Young people advocate for farm bill reform at the New Parish
on September 3, 2011
To chants of “Si se puede!” eight young people stood smiling on stage at the New Parish club in downtown Oakland on Thursday night. They were there to tell the stories of the farmers and community members they had met while on a road trip across California to promote farm bill reform and to encourage young people to support new farm-related legislation.
The eight young people, ranging in age from 18 to 31, had just finished their week-long journey up the California coast, joining the last leg of a larger road trip across the United States to advocate for farm bill reform, equal access to healthy food and the rights of small farmers nationwide.
The New Parish was the tour’s last stop. Two hand-painted banners hung beside the stage: One, scrawled with signatures, read, “We the Youth…” and the other read “Food & Freedom Riders want Justice 4 Farmworkers.” Preceded by a beat-boxing flute player, a young woman reciting poetry about her Filipino ancestors and local contemporary soul singer Jennifer Johns, the group of young men and women still managed to steal the show. “We are the Food and Freedom Riders!” the group said together, slightly out of sync, to fervent applause and cheers from the crowd.
The rides were coordinated by Live Real (Liverealnow.org), a national initiative started in 2009 to encourage young people to advocate for the food needs of local communities as well as for sustainable farming methods. “We are working for an ecological and equitable food system,” said Live Real Field Director Navina Khanna, who hails from Oakland and led the young activists on their trip across the state.
She said they decided to call themselves the “Food and Freedom Riders” in honor of the1960’s Freedom Rides, during which activists rode buses into the southern states to protest racial segregation in bus terminals with interstate services. Fifty years later, the Food and Freedom Riders are “carrying that journey forward,” said Khanna; the group believes they have common cause with the original Freedom Riders because many minority communities don’t have enough access to healthy food.
“Food injustice is racial injustice,” said Hai Vo, a 24 year old from Westminster, California who joined the trip.
Starting on August 26, the riders traveled from “from the border to the Bay,” said Khanna, hearing the stories of farmers around the state. They started at the border of San Diego and Tijuana, stopping in Los Angeles, Fresno, Watsonville, Modesto and finally Oakland.
This was the second road trip of the summer. During the first half of August, a van-load of activists from Live Real drove from Birmingham, Alabama to Detroit, Michigan—“From the hood to the heartland,” as Khanna put it. Altogether, 25 members of Live Real travelled about 3,000 miles, stopping in eight states.
The crowd in front of the stage at the New Parish, which had been dancing to the ground-shaking beats of the deejay and conversing animatedly while waiting for the riders to appear, was brought back to attention by Nikki Henderson, the executive director of People’s Grocery, an organization that works to improve West Oakland residents’ access to healthy food. She invited the eight people who had taken the bus ride to recount their experiences. “It’s time for us to hear some stories from the road, from the Food and Freedom Riders,” she said.
Adrien Salazar, 22, and Salvador “Biggie” Vasquez, 19—riders from San Jose and Santa Cruz respectively—described their experiences with Project Uplift in Modesto. The members of the group sell produce that they grow themselves, at prices people in the community can afford. After talking about the desperation and helplessness they saw in so many communities, Salazar and Vasquez praised the initiative of the young members of Project Uplift. “This is youth enterprise, young people owning their own community. This is the future of food, now,” said Salazar.
Rider Kay Cuajunco from San Diego, 25, told a similar story of youth empowerment. She said she witnessed the youngest person on the trip tell the Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture that “it was crucial to support youth food programs like his in Santa Cruz that saved his life when he was addicted to junk food.”
Carmina Gomez, a 21-year-old rider from Los Angeles, told the story of how she had met farmers who had lost their land and were now living by the side of the river in Watsonville. She spoke with one of them, a former blackberry fieldworker who lived beside the river for five months. Now, she said, the man has started his own fund and raises chickens and eggs, selling his produce at farmer’s markets.
“I saw workers struggling,” said Gomez. “But I also saw the potential for change.”
One of the main goals of the road trip was to garner support for changes to the federal Farm Bill and raise awareness among California residents of how it will affect them. “We are trying to de-wonkify” the Farm Bill said Adam Scow, California campaign director for Food and Water Watch, which partnered with Live Real for the road trip. “We need to make some major changes.”
The Farm Bill governs the US Department of Agriculture’s spending and budget. In addition to regulating spending on farming, it also sets national food and nutrition policies. Congress passes an updated bill every five years, and the next round of votes is scheduled for 2012.
Some of the funds in the bill are distributed as grants or loans to local governments, community organizations, researchers and small businesses. As budget cuts abound in D.C., Scow said legislators need to protect Farm Bill-funded local endeavors like People’s Grocery and Mandela MarketPlace in Oakland, both of which are working to bring fresh, local produce to poor urban communities.
There are other things his advocacy group wants to see amended in the 2012 Farm Bill, such as diminishing agricultural subsidies for “unsustainable and large-scale agri-business,” said Scow.
Currently, about 80 percent of spending in the current Farm Bill goes to fund the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as Food Stamps, said Scow. This is important in creating access to better food for low-income communities, but only in the short term, he said. In the long term, said Scow, families should be able to afford healthy food in their local communities on their own.
Scow emphasized the importance of the road trip in making sure Californians understand what is really at stake. “Historically the urban districts haven’t voted the right way on farm policy. The mantra has been cheap food, cheap food, cheap food,” said Scow. “This is the time to build alliances with rural California and rural America.”
During their road trip, Live Real members marched with members of the United Farm Workers union (UFW) to support the Fair Treatment for Farm Workers Act, said Khanna. This bill would make it easier for farm workers to join unions and advocate for fair treatment from their employers.
At the end of June, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the Fair Treatment for Farm Workers Act; the fourth time the bill has been vetoed by a governor. The bill had previously been passed by the California state legislature three times, only to be vetoed every time by former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Members of the UFW are currently marching to Sacramento to urge Brown to sign the bill. They are scheduled to arrive in Sacramento on Sunday after walking 200 miles, and Khanna urged attendees of Thursday’s event to show support by signing a petition online at UFW.org. “This is an important part of California’s food justice history and the nation’s food justice history,” she said.
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