E90: Digging In To Equitable Food Oriented Development

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

This is the second podcast in a five-part series, focused on Equitable Food Oriented Development. EFOD as it's called, is a growing movement to promote food projects and enterprises as vehicles for building community wealth, health, and self-determination. 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 the DAISA Enterprises. We will discuss a field scan of 80 organizations dedicated that EFOD principals and sample EFOD projects, to explore the lasting impact.

Digging in to Equitable Food Oriented Development

Interview Summary

Can you both help our listeners understand what makes a project EFOD or not? And why does it matter so much? Trisha let's begin with you.

What's unique about EFOD work, is that in addition to highlighting local, culturally appropriate foods, their health impacts, and the ability of a food system to sustain a local community and economy—these organizations are committed to community organizing. They prioritize and develop community leadership. They have a long history and connection in that place and in that community. And then they are building locally and people of color-owned economic opportunities in the food system. EFOD organizations are different from other projects that are pretty common in many of our communities like coffee shops, food halls, community gardens, school, nutrition programs, and emergency feeding programs. You can find more details about those five EFOD criteria, on the www.efod.org website.

Thanks Trisha. Neelam, what are your thoughts on this?

To just share by talking a little bit about the example I know. The best, which is the Paul Robeson Community Wellness Center, built by Community Services Unlimited in South Central LA. Before we thought about buying the building, we had an existing relationship within the broader community that building fans in, we had been working in the local schools, had partnerships with all the local organizations. We knew the owners from having been around and working in that neighborhood for so long. And we were very intent on promoting the history of the space. As we began to work on the budget to buy the space, we launched a community fundraising campaign. This wasn't just simply because we needed money, but also because of how we work. It's important to us that, the work that we do the community around it feels part of it. On this campaign, we raised the money, people donating $5, a dollar, $2, $20, $100. And it's that campaign that actually raised our down payment for the building.

We worked with a local person of color as the agent through whom we put the offering on the building. We worked with the previous owners, to secure a mortgage. And even before ownership house to us, we held our very first event on the lot, to learn what people wanted to see happen there. This grew into a fully-fledged research project to see deep into what did local community wanted to see happening. We put the word out. We were looking for an architect and somebody came forward who had worked with us for years, as a Korean drummer at our events, but she was also an architect. She began to design a participatory process. The community at large was able to give its input in a very creative way. And while all this was happening, we were holding monthly events, selling produce, hosting information tables about other organizations locally, carrying out alternative wellness demos with our partners.

We then do events to highlight the importance of the building, historically. We worked with a construction company, created and run by a person of color, who understood our desire to salvage as much as we could from the original building. And we were open and transparent at every single stage of the work. Once construction was finished, we had a huge event that showcase the work of all our partners and neighbors. And even when we opened our market on site, we intentionally did so with a limited inventory, seeking input from community members, as they came in, as to what they wanted to see in the market. What we do have in the store is, purchased from small regional and local farmers, or purchased from businesses with whom we've had long-standing partnership. And who represent not just quality of product, but also really care about the overall impact of what they do on the planet.

We have always done and we continue to hire locally and train locally. And as we have begun to develop programming at the center, we seek local partners to bring and to implement those things that community members have let us know they want to see.

Now, none of this is easy, right? It would have been much, much simpler for us to not seek input, to not take the time, to build with people and to do all the research that we did over many years. But in the end, this is what an EFOD project looks like. We pay attention to every aspect and every detail of what we sell, and every single thing that we offer from that building. So that we are in fact desired and wanted by the community. And in a moment when gentrification is beginning to rear its head in that neighborhood, we have very clearly placed a flag in the dirt and said, "This is what development can look like." It doesn't have to be about displacing traditional long-term residents. They can bring people with it and it can remain affordable.

And now that we have the center, and we have the commercial kitchen, we're able to develop other programs to help other young entrepreneurs, begin food-based businesses, that will again bring even more value to that community.

Neelam, thanks so much. That's an incredible description of something that took great care, insight, wisdom, ingenuity, all of those things rolled into one in order to bring something so important to the community. So I appreciate that description. Trisha let's turn to you. We mentioned before that a field scan had identified over 80 organizations, whose work qualified as EFOD align, do you think there might still be more EFOD related projects out there?

The purpose of that field scan was to document, to better understand and define what that kind of work looks like throughout the country. How many organizations are using these kinds of principles in the way that they conduct their food systems work and how can we better connect and network these organizations as well.

During the course of this field scan, DAISA has analyzed over 800 organizations, that had received USDA grants, including the Community Food Projects grant, Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive grants, and other programs. We looked at organizations that had attended conferences and summits that are hubs for equity and justice forward organizations. We looked at organizations that had received grants from some of the bigger foundation players in the food system space, as well as organizations that had received Healthy Food Financing Initiative grants from the federal government.

So in looking at those over 800 organizations, we came down to 88 that we qualified as EFOD aligned. We then did an in-depth exploration of those organizations, looking at community demographic indicators, looking at organizational metrics, their online presence. We did interviews with staff at those organizations and stakeholders and community development financing and policy throughout the country to further develop out the criteria. But also to get a sense of what they saw as the impact and the power of this kind of work happening throughout the country. We're still learning about new projects and organizations using an EFOD lens, through which they do their work, would love to bring them into the collaborative and network them with others.

Well, the scope of the work is impressive. And the number of organizations. Neelam, I'd like to ask you, how do you think the impact of EFOD work is unique and different from conventional things people do to work on food-oriented development?

This is an interesting question because it is precisely our struggles as practitioners with measurement and evaluation as these things currently exist. That was one of the things that initially brought us together. The EFOD work is by definition, committed to creating long-term and sustainable change that has multiple impacts. Very often EFOD projects themselves are multilayered. It is much more complicated and difficult to measure the impact of these types of projects.

For example, a traditional food-oriented project, might look like building a school garden. Now the particular project that I'm thinking of had some gardening experts from outside the community, build roughly 30 four-by-four boxes, that they are then filled with purchase soil from bags. They planted food in some of these with students at the school and did some lessons with students, using set lesson plans approved by not only the school, but by the school district, by the USDA and by the funder. So we're talking about things like, whatever at the time was the equivalent of the 5-A-Day Program, or harvest of the month. And then it comes time to do their reporting. And it's very easy for them to tick boxes and write numbers because essentially what they're reporting on are growing boxes builds, number of type of plants grown, students who participated in growing and took part in the lessons. It looks incredibly successful, but guess what? Two years after it started that project no longer exists, that school garden is not there.

I can also tell you that prior to that specific project, another growing project at that school site had been there for almost a decade. It began with a mini assessment to look at what students, parents of the students and teachers who taught at the school, wanted to see in the way of this type of project. Planting areas were built by students themselves with open volunteering sessions that involved parents and families. The garden areas created included a very lovely little apple orchard with hard to find varieties of about 30 apple trees and three roughly 20-by-40 plots of land, farmed with multiple crops year round. Classes where the teachers had opted themselves to work on these spaces with their students. The work was also done by an after school gardening club that students came to because they wanted to. Students were taken through every single task of growing food, then performed the actions involved. So the students tested and amended the soil. Designed and built a trellis for grapes. Researched plants and decided which ones to grow and which ones grow well together. And their current everyday experiences with food become an incredibly important part of their experience.

So for example, one early project with every class is photographing everything you eat and drink over four days, that we can then sit and look at, and have some laughs about, and analyze what eating and consuming that food and drink means. A very important part of the curriculum is cultural and is about family history, and cultural practices with food. Another activity is cultural food history. Students are asked, what is a favorite dish in your family? Who usually makes it? Where does the recipe come from? And they're asked to interview the person who usually makes this dish at home, and to work with them the next time that they make this dish and to write down the recipe. Very often, this is the first time the students have ever had a conversation with anyone in their home about cultural food histories or about this dish that all of them love. And they're finding out some incredibly interesting stories about their food ways.

The crops that the students grow are based on the emerging cultural food histories that the students are learning about and engaging in, and on native plants. So they're also then learning about native history. Students learn about how many of these foods are connected to the survival of their people historically. So it's not this dead learning that's imposed from institutions. By the time students have been with us for a year, they speak with deep pride about their family histories, about their cultural heritage, about their food pathway. Now, how do you measure that? How do you measure the multiple impacts of the fact that students became so involved in this, this work that they were doing? That all their families were excited about it, the parents would be coming and shopping at our local produce stands. They were also getting involved in our earth day, South LA event. Their older children would apply to our youth internship program.

We really, as an EFOD collaborative are beginning to delve into what can measurement and evaluation look like to imagine how we measure our impact into the future.

I'm imagining that in the context of this EFOD work, that finding ways to support emerging leaders in organizations will be especially important. Trisha is the EFOD collaborative attending to this issue?

The collaborative has really been built by the members of the steering committee. And when we were doing research, we found that there was a real need amongst EFOD organizations, for both a peer learning space where they could network with other organizations that had the same commitment to equity and justice that they did. But also learn from the experience of more established EFOD organizations, who maybe have had success in working with local officials to zone their projects correctly, or had developed rigorous business plans, had gone through lending processes with local lenders or CDFIs in their area. So we want to create the collaborative as a space, both for that peer-to-peer community building, but also for providing technical support to more emerging EFOD organizations. We really want to specify that the best TA providers are those EFOD leaders and organizations that have gone through this process already. They already know what more emerging organizations are going to be experiencing and will be facing and can really provide the rigorous, expert and contextual support that more emerging organizations will need. We really hope to build that kind of a network within the collaborative. Of course, the collaborative is also doing other things around our continuing field building work. In addition to supporting EFOD organizations, we are really hoping to influence change within the philanthropic space, within the investment and Community Development Finance space. We really are building our field as a way of promoting change within those two sets of organizations as well.

Well, I could see this being one of the most important impacts, in terms of supporting new people and then come and take the flag and carry it forward. So thanks for that description Trisha. But Neelam, I'd like to end with one final question. What are your thoughts on how institutions like funders or city governments or university researchers—how can such people and institutions support the work that EFOD represents?

First of all, we should talk about the context of this moment that we're in.That it's kind of no accident that EFOD is also emerging at this time where we've got this general shift. We're delving deep into building on historical movements that have challenged structural racism and the barriers that it wrecks to prevent the equitable kind of development of our communities. And so similarly EFOD builds upon decades and decades of hard on the ground work that has been challenging the accepted ways of doing things. That has challenged so many racially motivated assumptions about why some communities have access to good food and others don't, Taken away that sort of blaming. When I first became active in the Food Justice Movement in the US, there was this very real sense where it was a generalized belief that poor oppressed communities had less access to good food because that's what they wanted. So there's been incredible shift already. And at its core, the work that we're doing is about continuing to dismantle brick by brick, the systemic embedded walls, that have been built over hundreds of years of racist ideology.

And that's not easy. So I would say in terms of how folks can help us do this, we want this to be beyond surface changes or beyond just changes of language. We want this to be about real shifts in power dynamic. What we're saying is that as practitioners with decades of experience and having actually built this on the ground work, that we are the ones who are the experts. We are the ones who know how to do this work, who know how to do it in ways that are relevant in communities, who know how to do it in ways that leave behind real resources and long-term brick and mortar facilities in communities that will continue to serve for decades to come.

We've seen in the Food Justice Movement, so many millions and millions of dollars being spent on projects that come and go and leave nothing behind. What we want to do is remove all the redlining, the legalized theft that goes on around land, the use of coercion of laws to continue to prevent us from having access to resources with which we can rebuild. That's the first thing. And it's not easy because it requires a shift in how you think about stuff. When things have been done in a particular way for so long, not about individuals necessarily being racist, but it's about racist structures that have been around for so long, that folks who've worked within them often, don't actually realize that the structures themselves are problematic. What we're saying is that they are.

See us as the experts. Say, "No, no, no, you guys, you've got this right? What all we need to do is to put the resources in your hands and let you do what you do so well.” The first thing is about access to capital. For those who are out there, who get this, we're asking you to work with us, to support us both financially. But also to become champions for this work; to really understand it's not just another project. It's not just another fund. What we're doing is about changing the very fabric of the way that this work is done.

So one way is coming in with resources, with money, another way is helping to spread the word, in whatever format that might be. And there are numerous ways of doing that. And many of those are detailed in our brown paper. But something as simple as what you folks are doing, by helping us create this podcast and get the word out, hosting a webinar, having us do an article in your publication. Fundamentally it's got to be about a shift in resources and how they're allocated.

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.