The Right to Food: Research and Activism

The Right to Food was the theme of the Food Systems Summit on June 16-17 organized by University of Vermont (UVM) in collaboration with Vermont Law School. A subtheme of the two-day event (not spelled out in the schedule but clearly evident throughout) was research and activism.

Our first encounter with this approach was in two sessions just prior to the Summit, presented only for the Summer Study Tour. Assistant professor of Anthropology Teresa Mares and masters candidate in Food Systems Jessie Mazar, both of UVM, talked about their work with Huertas. This program collaborates with mostly-undocumented farmworkers in border-counties of Vermont to grow and prepare food that has cultural relevance to them and that helps alleviate their food insecurity. Huertas means “kitchen gardens” in Spanish.

The second presentation, by UVM associate professor of Agroecology and Environmental Studies Ernesto Méndez, dealt with research and activism among smallholder coffee cooperatives in several Mesoamerican countries, including El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Honduras. Professor Méndez succinctly described the stages of engagement that can exist between academics and those who have been traditionally marginalized in scholarly research.

UVM associate professor of Agroecology and Environmental Studies Ernesto Méndez, on research and activism among smallholder coffee cooperatives in Mesoamerican countries.

His own field, agroecology, began as an interdisciplinary study, merging agriculture and ecology and related practices such as permaculture, organic agriculture, and sustainable agriculture. His research evolved over the years to become transdisciplinary, incorporating not only various branches of natural science, but also social science, humanities, and non-academic knowledge contributed by indigenous peoples that relates to their culture and spirituality. (As a literary person that brought to my mind The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse.)

The next stage is PAR or participatory action research. This is a conceptual framework where, according to Mendez’s definition, “researcher and non-researcher actors are involved in an integrative, iterative process of research, reflection, and action” (e.g., problem solving, implementing a practice, etc.). This approach leads to bottom up transformation rather “ivory tower” methods that may lead only to enhancing careers in academia. Actions which his team has been a part of in El Salvador have included not only organic certification or fair-trade certification for the coffee growers but also increased production of maize and corn for smallholders so that they might have food security during the “thin months.”

Food Systems Summit panel discussion on biophysical constraints. (L-R) Moderator: Laurie Ristino, Vermont Law School; Panelists: Anastasia Telesetsky, University of Idaho College of Law, Raffaele Vignola, Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza, Ellen Kahler, Vermont Farm to Plate.

Most presentations at the Food Systems Summit had this element of activism within their research. The most memorable example for me was in a keynote address on the second afternoon of the conference by Raj Patel, research professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin. Patel presented a case study in which a group of Malawi farmers organized to address infant malnutrition in that country despite sufficient food for the population.

Patel noted that neo-liberal solutions proposed by groups comprised of First World corporations and governments such as New Alliance for Food and Security had led only to “The Era of Poverty with Added Vitamins.” Malawians in collaboration with researcher-activists determined their patriarchal culture was at the root of this problem. Women were the sole workers in the fields; in addition they did all the cooking, cleaning, gathering of wood, as well as breastfeeding. They were exhausted and it affected the quality of their milk.

Women did not want to give up control of the harvest (which provided the primary income stream), so it was decided the men need to learn to cook. Gender equality became a unifying principle for the community, but not without pushback from the men. Several means of inducing them to participate in this solution failed, until the introduction of Recipe Days. These events were joyful celebrations of food, music, and community, with scheduled competitions to see which men could come up with unique and tasty preparations of traditional food.

The UVM Food Systems Summit gathered in the Grand Maple Ballroom on campus.

Patel closed his presentation with this quote from Orson Welles: “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” For several Malawi families, the story changed for the positive. A number of men learned that no harm would come to them if they became helpers to their wives. The women learned they could be empowered to demand a better life for themselves and their children.

Significantly, as measure of the success of this bottom-up approach to research and activism, the child malnutrition clinic that served these communities closed.