U.S. Food Banks Supporting Migrant Justice
In today’s episode, we’ll talk about why our food justice movement including food banks should work in solidarity with the movement for migrant justice. I recently saw a meme that showed a picture of a man holding a sign that read, “Do you know what an accent is? It’s a sign of bravery.” Truly, the migrant story is one of bravery. You must be brave to leave family and the only homeland you’ve known, embrace potentially treacherous travel and come to a new country where you know that not all will welcome you. But you do it for the potential to work, you do it for the potential for safety, you do it for a better future. Migrants make up the backbone of our American food system. They work our fields and in our restaurant kitchens yet they are among our most vulnerable for food security. They pay taxes, but immigration status is a bar to important federal food assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The charitable food bank system is one resource, but it’s not a sustainable one and it can also be fraught with access issues. We’re talking with Claudio Rodriguez and Robert Ojeda of the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona. Claudio is the environmental and social justice manager and Robert is the chief program officer.
Host: Christina Wong
Guests: Claudio Rodriguez, Robert Ojeda
Produced by: Deborah Hill
Christina – Claudio, before we look at migration in particular, you as the environmental and social justice manager, you have the privilege of facilitating change in communities at the intersections of food justice and community organizing. Could you tell us a little bit more please about what community organizing has to do with food and food banking?
Claudio – Yes, yes. I love this. Thank you for the question. I feel like community organizing is one of the key foundations that drives changes in our community because we’ve seen it throughout time through movements that change the condition of farm workers. That changes policies and practices for the protection of workers, no matter where they find themselves. And when we bring community organizing into the space of food banking, what we are bringing is the building of relationships; using those relationships to accomplish together what we cannot accomplish on our own. In the case of food banking, it is to address the root causes of food insecurity.
Christina – Claudio, could you please share an example for our listeners?
Claudio – Our organizing work has actually helped change school menus to include local fresh produce. It has also created access to vacant land across our community to turn them into green spaces. Communities that often find themselves ignored, marginalized, or even just disinvested. And the purpose and mission of community organizing within food banking is to build power. To build power with our participants because without power we aren’t able to change the conditions of our communities. And to break it down a little bit more for our listeners, is that when we talk about power, we’re not talking about empowerment. Power is the ability to impact and affect the conditions of our own lives and the lives of others. And empowerment is more of a feel good about yourself and self-esteem. So our goal is to build power within the food banking movement so people can really change what the community looks like, feels like and their experiences.
Christina – That is a really important distinction and I appreciate that so much. Because when you talk about building power, I also think about what that means for building leadership. And Robert, as the chief program officer, you develop programs that are building leadership opportunities for people from Latin America. In your anti-hunger work, what relationship have you identified between food insecurity and migration?
Robert – Thank you, Christina, for the question. I think there are a few things that to me are really important. One is like a deep reflection and exploration around why we have folks coming to the US. One of the reasons from my perspective has to do with economic justice, lack of opportunities for folks. And it’s very much connected to issues that we see within the food system. For example, food banks depend on donations from corporations, from companies, from growers that do have an impact on the workers that work within these companies. And so a question that I would ask and that we do ask is: what are the unintended consequences of our business model as food banks? So what is happening with the rights of those workers who are growing the food that we are able to distribute then to community members? And so in the case of us as an organization that’s based at the border, having Mexico as a neighboring country, it’s a really important question. Why are folks or brothers and sisters from Latin America coming to Southern Arizona? And can we do something also if we are actually getting resources, for example produce from Northern Mexico to be able to also do something so that it’s not an extractive practice but rather a partnership? Questions around that from my perspective are really important.
And the other thing that I think is really important to elevate is this principle that I think is really important, as an immigrant myself, I do feel like we have an incredible set of experiences, expertise that we can contribute to this community. And so as an organization with resources, I think it’s our responsibility to make sure that community members, immigrant community, migrant workers and others also have access to those resources. So as an organization for example, this past year we enhanced our grants program to have $3 million in grants go to organizations, many of them led by people of color who are doing really amazing work in this community. So it’s this belief and commitment that immigrant communities, in particular, are able to come up with really amazing and innovative ways to address issues of food insecurity and hunger. And one last thing to me is really kind of the beginning of part of our journey. We’ve been operating for 43-44 years. About 20 years ago we started doing programming that Claudio leads for example, around gardening and food production education. And a lot of it had to do with our immigrant community saying, “Look, this food is not culturally relevant or appropriate for us that you’re giving us.” However, we don’t know how to do other things like grow food. And I think that was the beginning of us really rethinking our role as an organization. So it’s been an incredible partnership I think over the years.
Christina – Those are just some incredibly powerful examples of what you are doing to transform food systems locally for the benefit of migrant communities. What do we need to be doing more widely? What kind of role can food banks be playing at a policy level in order to address food insecurity for our migrant communities? Claudio, what do you think?
Claudio – Thank you. I think that’s a really important question that really ties into the intersection of community organizing and food insecurity. And at the policy level, I think we need to be advocates as food banks and folks in the food justice movement to push policies that address the root causes of hunger. But I think we should also be investing as Robert mentioned the development of community leaders. And it doesn’t get more local that looking at our own organizations, what are our customs? What are our practices? And are we centering the most impacted? And to truly center them, we need to create spaces, brave spaces that challenge the status quo within our own organizations, within our own programs. And I think those are the first steps and sometimes those steps tend to be the hardest. Robert, what do you think? Based on the 20 years that we’ve done this work, what have been your steps that you’ve seen?
Robert – Thank you, Claudio. I think there are, from my perspective a few things based on what we’ve learned that we could invest in policy-wise. One, food banks can be a vehicle, a mechanism for shifting our food sourcing business model and a food distribution business model. So we have an opportunity to come together to really impact where our food comes from. Are there any issues that we want to elevate to make sure that our donors are also paying attention to the rights of workers, as an example? Another thing I think is we have an opportunity to work with our local government, our state governments, and regionally and nationally around this idea that food is a human right. And that as we’ve seen now with the pandemic, some things that I think are promising is really how much more school districts are doing to make sure that school lunches are universal rather than sort of what we had before the pandemic. So there’s a role around bringing healthy food to communities, a great opportunity for that. And the one that I think is very important has to do with economic justice. We were just involved in a campaign. Claudio actually was one of our leaders around fight for 15, a fight for a minimum wage in our local community, working with other nonprofits and other community members. And there was our local election and it passed. So now the City of Tucson and businesses that do business in our city are having to pay $15 an hour to our workers. And that has a really large impact to really benefit to our immigrant community and other communities as well.
Christina – I really appreciate what you said, that the fight for food justice is intrinsically linked with a fight for economic justice. That we can combat food insecurity at its start by making sure that those who are taking care of us by helping us put food in the table are able to take care of their families too, and able to afford their basic needs for food and other essentials. Thank you so much, both of you.