Small Beginnings Have the Potential to Transform: Anti-Hunger Policy in Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Aliyah FardEmerson, Field, Policy

Above: 29th Class Emerson Fellow Aliyah Fard.

Environmental justice courses throughout my undergraduate career introduced me to one of my favorite environmentalists, Dr. Vandana Shiva, who says “seed is the source of life and the first link in our food chain; control over seed means control over our lives, our food and our freedom.” I must say, intensively studying systems of oppression that have control and impact on peoples’ lack of access to healthy and affordable food is honestly extremely discouraging. Not to mention, it doesn’t take long to realize that there’s a whole lot more information about the problems we face when it comes to hunger rather than solutions, which makes feelings of helplessness evermore present. To combat my feelings not only with lived experience, but the discouragement I felt in the face of these oppressive systems, I spent a lot of time with seeds.

Prior to becoming a Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow I had been managing, growing and distributing food at several different farms. This project evolved into the implementation of affordable and accessible food stands in Denver’s low-income communities, most of which were in my own neighborhood. For me, hope came from watching the farms bloom and become filled with food. A personal bonus was knowing that I played a hand in the success of a season. Plus, I saw the impact of being a consistent presence in Black neighborhoods where locally grown produce was accessible and affordable. The gardens taught me a way to help my community combat hunger through farm education and showing others how to grow produce in their own backyards.

I recognized then that throwing funds at any issue is only a temporary fix–a band aid. Although direct funds aren’t useless by any means, at face value they will not impact or eradicate the root causes of hunger. Any attempts at getting to the core of food insecurity and poverty in America must also take into consideration the actions of placing ourselves directly in the most affected areas, listening to needs of community members, and co-creating meaningful change alongside those with personal lived expertise. Luckily, this work can occur without ever leaving home. These lessons motivated me to apply for the Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellowship, an opportunity to further my interests in community development, politics and anti-hunger initiatives. I wanted to become a better trained leader focused on racial equity and community engagement, and increase the visibility of hunger solutions that are happening all over the United States.

Flash forward and I find out that my field placement will be in Chicago at the Chicago Food Policy Action Council (CFPAC). It was here that I was introduced to the Good Food Purchasing Initiative (GFPI) for the first time. This is a policy that encourages large institutions to target their food purchasing power toward five core values: local economies, environmental sustainability, a valued workforce, animal welfare, and nutrition. What’s especially impactful is that GFPI has the ability to hold institutions accountable for the types of foods they are purchasing which directly benefits eaters, farmers, and so many others in the supply food chain. My work plan was all about further developing a visual networking map and updating information about the institutions committed to GFPI in Chicago on a virtual platform called Kumu. Thus far, there are around 14 institutions CFPAC has connected with and they collaboratively spend over $118 million on food. Imagine those millions of dollars being allocated fairly, effectively, and with sustainable practices in mind. For me, the possibilities and progress I can envision are infinite. Although the work I was doing in Chicago took a completely different form than what I was accustomed to, the impact it made gave me the familiar feeling of being back on those small farms in Denver, using seeds to transform urban spaces into community gardens and using food as a means to connect with and help those around me.

My Hunger Free Community Report (HFCR), Visualizing the Good Food Purchasing Initiative of Metro Chicago, discusses the importance of relationship building, which is critical in the hopes of changing a society’s attitude surrounding food justice. Just as crucial is systemic change if we want to see a transformation in our current unethical and environmentally unfriendly food system. It was encouraging to gain experience working with policy firsthand, which usually is an experience fellows gain during the last half of the fellowship year at our policy placements. I have felt as though my policy placement came first this year, followed by a field placement experience with more direct community work in Washington, D.C., at the Alliance to End Hunger, which is where I am now.

The Alliance is a coalition: a network of networks, you might say, that offers resources, training and opportunity to corporations, nonprofits, faith-based organizations, universities, foundations, international organizations, and individuals. Among all members of the Alliance is a shared vision that ending hunger is both essential and possible. My responsibilities here revolve around the racial equity efforts the Alliance so greatly values. So far, I have coordinated and helped facilitate group discussions on the importance of community engagement and adding personal lived experience in anti-hunger initiatives and I very recently have had the pleasure of facilitating the Racial Wealth Gap Learning Simulation that fellows are exposed to during our orientation in September. My work plan will continue connecting me with several different Alliance member organizations and will also continue to advance the “Hunger is a Racial Equity Issue” campaign through presentations, papers and other communication channels.

I’m choosing to end this blog post with one last reference to seeds and, as cliche as it might sound, it’s an idea that I feel has really helped change my perspective around what progress can look like in anti-hunger work. Similar to seeds, what the Alliance and CFPAC share is their small size. You might think as I did that these nonprofits, that are doing so much work and fostering so many different actions and networks, would have large staffs, but both of my placements have shown me exactly what Dr. Shiva meant when she said, “only with something so small that can fit in everyone’s hand can we challenge an empire.” It is not the size of anything that matters, whether that be the amount of people behind an organization or otherwise. Small beginnings have the potential to transform into significantly more. As I enter the last 100 days of the fellowship, I am thinking about my next steps and although I don’t have all the answers, I do recognize that this opportunity has allowed me to plant many metaphorical seeds that will evolve and grow into legitimate change that challenges the empire of hunger in this country.

About the Authors

Fard headshot

Aliyah Fard

Emerson Fellow

Originally from Denver, Colorado, Aliyah Fard recently graduated with a B.A. in environmental politics from Whitman College. Aliyah has always been interested in the overlap between environmental issues and racial injustices and her interest particularly in food justice and equity was ignited by working with organizations that collaborate with multiple farms around Denver where Aliyah grew and distributed food in low income neighborhoods, particularly in food apartheids. As an undergraduate, Aliyah focused her efforts on exploring the structural forms behind environmental issues and the ways in which People of Color interact with land and food. As the climate crisis becomes more of a threat, Aliyah is interested in exploring the politics of food and as an Emerson Fellow, Aliyah hopes to amplify vulnerable voices in marginalized communities to create more sustainable and equitable food systems that can survive the impacts climate change will bring to our lives more drastically.

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