Change is uncomfortable

What do you do when business as usual no longer proffers? I’ve posed this question to myself, and to friends and colleagues, regarding personal relationships, jobs, careers, nonprofits, and policies. I have found myself asking this question a lot throughout my life, and most recently I’ve asked myself and many others this question since I’ve taken on a leadership role for the Gardening and Cooking Program (here on referred to as the Program) at the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD). This is a particularly important question to revisit as an opportunity for growth and success. I struggle with it, coming to terms with the fact that things no longer work the way I thought they should and that there’s a role I may play in supporting positive change.

At the point where the end and the beginning intersect is when decisions could be made, when adaptability begets possibility. Consider the importance of timing and trending next steps to drive change. The only thing constant in life is change. The alternative is often stagnation or disintegration. Knowing when the ripe moment for change is and how to mobilize a sensitive transition is key, and not always successful.

I was shown a TED talk recently at a management retreat, where the speaker describes change as uncomfortable, rather than as hard. He offers examples of what is hard, saying that raising children as a single parent in poverty is hard, being a foot soldier in war is hard. We so often coddle change as being something incredibly hard, when really it’s something that gets us out of our comfort zone and forces us to be unnatural for a little while.

I’ve struggled with spearheading change to rethink our modes of operation within the Program. The Program was broke. Ongoing funding of over $1.9 million from a federal grant was gone. Our pockets were empty and we had secured contracts and staff positions, and we had developed habits of how we engaged with the District, parents, students, and the Berkeley community. As a governing body, a school district has responsibilities that a private or nonprofit organization does not have. When describing this anecdotally to colleagues, they respond with their own experiences with loosing funding sources or quickly transitioning without the same political and institutional stronghold and responsibility. Being an institution with authority and accountability is both a hindrance and a necessary framework for counterbalancing influences with a system for regulating how we provide a public good. The fact that we can’t just lay off a whole staff and debunk a beloved program because we had lost funding forced us to get creative and be a responsible community member.

The California Nutrition Network (CNN), the state-granting branch within the California Department of Public Health, wasn’t getting the same amount of funding from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Education budget. Once the new farm bill was finally signed in 2014, after more than five years of heated debate, nutrition assistance and education programs got cut across the board. This affected all nutrition education programs throughout the country, not just the one at BUSD. City and County Public Health Departments were now receiving the dwindling federal grant funds that had previously generously funded our Program for about twelve years.

Change, it is sometimes more than a drag and often affects more than just those directly involved.

How do you tell the story of loss in a way that inspires people? I had to engage in a lot of challenging conversations, often many times over in different ways, and in repetition with the same people. The quicksand of reality isn’t always as fast sinking and being steadfast is a slow and steady race. However, the Program didn’t have that much time. I had to make a lot of difficult decisions and some people are still holding onto what once was and what could have been if we had more than a million dollars and operated more like a non-governmental organization. My heart aches for those that have worked with such commitment and passion to grow this program at each school. There’s a mourning process that we have to allow for, because the Program is more than an educational opportunity in Berkeley. In condolence, I offer that what is and what will be is equally exciting, though uncomfortable, and important to BUSD’s educational goals and Berkeley’s community, it will just look different. This is not always well received.

Some of the most uncomfortable changes that were made last school year were beyond the dire state of funding, though not divorced from it. The Program used to fit under BUSD’s Nutrition Services Department, the same department that runs the cafeterias. The Program also used to strictly instruct students from early child education to high school on the value of eating healthy and seasonally. Students and parents rallied with strong affection for the instructional specialists (the formal title of those that hold either the position of gardening instructional specialist or cooking instructional specialist at BUSD, which is different than a teaching title), some of whom were laid off or who’s instructional time got cut. Many schools had two instructional specialist, one for cooking and one for gardening, most of who established senior positions within the District and some started as AmeriCorps instructing gardening at one or two schools in support of parent lead efforts. We now support only gardening instructional specialists at all schools, except the high school.

The continual grant was a fortunate opportunity that afforded the District a Program that was outside of the District’s budgeting process and allowed for a lot of autonomy. In response to these changes, the Program was placed under Education Services and was charged to support District efforts to teach the standards, such as science, math, and language arts, if it was to continue to be part of the instructional day and not be part of afterschool projects.

Sometimes change feels sudden, regardless of how long the change had been talked about. The funding cuts were rumored for a couple years before the federal and state decisions were made, though fingers were crossed and false promises of fundraising for a public school district’s staff salaries and benefits were made. When the fingers uncrossed and the promises faced reality, the Program came head on with many questions about its future. Now that we lost our funding and focus: Who were we? What were we? Who did we serve, and how? The answers to these questions needed to also think about: What are our guidelines and who manages us? How did we afford it, and who would take ownership? The list of questions went on, sometimes in a furry, and sometimes with not enough furry and too late.

These are disruptive questions that can cause a panic, and they did. They made people feel distressed and sometimes alone in the situation. They ask people to look at themselves and their work. This is emotional and self-effacing, and yes, uncomfortable. I commend those that took on these questions. I admire those that tried to answer them honestly and with perspective and foresight. I am not sure I was able to fully answer them in this way, but that was my intention.

The Program may have been at a tipping point. I grappled with what would happen if it all fell down, because that was a very real possibility, and whether Program staff could be uncomfortable with something new and entertain the struggle towards reconstruction. At the end of last school year, the Berkeley School Board made an unprecedented move to fund the Program for another year in 2014-2015, and approved a Program proposal that committed to piloting a new garden-based learning curriculum that connected student learning of science and English language arts to the school garden with lessons co-taught by classroom teachers and garden instructional specialists. This School Board’s approval demonstrated thoughtful leadership and commitment to being a world-class model for whole child education. This has never happened before in any other school district.

I needed to choose the right moment with foresight and stress the importance of perseverance to repair the situation. I spent last year going to a lot of meetings and listening to what was important to the many different stakeholders: students, parents, PTA, the School Board, principals, teachers, educators, community-based organizations and institutions working to improve the food system and affect education, and local businesses and restaurants that were invested in connecting youth to where their food comes from. I had a better understanding of the commitment from Program staff and the school community. Students were often attached to their garden or cooking instructor, they had formed personal relationships with them over the years and the instructors had added value and connectivity to individual school gardens.

I also talked with many people about our Program that where from the City, County, State, and nonprofits with programs providing a similar education. The Program at BUSD was often confused with the Edible Schoolyard Project (ESY), which is hosted at King Middle School within the District and prospers with successful fundraising efforts by Alice Waters, a nationally celebrated chef and good food advocate. The ESY team consists of fantastic educators and they are national leaders in this type of work. I worked in close collaboration with Kyle Cornforth, the Director of the ESY Berkeley, to develop our new garden-based curriculum and training—the garden-based curriculum will be published and piloted in September 2014.  We are lucky to have the ESY team in our backyard and we’re establishing a true partnership; however, our struggles are different and this needs to be better communicated as part of our Program change.

The Program has an opportunity to continue to impact many stakeholders, with our collective focus on student growth and education. This year, the Program is providing a rich gardening-based education to eleven elementary schools, three early childhood education centers, two middle schools—not counting the middle school that ESY resides at—and one transitional high school. We have a lifeline for another year. We’re going to focus on what we do and how we do it and consistently do it really well across the many schools as the first and only District-wide Program of this kind. We’re not going to stretch ourselves too thin or take on more than we can chew, but we are going to say yes as much as possible. We’re going to say yes to trying new things and yes to tackling the challenging questions. We’re going to be flexible to better-fit teacher’s needs and still reach students with invaluable lessons that foster relationships with students and families and provide guidance on good food systems.

Practicing this kind of change is going to take us out of our comfort zone, but I am confident that we can align our efforts and collaborate with the expansive school community to work towards common goals in educating our youth and building community.


As the new Program Supervisor of the Cooking and Gardening Program at the Berkeley Unified School District, I’m learning a lot about community and the power of connections. One would assume that I’m also learning a lot about education, school gardens, nutrition education, and curriculum development. And, I would say yes, yes to all of that. But, what I’m really getting a better understanding of, and in a new light, is the power of community rally, parent involvement, and student-teacher relationships. This may be obvious to some, but worth noting here and now as I begin to think about the role of cooking and gardening in our educational systems and the place they have in the hearts and minds of our communities, students, and teachers. 

I’m excited about the community enthusiasm expressed in our latest fundraiser event last night, and I’m floored by the mutability and ability of our educators to connect with students that struggle with such connections. I am equally impressed with the way these experiences meet at the nexus of education and community investment. The difficulty may not be finding ways to teach better, faster, stronger, harder, but to hone these moments of symbiosis and lead us from the reigns of common goals and interests. There are many such moments and I want to highlight of few of them here. 

An Apple a Day: Doctors and Organizations Writing a New Nutrition Rx

An Apple a Day: Doctors and Organizations Writing a New Nutrition Rx

By Jezra Thompson for Civil Eats on April 11, 2013

Can an apple a day really keep the doctor away? As it turns out, there’s more truth than myth to this sage saying. Not only are apples a low calorie food with tons of vitamin C, they also contain phytonutrients, which prevents neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinsonism. Though the wonders of apples as preventative health may not be common knowledge, we can all get behind the idea that everyone needs to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables to live a healthy, long life that involves fewer doctor visits. Doctors and farmers both think so, and they are teaming up to help make these connections.

Nonprofits, like Wholesome Wave and DC Greens, who run several food access projects in our nation’s capital, are connecting physicians and patients dedicated to preventative wellness and nutrition, like those at Unity Health Clinic (Unity) in Washington, D.C., to fresh produce.

Physician Assistants, like Jessica Wallace at Unity, are writing prescriptions for locally grown fruits and vegetables that low-income patients can take to five partnering D.C. farmers’ markets, Columbia Heights Community Marketplace, Mount Pleasant, 14th and U St., Bloomingdale, and Glover Park-Burleith.

“We know nationwide that poor minority communities suffer disproportionately from chronic effects of nutrition and obesity,” says Wallace. “We’re able to target these people through partnerships to have a big impact for the people that need it the most.”

Last year, Wholesome Wave partnered with 12 clinics and nonprofits around the country to run the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program (FVRx). Farmers’ markets have become pharmacies, recommending berries for weight loss, leafy greens for heart health, and apples for neurodegenerative disease prevention. Physicians, in turn, are tracking body mass index (BMI) and blood pressure. They are also working with community health workers and nutritionists to regularly check in with patients to see if they have improved their nutrition and increased their physical activity.

“It’s awesome from a community health perspective,” explains Wallace. “Targeting kids who are obese and overweight, but not stopping there. FVRx actually supports the entire family; once the kid qualifies for the program the entire family will receive the benefits, even though we were only monitoring the data of those qualifying kids.” 

The connections between preventative healthcare and nutritional wellbeing are being made at farmers’ markets. This budding relationship between doctors and farmers is more important than ever before. At a time when we have more small farmers reliant upon farmers’ markets for a large part of their income and more overweight Americans with a lack of access to healthy foods, FVRx is convening multiple players to engage in hard conversations.

According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, obesity is the single largest threat to public health in America today. More than one-third of U.S. adults are obese, another one-third is overweight, and these rates keep on rising. America spends an estimated $190 billion annually on obesity-related illnesses. And while some of these costs are borne by the private sector, obesity also places a growing financial burden on the public. If we consider how much we spend on obesity related care, community-based wellness programs that target obesity with nutrition, fitness, and education could prove to be a cheaper solution.

Often, the same families that struggle with obesity also have a hard time affording healthy foods. Over 12 percent of D.C. households reported difficulty in affording and accessing fresh fruits and vegetables. At Unity, each family received $7 per family member, per week—a family of four receives $112 every month for about 6 months. These extra dollars bring struggling families to the farmers’ markets to purchase more fresh fruit and vegetables.

“D.C. is a city of dichotomies,” says Wallace. “There’s a tremendous wealth and opportunity here with constant changing demographics, but a lot of people living in D.C. struggle and don’t feel empowered in their surroundings.”

Columbia Heights Community Marketplace (CHCM), the most proximal farmers’ market to Unity, redeemed about 75 percent of FVRx prescriptions last year, bringing in about $600 per week and directing these extra dollars to six local produce farmers. Josh Levine, the Market Manager at CHCM, says that the FVRx program was incredibly well received during their pilot season. He says, “It’s an interesting new program that gets people talking about food access in our community.” Matt Hirsch, a farmer vending at CHCM, says, “It has increased our sales and correspondingly our income.”

Hirsch describes the program as a way to connect to customers that he didn’t have relationships with before: “I’ve been able to talk to FVRx customers about what they planned to do with the things they bought and why they were buying them. Many of our FRVx customers tend to buy a lot of produce.”  

The FVRx program enables low-income patients, like those at Unity, to take their health to another level. “They are incentivized and invested in a different way,” says Wallace. “Last year these patients had a tangible opportunity to take the information they were receiving from nutrition classes and actually apply it in a way that they wouldn’t have been able to do without this support.”

Increasing one’s intake of fruits and vegetables may seem like an unnecessary investment when compared against today’s looming economic pressures, but it has a potential for big returns. Out of the 36 children who participated in FVRx at Unity last year, 53 percent saw a decrease in their BMI percentile, a measurement that qualifies them for being obese or overweight.

This implies that in addition to enjoying the farmers’ market experience and developing good eating habits at a young age, FVRx was successful in reducing the rate of obesity for these at risk youth. These kinds of partnerships are making the case; that yes, nutrition education coupled with physical activity and an increased intake of fresh fruits and vegetables will reduce one’s chances of being obese, and possibly at a more affordable price than our mainstream healthcare system.

The FVRx program is outstanding, because doctors have their patient’s trust and are viewed as authorities on health. When they say that you need to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and here is where you can get them, oh, and here’s some extra market dollars you can use to purchase them, then you take heed. There’s research to be explored on this topic as we move past the pilot years. Though, the doctor-patient relationships, as well as the new farmer-customer connections, that are being built around increasing healthy food access at farmers’ markets could make a strong case as to how and why we need to change our healthcare and food systems.

The Farmers Market Coalition reminds us that farmers’ markets are more than transactions for food. They are rooted in community and can play a significant role in improving our overall public health. Ashley Fitch, Wholesome Waves’ FVRx Program Director, describes FVRx as community driven. 

Fitch says, “There has been a good deal of interest expressed from clinics and healthcare professionals in joining the Wholesome Wave FVRx umbrella.” As they move into 2013, Wholesome Wave will be focusing on the sustainability of FVRx, which means paring down the number of partner organizations they work with in the near future.

“Wholesome Wave is thinking more carefully about the nutrition education standards as we move forward,” says Fitch. “We’re going to be focusing on gathering data for proof of concept, identifying key policy targets, scaling the program, and engaging an advisory board to help guide a panel of experts in the field.”

Unity sees 90,000 underserved D.C. residents at several sites throughout the city. Wallace would like to have the Unity clinic in Columbia Heights be an example of what can happen at all Unity clinics in the city. Lauren Shweder Biel, the Executive Director of DC Greens, would agree that there’s a lot of potential to pilot programs like FVRx throughout the District.

FVRx was a program birthed from innovation, a need, and existing relationships. “We want to look at other systems were DC Greens has strong partnerships,” says Biel. “DC Greens has extensive relationships with District schools and we are thinking through what other food access projects would be like with other similar institutions concerned about community health and wellness.”

Physicians are also rethinking the role nutrition playsin the healthcare system, but the funding has to catch up to their ambition. Philanthropic fundraising for these projects can only go so far. D.C., in particular, has a tax surplus that policymakers are considering putting towards healthy food access projects. At the same time, hospitals in the District with bigger wallets are beginning to think about whether this program is worth their while.

The only way these programs will ever be truly sustainable is through public-private partnerships; where cities plan for them in their budgets, private investors and organizations demonstrate continued commitment to them, and hospitals and community clinics build them into their financial structures.

Whether we find support for FVRx through building community wellness into our institutional and city financial plans, or through further examination of the success of FVRx as a fiscally responsible and clinically proven project, those that are dedicated to our community’s healthcare and wellbeing, particularly in D.C., are stepping up to the plate.

The Farm Bill: An Opportunity to Address Latino Childhood Hunger through Public-Private Partnerships

About 30.7% of children in the District of Columbia live in households without consistent access to food. Many of these children are Latino and disproportionally suffer from food insecurity. Hunger affects more than just the individual, and places a financial hardship at the family and societal level. Hunger is also expensive, costing the US about $167.5 billion in loss of economic productivity. Nutrition is a vital part of healthy childhood development. Children who go hungry perform poorly in school and experience a decrease in work productivity.

     Public-private partnerships enable collaborative projects that address food insecurity. Private corporations have foundations that fund important anti-hunger organizations that teach cooking classes and shopping on a budget, offer incentive dollars to those using their federal benefits at farmers markets to increase their purchasing power of healthy foods, and conduct outreach into underserved communities to increase nutrition education and food access. These community-based nonprofits track changes in community hunger through diligent data collection and analysis. This information is synthesized to advocate for policy change that better accommodates these projects and connects public funding to improve the sustainability of them in the future. These are just a few examples of what can happen when private, nonprofit, and public entities get together.

     I’ll be joining Julia-Feliz Sessoms, Director of Global Public Policy and Government Affairs at PepsiCo; Rudy Arredondo, President and CEO of National Latino Farmers and Ranchers Trade Ass; and Lisa Pino, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, USDA to discuss how public-private partnerships can address childhood hunger. We’ll be hosted by the Next Generation of Latino Leaders at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute to talk about the Farm Bill’s Farmers Market Promotional Program as a way to facilitate projects that alleviate Latino childhood hunger. You can register here: , and participate in the discussion.

Detroit: Land Grab or City Revival

On December 11th, the Detroit City Council approved the sale of public land to the controversial Hantz Farms, now turned Hantz Woodlands urban forestry project, in Detroit’s eastside neighborhood. The deal confirms the sale of 140 acres of public land at the handsomely cheap price of 8 cents per square foot ($300 per lot). This is one of the largest urban land acquisitions in the history of any U.S. city and it’s being sold at below market price at a time when Detroit is desperate for revitalization and business investment. The transaction was made with the meager conditions that John Hantz, a financial services entrepreneur and the private developer behind Hantz Farms, improves the underutilized land by demolishing 50 derelict buildings (some of which are inhabited), cleaning up and mowing overgrown lots, and planting 15,000 hardwood trees. This may never have happened in any other modern-day city, but in a place like Detroit, where finances are beyond tight, “money talks,” according to Rob Anderson, the Director of Detroit’s Planning and Development. As a result, many people are calling this deal between Hantz and the city of Detroit a “land grab.”

Detroit was once a thriving industrial town turned vacant at the hands of factory foreclosures and businesses abandoning the city for cheaper labor. At its height of grandeur, in the 1950’s, the city once had the highest rate of urban homeownership and median household income. Now the median household income is less than half of the state and there are over 103,000 “unimproved” vacant lots (about 30% of the city) that have been demolished (60% of those have been placed under city ownership, due to tax-foreclosures). It’s a devastating depiction of loss and the city is struggling to provide services to a dwindling population, where whole swaths of neighborhoods are gone. Many government officials are looking to private enterprises as a means to fill in these gaps. Thus, Detroit’s abandoned lots and buildings have become an auction house with little to no standardization.

Like other land speculators have done in Detroit, Hantz saw an opportunity and discreetly began buying up city lots one-by-one before he petitioned to the city four years ago for the “world’s largest urban farm.” Hanzt plans to buy up more and possibly resell it once the land value increases. Hanzt Group, the LLC funding Hantz Farms, has been working under the auspices that repurposing the land would remediate derelict lots and beautify the neglected urban landscape. The tree farm posed itself as an easier option for Hantz than agriculture, since the City Council has yet to finalize proposed zoning changes that will allow for urban agriculture to exist as the main use of the property. Despite these restrictions, urban agriculture has been a prevalent grassroots effort throughout the city, leading the city to be hailed as the leader in the urban agriculture movement.

In roughly 138 square miles, Detroit currently has more than 1,200 community farms and gardens, many of which farm with and for the community. In a city left with few grocery stores and dwindling public services, urban farming projects, like D-Town Farm and the Greening of Detroit, are working to reconnect Detroit’s inner-city residents to each other, the land, and healthy food. Organizations, like the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN)—a coalition working collaboratively to build food security and food sovereignty in Detroit’s black community and the pioneer behind D-Town Farm—are encouraging black people (85-90% of the city’s population are African American) to mobilize for social change through urban agriculture.

Given the prevalence of urban agriculture in the city, there were many people who spoke out against the deal on the grounds that there are no clear processes for buying land and the present exchange between Hantz and the city furthers the land inequality amongst the haves and have-nots. Several community-based organizations, along with the City Planning Commission, Detroit Food Policy Council (DFPC), and many community farms in Detroit, including those within the eastside, are publicly and adamantly against the city’s deal with Hantz.

The last public hearing hosted by the DFPC and the City Planning Commission on December 10th gave Detroit’s citizens an opportunity to publicly voice their opinions about the Hantz Farms proposal. During which time, community members voiced a seemingly unanimous opposition. Gary Dennis, a Detroit resident says he’s been taking care of vacant lots near his house for years, one of which he bought for $1,000, $700 more than what Hantz paid per lot. “Now you want to sell the land that we’re keeping up,” Dennis asked Council members at the hearing.

Others spoke about how the city turned down their offer to buy lots for $200-$300 for commercial agriculture. Urban farmers, like Ryan Anderson who moved to Detroit to start a for-profit farm in North Corktown, have struggled with the city to purchase land and are forced to rent or commandeer lots. These farmers want to grow their business and they want to buy land too. The issue of zoning for agriculture in the city will soon be resolved by the City Council’s vote; however, the lack of consistency and processes in place for buying land remains a barrier for those without as much capital and political push as Hantz, though with similar agricultural intentions.

The DFPC published a report this December in response to and in summation of the public hearing on the Hantz proposal. The report outlines the sale of public land to Hantz Farms as a purchase agreement, which has fewer restrictions for the buyer, and provides recommendations for improving these processes that include the community. It also describes Detroit’s history of discrimination in land sales, as well as makes the city’s financial needs very real.

The City Council’s vote for selling public land to Hantz Farms was one in support of revitalization, but it negated the community’s opposition in order to do so. Mayor Bing released a statement in response to the Hantz deal to The Huffington Post that claims that the Woodlands is an answer to the city’s rampant blight. Proponents of the deal agree with Hantz’s statement that: “Placing city owned properties back in the marketplace will provide the city with revenue from the sale of surplus property, improve quality of life in surrounding neighborhoods, and reduce city operating costs by transferring maintenance costs to a private sector company.”

When I asked Mike Score, President of Hanzt Group, about Hantz Farms’ plans and community agreements, many of which were left vague and were primary concerns expressed at the public hearing, he said that they would work with K-12 programs to offer the Woodlands as a learning lab for students. He also said that they are partnering with Michigan State University to allow for research on the environmental and social impacts of the Woodlands. Though they have not engaged the community-at-large in a public hearing, Score described their outreach strategies as more being intimate. Rather, Hanzt Group have been engaging in one-on-one meetings with those interested in learning more about the project and with groups of no more than 10-30 people at a time. These outreach methods leave room for misunderstandings and breeds disconnection between neighbors. The one community group that does support this deal is the Lower Eastside Action Plan (LEAP), who publicly endorses this project and state that they “have generated a “Community Agreement” with Hantz Farms to assure that they live up to their (Hantz Group) promises and LEAP will monitor the project.”

Score told me: “There are a lot of different organizations in the community, all of which can argue that they are the true representatives of the community. We (Hanzt Group) choose the connection that felt most local and most appropriate. We (Hantz Group) won’t partner with everyone, because everyone isn’t affected and it’d be impossible to reach concessions with everyone, even those in the urban agriculture movement.”

Charity Hicks, a member of the Detroit Food Justice Task Force, described the deal as one that “favors capital at the expense of the community.” “Hundreds of people spoke out over the past two weeks against this project to the local legislative body, but it got ignored,” she says.

Hicks told me: “We (the Detroit food security and sovereignty community) are shifting gears from mobilization to grassroots.” There are 15 groups, and growing, that are collaboratively working on a community land trust proposal, which Hicks describes as having a process, “where land is equally distributed amongst the community, where the community and government can actively pursue policies, projects, and programs that support community based initiatives that foster self-sufficiency, community ties, and sustainable ways of living.” These groups have been working in the eastside of Detroit for years and are offering an alternative resolution to the Hantz deal. “We may have problems, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have solutions,” Hicks says.

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CIW vs. Publix: A Battle For The Most Happy Thanksgiving

“I’m thankful for all of you,” says the patriarch praising a table of plenty where friends, family, and food take center stage. This scene of cornucopia is the setting of Publix’s several Thanksgiving commercials, like this one, that positions the Florida-based grocery store chain as the oracle of gratitude; not only saying grace for the turkey and stuffing, but for all of you as well, because without you they wouldn’t be able to come together and host such a fine dinner. In fact, they wouldn’t be able to provide for anyone’s Thanksgiving dinner if it weren’t for some key players, yes you, but also the farmers who are pinnacle to a grocery store’s success.

These commercials are not lacking in finesse or emotional pull. They create theater, where food means family and family means Publix. This is a very fine motif, but an incomplete and skewed one. Unfortunately, many holiday feasts this year will be ignoring the farmers role, which evokes the question, why aren’t we going public about our farmer appreciation and holding prosperous grocery stores responsible for partaking?

The Campaign for Fair Food, which has been organizing farmworkers in Immokalee, FL since 1993, is trailblazing responses to these poignant questions. November 14th marked the Thanksgiving Week of Supermarket Action, where the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a community-based organization working with immigrants in low-wage jobs, and Fair Food activists across the country have been marching, singing, educating, and urging grocery stores to work towards a Fair Food Agreement. The message they are sending is that tomato farmers in Florida deserve a living wage for their hard work, a code of conduct for farmworker treatment, and the abolition of slavery from continuing in the fields.

Their vast efforts have thus far made great strides towards progress. Since 2001, the CIW has signed Fair Food Agreements with Yum Brands, McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods Market, Compass Group, Aramark, Sodexo and Bon Appetit Management Company. This year, the Campaign has gotten Trader Joes and Chipotle on board, formalizing the ways in which these monoliths purchase and work with Florida tomato farmers.

Despite these milestones, grocery stores are poorly represented in the Campaign. To counter this, the Campaign is diligently working to break through these barriers of resistance, focusing on Publix’s opposition as they engage in a broad media campaign that purposefully leaves out the farmer. As one of the leading buyers of Florida tomatoes, Publix has refused to work with the CIW on any agreement that pays farmworkers a penny more per pound or guarantees fair labor practices. However, this may have to change soon because some of Publix’s plans to expand into other states and communities are being met with terms of conditions that demand that they come to an agreement with the CIW before moving in.

Publix sees their relationship with the CIW as a labor dispute, not one of food. “We don’t believe “just paying the penny” is the right thing to do — for Publix or our suppliers. Simply stated, Publix is more than willing to pay a penny more per pound — or whatever the market price for tomatoes will be — in order to provide product to our customers. However, we will not pay employees of other companies directly for their labor. That is the responsibility of their employer, and we believe all parties would be better served if appropriate wages were paid by growers to their workers, and we were charged accordingly.”

Farmworkers are committed to changing these conditions and convincing Publix that farmworker rights is also a food issue. They have organized fasts and sit-ins across the country that conveys just this. They have the Fair Food community’s rallying partnership and are calling for more support, because what they are up against is media manipulation on a goliath scale. The Campaign urges you to drop off a manager letter, like this one posted by the CIW, to the grocery stores in your neighborhood that have yet to sign a Fair Food Agreement and participate in educating your neighbors about farmworker’s roles in making holiday dinners possible. What better time than Thanksgiving to show your gratitude and support for the farmworkers that enable this to happen?

Also on Civil Eats

Shift Change: Putting democracy to work

"Would we have the IPhone if Apple was a cooperative enterprise," asks the young moderator and worker-owner at NOBAWC -pronounced No Boss. A shout from the audience responded, “It would be called the WePhone,” followed by applauds. 

This exchange happened last night in Oakland, CA at the premier of the new documentary, Shift Change. It was a comment on the notion that cooperatives (worker-owner enterprises, where everyone has an equal vote and equal pay and no boss) work well when small and focused on providing a service, rather than large, multinational even, and focused on innovation, much like Apple. Taking a look around at the audience members one would think that this was a crowd of idealist from the Bay Area—rather cliche—but the conversations and film content would say otherwise.

Ted Howard, Executive Director of the Democracy Collaborative in Cleveland, OH, introduced the film with his thoughts. “So many citizens have lost faith in the institutions, corporations, governments, and traditional ways of doing things. New ideas matter. Capital doesn’t always need to be in first place. Labor can take front seat and can use capitol in support of it.” 

Though there are several examples of large scale cooperative service industries in the U.S., like Ace Hardware and Cabot Creamery, I couldn’t find an example of an innovative business built on research and technology, like Apple, that were working as a cooperative. The authors of Shift Change, Mark Dworkin and Melissa Young, interviewed cooperative worker-owners, like those at  Arizmendi Bakery and WAGES, but really focused on the Mondragon Corporation in the Basque region of Spain, where a cooperative culture was developed in 1956.

The history of Mondragon dates back to 1941 with a  young Catholic priest named José María Arizmendiarrieta, when the town’s population was about 7,000 and deeply suffering from the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Arizmendiarrieta educated the town on humanism, set up a technical college, selected a few people to pioneer the first cooperative industry, and the Mondragon model took off—in a nutshell.  As a result, the Basque country has 14% unemployment in todays dire economy, compared to Spain’s national average of 25%. Mondragon employs more than 80,000 people and is the seventh largest Spanish company.

Mondragon is a great example of a successful cooperative at a large scale, and Shift Change does a great job in telling it’s story, but I was left wondering and hoping that there was a U.S. example that was working towards a larger and more technical model that included professionals outside of the service industry. The authors of Shift Change suggests that there is an alternative to the way the U.S. does business and seems to be using Mondragon as a paragon for how and why change should happen. The message is that a new economy is emerging and it’s being practiced across the country and around the world by all kinds of people. The film may have been a bit redundant in conveying this as the interviews retold the same benefits of working at a cooperative; mainly being a way to motivate, inspire, and engage in ways that workers are not able to in a capitalist workplace. Several of the interviewees say, “Workers are invested in what they do, because they own a piece of the company and have an equal say in how the business is governed and operated.”

Despite the reiterations and outdated videography, there are real truths and insights in Shift Change. The film highlighted stories about worker-owned enterprises that are rooted in community, are providing viable jobs, and reinvesting in education. “It’s not a marginal activity, these are serious businesses with good business plans,” says Melissa Young. 

Arizmendiarrieta was quoted as saying, ”Nothing differentiates people as much as their respective attitudes to the circumstances in which they live. Those who opt to make history and change the course of events themselves have an advantage over those who decide to wait passively for the results of the change.” This seems like a commendable way of living and working together, one that I can get behind, regardless of its idealism, because we all need to work towards ideals, especially when we’re faced with a stagnant economy and social unrest. 

Shift Change is being shown across the country throughout the next couple months. You can find a showing nearest you here and learn how to get involved and create a cooperative in your community here.

All Together Now: World Food Day 2012

One in seven people around the world will feel hunger today. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) brings global awareness to this issue every year on October 16th, and have done so since 1981. Today, there are more than 100 countries that will celebrate World Food Day. Over 450 national and private organizations in the U.S., such as Oxfam America and Ending Hunger, will host events around this year’s theme, “Agricultural cooperatives–key to feeding the world,” to bring better understanding around what cooperatives are and how they help relieve food insecurity and improve community self-sufficiency.

Agricultural cooperatives are enterprises owned and democratically operated by the employees that work there. They range from farming to retail coops that pool together resources and share in the costs and benefits of running a business. “There are many examples of co-ops and they take away the hierarchies that make it difficult to create a quality of life,” says Madeleine Van Engel, a baker-owner at Arizmendi, a cooperative bakery in the San Francisco Bay Area. Many examples of agricultural cooperatives in the U.S. not only feed their community, but also create economic and social sustainability in places often deemed unlikely.

Mandela Marketplace, a West Oakland non-profit, worked within their predominantly African-American and Latino community to identify ways to improve livelihoods and to create neighborhood investment. Together, they wanted to address the poor health statistics, where obesity rates are three times higher than the national average and where forty-eight liquor stores and zero grocery stores attempt to feed around 25,000 people. As a result, the Mandela Foods Cooperative opened its doors in 2009 as a worker-owned community market selling healthy food at an affordable price.

Mariela Cedeno, Senior Manager at Mandela Marketplace, describes the cooperative as community driven. More than forty percent of the produce sold at the cooperative comes from small farmers within a 200-mile radius, most of them minority farmers. They also employ community members, like Leroy Musgraves, a retired African-American farmer who hosts nutrition education sessions in front of the cooperative twice a week.

Three years later, Mandela Foods Cooperative is improving food security and the community marketplace in West Oakland. Ms. Cedeno says that, “being a cooperative means that everyone gets value out of the business and everyone is engaged in its mission to increase access to healthy food and increase the community’s wealth, they are equally invested in economic development and food.” Since the success of Mandela Foods Cooperative, the community of West Oakland and Mandela Marketplace has organized a produce delivery service that works with community youth to stock the shelves of corner stores with fresh produce.

The Toolbox for Education and Social Action lists 10 reasons why cooperatives work, starting with democracy and ending with viability. The FAO estimates that one billion people are members of cooperatives worldwide and they are generating more than 100 million jobs. The way we think about agriculture and food businesses is moving away from the trailblazing farmer tasked with feeding the world and moving closer towards business models that share resources, ideas, and finances. The National Council of Farmer Cooperatives found that“cooperatives account for nearly $654 billion in revenue, over two million jobs, $75 billion in wages and benefits paid, and a total of $133.5 billion in value-added income.”

World Food Day invites us all to take action and join the conversations. Many community-based organizations, agricultural cooperatives, and community leaders will host dinners, organize food packaging events, arrange food drives, plan community gardening events, and engage schools and institutions. There are also several national and international conferences and workshops taking place around the world that you can tune into. This year’s World Food Day conference will be hosted by Gorta in Dublin and will stream live today at 9am here. You can find out more about agricultural cooperatives and how you can get involved in your community to end world hunger one dinner at a time here.

This publication was produced by the 
Community Food Security Coalition with 
generous funding from the communities 
Putting Prevention to Work Program and in 
collaboration with the Farmers Market Coalition. 
Authors:  Stacy Miller, Jezra Thompson and 
Marion Kalb 


This publication was produced by the 

Community Food Security Coalition with 

generous funding from the communities 

Putting Prevention to Work Program and in 

collaboration with the Farmers Market Coalition. 

Authors:  Stacy Miller, Jezra Thompson and 

Marion Kalb 

Justice for Food Workers: An interview with Sarumathi Jayaraman

See the Civil Eats article here

Sarumathi Jayaraman, co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC) and author of the upcoming book Behind The Kitchen Door, says that what’s at stake when we choose a restaurant are the lives of 10 million people, many immigrants, many people of color, who bring passion, tenacity, and important insight into the American dining experience.

The Huffington Post
posted a story about working conditions for restaurant staff that recants the stifling history of the “tipped minimum wage”, the lack of regulatory influence on service workers, and the harsh realities of being paid bare minimum for hard work in situations that are neither stable nor compassionate. Ms. Jayaraman’s promising book, Behind The Kitchen Door, investigates further and asks; can we really eat ethically if we’re only purchasing ethical food, but not ensuring that there are ethical labor practices for the people who get the food to our plates?

I had an opportunity to talk more via email with Ms. Jayaraman about their work with immigrant and low-wage restaurant workers.


JT: What was the impetus for the upcoming book, Behind The Kitchen Door?

SJ: Over the last ten years, we ROC has conducted more than 5,000 surveys of low-wage restaurant workers, 300 employer interviews, and 300 in-depth worker interviews, and have published more than 15 reports on the industry. Through all of this research, we have found that the extremely low wages, lack of benefits, and poor working conditions faced by the more than 10 million restaurant workers nationwide directly and severely impact the safety, health, and overall dining experience of every consumer who eats out. We wanted to write a popular book to let everyone who eats out understand what’s going on behind the kitchen door, and the severe implications of the poor wages and working conditions of the people who touch our food on our own health and welfare. I wanted to share my own story - that my own dining experience has changed in learning the stories of these workers, and that I think theirs will too. Most importantly, after learning about what’s going on, we want to implore every restaurant consumer to take small actions to change the industry - use ROC’s Diners Guide when eating out, let restaurant managers know that as consumers we care about whether the workers have paid sick days or are paid poverty wages as much as we care about whether the chicken is free-range. Ultimately, we hope to encourage consumers to let their legislators know that a minimum wage for tipped workers of $2.13 and a lack of paid sick days are simply unacceptable, both for the sake of those workers and the sake of our own health and welfare as consumers.  

Q: Who do you want to read this book?

SJ: The target audience is everyone and anyone who eats out, but frankly that includes everyone who touches this industry, including workers, managers, owners, and policy makers.

Q: Does the book highlight individual worker stories? If so, were the workers that were interviewed for this book afraid of repercussions from their employers (future and current?)

SJ: Yes, this book highlights individual worker stories and yes, in some cases workers asked me to use a pseudonym and/or to not mention the name of their employer. However, in many cases workers allowed me to use their own names and bravely told their own stories because they felt it was too important.

Q: What questions do you hope this book will incite?

SJ: How did the industry get to this point - how did we allow undue corporate influence to create such incredible disparity in one of the nation’s largest industries? As a restaurant consumer, what can I do to change this situation?

Q: Are people prepared to bare the burden of higher meal costs at restaurants in order to supplement an increase in wages and standards for working?

SJ: All of our research - and in fact research by the USDA - indicates that there actually would not be a higher cost of meals at restaurants if workers were paid and treated well. We have several responsible employer partners who manage to pay livable wages and provide benefits with comparable menu prices to other restaurants in their segment of the industry. Our Diners Guide has awarded restaurant companies in every segment of the industry - fast food, casual, and fine dining restaurants - that provide these wages and working conditions without high menu prices.

Q: How can these costs be covered if businesses take it on themselves to increase wages and provide benefits?

SJ: The employers profiled in my book - and also in ROC’s recent report, “Taking the High Road: A How-To Guide for Successful Restaurant Employers,” talk about how providing increased wages and benefits might create an initial short-term cost, but that there are extremely high long-term costs for restaurant profit, including much lower turnover, which allows them to save the cost of hiring and training new workers all the time (most restaurants experience over 100% turnover in one year), increased productivity by their employees, including better service and ‘up-selling’ by dining room staff, decreased liability, increased worker loyalty and decreased theft and breakage, and more. 

Q: What campaigns can concerned customers get involved with?

SJ: Currently, ROC has a campaign to encourage Darden, the owner of the Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Capital Grille, Bahamas Breeze, Seasons 52 and other brands, and the world’s largest full-service restaurant company, to end racial discrimination and wage theft and act as an industry leader with regard to poverty wages and paid sick days. Consumers can let the management in any of Darden’s restaurants know that they encourage the company to act as an industry leader on these issues. ROC also has engaged in local, state and federal policy campaigns. As a result of our efforts, for the first time in 15 years, House of Representatives leader George Miller introduced a minimum wage bill in Congress that includes a significant increase in the tipped minimum wage. Consumers can let their representatives know that they should move this legislation forward, for the sake of everyone who eats out.


Q: Does ROC work with other food service workers, like school cafeteria dietitians and/or cooks?

SJ: ROC’s membership of 10,000 includes all kinds of food service workers, both ‘front of house’ (dining floor) and ‘back of house’ (kitchen), but these workers primarily work in restaurants. We have had school cafeteria and other food service workers join ROC to access our free job training programs, which help workers advance to livable-wage fine dining service jobs. We train about 1000 workers per year through our training programs. In New York and Detroit, we run these training programs in our own worker-owned cooperative restaurants called COLORS. In other cities, we run these programs in partnering responsible restaurants. We have about 75 responsible restaurant partners around the country, including Tom Colicchio of Top Chef and Elan Hall of the Gorbals.

Q: Has there been a shift in worker practices and treatment in other industries that have set precedence?

SJ: We’ve actually seen a shift in our own industry that is example enough of what could occur at a national scale. We’ve won large campaigns against high-profile restaurant companies winning improved wages and working conditions in New York City that has impacted the industry nationwide — we’ve heard from workers everywhere that their employer changed something in their restaurant as a result of ROC’s work. We’ve also worked with any and every restaurant employer willing to partner with us to help them constructively improve their employment practices, impacting thousands of workers. We’ve also won local policy campaigns, increasing the minimum wage for tipped workers in New York State and passing a bill in Philadelphia that would make it illegal for restaurants to deduct credit card processing fees from workers’ tips.

But we’ve also seen another major shift in our industry that makes us believe that this book could have the power to improve wages and working conditions for workers nationwide. Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan’s book Omnivore’s Dilemma catalyzed hundreds of thousands of Americans to demand locally sourced, organic food from restaurants, and the industry has most definitely responded; there are more restaurants with such menu items than ever before. If Americans also demanded decent wages and benefits like paid sick days for the people who touch their food, the industry would most certainly respond. (By the way, Eric Schlosser has written the foreword to this book).

Q: Are there actions that people can take after reading the book?

SJ: Yes, there are specific recommended actions listed in the last chapter. Specifically, we hope people will use the ROC Diners Guide and speak to restaurant management every time they eat out . We also hope people will let their legislators know that a $2.13 minimum wage for tipped workers — is not acceptable.

Today is the kick off for the CIW Chipotle National Day of Action

The Fair Food Campaign is Fighting for Farmworker Justice

The CIW, in alliance with The Student Farmworker Alliance, Just Harvest, and Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida are coordinating protests in 25 cities this week as part of their plans for a National Day of Action. The CIW have been organizing since 1993 and their allies have been walking alongside them since 2001. Together, they are working with farmworkers in Immokalee, FL on the Campaign for Fair Food, a grassroots farmworker-led campaign to change living and working conditions for those in the fields picking tomatoes. (Florida’s tomato industry is responsible for nearly all of the fresh tomatoes grown in the U.S. between November and June.) The Campaign applies pressure to food corporations, like grocery stores and fast food joints, to sign the Fair Food agreement stating that they will purchase from farms that abide by a set of quality of life and living wage standards for farmworkers (basic asks include an increase of one penny per pound of tomatoes picked, respect for workers, business transparency, and an enforced code of conduct for agricultural suppliers). Tomato farmers haven’t seen a salary raise in over 30 years. These are not drastic asks, rather a human dignity not previously offered and now demanded for by a worker-run movement.

The Campaign has a simple tactic, leverage the buying power of customers purchasing fruits and vegetables. Large food chain stores and fast food restaurants, like Chipotle, buy huge quantities of the nation’s produce, which makes them prime targets for changing the food system through consumer demand. Customers have always had the power to vote with their pocketbooks and they have been voting for fair food, as the Campaign successes prove. Many ways in which consumers have expressed this vote is by making their voices and pocketbooks heard, sending manager letters asking food chain businesses to sign the agreement for Fair Food, holding peaceful protests, and purchasing at places that have signed the agreement.

Taco Bell was the first fast food chain to sign the agreement, which took four years of campaigning and boycotting before they agreed to provide fair food in 2005. Since then, the Campaign has reached YUM Brands, McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods, Bon Appétit Co., Aramark and Sodexo, and Trader Joe’s without the need for boycotts. They are currently focusing on Publix, Kroger, and Ahold (international parent company of Stop & Shop & Giant) in the supermarket industry, and are applying a great deal of pressure on Chipotle in the fast food industry.

When the CIW approached Chipotle Mexican Grill they were part of the McDonald’s monolith. Though Chipotle works with some of the same growers that McDonald’s does, they have been refusing to sign the Fair Food agreement with the CIW, despite their hearty advertisement as an ethical eatery that purchases from local and sustainable farms that supply ingredients that are “raised with respect for the animals, the environment, and the farmers.”


Now, how does this translate to its workers in the kitchens and those in the field that supply their ethical produce and meats? And, can something be termed as sustainably farmed if their farmworkers are not treated “sustainably”? Well, it’s hard to tell, since we can only rely on a “he said, she said” vow. Until they actually sign the agreement for Fair Food, which delineates the exact ethics for purchasing the produce that Chipotle claims to.

“Change is an equation that includes workers, growers, buyers, and consumers,” says Jake Ratner, the community coordinator at Just Harvest, and “Chipotle’s stance represents an arrogant approach to food justice.”

Essentially, corporations have benefited from the free market and the unaffected politics that have created a history of corporate control. This has not served the laborers that bring the food to the table, and it has belied a mask of consumer choice with low prices that don’t reflect the true cost of the food being sold. In response, the CIW has established its own department of labor that sets wage standards and worker and corporate accountability. They are working one-on-one with the farms and big buyers, rather than relying on government (who have historically been way late to the table in responding to slavery in the fields and many other travesties that were supposed to be regulated) to make sure that the food we farm and eat is done so fairly. This is working towards a real sustainability that goes beyond organics and sets honest standards for both workers and buyers.

“The Campaign may not be taking on the Farm Bill or global trade policy directly,” say Kandace Eloisa Vallejo, a board member at Just Harvest, “but they are taking on chain restaurants and grocery stores,” which may prove more effective in the end.

The movement for fair food and farmworker justice is growing. Many of those working in the food movement will be called to take action to show solidarity with farm labor rights as a critical component in their work towards a sustainable food system. Additional information about pending protests will be posted on Facebook and other social media.


I arrived in the Lake Merritt neighborhood in Oakland on Saturday, July 21, to meet with Kay Cuajunco and Navina Moon, spokespersons for the Bay Area kickoff of one of many peaceful protests against Chipotle’s refusal to sign the Fair Food agreement in alignment with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to support farmworker justice. Protesters were slowly amassing in red and black, holding signs pleading that “if Chipotle loves small farms then they should also love their farmworkers.” Primarily students and young adults began the march with a rally, then quickly pursued down the narrow pathways of the farmers’ market along Grand Ave. to accumulate more supporters, who by proxy to the market and their choices to purchase from small local farmers were posed as obvious would-be joiners. In the end, they convened at the newly opened Chipotle food chain along Lakeshore Ave. to form a picket line of protestors.