In this Q&A, Siobhan Barco (@SiobhanBarco) speaks with author Lana Dee Povitz about her new book Stirrings: How Activist New Yorkers Ignited a Movement for Food Justice, out this week from UNC Press.
In the last three decades of the twentieth century, government cutbacks, stagnating wages, AIDS, and gentrification pushed ever more people into poverty, and hunger reached levels unseen since the Depression. In response, New Yorkers set the stage for a nationwide food justice movement. Whether organizing school lunch campaigns, establishing food co-ops, or lobbying city officials, citizen-activists made food a political issue, uniting communities across lines of difference. The charismatic, usually female leaders of these efforts were often products of earlier movements: American communism, civil rights activism, feminism, even Eastern mysticism. Situating food justice within these rich lineages, Lana Dee Povitz demonstrates how grassroots activism continued to thrive, even as it was transformed by unrelenting erosion of the country’s already fragile social safety net.
We are happy to include this Q&A in the 2019 University Press Week Read. Think. Act. blog tour under today’s theme, “How to build community.” We hope that Dr. Povitz’s research on community-based efforts for food justice in New York City can not only provide a window into history but also a blueprint for grassroots activists today. To read blog posts from other university presses on the subject of building community, click here.
Finally, if you’re in the New York City area, you can hear Lana Dee Povitz discuss her work at Book Culture on Columbus tonight, 11/7 at 7PM. She will be in conversation with Monica White, author of Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement, and Justice, Power, and Politics book series editor Rhonda Y. Williams. More information here.
A Conversation with Lana Dee Povitz
Q: What kinds of power does food hold as an organizing tool?
A: Food has the capacity to bring people together across lines of difference. It is immediately intelligible because everyone eats (although of course not everyone has the same relationship to food and eating). Its accessibility makes it relatively easy to get people to care about it. Efforts to democratize the food system are a way of giving people a say over something that affects them multiple times a day, and it draws the participation of people who might not ordinarily think of themselves as “political” or “activists.” You don’t have to be “political” to care about hunger; you just have to know or imagine what it feels like not to have food on the table.
“Food activism” is broad, so depending on what issues motivate you, there are different paths to action. Maybe you worry about the safety of the food you eat, and from there begin to think about the health of the workers who produced it. Maybe you want to try to prevent impending environmental collapse. Maybe you want to achieve racial justice. Whatever the issue, you find that if you frame it through food, people are readily interested.
Finally, food is tangible. When you offer it to people, you have the potential to make a connection. When a volunteer brought a gourmet meal to someone dying of AIDS—a person who had perhaps been shunned by their family, fired from their job, and scorned by society—it resonated on an extremely deep level. Or take a young mother, a recent immigrant from Puerto Rico, who speaks little English and has little formal education. When a meeting is held at her children’s school about test scores, she might not feel comfortable participating. But if the meeting is about what her children should be served at lunch–suddenly, she’s emboldened to speak up. These are just two examples of how food can be a way of forging connections that might otherwise not be made.
Q: Can you give us a brief overview of the four community-based efforts your work examines?
Shopping Coop members waiting in line. Courtesy of the Park Slope Food Coop.
A: Sure. First, I explore United Bronx Parents, a grassroots anti-poverty organization founded in the mid-1960s by a group of Puerto Rican and African American mothers. United Bronx Parents are best known for trying to end the racist inequality of NYC schools, but they also initiated the city’s first sustained grassroots campaign to reform school lunch! Second, I look at the Park Slope Food Coop, a worker-member food cooperative founded in 1973, which is today the largest in the country. The founders were ten friends who came out of the white New Left. Many had organized against the Vietnam War, and they were interested in figuring out a way to obtain high quality, organic, and natural food at low cost, which they were very successful in doing.
Next is the whimsically named God’s Love We Deliver. This organization was founded 1985 at the height of the AIDS epidemic in NYC. Founded by two women with no ties to the AIDS community but who were devotees of a spiritual guru from India, they started an organization that brought delicious gourmet meals to homebound people with AIDS at a time when the larger public treated them as pariahs. Finally, I tell the story of Community Food Resource Center, which was founded in 1980 as a response to the election of Ronald Reagan. Unusually, CFRC combined advocacy work with direct service provision—getting actual food and other services directly to hungry and poor people. So, on the one hand, they fought to expand the use of federal entitlement programs like school breakfast and food stamps. And, at the same time, they responded to rising levels of poverty by starting New York’s first food bank (today the largest in the country) and an innovative soup kitchen that also connected people with social benefits like welfare and legal services.
Continue Reading Author Interview: Lana Dee Povitz on Stirrings: How Activist New Yorkers Ignited a Movement for Food Justice