By Teva Sienicki, Livingston Fellow, Class of 2015
Since moving to a new organization, I’ve transitioned from anti-poverty work more broadly to anti-hunger work more specifically. I’ve been glad to be able to use the Livingston Fellowship to immerse myself in my new field. When I haven’t been working, I’ve been reading everything I can get my hands on that relates to the anti-hunger movement, food justice, and food policy. In my reading, Austin, Texas, kept coming up as a city at the forefront of what has been dubbed the food sovereignty movement, with academics and a handful of nonprofits working to improve access to fresh, healthy food for all residents.
Food Sovereignty is the concept that people have a right to healthy and culturally appropriate food, produced in an environmentally friendly manner, and a right to determine their own food and agricultural systems. The food sovereignty movement is an international coalition of food justice, anti-hunger, environmental, labor, faith-based and human rights groups working to create a more equitable and sustainable food system.
I was excited to go to Austin and meet with Raj Patel, a leading academic at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and hear his thoughts from a policy perspective and to visit a variety of community efforts (Farmshare Austin, Go Austin/Vamos Austin, the Sustainable Food Center, L’Oca d’Oro, and Urban Roots Austin), to hear their on-the-ground perspectives.
In addition to glimpsing into several theories of change and varied approaches to food systems, I learned that Austin and Denver are undergoing similar growth patterns and side effects. The fast and furious growth generates strong employment numbers, buzzing arts scenes, and expanded food and entertainment options with a downside: spikes in housing prices, a severe shortage of affordable housing stock, and pressures on already untenable childcare and transportation costs, which squeeze many residents to a breaking point. Low-income workers and people of color are getting displaced from historic neighborhoods proximal to downtown. The underbelly of the vibrant, exciting energy palpable at the hottest restaurants and coffee shops is that the people working in them can no longer afford to live in their communities.
I found my meeting with Carmen Llanes-Pulido and her team at Go Austin/Vamos Austin (GAVA) particularly inspiring. Their young initiative has employed seven organizers and partners with parents and community groups to create community-driven solutions. They describe themselves as a place-based coalition of residents, community leaders, and nonprofits working to improve the health of communities by increasing access to and participation in physical activity and improved nutrition. GAVA uses community organizing and institutional alignment to build community power for health equity including healthy food access.
What I’ve returned to after these conversations and tours, is that the root causes of hunger do not vary much from the root causes of poverty. Some additional insights I’m gaining in the food sovereignty world, in particular, are around how the food system is set up with inverse subsidies and other economic constructs that make good food expensive and inaccessible, and high-calorie, nutrient vapid food cheap and accessible.
The highlight from the trip was my conversation with Raj Patel in his office. The requisite towers of books, campesino posters, Latin American and African memorabilia and potted plants left floor space for exactly two chairs. Raj presents every bit as passionately and as the intellectual powerhouse in person as he does in his books, video talks, and documentary cameos. He shared with me some models worth looking at around the world and answered my clumsy questions about his ideas (I’m no Terry Gross). Raj is also funny and warm. He dubbed my Livingston Fellowship experience my “Great Activist Tour” and asked thoughtful, challenging questions.
His analysis in one paragraph: hunger (and its flipside of obesity) manifest as a symptom of poverty, perpetuated by a broken system constructed of low wages, an appallingly inadequate social safety net, out-of-housing costs, a subsidized economic structure that renders crappy food cheap and good food expensive, and systemic racism. In addition to the campesino movements and other examples he spotlights in his work, we discussed the Poor People’s Campaign and Black Lives Matter as successful examples of contemporary organizing for change that are gaining traction.
Raj challenged what I could do as a nonprofit executive reliant on the “Nonprofit Industrial Complex” to truly build a movement or disrupt the status quo, which really got to the heart of an internal debate I’ve been struggling through for a while now. In fact, Sonya Ulibarri and I debated this in Estes Park last fall at the retreat.
Can nonprofit leaders catalyze profound social change?
I sure hope so, and I’m determined at least to try.
The anti-hunger world has for too long operated in the framework of traditional charity and overly simplistic analysis, confusing hunger-relief with anti-hunger work. Springing out of the downturn in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, churches and other community groups started handing out boxes of food to help laid off and furloughed workers make it through a tough time. Over time, it’s grown into a multi-billion dollar industry of food banks and food pantries. Giving out food or conducting hunger relief work would be a fine solution if the problem was a temporary crisis or a simple shortage of food, but as a solution to chronic food insecurity, it’s a hamster wheel.
Raj’s challenge spurred on my inner rebel, the little me who becomes defiant in the face of a good challenge, and works twice as hard to try and prove something possible. I shared with him my theory of change that volunteers, donors, boards and supporters of traditional charity are a moveable middle, who can be invited to think in new ways, and included as allies and supporters in equity/anti-hunger/food sovereignty/anti-poverty or similar movements. Traditionally well-funded philanthropies and charities can evolve to use their accrued power and resources in partnership with community-led efforts to become greater forces for change. He retorted by labeling it an “experiment worth watching,” a challenge that will likely inspire and energize me for a long while.