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A panel discusses the "Milk With Dignity” program at last week’s Slow Living Summit in Brattleboro.

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‘Food justice’ is a hot topic at Slow Living Summit

Panelists say not everyone has the same access to fresh food — or can afford it

BRATTLEBORO—The Slow Living Summit, the three-day conference that each year kicks off the whirlwind of activities known as the Strolling of the Heifers, had people traipsing throughout the downtown, sharing heady ideas about the way we live.

During the fifth year of the conference, attendees and speakers gathered in the Latchis Theatre, Marlboro College Graduate School, and the River Garden, discussing the “slow” movement, which some see as an antidote to our world of fast food, fast money, and fast living that is wreaking havoc on a fragile planet.

Participants discussed creating a new economy, practicing mindfulness, reversing climate change, creating edible ecosystems, launching transition towns, and consuming a plant-based, all-organic, GMO-free diet.

All lofty goals for creating a healthy planet.

Following are three snapshots of speakers and the themes they brought to the conference last week.

Targeting ‘big ag’

As Alisa Gravitz, CEO of Green America, a nonprofit that looks to bring ideas of sustainability to the marketplace, asked in her opening talk, “What does it mean to say we want a sustainable food system?”

According to Gravitz, Big Ag is global industry number one. It is also the most environmentally destructive.

“This is the fire-alarm moment,” she said. “You’re at the right time in the right place.”

California is experiencing a water shortage, said Gravitz. Approximately 80 percent of the state’s water goes to agriculture, and one-third of its energy goes into moving that water around.

As more people in the United States make the transition to a plant-based diet, more people can eat more food, she said.

But, Gravitz added, most of the cultivated acreage in the country doesn’t go toward food. It is used to grow feed for livestock and crops, like soy, used to make biofuels.

Of the soy grown in the United States and Canada, only 1 percent goes to human consumption, she said.

Poultry consume 55 percent of the soy crop, followed by swine at 22 percent, beef cattle at 11 percent, and dairy cattle at 7 percent.

In the case of corn, the country’s other large crop, approximately 10 percent reaches the dinner table, Gravitz said. Livestock feed takes 45 percent, fuel mixtures take 40 percent, and 5 percent goes into manufacturing.

She told the audience that cotton takes up the largest amount of acreage in the world.

Gravitz described it as the the most destructive to the environment and social justice, because cotton plants require a lot of water, pesticides, and slave labor to grow and harvest.

“If you want system change, you need to think beyond the food you eat,” she said.

People need to think of food, feed, fiber, and fuel, she said.

Prior to 1925, acres under cultivation in the U.S. were “organic by default,” she said. Most farmers didn’t have the technology, the chemicals, or the genetically modified seeds that are now staples of modern industrial farming.

In 2015, barely 1 percent of acreage under cultivation in the United States is organic.

But a sea change can happen, Gravitz said, pointing to the green-energy sector as an example.

According to Gravitz, solar provided less than 1 percent of the U.S. energy mix in 2000. Now, the global solar market is on target to reach 50 percent by 2042.

“Coal is dead, the market says so,” she said.

Processed-food giants such as Coca-Cola and Kraft are dying, too, Gravitz added.

“When this system is ready to change and when you’ve done all this in preparation, it happens fast,” she said.

According to Gravitz, organic crops are more resilient and yield more. Organic soil retains water better. Healthy soil also traps, or sequesters, carbon to help to reduce the effects of climate change.

The problems with the current U.S. food system are all interconnected, she said. And so are the solutions.

Barriers to a better lifestyle

Not everyone has the same access to the slow-living lifestyle.

Richard Berkfield, executive director of Brattleboro-based Food Connects, said that over the past five years, he has witnessed a greater demand for fresh, local produce at the local food shelves and through the Vermont Foodbank.

“It seems like the issues are bubbling up a little bit more than [they were] five years ago,” he said.

Yet, he adds, working families’ budgets are also tighter, and social service programs are limited.

Efforts at the local, state, and regional levels show promise, he said. Yet barriers to food access exist.

“It’s really interesting to hear the differing levels of the conversation,” Berkfield said.

Food Connects has focused its energy on increasing participation in its local Neighborhood Market and education efforts in the statewide Farm-to-School initiative, in which most Windham County schools participate.

School faculty, parents, and administration have grown to recognize their school meals as one of the main ways to increase student access to nutritious, quality food, he said.

Berkfield said that people qualifying for Vermont’s 3SquaresVT (the state’s version of the federal food stamp program) are encouraged to participate in the Neighborhood Market. People of any income level can join.

On a regional level, Berkfield pointed to the New England Food Summit in Boston that starts at the end of this week. The summit will host leadership from the New England states to discuss food access. The organizations involved with the summit have set a goal of having half of the food consumed in New England grown within the six states by 2060.

It’s a great goal, he said, but “if nobody has good jobs, nobody can buy it [local food].”

According to information Berkfield has received from the food summit, most of the barriers to food access fall along racial lines.

Racial equity is at the heart of food access, he said.

Other barriers to buying and eating fresh local food extend beyond the supermarket shelves, he reported.

Housing, heath care, livable wages, transportation, time, education, and kitchen skills — concerns for all, regardless of income level — also touch the issue, he said, adding that our national food system is not set up to address barriers to food for people on low incomes.

Anyone interested in joining the Neighborhood Market can email Communications Director and Program Associate Helen Rortvedt at Helen@FoodConnects.org or visit Food Connects’ website.

Berkfield said that more agencies and organizations at the local and state levels are working together to address the common issue of increasing food access.

More collaboration is needed, he said, and more organizations need to work together to raze the barriers standing between too many people and fresh local food, he continued.

Dignity for the hands that provide

If the national food system contains barriers to food access, it also contains holes that quickly swallow many of the people working within.

Many farmers operate their farms with tiny profit margins and take additional jobs off the farm. While some crops are subsidized by the federal government, some farms — notably dairy farms — come up against a convoluted federal system.

The result is that sometimes dairy farmers sell milk for less than it costs to produce it.

These net losses stand in stark contrast to the earnings of people higher up the economic food chain, such as corporate CEOs or owners of supermarket chains.

The food system is broken, and food corporations must look at where their profits come from, dairy farm worker Enrique Balcazar said. Meanwhile, the corporations keep getting rich, he added.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual median pay for farm workers in 2012 was $18,910. The bureau listed the annual median pay in 2012 for a CEO as $101,650.

Howard Prussack, owner of High Meadows Farm in Putney, the first certified organic farm in Vermont, pointed out that many consumer and corporate initiatives like Fair Trade focus on farmers overseas, but do little to help domestic farms.

“Farmers have to make money so they can pay their workers,” he said.

According to Prussack, 70 percent of the workers on Vermont’s dairy farms hail from Mexico and South America.

“They’re doing the hard, good work that nobody else wants to do,” he said.

People delude themselves into thinking that farm work is unskilled, he said. “Someone can drive a tractor, but that doesn’t mean you’re a farm-equipment operator.”

Still, Prussack believes that with smart consumers and better programs, there’s more room in the national food system for farmers to get a bigger piece of the pie and more room for workers to get better wages.

Farm labor can involve long hours, hard work, lack of health care, and little pay.

According to a survey by the community organizing group Migrant Justice/Justicia Migrante, a five-year old program working with the Vermont Workers’ Center, 40 percent of farm workers reported receiving no days off and working 60 to 80 hours a week.

Of those surveyed, 40 percent reported earning less than $9.15 per hour, Vermont’s minimum wage. In addition, 16 percent said they didn’t have a work schedule that allowed for 8 continuous hours of sleep, and 20 percent reported having their first wages illegally withheld. Workers also reported overcrowded housing, insufficient heat, and a lack of clean drinking water.

Migrant Justice has launched a program, Milk with Dignity, which aims to hold corporations accountable to workers, and it works to develop safer working conditions for farm workers in the dairy industry.

The program contains what Migrant Justice calls five essential elements:

• A farmworker-authorized code of conduct outlining workers’ definition of dignified working conditions.

• Education of farmworkers on their rights under the code of conduct.

• A third-party monitoring body that watchdogs, enforces, and audits farms’ compliance with the code of conduct.

• Economic relief through premiums (sometimes called bonuses) paid by participating corporations to farmworkers and farmers.

• Legally binding agreements signed by participating corporations.

Workers want to live a dignified life in Vermont, said one four-year veteran Vermont dairy worker, who noted that many farmers treat him and his co-workers well but others take advantage.

Speaking through an interpreter, Balcazar said that Vermont’s dairy industry employs approximately 1,500 undocumented workers, mostly in Addison County, Franklin County, and the Northeast Kingdom.

A typical working day is difficult, he said: many workers lack transportation, fear the police, and struggle to pay for health care.

Balcazar said that Migrant Justice will hold a day of action at Ben & Jerry’s in Burlington on June 20 to call on the ice cream company to join the Milk with Dignity program.

He said the group is focusing on Ben & Jerry’s because the company has traditionally led the way on social responsibility with such concepts as fair trade for workers in Third World countries and humane practices for the chickens and cows that produce the eggs and milk for the ice cream.

It’s time for them to support the workers, Balcazar said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #309 (Wednesday, June 10, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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