E89: Defining Equitable Food Oriented Development - EFOD 101

Thursday, October 15, 2020

This is the first podcast in a five part series focused on equitable food-oriented development. EFOD, as it is called, is a growing movement to promote food projects and enterprises as vehicles for building community wealth, health, and self-determination. We will be delving into the origins and the unique outcomes of equitable food-oriented development projects, the role of the community identity in this work, and the potential for re-imagining capital access and wealth-building in community food projects. With us today are two leaders in this movement, and it is my pleasure to welcome Neelam Sharma, the executive director of Community Services Unlimited, a nonprofit based in South Central Los Angeles, and Trisha Chakrabarti, who manages EFOD work at DAISA enterprises

Interview Summary

Neelam, can you help our listeners understand what equitable food-oriented development is, and how it's become such a central part of thinking about food systems these days?

EFOD, as we call it, is a community development strategy that is targeted at historically and currently oppressed and neglected communities of color in the United States. It is a strategy leveraging food and everything to do with food as an entry point through which to bring economic development to these communities. It's rooted in a practice and understanding of history and cultural context of the community, and EFOD projects are defined and driven by those communities. EFOD projects are grounded in a very clear analysis of the current mainstream systems, such as capitalism and racism, and how these work to systematically prevent the kind of equitable development that EFOD is all about. It emerged from conversations and dialogues amongst grassroots practitioners that the mainstream organizations and funders misunderstood things like our very systemic approach to the work that we do. Our commitment to creating long-term lasting changes in the communities we work in. Like the way that we define assets and benefits of a project in a very, very different way to how they're conventionally defined in funding and granting agencies. And the fact that every single time that we, as practitioners, come together to define new language--we found that that language was then being taken and used by others who didn't actually represent it. But, who were much better resourced to look as if they did. This is why we came together, and what has emerged from that is the Equitable Food Oriented Development Collaborative that now exists.

Can you help our readers understand, in your opinion, why is EFOD needed?

I think that some of the reasons that EFOD is needed are, for example, the history of exploitation and oppression of the communities we work in, the historical and ongoing extraction of wealth and knowledge and culture that is stolen and removed from these communities. But also, it's needed because it's an example of those of us who are doing this work deciding to come together ourselves from the trenches, naming what we're doing, defining it ourselves, and publishing ourselves. We are the ones who are deciding what our priorities are. And very importantly, we are the ones deciding how we want to enact the work that we've decided to do.

By working together we get to learn from each other. We get to advance and improve our work. And very importantly, we get to do that in the ways that we want to. By creating this very intentional practitioner-led and defined field of practice, we are essentially collectively leveraging our work to create power for the communities that we work in. And for the organizations that do this work.

EFOD is needed because it challenges the deeply racist and hegemonic ideas that exist in our society around things like understanding money and finance and ownership of land and property. There is this pervasive myth that many people of color also buy into that understanding money and owning land is something that is the domain of rich white folks. That people like us simply don't get into that, don't understand that. We want to break down those ideas and to show that actually, when we come together and we decide to do something, we can make really big things happen. By coming together, we are exponentially increasing the impact of our individual projects.

The current pandemic shows with extreme clarity that our current systems do not serve the vast majority of us, even in the most basic ways of food provision. EFOD is needed because from some of the most oppressed and impoverished communities that we as practitioners are working in, we are effectively able to use our collective work to show that alternatives to the current system are not only possible, but that they actually work, and they often work better than the mainstream system. Essentially, I'll finish by saying that EFOD is doing what Paulo Freire described as building working models of new systems within the one that we all feel needs to be gone that is not working for us. We are creating a proof of concept that then we can use to build and to create more power and more leverage for our communities.

Neelam, you were the founding member of the Healthy School Food Coalition, of the Los Angeles Food Justice Network, and the California Food Injustice Coalition. Boy, that's a lot to do. And you're a recognized leader on the intersection between community economic development, youth empowerment, and food justice. So how did you come to be involved in EFOD work?

In serving Community Services Unlimited as an executive director for many years, what I have really clearly seen play out time and time again is how in the current system that we're in--even though there are a lot of well-meaning people in the funding world, in the foundation world, in the nonprofit industrial complex--systemically it exists in a way that essentially keeps people like us in communities like the ones that we serve dependent. I'll give you a very simple example of that. So very early on when we were building the Village Market Place, which is our local, beyond organic local food system-based market, very early on in building that we wanted to purchase a truck to do deliveries, to do pickups. We had managed to secure some grants and funding from different government agencies. I was really astonished, honestly, to find that even though it was cheaper for us to buy a truck, we were not allowed under the confines of the grant, We were only allowed to rent one.

That is just one really small example. But in a bigger way, what I found in doing this work is that there's lip service given, and there's a lot of talk and bells and whistles around projects that look sexy, that look good in photographs. There's often a lot of money spent by people to do these kinds of projects, but they're projects. What we've seen time and time again is that when these projects go away, there is no benefit left to the communities that these projects were based in.

I feel a deep sense of urgency around the work that we've collectively come together to do in EFOD, because if you know what's going on in the world, then you know that there are some very harder storms coming that really we haven't even truly felt the economic impact of the current pandemic. Also, there's everything that is going on with global climate shift. So I feel very urgently the need to build solid ownership of land of property, to build sustainability, to build local food systems, to build resilience in our community so that we can feed ourselves, so that we can have potable water, so that we can have systems where we can take care of ourselves. Those concerns drove me to really become involved in EFOD in the way that I have.

Trisha, I'd like to turn to you. As a former program director at Mandela Partners, who alongside with organizations like Community Services Unlimited and several others, were the first champion EFOD, you have deep experience in important things like community food programming, policy, and advocacy. I know as well that you've led participatory food access research initiatives with restaurant workers and youth. So how did you come to lead the DAISA Enterprises work to advance EFOD as a practice?

I initially came to the work of EFOD through working with Mandela Partners in West Oakland. The work of Mandela grew out of a community needs assessment that was done by women in West Oakland talking to their neighbors, talking to folks in the community that they knew. The things that were uplifted as desires that people had to strengthen and build many of those resilient systems that Neelam is talking about, came out through that process. So those were things that included long-term and supportive work opportunities, business ownership opportunities, ways of connecting with other communities that were experiencing systemic exploitation and marginalization. The community itself was at that time a food desert. There was also a wish to create a more thriving network of economic opportunities by being involved in a locally-owned food system.

So the work of Mandela grew out of those priorities that were uplifted throughout the community process. But I remember something that Dana Harvey, the organization's founder, would always talk about, which was that if people in West Oakland had said, you know what, actually the issue that we think about the most is waste collection and sanitation management, then that would have been the work that Mandela was doing. So we took whatever the charge was from people in West Oakland about what they felt they could contribute to, could own, could thrive within their community, and just promote the idea that even within a community like West Oakland that has borne the brunt of decades of exploitation and systemic marginalization, that it is a health-promoting community and health being really expansively defined.

I think when you look at the food system as a way of creating health and economic opportunities, it really makes sense to develop a community-owned and controlled food system because of all of the intersecting value that it brings to a community. So being at Mandela was really my first introduction to thinking about food in that way. As you mentioned, I had been working in food systems work from a variety of different angles for many years. But this was the first time that I really thought about food as a way of promoting community economic development. So it was a very purposeful decision as I was transitioning out of Mandela to want to continue to coordinate and help support the practitioners that were leading this work. So it was very intentional that I chose to then join DAISA and continue doing this work around EFOD.

The EFOD collaborative seems like a pretty important development in where EFOD is going in the future. Can you tell us more about what this is?

Sure, the EFOD collaborative is a practitioner-led space for both building the field of EFOD, as well as strategizing and creating shared connection around challenges and opportunities amongst practitioners around the country that are working in an EFOD framework. The steering committee of the collaborative has grown to nine organizations around the country, and we've developed the common values and defining criteria for EFOD work. We produced a research paper about our findings, which you can find on our website. We've also just released a pilot funding opportunity because we do want to model what a new way of supporting and resourcing this kind of work on the ground could look like. As we spoke to field leaders that were doing EFOD work on the ground in various different communities around the country, many of them described lacking an adequate field of practice to further their work, or that they felt that didn't yet exist a specific space for their needs for pure learning or shared identity. We are building out the collaborative as a model for practitioner-led democratic field building work that we're using to spread and highlight the visibility of EFOD as it's being done around the country. Then also, we are building a funding vehicle that can demonstrate a better way of making grants and patient debt capital available, and you can see our work on our website at efod.org.

Neelam Sharma (left) serves as Executive Director of Community Services Unlimited Inc., a non-profit based in South Central Los Angeles. For the past two decades, CSU has created community programs and organizing campaigns like the early Safe Seniors to the more recent Free Medical Screening Program and the most recent From the Ground Up. Neelam was a founding member of the Healthy School Food Coalition, as well as the Los Angeles Food Justice Network (precursor to the LA Food Policy Council) and the California Food and Justice Coalition. Neelam is recognized as a national leader on the intersection between community economic development, youth empowerment and food justice.

Trisha Chakrabarti (right) leads DAISA Enterprises' work to support Equitable Food Oriented Development as a practice and the organizations that do this work on the ground. DAISA Enterprises works alongside community organizations and social entrepreneurs that are innovating to build a better, more equitable, food system, and their investors. Trisha has worked in community food programming, statewide policy advocacy, and has led participatory food access research initiatives with restaurant workers and systems-impacted youth. She grew up in the South Asian diaspora, and sees a community-owned food system as a key indicator of political and economic self-sovereignty.