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Rights-Based Food Banking: Moving Produce Rescue towards Justice Across Borders
Episode 320th February 2021 • What is American Food? • Hannah Semler & Ali Berlow
00:00:00 00:47:42

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Guests: Michael Rozyne, founder of Red Tomato and one of the three founding members of Equal Exchange; and Robert Ojeda, Chief Programs Director of the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona and a founding member of Closing the Hunger Gap.

Co-Hosts: Hannah Semler and Ali Berlow use multi-dimensional storytelling to explore what food security means from both ends of our food supply chain. We take a look from both sides of the MX-US border, learning more about the role produce rescue can have in support of hunger-relief, food security, and food justice when communities come together into focus as a shared story of fair trade, interconnected rights and, the right to food.

This is the third episode in Season One: The Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona’s Produce Rescue Efforts in Nogales.

The Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona (CFB) which has rescued and redistributed over 100 million pounds of Mexico-grown produce over the last three years to 37 food banks in 33 states across the U.S., is in the process of developing a collaborative approach to its cross-border Nogales port of entry produce sector business solution, using a rights-based lens. 

Robert describes how his personal journey informs the work he is most passionate about - turning  Community Food Bank into a partner and ally with the communities they support with additional access to food by inviting people in to participate fully in public life and holding that as a precondition to the role they might play securing their own food security.

Michael shares his journey, weaving in and out of working with local and regional agricultural in the U.S., with his perspectives about international supply chains, and the importance of telling the stories of far away food production, while relearning how to value our local agriculture, here at home. His is a clarion call to narrative shifts and complex collaborations in order to transform food systems towards justice.

‘What is American Food?’ is funded by the Betsy and Jesse Fink Family Foundation. Production support from Melody Rowell and Ian Carlsen. Music by Ian Carlsen. Barks by Barley.

Transcripts

Ali Berlow:

You're listening to 'What Is American Food?,' I'm Ali Berlow.

Hannah Semler:

And I'm Hannah Semler. 'What Is American Food?' is a podcast exploring and challenging the everyday stories we hold about the food we eat and don't eat, and why.

Ali Berlow:

Thanks for being here. You can find our previous episodes on Apple podcasts and through our website, which is What Is American Food dot com. And if you like what you hear, please give us a rating on Apple podcasts as it makes it easier for any new listeners to find us. Right now we want to take a moment to recognize and thank the Betsy And Jesse Fink Family Foundation for their support

Hannah Semler:

And the Betsy and Jesse Fink Family Foundation have also been supporters of Community Food Bank, building capacity for the produce rescue efforts that we're talking about today. So let me introduce the final of three episodes dedicated to Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona. The episode is entitled "Rights Based Food Banking: Moving Produce Rescue Towards Justice Across

Michael Rozyne:

I am Michael Rozyne, founder and evangelist for Red Tomato, a food hub in the northeast. And I'm sitting in my house in Middleborough, Massachusetts, which is southeastern Mass, the part of the state nobody knows.

Ali Berlow:

And next Michael describes how he got into fair trade in the first place.

Michael Rozyne:

I was a purchaser and marketing manager for Northeast Cooperatives, which was the central food co-op warehouse in New England in the early 1980s. And it became really clear to me as my role as a buyer, and as I got to understand fair trade, that that this would be a really important thing to happen in the US, in North America. So three of us left the food co-op movement, in order to

Hannah Semler:

Michael's journey over the last 40 years from local food in the northeast to coffee growers in Central America-- I feel like he's been a mentor of mine all these years and yet we've only just met. So I'm so excited to have him here today telling us about the fair trade values that I've taken for granted and grown up with. In fact, I've experienced them firsthand in Guatemala

Ali Berlow:

What this story that we're about to embark upon means to me is that I didn't understand how thirsty I was for it. Frankly, I've been so focused on local food system work and empowering anyone and everyone to engage in their communities food system. So Hannah, when you shared your experiences with me about working on the border in Nogales, in the midst of COVID ravaging the national

Hannah Semler:

And so the second guest today brings us the story of produce rescue and hunger relief across borders. And I've been working with Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona for two years to understand how the produce rescue efforts in Nogales are serving our country's food banks with additional produce, especially in the winter months. And it was through a conversation with Robert in his

Robert Ojeda:

It's Robert Ojeda. I live in Tucson, Arizona. I'm the chief program officer for the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona and I've been working here for almost 11 years. So I'm one of the founding members of the Closing the Hunger Gap Network which is a national network of organizations similar to us, who are interested in moving organizations from a charity model to a, more of a

Hannah Semler:

So when Robert says moving from charity to justice as the chief program officer for the Community Food Bank, this is a big deal. You know, Robert Egger, founder of DC Central Kitchen, and LA Kitchen, once explained to me how he had been at the table in the 80s, when food banking started to split between those that wanted it to be more of a grassroots movement and those that were

Ali Berlow:

So to that end, let's bring back Dana Yost from our interview in Episode 2 of 'What Is American Food?' Dana is the CEO of the Community Food Bank. And just as a heads up, we had some technical difficulties when we recorded Dana Yost, but he was too good. We didn't want to try to go back and fix perfection. So thanks for the grace.

Dana Yost:

Community Food Bank is the steward of one of the most important food ports into the United States in Nogales, Arizona. We you know, we sit on a resource that's phenomenal from a lot of different perspectives. It's phenomenal from a food waste perspective, the landfill in Rio Rico, Arizona, which is right next to Nogales, if it closed tomorrow would be a Superfund site, because of

Ali Berlow:

You can hear Dana's commitment to the both-and that Hannah mentioned earlier, which is hunger relief and food justice. But this is still very much in process at the Community Food Bank. Conversations are happening as we record the show, as to how to do this work, which is reconciling the day to day needs providing food with a root cause food justice lens. So Robert Ojeda describes

Robert Ojeda:

I think exploring deeply our stereotypes and assumptions about poverty and people experiencing poverty. And so I think that process for us creates an openness then for us to talk about other systemic issues. So we've had all kinds of opportunities to engage our the board our staff, and and key leaders around, really what that looks like. And obviously what that looks like. It's not

Ali Berlow:

Community Food Bank learned that there was a certain amount of frustration out there, and they didn't understand why because they were getting people food. They were fulfilling the food bank role. But their partners wanted a different kind of partnership in determining at least the kind of food they were getting. And once the Community Food Bank understood that, then eventually more

Hannah Semler:

And I mean, everyone has been involved in this conversation, the leadership team, multiple heads of program from across the organization, community members, food recipients and local food activists, all looking at this rebalancing of hunger, relief and justice as an interconnected lens through which to achieve the right to food for people everywhere.

Robert Ojeda:

There's a lot of interest and a lot of a lot a lot of activity around this kind of work. And so we're also through through the Closing the Hunger Gap work, we're connected to some alliances with Canada and then Europe, and all kinds of folks who are doing innovative work about that, too. And the language that's used is more around food as a right. And then what does that mean?

Ali Berlow:

Let's take a moment and turn to the Closing the Hunger Gap and their solidarity statement, I'm just going to read it. "Hunger is a complex issue, but it'll never be eradicated without addressing the underlying interwoven structural issues of race and economic inequality. To end hunger, we must add the human right to nutritious food to the policies and practices needed to bend the

Hannah Semler:

You know, Ali, to tell you the truth, I'm still digesting this statement every time I hear it, and every time I read it, and that's so important, and we certainly stand in solidarity with it. As we continue in our journey of asking 'what is American food?,' we're going from the initial story we started with in episode one and two about the millions of pounds imported and shared

Ali Berlow:

And circling back to the Community Food Bank in Arizona, and the idea that national hunger relief systems depend on this rescued produce in the winter months. And that eaters all across the US depend on that 84% of winter produce grown in Mexico. Local food economies currently depend on this food. Because when any of us walk through the grocery stores in the winter, or restaurants

Hannah Semler:

Definitely. And one part of the story that you'll hear from Michael Rozyne later on is that there are US small and medium sized farms, they're also struggling to survive. And some of that is due to possibly unfair competition. But it's important to take this at a farm by farm, crop by crop, and almost at the plant level. And think about what are the different buyer regions? And

Ali Berlow:

And here's Michael.

Michael Rozyne:

Red Tomato was hired to do some market research and development for a project based at Cornell called the Eastern Broccoli Project. And so we're researching the potential for developing an eastern and a New York based broccoli sector, which has already gotten off the ground. And we're doing fresh and frozen. And when you get into the world of frozen broccoli, what you find

Hannah Semler:

Also important to think about is tradition and self determination because the unraveling of rural life is real everywhere. And a lot of how I see us rebalancing towards supporting the rural economic development that might happen in Mexico or might happen in the northeast, is figuring out what it means to build community, and to empower people to participate in the process of

Michael Rozyne:

Red Tomato serves as marketing agent, for a very large black-owned plantation slash farm. It's a pecan orchard, in southwestern Georgia owned by New Communities, which is a nonprofit farm. And I would say black farmer rights organization. And we are the marketing agent for a 200 acre pecan orchard. And in the process of selling their pecans, I've been learning a lot about the

Ali Berlow:

Yeah, let's talk for a second, Hannah, about the cultural rights that are intrinsically tied to worldviews and economic agreements that affect community's ability to continue to produce their own varieties of corn, for example.

Hannah Semler:

Certainly the Maya indigenous communities that I spent years with learning from and understanding the importance of the cultural revitalization process that comes with the self determination of being able to grow the crops that are intrinsic to your worldview. So "somos de maiz," "we are made of corn," that that the Maya say is, is comes with not only denouncing the economic

Ali Berlow:

It's really like seeing the unseen, and in a sense of privilege that that has been, but now the privilege that we must undertake. For me, it boils down to you know, I eat a lot of local food, but I still support the idea that some produce from Mexico makes it to my local food co-op, or grocery store or food bank in the winter. And I also think it's great that apples might make their

Hannah Semler:

Here's Michael's speaking to the storytelling and what's needed in his view around that.

Michael Rozyne:

First of all, people aren't told the story that you're telling. Logistics and distance, and usually the sourcing of long distance supply. That's just not part of, it's not part of the story that people tell. But I think most people don't see past their own nose when they're thinking about the source of their food. What they're caring about is safety. Is Is this okay for me to eat

Hannah Semler:

Thinking about Michael and Central America, he mentions their first shipment was from Nicaragua. I wonder about the ways in which they learned how to tell the story to customers that was compelling.

Michael Rozyne:

My heart was always in local farming and food. It's not in my family background, I don't know where I got it. Didn't seem to come through the genes, but my passion, my heart is growing local fruits and vegetables and I'm, I'm kind of out of control, homesteader gardener myself. So the whole time that I was at Equal Exchange starting, I was also really interested in, how does this

Hannah Semler:

And what stands out to me is how Michael, immersed in the work of figuring out how to get people to understand the value of farming in general, across the board, wherever that farming may be happening through the lens of fair trade through the lens of local, and now Community Food Bank, looking how to tell their story through combining their lenses. And so here we go back to the

Robert Ojeda:

I think the way food banking has been structured, tends to prioritize or value efficiencies. And so with that comes, how quickly you can do all these tasks around, you know, the aggregation and distribution and all these logistical functions. We just don't take the time to slow down and really think about, you know, how things are interconnected, and how how we're impacting

Ali Berlow:

One way Robert and his team worked to build trust was by understanding who are the people in the Community Food Bank's community. And they did that by reaching beyond just the demographic data to collecting ethnographies with support from the University of Arizona, which was pretty cool.

Robert Ojeda:

We had like a really important conversation at the food bank, is it possible to do hunger relief and other work at the same time, that allowed us also to say, let's bring more healthy food, including produce? So that was the beginning of sort of that journey for us as an organization, then we grew very rapidly with the produce. But then then, you know, the next question, then we

Hannah Semler:

So here it is, here's the concept of rights based work that Robert brings to figuring out how the produce rescue efforts, that are only three years old, can introduce a way of partnering with their donors in Nogales and the farms that are in Mexico producing the food and share community level stories that ultimately help them build the strategies to creating a better life

Ali Berlow:

So let's hear now, from Michael's perspective, about the challenges and differences in storytelling and narratives told about farming communities abroad, compared to the narratives and storytelling around farming communities in the US.

Michael Rozyne:

I think it's maybe the difference between sympathy and empathy. I think it's easier to feel sympathy, and to believe one kind of has the picture, when the farmer in mind is living 1000s of miles away, and is really destitute poor, earning less than $1,000 a year, for example. There's not really any moral conflict for anybody to say that's not fair. And it shouldn't be that way.

Hannah Semler:

What Michael returns us to here is that farms are a part of their community, whether or not they're seen as such, and wherever that food may be produced, whether it's locally or globally. And as we consume 84% of our fresh produce in the winter months that is Mexico grown. And you think about all that food, truck after truck coming across the border? Well, do we think about

Ali Berlow:

So I just want to ask, is the foundation of food security, knowing where your food comes from, and its place in the supply chain, whether that's right around the corner, or across the globe? And a lot of these questions make me really want to acknowledge and explore what we think hunger and poverty and food justice looks like in the US. Here's Robert.

Robert Ojeda:

So one thing that I'm very passionate about, and it has to do, I think, with, I think a precondition for food security is like our ability to participate fully in public life, and have the power to be able to influence and make decisions in your community. And so that, to me, feels like a very, very important thing. And so what is the relationship between communities and

Ali Berlow:

I think of the border and Nogales like it's a semi permeable membrane when it comes to commerce and trade, yet it's hostile, designed explicitly impenetrable with persistence in terms of people and their culture on either side, and the environment, including wildlife and biodiversity. So next, we're gonna hear from Michael, where he brings up some really good points about

Michael Rozyne:

It makes me think about situations I've been in more than once in the food movement in the last years, where, you know, all of us just to do our job, we have to kind of get up in the morning and stay focused on the mission of the organization that's buttering our bread, that's paying our way, that we've dedicated our careers to. But an awful lot of those organizations and missions

Michael Rozyne:

transformative solutions as being kind of the absolute right way forward.

Ali Berlow:

I love how forthright Michael is.

Hannah Semler:

It's interesting to me to think that it's taken my lifetime, to get to a place where food banks and the food system are actually converging around the need to look at rights, interconnected rights across the supply chain, regardless of sector. Here's Robert.

Robert Ojeda:

One of the transformative moments for me had to do with, you know, when I met folks from Covilli family farms, and Hannah, you may have met him but and, you know, this is a family owned business, that fair trade business that, you know, has, they work in Mexico and in the US, and they've they certified many, many farmers, here and there. But just the stories I heard about sort of

Hannah Semler:

There's a shift, it's a game changing shift in how food banks might see themselves as influencing the future of food from a lens of justice. Let's come back to Robert Ojeda and his personal story of finding voice.

Robert Ojeda:

My first job of the food bank, I was overseeing the educational programs. And when I applied for the job, they said they wanted a community organizer. And I was really perplexed and interested in in that, that whole thing. But really, for me, it was when I was an ESL teacher, I found that a lot of my students had all kinds of issues that were impacting their lives. And I had no

Hannah Semler:

That's it. That community piece. A precondition for food security is our ability to participate fully in public life. Here robert continues to talk about how he brings his experience to his work.

Robert Ojeda:

original facilitators of that are playing different roles. That work led to you know a lot of the cooperative development work that we do today like building collectives and incubating ideas at the food bank and then transitioning out of that and then having communities owned that. I mean all kinds of things that have grown from really the home gardening program that was i think the

Robert Ojeda:

started developing partnerships throughout the country so that those partnerships will give us best practices, innovative ideas but also would serve to reinforce that we were moving in the right direction.

Hannah Semler:

Let's hear a little bit more about community food banks process in developing this network approach to change.

Robert Ojeda:

It felt very lonely to me when I started working here in 2009, I realized that you know I would go to a gathering of like the more progressive voices around food justice and people were very critical of food banks and it you know like there was very little room for dialogue around that. And then you would go to the more traditional hunger relief food aid type gatherings and there was

Ali Berlow:

It is so wonderful. And what an honor to hear about Michael and Robert's work. It's very grounding.

Hannah Semler:

It really feels like this journey that Robert has been on, and Michael has been on, and how these voices come together, are really nudging us all towards going out there and realizing that now more than ever, we have an opportunity to take this forest fire that's happened and figure out where we can sprout up with our voice and our power and rebuild.

Ali Berlow:

So I just want to say this episode has been a journey in and of itself.

Hannah Semler:

Thank you so much to the entire team of Community Food Bank, the produce rescue team in Nogales. There were some people that we weren't able to interview Efren Trigueras, Ben Rodriguez, Tomas Lopez. We're really excited about all the work that you're doing. Thank you to Robert Ojeda and Dana Yost, the leaders of Community Food Bank, and their commitment to listening and dialogue is

Ali Berlow:

And thanks again to the Betsy And Jesse Fink Family Foundation for their support of this podcast. You can find more about their commitment to this work at BJ F F F dot org. And now, Barley. [dog barks]

Hannah Semler:

Thanks, Melody Rowell and Ian Carlson for production support. Our music is by Ian.

Ali Berlow:

And we give voice to Barley who barks, lives, eat

Hannah Semler:

Right here with me in Maine.

Ali Berlow:

I'm Ali Berlow.