As individuals, we have the opportunity to make personal choices that make a difference in our own lives and in the food system. We can shop at farmers markets, grow a garden, get educated about nutrition, or learn about different food cultures. But if we want our food system to be fair, inclusive and just for all, we need to look beyond our own plates and identify ways we can make a difference at the local, state, federal and even international level. If you're looking to get involved, I've put together a resource guide, which is by no means complete, but hopefully can point you in some exciting directions.
Get involved locally
We've all heard the phrase, "think globally, act locally", and while it's a little well-worn, there's a lot of truth behind it. Local issues and politics affect all of our lives, and decisions made by local governments often set the precedent for what happens at the district, state or even federal level. When it comes to issues impacting the food system, here are a few ways to get involved locally:
- Get to know the decision makers – As it goes with any issue you care about, if you want to change the food system it's important to talk to the people who have the authority to make decisions. At the local level, this might be your city council member, school board official, or even your member of congress. Give these people a ring, write them a letter, pay them a visit – they want to hear from you.
- Demonstrate how food connects to issues your decision makers care about – While many policy makers might not be up to speed about sustainable food systems, they likely care about issues affecting job creation and the economy, the environment, social justice, public health, education, or agriculture. Remember, it's all connected. If you're able to demonstrate how food connects to the issues your elected representatives care about, you'll have a better chance at getting their buy-in.
- Buy local food – When you buy from local, independent farmers and businesses, you continue to strengthen the economic base of your community. Local food tastes better because crops are picked at their peak, and it's better for you because the fewer miles food has to travel between field to plate means it will lose fewer nutrients. Buying locally supports small scale family farming, which preserves farmland and the genetic diversity of crops and livestock. And at a time when everything feels uncertain, buying local is a way to invest in the future and ensure that there will be farms and food for your community for years to come. Find a farmers market or CSA or food coop near you.
- Support grassroots organizations – You have an opportunity to make a huge difference in your community by supporting organizations that are working on the front lines of food system reform. Grassroots organizations often are in the best position to understand and address the underlying issues affecting your community, yet these organizations often have less access to resources to sustain their important programming. Annual and, better yet, monthly donations can help them build sustainable solutions for the communities they directly represent.
- Advocate for healthy food in your local schools – 32 million kids rely on schools for most of their daily calories. If we want to raise a generation of productive, healthy kids, schools are the places where we can help them build healthy eating habits. Get involved in a local organization working on school food or farm to school issues, like FoodCorps or their local partners or the National Farm to School Network. Your local extension office will be full of local resources and directions to point you in, too.
- Join or start a community garden – Community gardens are a single piece of land gardened collectively by a group of people. These gardens provide the opportunity to connect with youth, immigrants, community leaders, health and food production experts about food and gardening issues affecting your community. They're also a great way to try your hand at growing your own food. Here's a national list of registered gardens, though there are likely local, more specific registries available in your community.
- Join a local food policy council – The ways our federal, state and local governments make decisions affecting our food system is disjointed – health departments cover nutrition and food safety; transportation and planning departments cover land use and food access issues; agriculture departments cover farming and farm to school. Food policy councils emerged as a solution to link these issues together at the local and state level. FPCs are generally made up of members that represent the full spectrum of the food system: farmers, chefs, food processors, farm and food advocates, consumers, public health experts, food justice advocates and local government reps. While not every city has one (or necessarily needs one), FPCs are a great resource for those wishing to make recommendations for food policy change. See if your city has one here.
- Learn from others about how to get started – Talk to a farmer, restaurant owner or worker, farmers' market manager, school garden coordinator, local extension worker, and others to find the best ways to get involved with food issues in your community.
Get involved nationally
There are so many amazing people and organizations working to change our food system, and thus advocating for the rights of our country's most marginalized people. Whether you care about hunger issues, school food, farm to school, farmers markets, food access and security, food worker's rights, food justice, food policy, food waste, urban gardening or farming, small farmer issues, or food culture – there are organizations armed with the platform and smart, talented individuals who share your values. Consider the following list a starter guide. In the wake of the election, many of these organizations are using their email lists and social media accounts to share action alerts – I'd recommend signing up for communications and making donations to organizations fighting for issues you care about most.
- Coalition of Immokalee Workers – CIW is a worker-based human rights organization internationally recognized for its achievements in the fields of social responsibility, human trafficking, and gender-based violence at work. CIW's Fair Food Program is ensures humane wages and working conditions for the workers who pick fruits and vegetables on participating farms. It harnesses the power of consumer demand to give farmworkers a voice in the decisions that affect their lives, and to eliminate the longstanding abuses that have plagued agriculture for generations.
- Farmworker Justice – Farmworker Justice seeks to empower migrant and seasonal farmworkers to improve their living and working conditions, immigration status, health, occupational safety, and access to justice.
- Fight for $15 – Fight for $15 international movement in over 300 cities on six continents of fast-food workers, home health aides, child care teachers, airport workers, adjunct professors, retail employees, and underpaid workers everywhere – striking for $15 an hour and union rights.
- FoodCorps – FoodCorps connects kids to healthy food in school. Their AmeriCorps leaders deliver their program in high-need schools, focusing on hands-on lessons, healthy school meals and cultivating a schoolwide culture of health. Building on this foundation of direct impact, FoodCorps pursues systemic strategies that will benefit all of our nation’s 100,000 schools.
- Food Research and Action Center – FRAC is a research and advocacy organization that focuses on community, state and national level solutions to eliminate hunger and undernutrition across the US.
- Food and Water Watch – F&WW champions healthy food and clean water for all, stands up to corporations that put profits before people, and advocates for a democracy that improves people’s lives and protects our environment.
- National Family Farm Coalition – NFFC represents family farmers and rural communities in the face of economic pressures and inequities.
- National Farm to School Network – National Farm to School Network is an information, advocacy and networking hub for communities working to bring local food sourcing and food and agriculture education into school systems and early care and education settings.
- National Young Farmers Coalition – NYFC supports policies and practices that ensure that the next generation of farmers can grow food on ecologically vibrant, affordable land.
- National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition – NSAC is an alliance of grassroots organizations that advocates for federal policy reform to advance the sustainability of agriculture, food systems, natural resources, and rural communities.
- Real Food Challenge – The Real Food Challenge leverages the power of youth and universities to create a healthy, fair and green food system. Their primary campaign is to shift $1 billion of existing university food budgets away from industrial farms and junk food and towards local and community-based, fair, ecologically sound and humane food sources—what they call “real food”—by 2020.
- Restaurant Opportunities Centers United – ROC-United is a labor advocacy organization that focuses specifically on the American restaurant workforce. Founded by restaurant workers who survived the 9/11 attacks to help other displaced workers, ROC-United primarily advocates for better wages and working conditions, seeking to act as a champion for members of an industry that is less than one percent unionized.
- Slow Food USA – Slow Food USA inspires individuals and communities to change the world through food that is good, clean and fair for all. In the US, there are more than 150 local chapters and 6,000 members.
- Southern Foodways Alliance – Southern Foodways Alliance is an institute of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, dedicated to the documentation, study and exploration of the foodways of the American South.
A wonderful way to get involved in any of the issues you care about is by donating. As someone who works in nonprofit development, I'm here to tell you: donating time and resources can be helpful, but the thing nonprofits always need are funds to run their programs. It might not feel as glamorous as volunteering, but by making even a small donation (or even better, a small monthly donation), organizations can make investments in infrastructure (like staff, office space, software, trainings) so they can focus on doing important programming. Plus, not all organizations have the capacity to take on volunteers – organizing volunteers can be time consuming for staff, and if an organization's program works in a particularly vulnerable place (like a school or a clinic where program constituents' identities might need to be kept private), it can be tricky for them to manage a consistent flow of new volunteers. By making a financial donation, you're giving much more than money – you're building a relationship with an organization whose mission you care about, you're directly contributing to their impact, and you now have some skin in the game in regards to their success. Donating is leadership.
- Make it monthly – Monthly donations allows nonprofits to build sustainable programs. By giving monthly, you allow organizations to plan for their budgets and say 'yes' to innovation, which they might not have been able to do without knowing they were in a secure financial standing. Consider monthly giving like your Netflix subscription – you can give a small amount that barely makes a dent in your monthly budget, but adds up over time to have a big impact.
- If you don't have the capacity to give money, give time, service, connections, resources, or your voice – Have a background in graphic design or writing? Some organizations might be looking for people who can help with their website design, grant writing, or research. Nonprofits have contact pages on their websites where you can reach out and offer your expertise. Likewise, making programmatic or funder connections for nonprofits is a great way to support a mission you care about. And in this age of social media, speaking up about how you've just given to an organization and encouraging your followers to do the same is an incredible service. This helps nonprofits welcome new donors and followers to their world that might end up sticking around for years to come.
- Still feel like you need more information before making a gift? See other great recommendations on my friend Erin's charitable giving primer.
Have additional resources to add to the lists above? Mention them in the comments.