Why are the People Who Feed Us Struggling to Feed Themselves?
Today on Rootstock Radio, host Anne O’Connor speaks to Navina Khanna. Navina is director of the HEAL Food Alliance. HEAL stands for Health, Environment, Agriculture and Labor, and Navina describes the alliance as a “multi-sector, multi-racial and intergenerational coalition” working for food and farm justice. In 2014 Navina’s work was recognized with a James Beard Leadership Award, and in 2016 she received Food Tank’s Bright Spot in the Food System Award (watch the video of her speech below).
“Food is our most intimate and powerful connection to each other, to our culture, and to the earth,” says Navina, as she explains HEAL’s work in food and farm justice. Addressing issues like the systemic racism in food and farming, unfair conditions for farm laborers and the threatening corporate takeover of our food system, Navina shares a sobering statistic: people who work in food and agriculture are actually twice as likely to be dependent on food assistance programs as workers in any other sector. That’s right — the people who feed our world most often struggle to feed themselves. Navina and her colleagues at HEAL think that’s absurd, and they’re trying to change it.
However, Navina also knows that change is not instantaneous. “Actual transformation only happens through the hearts and the minds of people, but there are ways for us to use our organizing power to shift policy and shift practice as well,” she says. “Education gets talked about and healthcare gets talked about and immigration gets talked about, and these are all issues that are related to our food system, but our food and farming system specifically and the ways that they impact everyday people are not being talked about.”
Navina encourages farmers, workers, and consumers alike to come together and recognize that problems in our food system affect us in many of the same ways. Listen to our conversation with her at the link below, or on-the-go via iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher and wherever you get your podcasts.
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Anne O’Connor talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Anne O’Connor.
ANNE O’CONNOR: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Navina Khanna, director of the HEAL Food Alliance, which is a national cross-sector food and farm justice coalition. Navina is also a 2014 James Beard Leadership Award recipient, as well as an educator, community organizer, and a policy advocate. Welcome, Navina.
NAVINA KHANNA: Thanks for having me on the show, Anne.
AOC: Great to have you here. So tell us more about the HEAL Food Alliance—Health, Environment, Agriculture, Labor—and how this came to life.
NK: Yeah, so as you said, HEAL is an acronym for Health, Environment, Agriculture, Labor. And we are a multi-sector, multiracial, and intergenerational coalition that brings together organizations to work together to build to our collective power for transformation across our food system. And HEAL is anchored by a handful of other national organizations, specifically the Food Chain Workers Alliance, The National Black Food and Justice Alliance, Real Food Generation, and the Union of Concerned Scientists. So we’ve been working together for the last couple of years to develop our strategy and analysis to build a really strong coalition. And we recently had our first national summit, where we brought together close to 100 individuals from about 60 organizations to officially launch the alliance and invite other organizations to join with us to build this coalition.
AOC: And one of the interesting things that HEAL brings up and talks about, that many other people don’t, is the inherent racism in our system and how it came to be. You just said, you know, how it was set up and how it’s perpetuated, and I think for most people, a lot of people, they look at the way that they buy food or the way that they grow food perhaps, but they don’t think about those long-term…the ramifications of how this system came to be. And you talk about the Homestead Act and the ways that land ownership occurred in this country and the ramifications for it today and at every part of the food system. Can you talk a little bit about that here?
NK: Yeah, sure. So if we look at how our economic system is set up today, so much of it is around the idea of private property ownership. And who is successful in the system are the folks who are able to attain and accumulate wealth via private property ownership. And if we look back historically at this country and the way that land distribution happens, we’re not only confronted with the stolen lands of this nation and the genocide that occurred—pushing native people off of their land and actually killing them—but also forced migration of people from Africa to work the lands. So the beginnings of our current food and agricultural system, we would say, are rooted in the slave trade and in slavery. And of course we’ve seen over time that it’s those folks who didn’t get access to land in the same way that settlers from Europe got access to land. So when the Homestead Act was cast in 1860, there was a distribution of land which had originally been the land of native people to Europeans who were willing to work that land. And there was a promise of 40 acres and a mule to black families who were willing to work the land, but of course, they never received that.
And as we look at how the labor of formerly enslaved people has been replaced to perpetuate the same system, we see that there is a lot of both forced labor and economically forced labor of people, mostly who have crossed the border to work the land and are working in our farms and our food system overall and are subject to exclusion from the labor laws that protect a lot of workers in the United States; and of course subjected to our immigration policies that can both tear families apart and economically hurt families.
AOC: This is an enormous systemic problem, but there are people who would respond to what you just said by saying, “You know, you’re talking ancient history here. What does it have to do with me? What does it have to do with today?” And of course it does have to do with us and it has to do with today. So can you answer that kind of response that may feel defensive or really doesn’t understand what you’re talking about here?
NK: Yeah, unfortunately it’s not ancient history, right? We can look at what’s happened even just over the course of the last few decades in terms of discrimination against black farmers, for example, trying to access land or whose land has been foreclosed on them, to the point that, at this point—100 years ago, almost 14 percent of all the farmers in the U.S. were African American and they owned a combined 15 million acres of land. And now they account for less than 1 percent of the nation’s farmers.
AOC: Right, and there’s been some research that’s shown that’s not happenstance, that that’s really… And so, yeah, when we talk, you know, we have farmers who have land in their families for generations and generations, four to five generations, there’s a reason for that. So what do we do now?
NK: Well, I think that one of the things that we really need to be thinking about is that farmers across the board are being threatened by the corporate takeover of our agricultural landscape and of our food system. And the workers across the food system—there are 21 million people who work across the food system, and they’re also subject to the same systems and policies that are in place that, like I said, exclude them from the protections that other workers have. But also they get paid very low wages, to the point that people who work in our food system are actually twice as likely to be dependent on food assistance programs than workers in any other sector. And one of the things that we really need to do is for farmers and for workers and for consumers to be able to come together and realize how we’re all being affected by this corporate takeover in many of the same ways, and to be able to build coalitions together to try to change that. And it’s not just one ethnicity, though some are being hurt more than others. Everybody’s being hurt by the same system of capitalism.
AOC: So last year you launched the Plate of the Union in partnership with Food Policy Action and the Food Policy Action Education Fund, along with the Union of Concerned Scientists, to raise the voice of Americans who care about food and farm issues. Can you tell us more about this partnership?
NK: Yeah, so one of the things that we at HEAL see as very important is that we think about political leadership in our food system and think about who is holding office and how we’re holding them accountable to the issues that matter to all of us. And of course, all 300 million people in this country eat, and 60 million people in the country are going hungry, and 21 million people are working across the food system, so there’s a lot of us that foods matter to. But we haven’t seen—it’s been decades since we’ve seen—political candidates, particularly candidates who are running for presidential office, actually take up food and farm issues as part of what they’re talking about and part of how they’re approaching what kinds of change is needed for our society.
AOC: Right, for something that’s so integral to our daily lives and so much a part of what we do, and how much it influences all the other systems, and how… You know, it’s incredible that that’s true, but it is true, isn’t it?
NK: It is true. And part of what we were trying to do with Plate of the Union is that we see that education gets talked about and health care gets talked about and immigration gets talked about, and these are all issues that are related to our food system, but our food and farming systems specifically and the ways that they impact everyday people are not being talked about by our candidates. So we took on the Plate of the Union campaign to really try to draw more of that connection between electoral politics and our food system. One of the things that we have seen coming out of this election and the results is that people are ready for action on a local level in a way that we haven’t seen before. So in many ways, the results of this election have actually catalyzed our efforts to do the work on the local level.
AOC: The silver lining, right? The thing that we can all find hopeful here in this moment.
NK: Mm-hmm. People are ready to take action, people are grounding in their local communities. And at HEAL we’re actually getting ready to pilot a political leadership institute for folks in their own communities who are getting ready to run for office, or who want to hold their candidates accountable to a food and farm systems agenda that will actually work for their community and work for our economies and our environments and everybody’s health.
AOC: So, I know that the Plate of the Union, or the Food Policy Action is continuing to do the work too. Is that part of that partnership continuing or is it two separate things?
NK: So Food Policy Action, as they have done, is continuing to take on the work on a national scale and looking at federal policies and how to hold folks who are already in office accountable to creating better food systems for all of us. And HEAL’s orientation really is around how do we build power in our own local communities and how do we get more community control over the systems that affect us? How do we do that grassroots movement building? So while we’ll continue to, of course, work in partnership—we’re all part of the same movement—our work is really focused on building up candidates who are aligned with our values and can take our platform forward in their work.
AOC: If you are just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor and I’m here today with Navina Kahanna, director of HEAL Food Alliance. We’re talking about food, we’re talking about justice. Let’s hear more from Navina on these issues.
Navina, I have heard you in other places say, “Talk a little about your vision for, what would the world look like if the things that HEAL was pushing and promoting and trying to educate people and trying to build coalitions—if those things came to pass, what would the vision for our world be?” Could you talk a little bit about that?
NK: Yeah, I love that question. I think that one of the hardest things for so many of us is that we are constantly in defensive fights, constantly fighting against things that are hurting our communities. And it’s sometimes really hard to envision and to articulate what it is that we really want. And I think it’s really important for us to be able to name at least some of those things that we really want—what it means for us to live in communities that are thriving, so that we can actually have a strategy to move there. I think some of the elements are really around community control of our systems, and that includes our government systems, it includes how we relate to the land that we’re on. Really stewarding our land and our water and our air in ways that are about life as the thing that we value, right? Life as the thing that we hold sacred.
And a big part of my vision and HEAL’s collective vision for what change looks like has a lot to do with the relationships that we have, not only with each other, but our relationship to the land that we’re on, our relationship to our work, and that we all have meaningful and dignified work, and that our families are able to thrive. So there are a lot of changes, of course, that need to happen on a local level, on a federal level, on a global scale, for us to be able to move towards that vision. And I think a lot of our collective liberation is wrapped up in how we think about those relationships and how we attend to those.
AOC: Right. And so, for people who are listening, can you talk a little about why food is so connected to water, to the land, to housing, to social justice? I mean, again, a lot of people, they go to the store, they buy their food, they cook it for their families—or they, more likely, go to a restaurant and grab something. And these issues don’t emerge for them so prominently or so easily. So how do we help people in thinking about that it’s all connected, that these pieces are all completely intertwined and affect one another?
NK: Yeah, we can think about that on the most fundamental levels of what we’re eating each day and the ways that our families are coming together, ideally, and our communities are coming together around food each day, and think about the legacy of our cultures and how they’re passed on through food. And we would say that food is our most intimate and powerful connection to each other, to our cultures, and to the Earth. And if we can think about any social movements, or any child in any community, and see that food affects… For example, if an elementary school student gets a good breakfast in the morning, they’re going to be able to pay attention better in school. If they know that they have enough food to eat for lunch and they know that they’re going to go home to having a good dinner, that’s going to affect how well they can perform in school. So it’s intimately connected to our educational systems and our performance there.
You asked about how it’s connected to immigration. And of course, as I mentioned earlier, we know that so many of the people who currently work in our food system are migrant workers or immigrant workers, many of whom have been displaced from their own land and their own communities because of trade policies and forced off of the land there. But now they’re working in a system where they are subject to the immigration policies that have very little protection for workers across the food system, whether that’s farm workers or people who work in food processing plants or in transportation. We’ve seen ICE raids happening in meat packing plants in Iowa, for example, or in the Central Valley in California.
AOC: Children who come home from school and find their parents gone.
NK: Yeah, and of course the kinds of high intensive chemical inputs that are used in our monocultural systems and to support corporate agriculture are having really intense impacts on our soil health, soil erosion, on our water quality. And that not only affects the life of our planet and the places that we live, but it also leads to skyrocketing asthma rates because of air pollution in communities that are near confined animal feeding operations or contaminated water in many places where a majority of our food is grown. And there’s chemical-intensive agriculture—people can’t drink the water coming out of their taps anymore because of chemical contamination. So it’s an environmental justice issue and a health justice issue as well.
AOC: Right, and we’re actually talking in the long term about other longer-term, more serious—I mean they’re all serious—but illnesses that are life threatening. And in the immigrant populations, a lot of times their living conditions and their housing, in addition to everything that you just talked about, their housing and their ability to make decisions about their lives are impacted by the way the system is set up, too. There’s not a lot of power in being an immigrant worker without rights and without the ability to say, “Hey, you know what? I don’t want to work in these kinds of conditions.” So that’s been true for many decades and hasn’t really been substantially improved upon in decades. But now we have a situation where those hardships may be intensified by some of the political realities that we’re dealing with.
So it’s interesting, too, that in this whole conversation there’s a real lack of understanding, certainly in the administration in the White House, but I think across the board, about if you take away the immigrants who work on the farms in our country, those farms aren’t going to be able to produce what they produce. So you take away the food. Can you talk about that a little bit?
NK: Yeah, sure. I think it’s absolutely true that currently the workforce, primarily on farms and across our food system, is migrant labor and immigrant labor. I think it’s really important for us as people who care about the food system and who care about farming systems to remember that the value of the people—they’re not just valuable because of the labor that they provide, but they’re valuable because they’re human beings, real people with real families. And we absolutely need to be rethinking the food system and how we value labor within the food system, how we value the human beings who are working in it.
And I think one of the dangers that we’re in right now is that if we talk about the immigration problem in our food system just as how are we going keep people from other countries able to work here, then we’ll end up with solutions like temporary visas or a guest worker program. And those aren’t solutions. Those aren’t solutions for families and they don’t provide protections for people who are working in the system. They certainly aren’t helping with better working conditions or better wages, and they aren’t helping with pathways to legal residency or citizenship for people who are coming here primarily to make a better life for themselves and for their families. So it’s just really important for us to remember the humanity of that.
AOC: It is, and it’s one of the frustrating things. So in these conversations it can feel so far removed from the humanity of the situation. And when you hear the stories of families in cramped conditions and trying to make it work and the stress that they are under and those children being raised in conditions where they don’t know what’s going to happen next—there’s no stability, there’s not any way to know that they’re safe and they have a place. It’s hard for me to imagine knowing and understanding that and not wanting it to be different for people.
So, I guess, as an activist and as somebody who is really trying to rally people all the time, I want to ask you this question: These people who are making all these decisions, do they really understand? Do they really understand, if you are the head of a big multinational corporation that is using migrant labor and not giving them what they need as human beings, do you really understand the consequences of that? And is it really, truly that they just don’t care? So I guess what I’m asking you is, do you ever imagine that you can influence there, as opposed from the ground up?
NK: Yes. So at HEAL we take a few different approaches to the work, and we think about three different lever points, how we can make change in our food system. And one of them, as we’ve already talked about, is around community control and really building power on a local level for the kind of changes that we seek.
The second one is around political leadership. And so we talked a little bit already around our Plate of the Union campaign last year and that we’ll be launching this Political Leadership Institute to be able to actually grow more leaders who are ready to run for office or who are in office that we can hold accountable to our platform and who are aligned with our values.
And then the third arena is around corporate control of our food system. And some studies show that 95 percent of the food in the U.S. is a corporate product, and we know that it’s just a handful, maybe five corporations, that control our grocery system. There are three or four that control the majority of the meat industry. The amount of power that corporations have in determining what it is that we eat, and how many of us live and die accordingly, is tremendous.
And so I think one of the things that we absolutely need to be doing and that HEAL is taking on because of our membership, or through our membership, is trying to expose that corporate control of our food system and bring more transparency and more light to how these corporations are controlling our food system and how they’re influencing our political leaders, both those who are elected officials as well as those who are in regulatory bodies like the USDA and the EPA, Department of Justice. If we saw Department of Justice doing its job better, we would see that antitrust laws were being enforced and that the kind of vertical integration that’s been happening across the food system, but particularly in the meat industry, that wouldn’t be happening.
AOC: Right, and what a thing. So you have this enormous power and this is what you choose to do with it?
NK: Right. And I think, in terms of the transformation that we seek, we know that actualtransformation only happens through the hearts and the minds of people, but there are ways for us to use our organizing power to shift policy and shift practice as well.
AOC: Right, I think you said something really important there, that we change people, we motivate people to change by…not intellectually, right? An intellectual debate doesn’t really do it. And so that emotional connection and that understanding of how we are influencing one another’s lives here together on the planet, that’s going to be one of the primary ways that we can create the kind of change that you’re speaking about.
NK: I think that there are so many people who are a part of perpetuating the system, and it’s actually really hard for us to get away from being a part of perpetuating that system. There was a study that was done about ten years ago that found that only 2 percent of the food in this country is food that’s actually good for you, that was grown in environmentally sustainable ways and is fair to workers across the system and is affordable.
AOC: That’s incredible, 2 percent! So the “affordable” is a huge piece of that, right? I wonder if you took off the affordable part—I mean, not that that matters, cause if you can’t afford it, it doesn’t really exist—but 2 percent, wow. We’ve got some things to do.
NK: Yeah, so we need more of that food that’s good for people and is fair and is affordable and good for the planet. And part of making it affordable, of course, is ensuring that people have better wages so that they can afford to purchase food that’s good for them and good for the planet. So some of those things go hand in hand, right? The fairness and affordability are very interlinked. And of course we know that if workers are leaders, that the environmental conditions will be way better on the farms and in the processing plants and so on.
AOC: Yeah, and the myth of cheap food in this country and who profits from that myth is a show that we could spend an entire different show on, right? But these are the big issues. And I just want to say, as we wrap up here, thank you so much for the work that you’re doing out there. And if our listeners wanted to learn more about what HEAL Food Alliance and your work, where should they go?
NK: So the best place to go is to our website, which is healfoodalliance.org. That’s H-E-A-L foodalliance.org. They can also find us on Twitter and on Facebook—you can just look for HEAL food, and our Facebook page is HEAL Food Alliance. And there’s also information about becoming a member on our website, or if people want to find out more, feel free to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
AOC: Navina, thank you so much for your time today and for all the work that you’re doing out there on these incredibly important issues.
NK: Yeah, thanks again for having me on! Take care, Anne.
AOC: And thank you, listeners, for joining us today. See you next week.