In the past few weeks, UNITE HERE’s Local 23 and DC-area food and farming groups have collaborated to host three different events which brought together food service workers, union organizers, food justice advocates, farmers, students, and other community members to share stories about their experiences with food, to teach each other about the work they do as participants in the American food system and the fight to fix it, and to begin building a united movement for food justice and community security throughout DC, from farm to cafeteria, from plant to plate.
On Tuesday July 31st, Local 23 summer organizers and a member of the Bill Emerson Congressional Hunger Fellowship hosted a screening of the film “The Garden” at Bloombars, a volunteer-run, free community arts space. “The Garden” tells the story of a fourteen-acre community garden built by the Latino immigrant community of South Central Los Angeles in the wake of 1992 Rodney King Riots. The film follows the farmers’ attempts to keep their land out of the hands of the developers that ultimately bulldozed it. Following the screening, the audience participated in a Q&A session with two DC food service workers, Dorothy from Howard University and Dolores from American University, and a summer organizer from Local 23, Erika Inwald. They spoke about the connections they saw between the South Central farmers’ battle and their own fight to maintain fair and safe conditions in their workplaces, highlighting the irony that, as both farmers and food service workers, they spend their days providing food to others but struggle to feed their families healthy, nourishing food when they go home at night.
The South Central garden’s plight is not an anomaly. All across the country, farmers on publicly leased land are finding themselves in the same predicament, and DC is no exception. Just up the road in Potomac, MD, Brickyard Educational Farm is facing an August 15th lease expiration with little chance of renewal. After leasing the land to the farm for over thirty years, the Montgomery County Public School Board has decided to turn the property over to Montgomery Soccer, Inc., which will bulldoze the twenty acres of cropland and build private pay-for-play soccer fields. Local 23 workers and organizers visited the farm on Saturday, August 4th. Led by Sophia Maravell, co-founder and education director, students and workers learned about the farm’s long history and had a chance to taste some of the farm’s fresh produce (the tomatoes and basil were big hits!). For many visitors, this trip was the first time they had experienced agricultural production up close in quite some time.
Fresh off their Brickyard visit and with lots of fresh veggies in tow, Local 23 organized a 100 Mile Meal to bring together workers, students, and community allies to celebrate the connections they have made this summer and to prepare for the work they will do together this fall. The summer organizing team – Erika, Gabe, Jas, Hanna, Erin, Mitch, and Lauren – sourced nearly all the food from farms within 100 miles of DC and prepared a feast, including baba ghanoush, garlic leek dip, gazpacho, potato salad, deviled eggs, tomato and mozzarella salad, goat cheese quiche, and peach crisp.
As everyone chowed down, representatives from several local farms and food justice organizations (including the Farm at Our House, the Neighborhood Farm Initiative, the Washington Youth Garden, and Brickyard Educational Farm) told the crowd about their work in the DC-area food system, noting the intersections between the struggles for just food and fair jobs, and pledging their support of Local 23’s work. Food service workers and students from each of the five DC universities entering contract renegotiations (Howard, Trinity, American, Gallaudet, and Georgetown Law) then spoke about the fall’s campaigns and their hopes for a united movement for labor and food justice across DC. Beverly from Gallaudet University urged the different groups in the room to “come together and stay together,” and Muriel from Georgetown Law explained, “I’m here because the fight for sustainable food is the fight for sustainable jobs, and we need to organize ourselves.”
After an exciting summer making new connections throughout the food chain, Local 23 and its allies are ready to fight for real changes in both the food quality and the working conditions in cafeterias across DC this fall. Stay tuned for more updates as the campaign kicks off.
Many thanks to the DC-area farms who provided food for the 100 Mile Meal: Full Cellar Farm, Blue Ridge Dairy Farm, Neighborhood Farm Initiative, Cherry Glen Goat Cheese Company, Waterview Foods, Clear Spring Creamery, Coulter Farms, Mike Vadar, and Firehook Bakery.