May-June 2009 Issue • Volume 37 • Issue 5

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09_meetingsLooking Forward to the 2009
Annual Meeting in San Francisco

Local Flavor: Alternative Agriculture and Food Justice in the San Francisco Bay Area

by Alison Alkon, University of the Pacific

Over the past four decades, a growing movement of farmers, chefs, and citizens has worked to alter the ways we produce, distribute, and consume food. Critical of an industrial agribusiness system dominated by transnational corporations and dependent on chemical inputs, this movement seeks to promote organic farming and local food distribution. Proponents believe that an alternative agriculture in which consumers know "where our food comes from," to use an often iterated refrain, can contribute to environmental sustainability, social justice, and vibrant, civically engaged communities.

The Roots of Alternative Agriculture

Early movement strongholds include Madison, WI, and Ann Arbor, MI, but alternative agriculture can trace some of its deepest roots to the San Francisco Bay Area. In the 1960s, a group of radically anti-capitalist activist-performers known as the Diggers cast food as an integral part of social change. Indeed, the Diggers’ very name, taken from a 17th century British commune that sought social reform through agriculture, reflects the centrality of food to their worldview. The Diggers gave away food at countercultural gatherings, which beat poet Diane di Prima characterized as both healing and subversive. Although they had not yet begun to imagine alternatives to industrial food production, this group politicized the act of eating.

Beyond the city, activists embraced a more agrarian food politics. For example, during the 1969 protests that created University of California-Berkeley’s People’s Park, student and community activists squatted on and claimed a piece of land that the university had bought and bulldozed but never developed. One of their earliest installations was an organic garden. Noted food historian Warren Belasco referred to this strategy as the "seizure of public land for the purpose of producing food" (1989). At the same time, many Diggers left the city to go "back to the land," where they would found some of the region’s first organic farms. In 1966, Berkeley activists began a “food conspiracy” buying club through which members purchased from these farmers rather than those boycotted by the United Farm Workers.

The View from the ASA

Sociologists visiting San Francisco can see many fruits of the alternative agriculture movement. The Bay Area boasts nearly 90 farmers’ markets. Among San Francisco’s most renowned are Alemany, the city’s oldest and perhaps most ethnoracially diverse, and Ferry Plaza, which celebrates the exceptional quality of regional produce against the city’s picturesque waterfront. Not far from where the ASA Annual Meeting will be held is the scruffy, vibrant Heart of the City Farmers Market, which the local alternative paper named best in the city. Many farms featured at these markets also offer Community Supported Agriculture programs (CSAs), through which customers purchase a "share" in the farm’s harvest and receive a weekly basket of produce.

Additionally, while wandering the city’s residential neighborhoods, sociologists may spot one of San Francisco’s 52 community gardens, which offer urban residents without access to land the ability to lease plots for food cultivation. Community gardens and CSAs create modes of production that emphasize self-sufficiency and cooperation rather than the mere selling of commodities.

Alternative agriculture has become so mainstream that the Oxford English Dictionary named it locavore, meaning one who eats local foods, as its 2007 word of the year. This word was coined by Bay Area chef Jessica Prentice. But, Prentice is far from the only chef who heartily supports alternative agriculture. Perhaps the most renowned is Alice Waters, founder of Berkeley’s landmark Chez Panisse, who features locally grown, organic ingredients on her ever-changing menu, often crediting the farms from which they came. Waters commonly refers to alternative agriculture as a "delicious revolution" because of the potential for food to become a vehicle for broader social and environmental change. Support from chefs such as these has certainly contributed to the movement’s growth and allowed sustainably minded producers to charge premiums for their produce. However, because the movement’s platform encourages consumers to support alternative agriculture through the purchase of high-priced gourmet food, it has often been characterized as elitist.

Seeking Food Justice


Vegetable bounty at San Francisco’s
Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market

While the movement has successfully animated the desires of affluent communities for local, organic produce, low-income communities of color often lack access to any produce at all. Since the 1960s, full-service grocery stores have closed many of their inner-city locations, particularly those in African American neighborhoods, in favor of suburban ones. This leaves residents of so-called "food deserts" dependant on the plentiful local liquor stores and fast-food chains. Bay Area-based activist Van Jones commonly labels such inequalities “eco-apartheid.”

In response, citizens hailing from and working with low-income communities of color have begun organizing in pursuit of food justice. The concept of food justice integrates the more established notion of food security—access to sufficient and nutritious food through non-emergency means—with an environmental justice perspective addressing the racial and economic distribution of environmental benefits.

Like the alternative agriculture movement, food justice activism is deeply rooted in Bay Area counterculture. In 1968, the Black Panther Party began the Free Breakfast for School Children Program, which quickly spread from Oakland to cities throughout the country. Like the Diggers, the Black Panthers linked the distribution of food to political empowerment. Additionally, they established that it was their right and responsibility to provide for their communities’ basic needs. Contemporary food justice activists name this legacy as an important inspiration for their present work.

Food justice activists have adapted many tools of the alternative agriculture movement including farmers markets, CSAs, community gardens and school lunch programs. Through this approach, not only do low-income, minority communities reap the fruits of alternative agriculture, but food becomes an organizing tool empowering residents to address structural inequalities within the food system and to create sustainability, community-self-reliance, and social justice. Farmers’ markets in predominantly black neighborhoods such as West Oakland, for example, publicize the systemic discrimination endured by African American farmers at the hands of the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture). Additionally, school and community gardening programs in marginalized neighborhoods promote the foods most culturally familiar to local residents. As in the alternative foods movement, many of these efforts take place in the Bay Area, particularly the Bayview/Hunter’s Point neighborhood of San Francisco and the flatlands of East and West Oakland. Bay Area organizations work with a growing nationwide network of food justice activists.

Food justice activists have urged the alternative agriculture movement to reflect on issues of structural inequality and to deepen their commitment to social justice. While some leaders resist this direction, others have begun the difficult work of alliance building. Some progress has been made; conferences historically dedicated to environmental sustainability have featured food justice leaders in plenary sessions, and foundations focused on ecological health have begun to fund urban food initiatives. Additionally, Bay Area residents, including Berkeley’s Michael Pollan and organizations such as Berkeley’s Ecology Center and Oakland’s Food First, have led efforts to transform food policy to a more just and sustainable model. Together, food justice and alternative agriculture activists might continue to pursue this agenda, perhaps eventually fueling a revolution that is not only delicious, but nourishes a hunger for justice as well.

For more information on the food culture in San Francisco, see the ASA Annual Meeting Dining Guide online and in your program packet. small_green


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