By Nancy Creamer, CEFS Director

A conversation has been initiated within the land-grant and public university community to “Align and Guide Public Research Universities’ Role in Ensuring Global Food Security by 2050.” A new A.P.L.U. (Association of Public and Land Grant Universities) Food Security Commission, funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, was formed in May, and I am pleased to be a part of it. At the first meeting, I was invited to discuss how Food Sovereignty and social equity fit within the discussion, and how they relate to food security. What follows is a condensed form of my talk.

First defined in 1996 by La Via Campesina, Food Sovereignty has been discussed mostly in a global context and is the “people’s right to healthy and culturally-appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.” Food sovereignty delves deeply into the driving forces of food insecurity, in that “it proposes not just guaranteed access to food, but democratic control over the food system — from production and processing, to distribution, marketing, and consumption” (Holt-Giménez, 2009).

Food Sovereignty:

  1. Focuses on food for people: The right to food which is healthy and culturally appropriate. Food is not simply another commodity to be traded or speculated on for profit.
  2. Values food producers: Food sovereignty asserts the right of food producers to live and work in dignity, including women, who are the majority of food producers worldwide.
  3. Localizes food systems: Food must be seen primarily as sustenance for the community and only secondarily as something to be traded.
  4. Puts control locally: Food sovereignty places control over territory, land, grazing, water, seeds, livestock and fish populations under local communities instead of outside corporate interests.
  5. Builds knowledge and skills: Food sovereignty approaches support the development of agricultural knowledge that is already being used, supplemented with new skills and appropriate technologies, rather than introducing costly new technology that can contribute to land loss for small farmers.
  6. Works with nature: Food sovereignty requires production and distribution systems that protect natural resources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The definition of Food Security takes into account access to both the quantity and quality of food sufficient for a healthy and active life, which is how the term differs from just avoiding hunger. In the US, 14.1 percent of the population is food insecure; in North Carolina it’s 17.3 percent.

Contrast Food Sovereignty’s tenets to the more common way that “Food Security” is approached internationally… WE (governments or industry) are going to get food (not necessarily the food indigenous to a culture or place) to the people (as if they are just empty vessels without their own food cultures) who need it (as long as they can pay for it).

Not coincidentally, this approach benefits the various entities of the supply chain, except the people at both ends: the farmers and the consumers. In fact, while the profits and control of the system accumulate in between, both ends of the supply chain often need subsidies. “Food Security” approaches have rarely cultivated self-reliance. Instead, companies and organizations operating within this framework have often reinforced trickle-down schemes for distributing resources to vulnerable populations (Anderson, 2008).

Historically, food insecurity has primarily been approached in two ways: either through the provision of direct food assistance or through efforts to increase agricultural productivity. Has this approach been successful? In the U.S., despite national growth in public and private food assistance, increases in crop and animal productivity, and an abundance of available food, food insecurity rates have consistently remained between 14% and 15% for the last five years.

The U.S., paradoxically, has higher food insecurity rates than many other developed countries, while being the most agriculturally productive country in the world. In North Carolina, 1 in 4 children are food insecure – 49 million food insecure children in the United States. That’s the population of California and Michigan combined. And food insecurity rates are considerably higher among certain demographic groups in the U.S., including households with children, Black and Hispanic households, and households in inner cities and rural areas.

At the same time, the U.S. has some of the highest rates of obesity and other diet-related illnesses like diabetes. There are racial disparities when it comes to these food-related poor health outcomes as well. With respect to Food Sovereignty, in 1920, 14% of farms were owned by African Americans; today it’s less than ½ of 1%. This is why we need to have a racial and social equity lens when we address food insecurity – so that people of color don’t continue to suffer from the structural racial inequities that have led to these disparities.

Clearly there is a need to pursue other innovative ways of addressing food insecurity beyond providing direct food assistance or increasing agricultural productivity, because those ways alone aren’t working. We need a systems approach to this problem.

What if we were to identify food-insecure communities near our Public and Land Grant Universities and go “all in” in addressing and learning about the problem? Invest our resources, foster social entrepreneurship, support community food councils, build appropriate infrastructure, and support new agricultural enterprises – urban and rural – in a truly interdisciplinary way, beyond just our colleges of agriculture, to systematically and comprehensively address this problem?

We can’t do this in a top-down way. We need to fully engage community partners, acknowledging that they are the experts in their reality. We could start on our own college campuses. A recent blog post by Mark Winne decries the growing trend in student food pantries on college and university campuses. Our campus food systems are connected with those of the communities where they reside, the states they serve, the nation, and the world. If we can’t ensure food security for our own students, how can we “tell” the world how to achieve it?

If we could get our own food systems right in our campuses and communities – overcoming food insecurity, poor health outcomes, and racial inequities – we might have something to offer in terms of how to address food security globally.