4 soups, 2 yogurts, 5 desserts, 2 pieces of fruit, and 1 quart of milk. The recipes are designed to fit the specific needs of each person and their health requirements. Additionally each client receives one-on-one nutrition counseling.
Last year, Community Servings received 50,000 pounds of produce from local farms and food rescue organizations, including the Boston Area Gleaners.
By Courtney Mussell
In an era of global media coverage it can feel like you are being constantly bombarded with humanitarian and environmental crises from all sides. The rate at which we intake this type of information can sometimes lead to feelings of discouragement and even hopelessness. In this weeks blog post, summer intern Anneke Craig, reflects on a meeting on hosted by State Rep Denise Garlick that convened leaders in the food systems movement to discuss how we can enact change at a local level and ultimately inform broader global shifts.
-In order to function, our food systems require creativity, attention, and enthusiastic representation on local, state, and national platforms. The state of Massachusetts affirmed this in 2015, establishing a plan that celebrated the opportunities and successes of Massachusetts food systems, but also addressed the challenges and problems those same systems must overcome.
The main problem? 11.9% of our population is food insecure, yet 40% of food in the United States goes uneaten. Through the MA Local Food Action Plan, four major goals were identified for a safe, healthy, and efficient future:
Similar goals are being addressed internationally. The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, and Health is an international organization that works to transform food systems, with the ultimate goal of ensuring “planetary health diets for nearly 10 billion people by 2050” (EAT-Lancet, 6).
To achieve this, EAT-Lancet recommends changes in three major areas: waste, diet, and production. We must cut waste in half, adopt flexitarian diets of many fruits and vegetables, and change our food production practices for the sake of our planet’s health and sustainability.
As Boston Area Gleaners’ new summer intern, I had the privilege of attending a talk given by EAT-Lancet Report author Dr. Walter C. Willett alongside our operations manager, Charlotte Border. The event bridged global and local perspectives--with framework from an international commission being hosted by state representative Denise Garlick, and discussed by local food justice groups in Needham and other communities.
Even Dr. Willett acknowledged the power of local action, citing the example of smoking bans that started as small town debates. The talk was followed by group discussions between attendees on five different topics--BAG, of course, discussed food rescue.
Though local to the Boston area, BAG is invested in the goals of EAT-Lancet and the MA Local Food Action Plan because we are invested in the success of our local farmers and health of our community.
In his presentation, Dr. Willett warned us: “in almost everything we are doing, we could do better,” and I realized, nervously, that we have our work cut out for us. Yet, the energetic and upbeat spirit in the room was infectious. BAG, together with representatives from food banks, research teams, schools and local farms, identified two major themes that can lead us to achieve the goals of the EAT-Lancet Commission and the MA Local Food Action Plan: supporting legislative and educational initiatives, and encouraging more collaboration to present a united front for food equity.
When our small discussion groups reconvened, it became clear that each one placed value on the power of legislation and education in food justice. EAT-Lancet agrees: one of its main strategies for achieving a planetary health diet is to “seek international and national commitment to shift toward healthy diets” though policy, sustainability education, and public health initiatives (EAT-Lancet, 21).
Legislative changes could be brought about by strengthening existing policy and passing new ones. In our group alone, we suggested more committed enforcement of state waste bans for businesses, promotion of good samaritan policies that protect food donors, and creation of standardized food labeling laws and school nutrition curricula. Keeping the lived experiences of those who are affected by legislative and educational actions in mind, supporters--like BAG--hope that structural actions will influence a long-term cultural change in our relationship to food.
The MA Local Food Action Plan identifies collaboration as “the key to success--” and given the scale of the problem, this is absolutely true (MA Local Food, 2). In line with EAT-Lancet and the MA Local Food Action Plan, our discussions also prioritized collaboration. Specific proposals included data-sharing between non-profit agencies in order to improve produce transportation and donation logistics, the formation of a Food Rescue Coalition, and recognizing that “food equity” should always have an intersectional definition. Collaborative effort is vital to long-term food equity, because it is impossible to solve such a multifaceted problem with a lone perspective.
The emphasis on collaboration at the talk helped me to understand how I fit into this movement, and this community. Boston Area Gleaners collaborate with many different entities to rescue produce across the state--local farmers, individual volunteers, and partner agencies included--to achieve our mission.
The very space in which we operate is also collaborative. I am drafting this blog post from my desk at the Waltham Field Station, the facility which Boston Area Gleaners call home. Here, eight different non-profit groups, all committed to food justice and environmental advocacy, work alongside each other in the station’s offices, greenhouses, fields, and labs.
Immersed in collaboration which only sharpens our creativity and sense of justice, I can’t help but feel hopeful for the future of our food systems. When one representative stood up to discuss strategies for fighting food waste, a voice shouted from the crowd: “You should look into is the Gleaners!” Charlotte and I turned and smiled: “That’s us!” -
By Anneke Craig
Hunger is not caused by a scarcity of food.
Every year Radcliffe hosts a symposium where they honor "ideas at work in the world" and award the Radcliffe Medal to a person going above and beyond to advance the greater good. This year they convened an array of organizations working to improve the food system to honor Dolores Huerta for her food systems activism. BAG was recognized as an innovator in the field and invited to attend. Below, Leah Costlow, an Operations Team Leader, reflects on the day.
-Food is far from scarce these days, as anyone who has volunteered with Boston Area Gleaners can attest. Every year we bring hundreds of volunteers onto dozens of Massachusetts farms, where the abundance of production can be overwhelming.
Our local farmers have perfected their unpredictable craft to the greatest possible extent: year after year, residents of Massachusetts enjoy delicious, locally grown produce ranging from apples and winter squash to fresh ginger and callaloo.
And the realities of farming mean that every year there is a surplus. Sometimes crop conditions are so good that commodity prices plummet, making it difficult for farmers to afford the labor costs to harvest what they’ve grown. Sometimes crop conditions are poor, and crop quality falls short of the aesthetic that consumers have grown accustomed to seeing.
That’s where we come in: BAG exists because farms produce more than they can sell.
But what about hunger? Is hunger inevitable, in the way that surplus seems to be an inevitable part of modern agriculture? I struggled with this question while attending Radcliffe Day, the annual symposium that brings activists, policy experts, and other thinkers to the Radcliffe Institute for a day of conversation.
This year’s event, which took place on May 31st, centered around food and justice: the intrepid labor activist Dolores Huerta received the Radcliffe Medal in recognition of her groundbreaking work on behalf of farmworkers in California and beyond, and panelists for the event included sustainability luminaries Alice Waters and Francis Moore Lappé.
During the forum entitled “Nourishing America,” Waters and Lappé butted heads with experts in health policy and agricultural economics. I found myself siding with the policy wonks: the sustainability movement has not done enough to reach farmworkers, minorities, and the millions living in food insecurity. We’ve gotten very good at growing food, but we could be much better at feeding people.
As one panelist noted, hunger relief, although vitally important, doesn’t address the fundamental causes of hunger and economic inequality in our country. When you look at it this way, then yes, hunger starts to seem sadly inevitable.
Meanwhile, BAG and other food justice organizations set up shop in the so-called Marketplace of Ideas, where everyone in attendance could learn about the innovative ways in which these organizations are tackling issues within our food system. I spoke with many people who were thrilled to learn about what we do at BAG, some of whom had never heard of gleaning before. Almost everyone was shocked to learn that approximately 20% of food goes to waste without ever leaving the farm.
They were also delighted to learn that BAG rescued 820,000 pounds of this surplus in 2018, and is on track to glean 1 million pounds in our fast-approaching 2019 season. Of course, the reality behind these record-breaking numbers is a staggering level both of food waste and of food insecurity. In the face of this reality, I found it tremendously motivating to be deep in conversation with interested, passionate people who were all ears concerning food and justice. It was inspiring to look around me and see the hard work and daring ideas represented by the organizations and professionals in attendance.
The day’s highlight, however, was undoubtedly Dolores Huerta. In a captivating interview, Huerta recounted her work as a founder of the United Farm Workers of America and subsequently as a feminist activist.
At the age of 89, Huerta spoke with an intensity and clarity of purpose that I found contagious.
She recalled her early encounters with farm workers as a young teacher, when she first realized how deeply disenfranchised these people were. Not only did farm workers lack basic workplace protections and bargaining power, they couldn’t even patronize food pantries when crop failures robbed them of income.
How did Huerta ever imagine she could mobilize these people to fight those in power? By remembering, she said, that people have the power. We don’t have to take or win the power, because power resides in every person. And in her experience, empowering the powerless had big results, as the UFW eventually won unprecedented rights for California farm workers—rights that have yet to be established elsewhere in the US.
By the end of her address, Huerta had the crowd on its feet. We were applauding her iconic accomplishments, and chanting her iconic words, "Sí, se puede.”
More than simply applauding Huerta’s amazing past, we were buoyed by her reminder to look forward. Yes, we can build justice into our food system. Yes, we can enact policies to effect greater change. At this moment in time, BAG and our many hunger relief partners are working within a deeply flawed structural framework, in which food waste and hunger are both considered inevitable. But in the spirit of Dolores Huerta, BAG’s mission of bringing food to families recognizes that the people have the power. We don’t have to wait for those policy changes. We can start right now.-
By Leah Costlow
Click here to read more about the event from The Harvard Gazette.