Food Justice A look across the food system spectrum

Jennifer Jackson is a member of ZSR's Community Leadership Council and Founder of Transformation InSight, a coaching and consulting firm.

The Z. Smith Reynolds Community Leadership Council is made up of a group of 17 leaders from across the state who represent various communities, ideologies, professions and perspectives. The group comes together three times a year to dive into issues of interest to the Foundation and, together with Board and staff, engage in a process of co-learning.

In November, the focus of our meeting was on food justice. Though the Foundation does not have a focus area specifically dedicated to this issue, it regularly receives proposals for funding in this area that are handled through its Social Justice and Equity, Community Economic Development and Environment portfolios. Requests for support from the Foundation span the entire food system spectrum, including the production (growing and harvesting), distribution (processing, transporting, packaging) and marketing (modes of and avenues for selling) of food. The purpose of this meeting was to discern what the Foundation's ultimate engagement in this area might eventually be. 

Because food first and foremost is a deeply personal issue, the meeting commenced with eye-opening assessments about each of our individual food choices. Deepening our awareness of how and why we – and others – make the choices we do provided context for the learning that was to come. The exercises purposely challenged assumptions from the onset and set the stage for a thought-provoking meeting. 

Shorlette Ammons, Community Food Systems Outreach Coordinator at the NC Agriculture and Technical State University's Center for Environmental Farming Systems' (CEFS) Small Farm Unit started us off by asking what our own definitions of food justice were. She then provided a comprehensive overview of how racial and gender inequities are inextricably embedded into the overall food system and often overlooked in its reform efforts.

Ammons was followed by a panel of ZSR grantees who span the food spectrum and talked about their work and the issues and trends that influence it. The panel included Robin Emmons, Founder & Executive Director, SOW Much Good; Gini Bell, Executive Director, Farmer Foodshare; Scott Marlow, Executive Director, Rural Advancement Foundation International - USA (RAFI); and Melinda Wiggins, Executive Director, Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF). All four, who are deeply embedded in different aspects of this work, spoke to the challenges and obstacles – as well as emerging opportunities – that both their organizations and the broader movements they are a part of are currently facing.

Mikki Sager, Director of the Resourceful Communities Program at the Conservation Fund, then localized the conversation by highlighting the stories of small grassroots groups and coalitions making a difference on a community level across the state. The contrast between state- and local-level work provided food for thought for both the CLC and the Foundation in terms of potential and desired influence and impact. What we gleaned is that community-based groups and individuals who care deeply about this issue are finding innovative ways to work together toward common creative solutions despite differences and obstacles at the state level.  

To say that this was a meaty (pun acknowledged) convening would be an understatement.  More than any other I've attended up to this point – and all of the Community Leadership Council meetings have addressed challenging systemic issues – this one humbled the group with its complexity and contradictions. This was particularly true in the face of the interrelation of poverty and food, which presents a very different picture about needs and priorities. One thing that was clear in follow up discussions was a collective sense of respect and gratitude for those working on the front lines of this issue. The changes that activists are effecting in areas including education, farmworker rights, food processing plant reform, farm reform, community gardening and distribution, and increased access to all of these for people in historically marginalized communities is inspiring and very worthy of support.

Because it represents such a basic need, food justice is an area that touched each of us deeply and uniquely and no doubt has lingered in the consciousness of members in the months following this meeting. It certainly has in mine.