Maya Wiley, attorney and social activist, told a Center for Environmental Farming Systems audience last week that “we need to shine a light” on injustice within the food system that affects everyone from farmers to consumers.
Wiley, founder and president of the Center for Social Inclusion, gave the annual CEFS lecture on March 27 in Durham, speaking on “Unmasking Inequities: Building Toward a More Just Food System for All.” Earlier in the day, Wiley was interviewed on WUNC-FM’s State of Things show.
A crowd of supporters, students and university faculty members was on hand for the speech at the Durham Armory. Earlier in the day, Wiley visited a high school in Goldsboro where the CEFS unit is located.
Wiley told the Durham crowd that there are many players in the food system who are being denied justice. “We need to shine a light on white farmers who are share cropping to corporations.” She also talked about the plight of farmworkers, mostly Hispanic migrants earning less than $11,000 a year, and black farmers in North Carolina, whose numbers have dropped by half since 1987.
Those without access to affordable, fresh fruits and vegetables are also struggling with food injustice, Wiley said.
“What is getting in the way of a just food system?” Wiley asked. “Policies are the irrigation and fertilizer of a just food system.” She explained how some food and agriculture policies contribute to an unjust system.
Wiley said that Timothy Pigford, a black North Carolina farmer, was “one of the true 20th century heroes. As a plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Pigford fought policies that allowed USDA to deny black farmers’ loan applications.
As a matter of policy, the Farm Bill provides $5 billion farm subsidies to support soybeans and corn, but no subsidy money for fruits and vegetables, she said. And because farm subsidy payments are based on the land a farmer owns and production over time, black farmers are at a disadvantage. While white farmers own an average of 400 acres of land, black farmers own an average of 50 acres, Wiley said.
Because fruits and vegetables are not subsidized like some commodity crops, the cost of those foods to consumers can be higher than processed foods, Wiley said. So limited-resource consumers often choose high-fat and high-sugar processed foods that cost less than fresh produce.
Wiley also talked about groups like ROC United (Restaurant Opportunity Centers United) and the Immokelee farmworkers of Florida who are working for justice for workers within the food industry.
ROC United is fighting for paid sick leave for restaurant workers. Just three days without restaurant pay can cause a restaurant worker financial hardship, Wiley said. Immokalee farmworkers fought – and won – a 1-cent per bushel pay increase several years ago by asking for support from restaurants, not the farmers who were paid by restaurants.
“One cent more per bushel changed lives,” she said. “We need to look at all those who are trying to change the food system – restaurants, farmers and those of us who consume.”
The Center for Inclusion is a national public policy strategy organization that works to unite public policy research and grassroots advocacy to transform structural racial inequity into structural fairness and inclusion. Wiley is a frequent speaker on the national stage and author of many influential policy articles.
The CEFS Sustainable Agriculture Lecture series has traditionally featured world-renowned thinkers and doers including Carlo Petrini, founder of the international Slow Food organization; Judy Wicks, co-founder of Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE); Will Allen, MacArthur Genius Award recipient and founder of Growing Power Inc.; and USDA Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan. To learn more, visit the CEFS website.