Marissa Gibson-Garcia was a recipient of the Greening Haverford Fund. This fund assists students and faculty in raising environmental awareness and enhancing environmental practices at Haverford. Each recipient is asked to provide reflections of their experiences.
Food Justice Leadership Training in College Park, Maryland
I was recently supported by Haverford’s Committee for Environmental Responsibility to attend a food justice leadership training workshop hosted in College Park, Maryland—a four-day event that took place from August 16th to the 19th. The training was run by an organization called the Real Food Challenge (RFC), a nation-wide campaign that works with college students to bring what is coined as “real food” to their campuses, real food being food that is local, healthy, humane, and ecologically sound. Myself and three other students from the Bi-Co attended this training with about 8 other students from across the mid-atlantic region, and in truth, it was one of the most empowering weekends I’ve ever experienced.
Our workshops took place mostly in the same house where we ate and slept, a cozy three-story home with posters and drawings hung on the walls, and a kitchen abundant with vegetarian and vegan foods. There were three RFC organizers who served to facilitate workshops and agenda-setting, but the intentional atmosphere of the group was one of shared power and responsibility; each day, new people were delegated to be in charge of cooking and preparing meals, of leading the clean-up of areas we had been using, and of making sure everyone was on-task and on-time as we transitioned from activity to activity.
Emphasis was placed on storytelling, and the power that a well-told story can have in building solidarity and strengthening a campaign. During the first workshop of the weekend, we were prompted to share our past experiences in activism, first one-on-one with another person and then with the entire group. My story rose out of me at a surprisingly un-chipper note: I talked about how I’d felt skeptical of the probability of success in the activist work I’d done in the past, and how I wasn’t sure that I’d ever had the faith in a cause, though my well-wishes abounded, that was perhaps necessary for its success. The group responded with an overall sense of understanding, and of empathy for those exact feelings of skepticism. Looking around, I thought about how these people, who had already begun to prove themselves in my eyes as exceptionally capable leaders and change-makers, were no strangers to the doubt that I had found so paralyzing. I felt an overwhelming sense of encouragement, and a push of hope, which was the beginning of the growth that I would experience throughout the weekend.
Of particular interest to me, going in to the training, was to learn about the way that the corporate food system works with universities. I was shocked to learn how utterly oppressed farmers are by the whole system, caught in a squeeze between corporate-controlled materials needed to produce food and corporate-controlled buyers needed to sell the food to, making for easy exploitation. As a result, farmers are in higher debt than they need to be and have lower food quality, wages, and on-the-job safety. Additionally, corporations (like Aramark and Sodexo) make demands from universities called “compliance numbers”—demands like “You must buy 90% of your chicken from one of our preferred vendors,” forcing an extra amount of dependence on the university’s part.
What, then, can we do? How can we as members of a college community ensure that our food is real food? Well, for one thing, we were given an excellent tool called the Real Food Calculator. Using this calculator, students and administrators are able to keep check of which kinds of foods are actually real foods, guiding us through dishonest food labels such as “organic” and “natural” which are meant to make foods look healthier and more ethical than they actually are, a process called “greenwashing.” With the Calculator, it is possible to ensure that food on campus is legitimate and greenwash-free.
Other workshops gave us a breadth of knowledge about community organizing , and helped us formulate plans for furthering our own food groups on our campuses. One of the most crucial lessons I took away was from the “Types of Leadership” workshop. It began with a roleplay—we sat in a circle on couches and wooden chairs, and small slips of paper were given out, which we were instructed to keep to ourselves. My paper said “You love brainstorming. You are full of new ideas.” We then began our “meeting,” acting as if we were a student food justice group on campus and needed to figure out what to do with a $1000 grant. The meeting didn’t go so well. One guy acted like a know-it-all, one girl chatted with the person next to her the whole time, one girl tried to bring everyone back to the agenda in a frustrated manner, someone else gave no input and became flustered when she was asked to speak, I spurted out ideas loudly and frequently as my slip of paper directed me to, and a handful of other problematic personality quirks made the meeting largely unproductive. After the roleplay, we discussed the different types of personalities demonstrated, and how while each one of them had the potential to add to a meeting’s chaos, each one also had the potential to be useful if put to the right task. The girl who chattered to friends next to her the whole time, for example, was clearly a very social person and could be used for community outreach and recruitment. In a similar way, each type of personality represented had its own place in a successful team.
Activities like these were playful, fun, and gave me a new way to look at problems that I had faced in group organizing in the past. With this particular activity, I was not only given new ways to think of disruptive behavior during meetings, but I was also able to look at myself and see where my strengths lie. I found that I am largely a “task” manager and somewhat of a “visionary” as well, so my strength in a meeting is to take initiative in starting and running current projects rather than to come up with big-picture strategies. This was a huge paradigm shift for me, because my frustration with strategic leadership had been a large, discouraging weight on my head. Now, I have a more solid picture in my head for how I plan to go forth in applying my strengths, for Haverford’s food collective as well as in other future community organizing roles.
For the experiences, lessons, and inspiration that I received over this training weekend, I thank the RFC organizers and other weekend-attendees deeply. I also thank the CER for funding this weekend that was important to my development as a mover and a shaker in this world. I believe I can speak for the other Beet Goes On members who were at the training and say that after the training, we all feel confident, inspired, and ready to bring real food to Haverford.