I used my August (monthly, first Sunday) column for the San Francisco Chronicle to reflect on the meaning of the Mayor’s Food Forum last month.
Q: I hear that you moderated a food forum for candidates for mayor of New York City and got them to say what they thought about hunger, nutrition and local agriculture. Did any of them say anything worth telling?
A: The forum was indeed amazing. But I’d go further.
I’d call it historic – a turning point in the food movement.
This had to be the first time that food advocacy organizations – an astonishing 88 of them – joined forces to induce candidates for city office to agree to respond to questions about issues of concern to every one of those groups.
Six candidates turned up. What they said hardly mattered (and at this point, the less said about the individual candidates, the better). What does matter is that they thought this audience important enough to come and state their positions on how food production and consumption affect public health, and how political leaders can use their authority to improve the food system.
Food issues have become prominent enough to make politicians and would-be politicians take notice.
The sold-out audience of nearly 1,000 filled the auditorium at the New School as well as two overflow rooms. Others watched the forum streamed live online. (http://new.livestream.com/TheNewSchool/nycfoodforum).
When I was invited to moderate, I could hardly believe what the organizers had accomplished. Twelve groups, each working separately for improvements in food assistance, food access, working conditions, local farming, food systems or health had formed a coalition to plan the forum and make it happen.
These groups met for a more than a year to identify the specific issues they most wanted candidates to think about. Judging from the length of the questions I was given, this cannot have been easy. The organizers must have been exceptionally patient – and persistent – to get 12 advocacy groups to agree on the key issues.
They also did a great deal of community organizing. They not only recruited 76 other food advocacy groups to support the forum, but also encouraged development of an additional forum for young people in low-income communities to get involved in the food issues most relevant to their lives.
Some of these kids were invited to ask questions of the candidates. One, from a Brooklyn teenager: “Where do you shop for food?” This may sound like a naive question, but it elicited a surprisingly thoughtful response that touched on sensitive issues of income and class.
The grown-up questions concerned issues vital to the host groups: How would the new mayor address hunger and food insecurity, inadequate access to healthy food, the low wages and inhumane treatment of restaurant and fast-food workers, the poor quality of school food, and the high rates of diet-related chronic disease among city residents.
Such problems are hardly unique to New York. Even the more city-centered questions – how to use the city’s purchasing power to support regional agriculture and the food economy, and to promote city land for urban farming – have plenty of relevance for other urban areas, including Bay Area cities.
The candidates made it clear that they had thought about the issues, and had come prepared to address them.
Here’s my inescapable conclusion: The food movement is strong enough to make candidates for office stand up, listen and take food issues seriously.
Last fall, writing about California’s Proposition 37 that sought to label genetically modified foods, Michael Pollan issued a challenge to food advocates.
The food movement, he said, needs to do more than work for agricultural reform and an increased market share for healthier food. Advocacy groups need to get together to create a real political movement – an organized force strong enough to propel food concerns onto the national agenda and force politicians to take action to improve food systems.
The forum was a first step in that direction. It proved that food coalitions can have political power.
I can’t think of a better time for food advocacy groups to join forces and work collectively toward common food system goals.
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