Early morning Feb. 15, the South Shore Cultural Center hosted the 14th Annual Food Policy Summit. From 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., the historical building had speakers, marketplace vendors, food business support and attendees walking the halls to visit panels to learn about and teach food business practices, pop up market development, urban farming and building sustainable practices.
Before the event, Rodger Cooley, executive director, Chicago food policy action council, gave the introduction to the summit’s keynote speaker and let attendees know that there will be simultaneous translation from English to Spanish for those in need.
His chat with the audience served as a reminder that English is just one language for communication and set an expectation that everyone would work together to make the event inclusive for everyone. This included drawing pictures of the themes of each talk taking place in the space to provide visual representation.
The event kicked off with the keynote speaker Dr. Monica M. White, associate professor environmental justice at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her talk entitled Freedom Farmers: Building Sustainable Communities, explored her personal connection to farming via her family life.
Throughout her keynote speech she discussed important figures in the black history like Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, George Washington Carver and Fannie Lou Hamer and their stamp on what is a long history of farming in black communities in the United States.
Her speech set the tone of the rest of the events, which could be explained as serious, productive and informative. At the end of White’s talk, people broke out to other areas of the center to explore what people had to offer. Depending on an attendee’s interest, there were choices that focused on entrepreneurship, policy, sustainability, urban agriculture or wellness.
A policy event focused on health practices and centering school employees and students, called “The Cafeteria/Classroom Connection,” had a panel that included Harold Chapman, school garden specialist, CPS, Selma Sims, human rails farm manager, gardeneers, Katie Colvin, director of education, pilot light and Marlie Wilson, good food purchasing project manager, Chicago food policy action council.
This discussion focused on food growing, getting schools involved with food policy and teaching students about the food process so they can make informed food choices throughout their lives. A lot of what was discussed was how to integrate growing with education in math and sciences to teach students a connection to food and support the teaching required of instructors in Chicago Public Schools.
It was in this event that one panelist, Sims, said that not all students get the chance to learn to grow food. In her position, she would see students ask others about the growing program she manages and saw that students who were unable to participate in the program thought the students who could were “better than” them. This in her own admission, limits equity in growing and perpetuated inequities about knowledge.
This panel was not just about farming issues on a school level, but also about the growing problem of getting money in the city vs. rural areas in Illinois, where growing food is understood clearly because of farming traditions. They also highlighted the disengagement of the school, cafeteria employees and students. Chapman said, “The cafeteria is doing something, but the classroom isn’t or the garden is there but isn’t connected to the cafeteria.”
Without the appropriate branding of urban agriculture to schools and funders, then there is not much an organization can do to expand their work they do in communities they serve. Finishing the panel, Sims said “If you ain’t gon’ do it right, then I want reparations,” which was taken as a rally to fund urban agriculture fairly or give money for the historical discrimination affecting black health and wealth.
The Food Business Clinic ran throughout the summit and was listed as a featured event, where food entrepreneurs and organizations like the Business Enterprise Law Clinic, Chicago Department of Planning, Inner-City Muslim Action Network and Immigrants Rising shared their expertise with attendees who wanted to know more about licensing, financing, business planning, food safety, legal issues and more.
A standout for this clinic was the food waste booth, which promoted sustainable food practices by educating people about “ugly foods,” and why eating fruit and vegetables that are not perfect would support the health and wellness of the planet.
Another event running throughout the summit was the vendor marketplace. Entering the space anyone could see that this was where people gathered for food. There were booths everywhere selling homemade and organic food as well as tea and skin care products. The room was bustling with people trying to catch up with their colleagues, purchase food and eat before the next set of events started, and it was a nice energy throughout the space.
Wanted the best hot chocolate ever? Then Bob’s Belgian Hot Chocolate was there to serve the best drink in the room. Wanted a selection of pies, cookies and other sweet treats? Then Not Just Cookies Bakery, was a go to booth to satisfy your sweet tooth. But there was tea from SenTEAmental Moods and homemade bread from Organic Bread of Heaven and Rise ‘n Roll Bakery.
The most popular booth was Associacion de Vendedores Ambulantes or Street Vendors Association that had a long line for their homemade Mexican food. If you did not speak Spanish, no problem, because there were Spanish speakers around willing to help communicate your order to the sellers. This space was food policy free, a welcome option for the mostly academic conference lead by experts.
Following the visit to the marketplace, one of the well-attended panels “Black, Indigenous and Brown People’s Collective Path to Food Sovereignty in Chicago,” held in the Paul Robeson Theatre, featured moderators, Viviana Moreno, food justice organizer and Taryn Randle, member of getting grown collective.
They set the stage and expectation of the panel by letting attendees know that this space is specifically for black, indigenous, and brown people to discuss and ask questions about food and people, namely white people are merely visitors who should learn about urban agriculture from their perspective.
The panelists, Dulce Cedillo, co-owner, Cedillo’s fresh produce, Sara Hamdan, inner-city Muslim action network, Anthony Tamez-Pochel, co-president, chi-nations youth council and Orrin Williams headed the event discussing the historical, current and future barriers around food access and control in Chicago.
This panel explored a lot of aspects of food but also space and positioning of why they grow food for their community.
The story of Cedillo’s journey to growing food was like a lot of participants, not only on the panel, but also people on other panels in the summit. It seems that throughout this discussion, there were themes of community, justice and collaboration all centered on food for communities hurt by food politics.
Hamdan of the inner-city Muslim action network explained how even Muslim communities participate in food injustice in black communities even when they were vilified in their home countries.
The other panelists, Tamez-Pochel and Williams both provided their perspectives as Native and black men respectively. Overall, the panel’s aim was to provide a shared space where attendees could learn what they can do in urban agriculture. The panel was well-received and following it, attendees formed groups to discuss what they learned and what they could do moving forward in their own communities.
Of course, the event didn’t last forever because the then mayoral candidates were to have their debate on food and environmental justice on building wealth via food entrepreneurship in underserved communities and sustainability in the same space. The beginning of this event signaled the end of the 14th Annual Chicago Food Policy Summit.
This summit was something truly important for Chicago’s ability to create equitable opportunities and standards for underserved communities and this event be commended on the work they accomplished. However, despite the diverse voices on panels, there were issues with local representation that left much to be desired. To combat food injustice, there should have been people from the South Shore community where the cultural center resides that had the opportunity to attend.
For example, creating a panel that centered local community members who were the recipients or not of their growing, would have helped growers of privilege understand their perspectives of the benefits or lack thereof regarding urban growers’ presence in their communities.
This should have been done for two reasons: one, because it is vital to have outsiders of communities in Chicago understand food culture and necessities from the people who live there without making assumptions and implementing their biases in the work. And two, because other growers may not have the chance to hear concerns from that perspective, which would hopefully provide a practice, organizations should do to ensure true food regulation and justice.
It is possible that a panel centering local community members would have been difficult logistically, but it still needed to inform the work that all panelists, volunteers and attendees aim to do for their spaces. I reached out to Cooley about whether they promoted the event to locals in the community and currently, there is no response.
Despite this issue, the summit was still a successful event that worked to inform, inspire and promote food opportunities across Chicago as a shared benefit for people who want to grow theoretically and practically for a better food experience for all Chicagoans.