Friday, February 15, 2008

"Strengthening the Roots" - Food, Justice, & Fair Trade - Day One

For the next few days this weekend, I will be at the UC Santa Cruz campus for a conference called "Strengthening the Roots" on sustainable foods, fair trade, and social justice. Hosted by the United Students for Fair Trade and the California Student Sustainability Coalition Foods Initiative, and the Community Agroecology Network, I look forward to interactive workshops, filling my inquisitive mind, and networking with students all across the nation who share similar interests as I do.

Upon arrival, I was lucky enough to have met Naveed, a friend of Dana, who is the significant other of Kelsey, a good friend who I'm driving up with. Complicated story, I know. All I can say is that I'm sure UC Irvine folk would appreciate their environmental consciousness much more if they get to be feet away from forty-foot redwood trees each day. It's gorgeous around here!

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Between arrival and the start of the conference, I had some time to visit UC Santa Cruz's Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. Graciously led on a tour by Leon of the beautiful 25-acre student farm, I couldn't help but contemplate what a utopia I had entered. There was a plethora of activity that I had never seen before - blueberry trees, composting, sustainable agriculture research, and leeks. Initially started by Allen Chadwick, the center was surprisingly not a part of the university's initial development plans. I couldn't help but chuckle when Leon explained how students started missing classes because of the commitment and demand on the original student farm. Today, 39 students involve themselves in a 6-month apprenticeship, maintaining the center and learning about agroecology. Apprentices become farmers, food public policy analysts, and educators.

Today, the farm holds a deep and rooted relationship with the community, students, and faculty who engage on the discussion of sustainable agriculture and food systems. UC Santa Cruz itself is surrounded by currently lush, fertile agricultural communities with a vibrant social consciousness of food systems, a distinct dichotomy from UC Irvine. Yet, Leon explains some challenges facing the center, including funding and the growing discussion of land development and expansion with the university. It was with Leon where I was first introduced the conflicting, yet lucid, concept of packing and distribution. Industrial agriculture ventures for profit, and when external networks like packing and distribution enter the food system, problems arise.

An energetic opening session included early discussion on why each of us were there for the conference and what we hoped to achieve by the end of this weekend. Opening speeches came from Robbie Jaffe and Steve Gleissman, co-founders of the Community Agroecology Network. In the past four years, Jaffe and Gleissman noted, organic food sales have risen 20%, certified fair trade sales have increased, and the number of agricultural acres have increased. However, the number of organic farmers have decreased, genetically-modified cropland have increased by 12% globally, and the greatest increase in GMOs in the last year are seen in developing nations.

Anim Steel, National BLAST Program Director for the Food Project and Real Food Challenge, took everyone on a historical journey, connecting our food roots to times of slavery. Slavery instilled the values of profit over people, food as a commodity and not community, and land as a mechanical and technological resource for exploitation. Steel recollected that the first major human campaign, the British anti-slavery campaign in the 1750's, dealt with food; it simply took a group of people with a common goal. With those in mind, he called for common, tangible, and targeted goals on a large scale in institutional food systems, using the power of youth to help mobilize that change.

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