With a glance around the room, it was clear that new players had joined the game. On February 11th and 12th, around 40 speakers and panelists from North Carolina to New Mexico gathered at the University of Arizona in Tucson, AZ, to discuss the intersection of food justice, faith, and climate change. Not a bad start for the launch of Tucson’s public education goals as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy.
The forum at the UA featured over ten breakout sessions, including panels addressing tribal responses to climate justice, seed libraries, and local food literacy for climate change refugees.
Joan Brown, OSF, of New Mexico Interfaith Power and Light spoke on seeing hope in darkness and living alongside an Earth that governs us. She noted the words of Pope Francis, “God has joined us so closely to the world around us that we can feel the desertification of the soil as a physical ailment, and extinction of a species as a painful disfigurement.” She spoke of Pope Francis’ “integral ecology,” which defines a view of humans as integrated in nature.
Brown attend the 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21) in December 2015. “The fact that it took 21 years to come to a climate agreement on the most critical issue of our times speaks of this floundering place that we are in as a human species,” she says. Brown pointed to the U.S. Congress as a major barrier to more strict legislative demands within the Paris Agreement.
Fred Bahnson of Wake Forest University School of Divinity brought a new perspective on the church as force of change. He emphasized the importance of creating “humus” (the nutrient-rich organic material in soil that supports growth) on which future congregations can flourish. Bahnson described the church as a stable structure that, much like a tree, must let sap flow and grow in new directions to persist. The question, then, lies in which directions the tree should lean its branches.
Native voices are crucial in climate discourse. Roberto Nutlouis of the Black Mesa Water Coalition spoke of a “just transition” to a cooperative economy providing employment on Navajo lands. To Nutlouis, environmental awareness is an essential but suppressed element in Western civilization. This theme, as well as water rights, resonated throughout cross-cultural and tribal discussions.
There, Jose Oliva of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, spoke on injustices in two parallel food production systems: industrial farms and privately-owned farms. Only about 5% of food that we have access to in supermarkets is produced by the latter, he says. Industrial food systems have historically produced cycles of poverty, forcing underpaid farm workers to eat what is affordable and accessible. That food tends to be unhealthy and processed.
Don Bustos of Santa Cruz Farms is trying to change that. Bustos runs a one-year sustainable agriculture training program. He teaches people of all ages and backgrounds to not become farm workers but rather business people by serving local markets. He spoke of promoting the simple but sustainable life as a farmer, with a goal to have small farmers distributing produce within their own regions in order to reduce the carbon footprint resulting from our globalized food system.
Yet a dream of widespread small farms serving local markets at this point in time seems distant.
Oliva went on to discuss how our food system has four sectors: Health, environment, agriculture, and labor. All sectors are distinct in their mission, which prevents collaboration in creating cohesive changes in the food system. “We can’t go about it in silos. It has to be all four of those sectors working together,” says Oliva.
During a post-film discussion, an audience member voiced concerns over an ordinance currently being considered by the City of Tucson. The ordinance would mandate sick pay for all low-wage workers, many of them in the food service industry, who receive little or no paid sick time. He notes that many businesses tremendously oppose this bill, and have threatened to move their business elsewhere. If the bill is passed, Tucson would join 21 other U.S. cities that currently allow workers paid sick leave.
The topics of food justice, faith, and climate change are cross-cutting. The takeaway from the forum was clear: if you eat food, you are a part of system that can both enable and hinder food justice.
For me, the forum was both inspiring and dizzying. I regularly vet questions of how we, the next generation, will feed a population of 9 billion by 2050. As a young environmentalist in a country in which the average age of a farmer is 58 years, these questions are daunting.
However, there is hope in that the topics of climate and food can be used as unifying rather than polarizing causes. The food system is a part of the largest private sector employer in the U.S., so it isn’t going to change overnight. What we can do today is take a seat at the table and hear a call to action in our own communities.