The Transformative Power of Urban Food Systems

by Sam Jones

Last month, the Massachusetts Urban Farming Conference came to Boston for its sixth year. Topics ranged from bee colonies and school gardens to hydroponics and the farm bill. A synopsis of issues relating to food access to youth incarceration can be found here, while the entire list of topics and more event information can be found online.

“The price of democracy is eternal vigilance,” says Karen Voci, the president of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation. At a time when the outcomes of political debates are as predictable as a roll of the dice, the acuity of civil society is of the utmost importance. For the sanctity of democracy and its ability to serve the people, that philosophy is relevant in every aspect of life, particularly in food systems. Food systems have the ability to both enhance egality and take it away.

The Sixth Annual Massachusetts Urban Farming Conference presented a slice of the world of which our eternal vigilance is both crucial and progressing. It was hosted by the Urban Farming Institute in partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources on March 16th and 17th at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, MA. Each day of the conference included four sessions and one or two keynote speeches. For each session, attendees selected one of five or six topics to be a part of. This event synopsis is based on my experience from the sessions I chose to attend on the first day of the conference.

During the first session, titled “A New Approach to Food Access: Best Practices to Shift Systems,” the first question asked by the moderator, Raheem Baraka of Baraka Community Wellness, was “What is your vision for a New England Food System?” In founding the Three River Farmers Alliance, a farm product aggregation business in New Hampshire, Andre Cantelmo hopes to achieve community-level food sovereignty in New England. As a farmer himself, he recognized that small farms lack the clout to push through the local food system on their own. In response, his Alliance fills a role that allows farms to specialize, which lowers prices for consumers and increases demand for locally farmed produce.

Cantelmo and Shawn Cooney, of Cornerstalk Farm, both admitted that their business models currently cater to “the middle-class white woman” who can afford fresh local produce at the farmers market. Cooney hopes these “early adopters” can act as funders that help their businesses grow and become more affordable and accessible in the long run. They hope to expand the New England local food system from one that includes their farm’s name on a  farm-to-table restaurant’s menu, to serving their carrots in school cafeterias anonymously, because “that’s just how it should be,” according to Cantelmo.

The topic of commodity crop subsidies soon came up in the discussion. Instead of hoping the subsidy structure will change, Cantelmo accepts it but intends to build a system through local food aggregation that can effectively compete with commodity crop subsidies. On the other hand, Voci argued that there is room for democratization in the food system, adding that the more people who familiarize themselves with the system, the more educated voters our society will have. Perhaps a more educated voter base will be able to demand change to the subsidy structure that disadvantages many small farmers.

On the topic of federal policy intervention, both Cantelmo and Cooney noticed that Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) and SNAP recipients make up a notable proportion of their customer base. However, there is a visible access problem. Cooney noted that customers using HIP and SNAP typically come to his farm store in large groups by bus or van, indicating that significant coordination unrelated to his business must go into providing people access to fresh local produce. Voci, while encouraged by the use of HIP and SNAP, voiced her concern about the future of these programs under the current administration.

When asked if local produce can be integrated into the current large-scale distribution system, the major concern of the panelists was “greenwashing”. According to both Cooney and Cantelmo, large distributors like Sysco have approached them for fresh produce, which puts their names on a list of producers that sell to the distributor. After a while, however, these large distributors stopped sourcing from them, yet their names and the sustainable methods associated with them remained likewise associated with the large distributors. This greenwashing dilemma is one reason why Cantelmo has taken food aggregation and distribution into his own hands. It is also an example of how self-organization can circumvent a much larger problem.

Another session I attended was called “Job Skills and Agriculture: Models for At-Risk and Formerly Incarcerated Youth.” Captain David Granese from the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department talked about a different kind of urban farm—one within the walls of a prison. This working farm is completely run by the prisoners themselves, who can earn time off their sentence in exchange for hard work, learning marketable job skills along the way.

UTEC, also represented on the panel, aims to reduce recidivism in Lowell, MA by teaching formerly incarcerated youth specific food-related job skills, while also offering valuable certificates that employers look for. This organization partners with the unemployment office, the division of labor, and employers in the community to identify where people with a criminal record who go through UTEC’s program are welcome to apply for jobs. UTEC also has an arrangement with the community college to get its members on a path to higher education that does not lead them back behind bars. UTEC is effective at achieving its goals—two years after the program, 78% of UTEC graduates are employed compared to just 40% or formerly incarcerated youth nationwide.  

Across every session, I was reminded why I want to study food systems in the first place. Food and farming have the ability to address seemingly unrelated issues, like crime and gentrification, in ways that can be uniquely tailored to each place and situation. Urban agriculture can breathe life back into a community. Food can make a success story out of a kid going nowhere fast. Food and farming are approachable avenues through which we can democratize our system as we see fit. Urban agriculture has the ability to actually create a more equal society while outside forces attempt to divide us. The Sixth Annual Massachusetts Urban Farming Conference illustrated the potential for food systems to act as a vehicle for positive self-organization that puts a person’s health and well-being at the forefront of progress.

Sam Jones is a first-year AFE student with a passion for sharing others’ stories. She is currently an intern at Culture Magazine and hopes to pursue a career in sustainable agricultural development and food journalism.

Overdue for Overtime

by Julie Kurtz

A new California law just enacted the most revolutionary labor standards since the creation of the 40-hour work week.  What is it?  Well, it’s the 40-hour work week. But will it improve equality? Will it impact the cost of your food? Will equitable farm labor make your vegetables healthier? And will the new law change the curriculum at Friedman?

On Monday September 12th, California Governor Jerry Brown signed monumental legislation that should be of interest to all Friedman students. California Assembly Bill 1066 will require that agricultural workers be paid overtime for working more than eight hours in a day or forty hours in a week. While this may seem like a no-brainer, the current standard requires workers to work 10 hours/day and 60 hours/week before earning their overtime pay. The changes will be incremental starting in 2019, with full realization of the law by 2022 for most farms and 2025 for farms with fewer than 25 employees.

We take for granted the forty-hour week as a cornerstone of American work ethics, representing fair working hours and honoring the dignity of work. Many industries had a forty-hour workweek in place well before the 20th century. In the heat of the workers’ rights movements, victory came with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, guaranteeing a maximum work hour week—or overtime compensation when forty hours were surpassed.

However, agricultural workers were exempt.

As were domestic workers.

In the 1930s African-Americans were disproportionately employed in agricultural and domestic labor. President Roosevelt signed the Fair Labors Standards Act knowing it was a compromise with Southern Congressmen who had a vested interest in excluding black employees to preserve the plantation-style economy of sharecroppers and black domestic workers.

While there are practical reasons why agricultural workers remained excluded from the labor rights that most Americans enjoy, mostly related to seasonality, it is clear that enormous power differentials persist between farm laborers and farm owners. In California more than 90% of farm laborers are Latino, and 80% are immigrants. Given the long history of labor exploitation in US Agriculture, what does it mean that the agricultural giant California has set this precedent of equality? Will the new overtime legislation be effective? Or are there loopholes that will inevitably allow the continued overworking of farm laborers? Will other states follow in California’s footsteps? And finally, to bring things back home, why should California Assembly Bill 1066 be discussed at 150 Harrison Avenue?

One of Friedman’s great strengths is our integrated approach to food. Friedman extends into every corner of the food system, from cutting edge nutritional science, consumer behavior, and food policy economics, to the environmental impacts of agriculture. Our system-wide approach enables Friedman to engage one of the most complex challenges on the planet: how to feed ourselves. But there is a realm where our reach rarely extends: labor.

I came to Friedman in part because we ask questions like “Is this tomato that is grown in nutrient-rich biodynamic soils healthier than a conventional tomato? Is it healthier for our bodies? Is it healthier for the land and for the sustainability of agriculture?” I’m thrilled that my education is helping me answer and provide insight to those questions. I’m less certain where on this campus we can ask: “Is this tomato that was grown by an equitably-paid farmer who has access to healthcare, leisure time, and education, as healthy as a tomato grown by a farmer who works 12-hour days, sees her children only briefly at dawn and night, and lacks a nutritious diet, time for education, and access to medical attention?”

Can healthy food come from an exploited workforce?

Second-year students from Friedman’s Agricultural Science & Policy II course recognized this gap in our education and knowledge. We do not feel equipped to evaluate and understand the impact of California’s new law in the grander context of the food system. As policy students we frequently discuss the “inputs” that go into our food: technology, land, and fertilizers. Labor is another input. But labor is people. We need a different set of tools to consider the migrant harvesters, the meat processors, the truck drivers, and the line cooks—the people without whom nutrition students would have nothing to study in the first place.

Fortunately we have a supportive faculty who has recognized the hole, and are working alongside us to bridge the gap. In fact, the entire Friedman community is invited to help bridge the gap:

  • In October the Friedman Seminar Committee will meet to determine Spring 2017 Seminar speakers and they will consider agricultural labor experts. To that end, students are invited (as they always are) to send speaker suggestions to Christian.Peters@tufts.edu.
  • Due to student requests, two AFE core courses (Nutr215 and Nutr333) will dedicate classroom time to address farm labor and the new California law. Interested students are invited to attend those lecture and discussion dates, and can email Timothy.Griffin@tufts.edu for more information.
  • As Friedman administration seeks to hire new faculty, we urge consideration of candidates with expertise in farm labor, food system law and justice.
  • Second-year AFE student Caitlin Joseph is spearheading a student-directed course on Agricultural Labor Policy and Justice in Spring 2017. Students interested in joining should contact her at Caitlin.Joseph@tufts.edu.

California AB 1066 did not materialize out of nowhere. How does its signing fit into the broader picture of dismantling inequality in the food system? As Friedman students and faculty, can we satisfactorily discuss nourishment if we are not equally concerned with the welfare of those who bring food to our table? What models exist to dismantle this systemic oppression? What impacts will those models have on the environment, on the economy, on nutrition, on academia, and mostly pertinently, on the labor force? And how can we integrate those models into the Friedman curriculum?

Julie Kurtz is in her second semester of the AFE program. She landed at Friedman after acting professionally in San Francisco, practicing Emergency Medicine in Minnesota, and farming in Bolivia.