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On Food: The Brooklyn Food Coalition’s Nancy Romer talks about building a food movement one neighborhood at a time

   /   Nov 22nd, 2010Food, Interviews, New York City

In 2009, Nancy Romer, a psychology professor at Brooklyn College, got the idea to organize a one-day conference on food sustainability in New York City — and, surprise, 3,000 people showed up. Romer decided to tap that demand to build a coalition that could advance serious discussion and action in this area. The question was how to help people understand the connections between how we grow our food, how we eat it, and how we feel, both individually and as a society. So she founded the Brooklyn Food Coalition, a grassroots organization with a democratic leadership that reconnects people to food systems and to one another. Since 2009, Romer and coalition members have been focusing on New York City’s food issues one neighborhood at a time, educating residents and helping them to see their place in the sustainable food movement. Here Romer talks about the Brooklyn Food Coalition’s work and argues that big policy changes may originate with something as simple as picking tomatoes in a community garden.

Dowser: Why a coalition focused on food?
Romer: For me it winds back to my own interest in seeing how we could get more participation from the grassroots. On a sabbatical year I traveled to Latin America and learned a tremendous amount about grassroots movements around basic resources like food, water and energy. I was very impressed by how people both organize on a neighborhood or community level, and how they create coalitions that have made big changes in their governments and made their governments much more accountable. I came back to the U.S. feeling that so many Americans are unaware of the food system that we have created here, and that we impose on the rest of the world.

What’s the goal of the Brooklyn Food Coalition?
Our little tag is: ‘Changing the food system in Brooklyn, neighborhood by neighborhood.’ Part of what we’re really hoping to do is create a sense of community and increase people’s capacity to develop their own leaders and their own projects that will improve the food situation in their neighborhoods.

Tell me more about what the Brooklyn Food Coalition does.
We gather people from the neighborhood, and try to recruit people to come to a meeting. We send one of our organizers and we try to help them figure out what would work in their neighborhood. Very often people start off with a potluck dinner, with an educational project, showing a film, having a discussion on the food system, supporting a local food coop, working in a local community garden or urban farm or helping to staff a local farmers market.

What we offer groups is organizing support and [help] seeking out what would work: how can we make it work, how can we implement the plan, how can we maintain it. That takes a lot of back and forth, a lot of communication, a lot of publicity.

What projects are you working on right now?
Tonight I’m going to a workshop supporting parents in changing the aspects of school food for their kids. We have a network of about 75 people working on that project. We have a big mapping project to document what the food facilities are on your block or in your immediate neighborhood, and we are trying to document disparities in the neighborhoods.

Who is joining the coalition and why do you think they are joining?
I think for a lot of people, health is the main issue. There is an epidemic of obesity and diabetes, and a lot of that has to do with very predatory policies and advertising on the part of the food industry: both the fast food industry and the beverage industry. Agribusiness heavily lobbies Congress to subsidize the production of an enormous amount of wheat, corn and soy that appears in almost all of the junk food and the processed food that you buy.

Another way people enter is through the question of sustainability or of climate change. One third of all greenhouse gases are produced by the food system. What we’d like to see is more localized food systems with more organic farming. We’d like to see the government support organic farming rather than these massive oil-based, mono-cropped farms where they are producing food that we don’t need.

And the third piece is the social justice piece, which is about honoring the food workers. About 2 billion people on this planet are food workers, they are farmers, food processors, retail workers and restaurant workers – and mostly they are very poor, and they are very poorly paid with bad working conditions. We’d like to see that shift.

What are feasible changes that could really make a difference in the food system?
At a recent food policy forum we were talking about how we could get the city government and the state government to make the meals that they provide on a daily basis to be more locally sourced. The city of New York prepares one million meals every weekday. 860,000 of them are school meals – that’s a lot of buying power. And they go only to the lowest bidder. But if we could establish that a certain percentage of the food this year, and a little bit more the next year, and a little bit more the next year, could be locally sourced, we would transform the farm economy in the region.

And we can ship that wonderful new produce downstream and create more food processing plants in New York City, and in urban areas where there are workers who need jobs, and it could be an economic development engine as well.

What would an ideal food system look like to you?
I’d like to see the system to be very local. I’d like to see urban farms producing as much food as they possibly can in the city, augmented by a ring of agriculture that can minimize the amount of transportation necessary to bring healthy food into the city. I’d like to see policies that support local and regional farming and I’d like to see the end of subsidies to agribusiness. I’d like to see agribusiness have much less power in society.

I would also like to see a shift in consciousness that allows people to see their own power in how they eat and how food is brought to them. And that change in power is only brought about through movement building. I think when people become active, and then they see their own neighbors at the farmers market, and work in the urban farm and see that their kids are interested in growing tomatoes on the fire escape, they begin to feel connected to bigger ideas.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Photo: Brooklyn Food Coalition

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