Policies and Polycultures: Reflections on Race, Class and Ethnicity at the NOFA Winter Conference

by Rachel Firak

In January, I was lucky enough to attend the annual Winter Conference of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY). This year’s theme was a nod to that all-around health- and equity-promoting principle: “Diggin’ Diversity.” Fittingly, presenters took this theme in several different directions, speaking on the necessity of diversification of crops and animals, schools of farming, and, most importantly, people.

This was my second time attending the conference, but looking around, it was clear that this was some folks’ 15th, 20th, even 30th+ year of involvement with NOFA. Over the decades, NOFA has managed to serve as a common ground for both organic pioneers and young activists. It’s no small feat; often, sustainable agriculture programs are led by Generation Y, for Generation Y. Refreshingly, nearly every workshop at a NOFA conference begins or ends with a word of acknowledgment to the numerous older farmers present who blazed the trail, and a blessing to the young farmers just setting out on their journey.

NOFA has certainly succeeded in building a multigenerational organization that fosters communication and mutual respect among age groups. Now, NOFA is beginning to address the ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic monoculture that has dominated its membership for quite some time.

This winter, NOFA awarded 75 full scholarships to low-income beginning farmers to attend the conference (normally participants pay $225-$300 for the weekend). I counted six workshops that offered simultaneous Spanish translation via audio headsets for up to 20 audience members at a time. Saturday’s keynote speaker Malik Yakini of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network spoke urgently and fearlessly about remediating injustice and fighting oppression in the food system. And a handful of workshops explicitly addressed the issue of community food security1 in our cities and rural areas. The importance of these steps in creating a more inclusive community cannot be overstated. But they are also only a starting point.

While Yakini eloquently asserted that many white food activists do not recognize their own well-intentioned-but-damaging “missionary approach” to reaching out to communities of color, and challenged attendees to let go of deficit model conceptualizations2 to embrace an asset model, he refrained from explicitly commenting on the demographics of NOFA itself. The next step, I believe, is to engage in direct dialogue about the ethnic, racial and socioeconomic makeup of NOFA and other similar groups. This essential conversation, while potentially uncomfortable for some in the short term, would be ultimately illuminating and constructive.

Why is NOFA so white and upper middle class? NOFA, like most agricultural, environmental, and good food organizations (including the one I work for, Groundswell), suffers from a massive affluent white majority. The factors that have brought about this are many, varied, and deeply embedded with the institutional racism3 of our society. We can point to the historical failure of environmental movements to emphasize environmental justice, remaining blind to and therefore complicit in the funneling of pollution and toxins away from rich white communities and toward poor communities of color. We can notice that the leaders of the sustainable agriculture and food movement—Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, Joel Salatin—are an all-white cast who write, speak, grow, and cook for the wealthy. We can realize that since the advent of the Green Revolution and NAFTA, Latinos have been forced off their land and into jobs as “farmworkers” in the US, and that discriminatory lending practices committed by the USDA have caused many black farmers to lose their homesteads and farms. And we can recognize that only the privileged have the opportunity to learn about sustainable ag in college, to travel to conferences, to volunteer on organic farms, and to afford good food in the first place. But even so, we would only scratch the surface of what has been a history of exclusion and outright bigotry in the food system. Much more time, education, and honest conversation is needed to satisfactorily answer this question.

On its website, NOFA states its mission as follows: “to create a sustainable regional food system which is ecologically sound and economically viable… [and] to make high quality food available to all people“. The latter is an essential principle for any certifying agency, as one criticism commonly leveled at organics is that they widen the food gap between the rich and the poor. While the affluent can simply pay more for healthier, higher-quality, toxin-free foods, there is no choice for those without the purchasing power to, as Michael Pollan suggests, “vote with your dollar.” Further, when rich consumers disinvest from the conventional food system, there is less money and incentive pressuring the conventional food system to offer safe, healthy foods, and at a reasonable price4.

But justice in the food system goes beyond consumption alone. I suggest an amendment to NOFA’s mission statement: All people should have the educational access and leadership opportunities necessary to build food systems themselves. NOFA, whose work focuses largely on farm education, is in a position to start a chain reaction of positive outcomes by broadening both its membership and leadership within communities of color. If NOFA expands its outreach and its job recruitment to inner-city Latino/a youth, for example, not only will the youth benefit from access to NOFA’s educational toolkit, but the white liberal culture of NOFA will benefit immensely from the experiences, perspectives and knowledge of those Latino/a youth. Their collaboration will yield more ecological, efficient, profitable and fair food systems for inner-city neighborhoods and society as a whole.

The ball is in NOFA’s court. However, NOFA’s white liberals are not off the hook. Organizational change cannot come from the top down; it must co-occur with the increasing mindfulness of its members. During the conference, I attended a half-day session entitled “Community Food Security and Urban Gardening Policies in NYS,” facilitated by five food system leaders who had enabled city residents to develop and access peri-/urban farms and gardens. During the Q&A that followed, many implored these leaders to explain exactly how they had managed it. The gist was, “How can we help them?” The presenters and some of the attendees patiently explained that while outsiders can provide resources and assistance, true leadership and change must come from within.

This year, NOFA’s Policy Sub-Committees proposed a resolution called “Garden at Every Public School,” which called for a society in which “as many children as possible… have the opportunity to learn how to grow food“. It’s a good place to start in working toward a future in which one’s race and socioeconomic status are not prime indicators of diet-related disorders and food insecurity. However, the road is long, and much work is still to be done. I am enthusiastically and anxiously watching for NOFA’s next move in ensuring that the next generation of farmers and food activists accurately reflects the diversity of the Northeast as a whole.

1 Community food security can be defined as the ability of a community to provide safe, healthy, culturally appropriate foods for all of its members from a variety of sustainable and accessible sources, including supermarkets, farmers’ markets, and farms and gardens. It also refers to the ability of individuals within the community to be empowered and active in ensuring their own food self-reliance and independence, or “food sovereignty”.

2 The deficit model of conceptualizing communities defines them by what they lack or what they are not, instead of what they can offer. For example, the term “underserved” can be considered a deficit model term because it couches communities of color, first-generation communities, and low-income communities in the language of insufficiency.

3 Institutional racism, as opposed to personally-mediated and internalized racism, is a system of racial inequality perpetuated in an organized way by social structures, such as schools, government policies, and private enterprises. Some widely recognized examples of institutional racism include redlining, racial profiling, and under- and mis-representation of certain racial groups in the media.

4 I’m not arguing that organic food shouldn’t exist; instead, I stand with NOFA in the belief that organic food should be accessible to everyone—while simultaneously affirming the farmer’s right to earn a living wage in selling it. This seeming paradox can be navigated with creative economic approaches, for example, by shortening the production chain from farmer to consumer, by using a CSA model or sliding-scale pricing strategies, and by appropriate use of government subsidies, such as the Farmers Market Nutrition Program.

Rachel Firak serves as the Program Assistant for the Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming. She can be reached at rfirak@gmail.com.