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.