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Raj Patel on the Bay Area as a hub for food activism

The Bay Area is one of the country’s centers for food activism – and for the whole idea that local efforts can have big effects on the food system as a whole. Raj Patel is author of the book Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System. The book is a critical look at the inequalities in food access around the world. He spoke with KALW’s Casey Miner about the upcoming reauthorization of the farm bill – that’s the legislation that governs almost everything about food policy in the US – and what fighting for food access really means.

MINER: What do you think is the role of local food activism in the Bay Area? We have a huge array of organizations that produce local food, that start urban farms, that talk about ways to develop locally sustainable food systems within the city? What is the relationship of those organizations to this kind of bigger policy debate? And what do you think are some of the limitations of that kind of movement?

PATEL: Because of the recession, a lot of the food movements and food justice organizations are being sucked into being emergency service providers and making sure that the hungriest people – and a large slice of people who are on food stamps are children – making sure that those children get enough to eat is obviously a priority. The trouble is that in being sucked into this sort of service provision role, it can be that organizations have resources diverted away from building the sort of longer-term infrastructure to make sure that we, in the Bay Area, are able to feed everyone within the Bay Area. But I think we ought to be looking to organizations like the Black Panthers, oddly, because in the 1960s and early 1970s, the Black Panthers had a school breakfast program and free meals for the hungry and also free prescriptions, and a range of services that were necessary in order to ameliorate poverty. But what the Black Panthers also had was a vision for social change so that we wouldn’t need food banks and we wouldn’t need these stopgap measures. And I think what the best organizations in the Bay Area are doing – and there are many of them – is those organizations are allowing us to dream to a stage where we don’t need this sort of patchwork of entitlements because we won’t have the kinds of poverty that, sadly, we do at the moment in the Bay Area. And those organizations are doing everything from training people having jobs with living wages in the food industry – and far too few people in the food industry do have jobs with living wages. Around 80 percent in the food industry and food service, particularly, are unable to feed themselves on the wages they have. So the organizations that are really on the cutting edge that I’m really inspired by are making sure not only that we meet the short term survival needs of the hungry in the Bay Area, but going deeper than that, are ensuring that we don’t have hunger in the Bay Area because everyone is able to access food regardless of their station or their income.

Listen to the full interview above.