You have spent over 35 years working to improve human and environmental health, what originally inspired you to dedicate your life to improving food production and distribution as a way to advance health?
I was blessed to be raised by a mother who loved food and who believed preparing meals for loved ones was a work of the soul – for the soul. Cooking together and eating together was sacred family time, and the kitchens where I grew up were always where the richest and most intimate conversations happened. Despite raising three children as a single working mother, she always made our mealtime special, and my siblings and I grew up with a sense that sharing good food together was an essential part of what it meant to be family.
As a teenager, I was given the chance to serve by an organization called the Ecumenical Summer Service of Los Angeles (ESSLA), led by Mark Ridley Thomas, currently a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. One of the first organizations I engaged with during this intensive summer of service was the Interfaith Hunger Coalition (IHC) – a pioneering organization focused on food security and access. Subsequently, I was hired by the IHC to start the first Certified Farmers’ Markets in California – back in 1979. That work, which evolved into something called the Hunger Organizing Team (HOT), set a fire in me – something that I call “Food System Change.” This work also involved organizing the first regional urban agriculture program in L.A. – cultivating 22 acres of land in low-income neighborhoods. My first full-time job in social change showed me that we really could make a difference in shaping the food system and I learned the tools of trade as a community organizer and urban farmer.
You recently joined Hope Street Group for the first in our monthly #RethinkOppor2nity Twitter Chat series focused on food insecurity and featuring participants from across the health landscape. What do you think is the value of hearing these different perspectives and working across sectors to tackle the issue of healthy food access?
Only the bad actors in the food system benefit when the change makers stay in their silos, perennially-focused on solving problems in their local communities. National dialogues inspire us to formulate narratives that bring us all together on issues by helping us see the common denominators and realize that we aren’t alone or isolated. It is especially helpful to see through the lens of others who are working in business, health, education, government, etc. We need to bring the same entrepreneurial thinking (and resources!) prevalent in other sectors to solving food access issues.
The value of these chats will be measured by our ability to continue the conversation and formulate our thoughts into actionable intelligence, shared strategies and tactics. When it comes to food system change, we don’t need to recreate the wheel, just become part of it. This assumes there is a wheel that has some structure and support and is capable of carrying us to a better place. The field of food system change (the food movement) needs more focus and a united front – hopefully our dialogues will lead to us building a stronger wheel.
Hope Street Group’s mission is to expand access to the tools leading to economic opportunity and prosperity. How would you describe the improved food system (production, marketing, etc.) within the larger context of expanding economic opportunity?
Economic development (or the lack thereof) is at the root of all key social issues, such as hunger and malnutrition, homeless, addiction, crime, and lack of education, even war. It is certainly admirable to create plans such as the “Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness” but it is virtually impossible to solve any significant social issue in a decade while our middle class is disappearing and the economic divide is increasing. Hope Street Group says: “The top three drivers of economic opportunity are education, health, and jobs.” I appreciate the order of priority here. For far too long, food and nutrition has been a footnote in these national dialogues. I appreciate the fact that Hope Street Group is raising up food as being integral to these larger discussions.
There are many stakeholders necessary to make systemic change in our approach to healthy food. What changes do you think government, private organizations, and the education sector could make to create meaningful changes in access to healthy food?
While this is a question that demands a very complex answer, one issue that I’m concerned with is the lack of fundamental/baseline data sets that we can use to measure and track food system change. The current metrics we use are very limited and lack a national nomenclature. Take the fundamental unit of all food system change research – the food itself. Labels are required on all packaged food items. What is remarkable is what these labels don’t include: added sugar and 10,000 other chemicals added to our food supply (see EAFUS – Everything Added to Food in the U.S.). These additives are the principal markers of processed foods that are making millions of people sick. Yet, we can’t measure these food constituents because of powerful business interests that benefit from consumer ignorance. There is an expression “If you don’t measure it, it doesn’t count.” We must unite across multiple sectors for transparency in our food system. On a positive note, organizations like Code for America are developing social data solutions and applications that have great potential for food system work.