Working Toward Food Security in Ithaca: An Interview with Jemila Sequeira

Last week the Ithaca community held a Community Food Security Dialogue to discuss what a food system that works for everyone would look like, and how Ithaca can begin moving toward that goal. We caught up with Jemila Sequeira, Groundswell advisor and Community Food Security Dialogue organizer, to ask some questions about this important work. 

Jemila Sequeira

Groundswell: How did the Community Food Security Dialogue begin? What events led up to it?

Jemila Sequeira: In 2009, the Cornell Public Service center appointed myself and Bethany Schroeder as Civic Fellows. My fellowship focused on recognizing my work with Gardens 4 Humanity; Bethany’s for her work with the Ithaca Health Alliance and the Ithaca Free Clinic. This gave rise to two civic dialogues in 2009 on health and food security. My fellowship ended in the spring of 2010, but I felt I had a moral obligation to continue this work. After the civic dialogues, many people- landowners, farmers, food preservers, and others- were looking for a way to bring cohesiveness and a sense of purpose around the creation of a healthy food system for our community. The Community Food Security Dialogue was a way to keep the conversation going.
I was also concerned about including people who, historically, haven’t been part of the discussion. Conversations around food in our community are often fragmented and top-heavy, with disproportionate input at the academic and institutional level, while those usually most profoundly affected by these issues of food and well-being are not at the table. I didn’t want to close out the year without a chance for those people who were not being represented to have a voice. I also had been inspired by my recent trip with other Ithacans involved in the food movement to the Community Food Security Conference in New Orleans earlier this year. The dialogue here was a way to begin to examine how the ten square miles around Ithaca fit into the global movement around building a healthy food system.
GS: Who has been working with you on this project?
JS: Logistically, to hold this dialogue, I worked with Joanna Green, Kirtrina Baxter, Elan Shapiro, Sarah Reistetter, Cornell students Meredith Palmer, Zackery Murray, and Ben Pinon, and several community representatives. But people have been working on and thinking about this project begun long before I came. It always has been, and will always be, a project of the whole community. This work is cross-generational, and spans the entire socioeconomic, political, institutional, and community spectrum, and so many people have been involved. In particular I want to recognize Tony Petito of the new Neighborhood Pride grocery store, and his role as part of a group of elders that are still active and committed to their community, with their hearts centered in the neighborhood.
GS: What is your definition of food security?
JS: I personally like the Community Food Security Coalition‘s definition: “Community food security is a condition in which all community residents obtain a safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes community self-reliance and social justice.” But I believe food security is not only a goal- it is also the process of working toward that goal.
GS: What did you see at the Community Food Security dialogue on Wednesday night?
JS: On Wednesday night, I saw people from socioeconomically, politically, institutionally, and socially diverse backgrounds work together across age, race, and class, to really discuss what food security means to them, and what a food system that works for everyone might look like. I also saw a lot of support from people to take the conversation to the next level, and begin to act. I know the voice and the interest is there. The challenge for me is to determine how to convene groups in such a way so that people can get involved, and how to make it accessible.
GS: What would you like to see in the future?
JS: I was inspired by the turnout, but also knew many groups were not there who needed to be- in particular, farmers. [Many local farmers were absent from the dialogue because of a conflict with a Healthy Food for All program meeting.] I would also have liked to see more local restauranteurs and business owners represented. I do think we saw representation of families across different income levels, and many people of color from the Black and Latino communities, but I would have liked to see more representation from other groups, for example, the Southeast Asian community. In general, in the future, I would like even more people to be there! I am aware that not everyone can make these meetings, but we need to find a way to integrate their voices into the discussion.
GS: What is the next step?
JS: The next step is already in process. We need to recognize that all who came, and all who didn’t, have something to teach each other. We need to appreciate what one another brings to the table, and understand that whether or not we see eye to eye, that what we share is a commitment to this community. And we need to continue the conversation. I have had the good fortune in my life to have met some people who have wonderful, creative ideas about how to address issues in the food system, and those people are going to determine where we go from here. For example, I have ten sets of notes from the small discussion groups at the dialogue that I haven’t begun to sort through yet that will influence the next step, and what a future food security entity might look like. I plan to research other food security networks nationwide over the holidays and plan to bring ideas to a follow-up meeting.
GS: What concerns, if any, do you have?
JS: Working to achieve food security will require self-reflection around beliefs of who should be eating well. I believe if we are going to make real change, we must have the courage to admit that the current system isn’t working, and be willing to adjust some of the old ways of doing things. We must also understand that change is uncomfortable- that’s just human. But we have to be more mindful that people do suffer because of the infrastructure problems of our current food system. I hope we will be compassionate enough to work toward a vision of a healthy food system that works for everyone, and let that be the incentive that drives us through the messy process.
Thanks to Jemila for sharing her thoughts with us. If you’d like to get involved, you can contact her at