The 4th National Assembly of the US Food Sovereignty Alliance (USFSA) took place against a backdrop of intense labor struggle as Community 2 Community, the hosts for the gathering, supported a strike by berry farm workers led by the independent union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia. Attendees also took part in the 88th week of the “Dignity Vigils” that C2C conducts outside the Bellingham Washington City Council meeting. Led by C2C director Rosalinda Guillen, the vigils demand that the councilors make Bellingham a sanctuary city to protect undocumented local residents from deportation. I attended the Assembly as a representative of NOFA, which joined the US Food Sovereignty Alliance in 2017 as part of a deliberate effort to broaden our connections to efforts involving people from diverse sectors of the food system. The declaration from the Assembly lists the range of participants – farm-workers, food chain workers, fishers, family farmers, urban agriculturalists, food providers, and social justice advocates.
Jamie Pottern of Agrarian Trust, has a concise description of the USFSA: “the US Food Sovereignty Alliance (USFSA), is a “US-based alliance of food justice, anti-hunger, labor, environmental, faith-based, and food producer groups” that “works to end poverty, rebuild local food economies, and assert democratic control over the food system.” With roots in the global small farmers and farm workers movement, La Via Campesina and the International Planning Committee of Food Sovereignty (IPC), USFSA is a network of organizations and individuals in the U.S. working to build solidarity, strengthen the political power of farmers and food organizations, and connect “local and national struggles to the international movement for food sovereignty.” As described by the event’s organizers, it is “a global process inside of the United States.”
The USFSA has a very lean structure. There is no paid staff. This year, USFSA implemented a regional structure, “paving a way forward in practicing frontline leadership with resource support from grassroots support organizations” (From USFSA “Our History”). There are two coordinators per region and a national leadership council made up of these 8 people. The NE coordinators are Kathia Ramirez of the Farmworker Support Committee (CATA) and Julianna Fischer of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA). Several not-for-profits provide fiscal sponsorship (Why Hunger) and administrative support (Grassroots International, Presbyterian Hunger Program, Pesticide Action Network and Friends of the Earth). Work is done by collectives of volunteers from member organizations: Political Education, Agroecology: Land and Water, Narrative Strategy, International Relationships, and Youth. Most of Saturday morning was devoted to planning for these collectives that have since been meeting by conference call.
Food sovereignty, a term coined by La Via Campesina in 1996 and elaborated in the Declaration of Nyéléni in Mali in 2007, is defined as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agricultural systems.” Dorry Niaz, the new director of the National Family Farm Coalition, elaborates: “[Food sovereignty] for us is about being able to feed ourselves as communities of farmers, fisherman and fishworkers and feed ourselves culturally appropriate food,” adding that for producing communities, this right also implies having access to enabling resources. “For farmers that means, seed, land, water; for fishermen it means working waterfronts, access to fishing rights, and clean water.”
For long term NOFA members, organic farmers, gardeners and homesteaders in the NE states, the term is fairly new, though the basic concept is totally familiar – what we have referred to as local self-reliance and community interdependence. What is different is the much more upfront anti-corporate and anti-capitalist political analysis and the greater emphasis on international connections. NOFA folks have been very focused on our very local work on our farms and gardens, learning how to do organic production and sharing that know-how with one another. We have not spent much time on ideological or theoretical discussions.
As a farmer, I was concerned that the food activists at this Assembly might be too theoretical and unaware of the practical struggles that farmers face since, like it or not, we have to be economically viable to survive in the context of the capitalist food system. So I was glad when there was a plenary session where a representative from the Canadian National Farmers Union told how her family lost their larger scale hog operation and have only been able to continue farming on a very small scale with off-farm jobs like 85% of the farmers in Canada (the US too). Darnella Burkett, an African-American farmer from Mississippi and daughter of Ben Burkett, talked about the Federation of Southern Coops’ strategy for outsmarting the racists who dominate food markets in the south by seeking fair prices for member farms by selling to supportive northerners in cities like Chicago and through Red Tomato, a not-for-profit distributor based in MA.
I also participated in a discussion group on “Land and Farm Justice Movement,” where Patti Naylor, a farmer from Iowa and a member of the National Family Farm Coalition, explained how the combination of parity pricing and supply management would ensure farm income and reduce the pressure to overproduce. Rosalina Guillen told how four farm workers members of Familias Unidas por la Justicia have created a farming coop, Tierra y Libertad, where they are growing blueberries and raspberries that they sell to the Bellingham Food Coop. Their long range plan is to grow food for farmworker families as a top priority and then sell the excess. They have leased 65 acres and hope to raise the $3 million needed to purchase it. Guillen proposed the formation of a national land trust or national federation of regional land trusts to hold land as a commons and oversee fair distribution to farmers of color. The Land and Water collective formed at the Assembly has a committee that is following up on Rosalinda’s suggestion.
The Assembly opened each day with a “mistica.” That name suggests a religious rite: the first mistica I witnessed was reminiscent of Native American rituals; a second one was more like do-it-yourself street theater. The third took the form of a series of memorial tributes to food sovereignty activists who had died since the last Assembly, Kathy Ozer, Jon Kinsman, Brother Dave Andrews and Charity Hicks. I appreciated the way the agenda integrated artistic interludes with workshops and presentations, and also the acknowledgement that we were on Lummi and Nooksack land in Coast Salish Territory. I think it is important to remember the history of where we are and to pay attention to the unresolved injustices as well as the human achievements that have brought us to the present moment.
Awarding the Food Sovereignty Prizes was the concluding event of the Assembly. Initiated by USFSA as an alternative to the World Food Prize (which goes with a hefty monetary award to industrial ag scientists like Norm Borlaug, credited with initiating the “Green Revolution”), the annual Food Sovereignty Prizes honor social movements and community organizations in the US and abroad. This year the domestic prize went to Black Mesa Water Coalition, a Navajo group that is providing alternatives to the coal mines where many of their people currently work. Robert Nutlouis gave an impressive talk about their work training youth in indigenous ways, growing gardens and teaching about food as medicine. The international prize went to Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica de Puerto Rico, recognizing this very grassroots group of farmers for the brigades they mobilized to help one another dig out and rebuild after Hurricane Maria.
In the spirit of La Via Campesina, the organizers of 4th Assembly issued a concluding declaration:
“With our collective strength, we shout ‘No!’ to injustices in the food system everywhere and ‘Yes!’ to the people rising up to radically transform unjust systems and practices, for the betterment and survival of humanity and defense of Mother Earth. And to the inspiring sister movements across the planet working for food sovereignty, we sing out a resounding ¡VIVA! WE STAND WITH YOU! WE ARE PART OF YOU!”
To read the full Declaration – http://usfoodsovereigntyalliance.org/usfsa-iv-national-assembly/