Author: Leanne Zabala
Effective programs that study environmental issues and augment change are based at Occidental College. One such program is the Center for Food & Justice (CFJ), which is a division of the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute (UEPI) at Oxy. The CFJ’s main focus is to improve access to fresh and healthy foods to communities where access is most limited.
“CFJ has helped facilitate environmental health, community development, social justice, and land use strategies that strengthen the capacity of small family farmers, empower local communities, and help establish a food ethic among those who produce and consume food,” CFJ Communications Director Debra Eschmeyer said.
Only in recent years has the environmental cause come to the forefront of American society. Newsweek columnist Robert Samuelson wrote in 1992, “Environmental distress is a featherweight on the scale of human tragedy,” representing the opinion of most Americans less than ten years ago.
Now it has become a popular trend to care about the environment. Even restaurants like Subway proudly display signs that state ways in which they are environmentally friendly. College students can be seen in t-shirts made of organic cotton. More people are joining the movement to go “green” by carpooling, using less electricity and conserving water.
Occidental College actively contributes to the “green” movement through programs like CFJ, which was founded in 1995. CFJ originally began as the Community Food Security Project (CFSP) of the Pollution Prevention Education and Research Center (PPERC) at UCLA. Two years later, PPERC moved to Occidental College along with the Community Food Security Project (CFSP). UEPI was formed in 1999 at Oxy, incorporating PPERC, CFSP and several other programs. In 2001, CFSP expanded and changed its name to the Center for Food & Justice.
Professor Robert Gottlieb is the Director of the UEPI in which CFJ functions. Gottlieb is currently writing a book on food justice with CFJ staff member Anupama Joshi and contributions from the CFJ staff.
Gottlieb and staff members have condensed their goals into four core beliefs: Justice, Livability, Democracy and Connections.
Justice: UEPI works to improve Los Angeles in cultural, civil, political, social, economic and environmental justice. Members address issues such as the disparity between rich and poor and the unbalanced distribution of benefits in order to find a viable solution for disadvantaged communities.
Livability: There are many parts of Los Angeles that are bustling with activity and beauty, but there are also parts of L.A. that are heavily polluted, jam-packed with traffic and almost uninhabitable. Part of their commitment to justice involves enhancing the quality of life for deprived neighborhoods.
This is done through projects such as the ArroyoFest, a festival held on June 15, 2003 which involved a lot of community organization and UEPI negotiations with agencies to close the Pasadena 110 freeway. The festival connected the communities of Arroyo Seco, changed the way people thought about L.A. freeways, and unlocked possibilities for transforming open space.
Democracy: Los Angeles is divided into many jurisdictions and districts, some poorer than others. Districts with wealth or influential political power are able to get their policies passed, affecting the entire city of L.A., while districts that need services, but don’t have the means to acquire them, usually get the short end of the stick.
To strengthen Los Angeles as a democratic society, UEPI started the Progressive Los Angeles Network, a broad-based coalition of activists, researchers, and community leaders that created a 21-point agenda for the City of Los Angeles, which would make L.A. a more democratic place by improving living conditions and opportunities.
Connections: UEPI attempts to tackle several issues that do not fit together in single categories. They incorporate a justice agenda into all of their projects and contribute to their policy development.
They have forged and continue to forge alliances between farmers and schools, between small businesses and environmentalists, between transit planners and artists, and even between our college campus and the community. Their mission statements are purposely broad in order to affect as many constituents as possible, locally and nationally.
Under these core beliefs, CFJ engages in community building, research and education to raise the standard of living for poorer communities by creating a sustainable and socially just food system.
Since its beginnings, CFJ has been building connections between farms and schools in California with the California Farm to School program.
Through Farm to School, UEPI is helping local communities to rely on self-grown foods to understand the importance of diminishing resources and to avoid health problems related to the environment. What many don’t realize is that our basic natural resources – air, water and soil – are ever more contaminated and large areas of agricultural soil are degrading rapidly so that the capacity to feed the world is increasingly at risk.
As of now, this program has been established in Santa Monica-Malibu, Compton, Ventura, Riverside, and Davis Joint Unified School Districts.
In addition to training and technical assistance, CFJ leads Farm to School coordination efforts at the local and national level with the California Farm to School Task Force and the emerging National Farm to School Network.
With staff members in Los Angeles and Chicago, the Farm to School Program supports the development, expansion and evaluation of Farm to School programs in California and nationwide.
“CFJ has a history of successful partnerships with school districts, farmer and farmers’ market groups, universities and advocacy organizations in California and nationally,” Eschmeyer said.
The Center for Food and Justice just completed a three-year project this past October working with the Riverside Unified School District on a Harvest of the Month (HOTM) program using locally grown foods. The Network for a Healthy California, which is a Los Angeles Unified School District program that promotes a healthy lifestyle, funded this project. Harvest of the Month brought hands-on education to three schools of the Riverside Unified School District and offered students active ways to learn more about nutrition and agriculture.
“As a county that has lost much of its agricultural resources, it is all the more important that students in Riverside are exposed to agricultural and nutrition education so that they can connect to the heritage of their region and work to protect local food resources in the future,” CFJ Farm to Institution Program Manager Moira Beery said. “CFJ is proud of the work we did to bring nutrition and agricultural education to more than 1,000 students over the course of the project.”
CFJ is currently in the process of gathering what they learned at Riverside with the Harvest of the Month program into a document that will help them combine Harvest of the Month and Farm to School program. “This program, called the 100-Mile Harvest of the Month program, will be shared with Farm to School and HOTM practitioners throughout the state and nation,” Beery explained.
Due to CFJ’s success with the Farm to School program, UEPI has created Farm to Hospital programs. In conjunction with Health Care Without Harm, a global coalition advocating environmentally responsible health care, these programs focus on the improvement of patient and cafeteria food in hospitals and clinics.
CFJ not only promotes locally grown foods for hospitals, but also suggests sustainable and healthy food purchasing options such as organic food, sustainably-raised produce and meats, and antibiotic free meat. CFJ also promotes the use of rBGH-free dairy products. Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) products are associated with breast, colon, and prostate cancers and may cause infertility and birth defects. Some cows injected with rBGH have been known to suffer from health problems and die. rBGH is banned in Canada and Europe, but not in the U.S.
Another community-directed project performed by CFJ is Project Community Action on Food Environments (CAFE), which was established in 2003. Project CAFE has charted food resources, assessed local food stores, and is surveying school food environments in three Los Angeles neighborhoods for a study to design, develop, and implement improvements in both neighborhood and school food settings. This project has become increasingly important because of the recent rise in food prices.
“In 2007 the international food price index rose by nearly 40 percent, compared with nine percent the year before, and in the first three months of 2008 prices increased further, by about 50 percent,” Joachim von Braun, Director General of International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) said in a presentation at a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) conference.
Communities unable to afford and access healthy food choices result in higher rates of people being overweight and obese because they must settle for cheap, fatty foods. Obesity, as well as being overweight, is linked to severe health problems ranging from heart disease to cancer and can cause unbearable financial costs for the family. Poorer communities are also more susceptible to starvation and disease because they cannot maintain a nutritionally balanced diet.
“As food prices rise, tough decisions are being made in grocery aisles and in kitchens across the country. Unfortunately, healthier food items tend to be more expensive than the highly processed, low nutrient value foods,” Eschmeyer said.
To deal with these problems, Project CAFE strives to increase peoples’ knowledge of the health disparities related to the lack of available healthy foods in order to improve nutrition and reduce health risk factors.
A project headed by CFJ centering in the food retail sector is the Grocery Accountability Project (GAP). The goal of GAP is to raise the performance and accountability of food retail corporations in five major areas.
The first is food access. GAP is working to get full-service supermarkets to open stores in low-income, high-poverty neighborhoods that have been traditionally underserved.
GAP also advocates workers’ rights for grocery store employees to have sufficient pay, the ability to work full time, and benefits (including healthcare), by encouraging a union relationship.
The third point GAP makes is that grocery stores should adopt environmentally friendly practices, such as obtaining green building certification, encouraging walking and biking and a shuttle service for customers without cars, and making land use and design more sustainable.
Fourth, by encouraging supermarkets to purchase locally grown products whenever possible, GAP helps minimize environmental impact from food transport and supports local farmers.
The final area of focus for GAP is on labeling. Due to industry pressure, genetically engineered foods are not required to be labeled. GAP believes that nutrition labeling, origin labeling (e.g. California grown), and organic certification should be consistent, verifiable and useful to the consumer.
Eschmeyer said he hopes these five projects “will continue until the goals are met of access to fresh and healthy food for everyone.”
All of these projects have and continue to improve Los Angeles communities, but with U.S. domestic problems becoming worse from the economic downturn, inflating healthcare costs, and increasing budget deficits, UEPI progress is hindered by this recent economic recession and has experienced difficulties satisfying more pressing demands. “It has made it more difficult to get funding from foundations whose funds are tied up in the stock market,” Gottlieb said.
More recently, as a result of economic insecurity and declining incomes, interest for the environment is diminishing among U.S. citizens and companies.
“What I think makes us unique, and is reflected in the diversity of our staff and our various partnerships is our ability to combine research with action, developing and evaluating innovative programs and policies with community organizing and outreach and community empowerment strategies,” Gottlieb said.
CFJ’s upcoming projects include expanding Farm to School to include childcare programs and Head Start, a program for children that provides education, health, and nutrition services to low-income family.
CFJ encourages all students to get involved with its programs. “There are lots of opportunities for students to be involved in CFJ projects,” Gottlieb said. “There is also interest among several faculty at Oxy to develop food-related course work and research opportunities in the future.”
This article has been archived, for more requests please contact us via the support system.