Just Food Conference Brings Latinos to the Table on Food Activism

Yadira Garcia of Happy Healthy Latina conducting a cooking workshop in El Barrio, NYC in 2016 (Photo/Walter Roeder)

Yadira Garcia’s close relationship with food began when she fell down a flight of stairs in her junior year of college, leaving her unable to walk and in enduring pain.

The disability caused sudden spikes in her cholesterol and blood pressure, and she ended up with prescriptions for Oxycontin, Vextra and Lipitor. She said she suddenly had found herself, “a prisoner in her own body,” and at 20, was told this is what her life would be. Then she lost her health insurance.

“When you’re not handed the right road map, you can’t get to your destination,” Garcia said. “So, I went back to my elders. I thought, ‘What did my grandmother eat?’ I went finding these foods. I started to eat well and started to see how my health was improving and changed. I went from a walker to a cane. It was a three to four year process – very incremental. Eventually, I got off my cholesterol medication.”

Garcia told her story to open the 2017 Just Food Conference held this week at Columbia University’s Teacher College in New York City where nearly 800 food workers, farmers, scientists, activists and citizens gathered to collaborate on creating and advocating for an economically equitable, environmentally sustainable and healthy food system for all.

Now 33, Garcia is a food educator, community chef, and has her own blog, Happy. Healthy. Latina., where she posts her latest healthy recipes and answers readers’ questions. You can also check out her latest project there – a new cooking show, called “Healthy Cocina,” which is produced by actress Zoe Saldana, and also features Saldana’s sister Cisely.

Garcia, who was raised in New York City but whose family hails from the Dominican Republic, said our ancestral knowledge is our power. She decided she wanted to give away the knowledge she had, and she also put herself through culinary school – the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York.

“I learned how to activate Latino foods,” she said. “I make medicinal sofrito.”

In addition to hosting cooking workshops with seniors and ex-offenders in the community, teaching them how to use food in a healthy manner, Garcia is also on mission to get nutritional education to youth by spearheading wellness classes in schools.

“I am extremely concerned about H.R. 610 – the (proposed U.S. House) bill that will affect snacks and meals in schools,” said Garcia. “I feel an urgency now to tap the community … We train parents how to make demands. If we don’t know what’s happening, we’re silent. I talk with them to add their voice. We the people are the only ones who can make a change. We the people have to use our voice. Instead of being scared, we can talk … There is power in numbers.”

“I think this is why I was given my ability to walk again, to be able to share my testimony,” she adds.

While eating healthy foods is a challenge for some, for others, it is getting sufficient food at all, along with getting food that is nutritionally beneficial.

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Jose Chapa, farmworkers legislative campaign coordinator at Rural & Migrant Ministry at the 2017 Just Food Conference in NYC. (Photo/Kristina Puga)

Jose Chapa, 32, justice for farmworkers legislative campaign coordinator at Rural & Migrant Ministry, said food and restaurant workers are the most food insecure population – many can’t afford to feed themselves, and injury and illness rates at work are also high.

“Part of what I do is try to get the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act passed,” said Chapa, a panelist at the conference. “In the 1930’s, when the New Deal was passed, farmworkers were excluded from many rights like overtime pay, or a day of rest. The Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act would enact a 40-hour work week and an option for a day of rest. A lot of the time, the standard of living is so low, there are no sanitary requirements, no protections for farmworkers. Only recently, they were given minimum wage and access to drinking water in the fields.”

Rural & Migrant Ministry, a non-profit located in Poughkeepsie, New York, aims to change unjust working conditions for farmworkers, and will be a part of the Cesar Chavez Rally for New York State Farmworker Rights on March 30.

Chapa, born in China, Nuevo León, Mexico, feels close to this cause, because he grew up as a migrant farmworker. He migrated with his family to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas when he was 4.

“My parents wanted a better education and future for me and my brother,” said Chapa, who came to New York three years ago to fight for farmworker rights, while the rest of his family is still in Texas. “Every summer, my family would go to Iowa and Minnesota to work the fields. My family worked picking corn and cotton every summer from when I was 4.”

He said he personally worked in the fields from age 15 through 16.

“I remember conversations of my dad talking to farmers in broken English. I heard racial epithets. That impacted me,” said Chapa. “The first time I went out in the fields to work, I had a heat stroke because it was so hot. Those two things drew me to this work.”

In addition to educating the community about the bill he wishes to see passed, he also reaches out to similar organizations to collaborate. He said he tries to create a sense of community where farmworkers can gather and talk about issues they are facing – especially with the increasing fear of immigration enforcement.

“I’ve heard of more activity of border control by Buffalo,” said Chapa. “We refer folks who are fearful to other organizations depending where they are in the state. What would help a lot is the passage of this bill. We have very good speakers on our side, and we are hoping these voices can give farmworkers a voice.”

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Ricardo Salvador uses chart to show how poverty intersects with race and ethnicity during keynote address at “The Future of Food Justice” session on March 13. (Photo/Kristina Puga)

Dr. Ricardo Salvador, senior scientist and director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, based in Washington, D.C., delivered the conference’s final keynote address, “The Future of Food Justice.”

“The footprint of inequity is something I want to talk about,” said Salvador, 59. “Without a just food system, we can’t have a just nation.”

He explains that a just food system is one that doesn’t exploit food workers, and the current model is based on production for as much profit as possible. The fundamental purpose of the food system, he said, should not be one which enables us to solely survive, but one which also nourishes us.

“Profits should not the primary goal, but healthy people and animals,” said Salvador. “But this is not feasible because most people are not informed. We need to point people to places where it’s working – that is concrete and real.”

One of the ways the Union of Concerned Scientists has taken action to coordinate and align leadership is by forming The HEAL Food Alliance. The national organization was founded in 2015 to bring together farmers, food service laborers, scientists, policy experts, and community activists in order to achieve effective policy change in our nation’s food system. It does this by empowering local leadership, training future politicians in policy issues and working against monopoly power structures.

This topic is close to Salvador’s heart, because like Chapa, he comes from a Mexican farm-working family. After the 1942 agreement between the U.S. and Mexico, also called the Bracero Program, his uncle and hundreds of thousands of mostly indigenous people migrated to join the agricultural labor force in various parts of the U.S.

“This set the pattern for decades of subsequent migration and exploitation,” Salvador writes in his blog.

“I have family farming in California and in Mexico, and they were all exploited,” he said. “I felt they were discriminated against – no matter how hard they worked. That’s why my work has turned into social justice work.”

Salvador’s research suggests that the U.S. has one of the highest rates of income inequity in the world. Other studies also have documented this.

“This is what needs to be undone…You deprive people of their land, and you will create impoverished people,” said Salvador, noting the income equity found in some Native American reservations. “There is an exploitation of human beings for the creation of wealth.”

Salvador continues to say, if we want a society where we all thrive, we need to invest in each other.

“If we are all one race, we really need to believe it,” he said. “All of us here now are making the future. We need to be careful not to commit the same errors … You have to believe things will get better, because you fight for them. I came from people who took big risks.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

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Farm policies should support growing more fruits and vegetables, says study

(Shoppers buy vegetables at a local Farmers Market in Annandale, Virginia, August 8, 2013. Photo: AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards/Getty Images )

(Shoppers buy vegetables at a local Farmers Market in Annandale, Virginia, August 8, 2013. Photo: AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards/Getty Images )

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) recently released a report stating that eating right not only makes sense for our health but for our pockets. It found that if Americans ate the full two cups of fruit and 2.5 cups of vegetables recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), we could prevent 127,261 such deaths each year from cardiovascular diseases and save $17 billion in medical costs. The economic value of the lives saved from cardiovascular diseases is $11 trillion.

Dr. Ricardo Salvador, the senior scientist and director of the Food & Environment Program at UCS says although this news seems like great news, there is a huge problem that needs to be addressed first.

“We need to invest in crops that the USDA guidelines tell us we should eat more of — fruits and vegetables,” says Dr. Salvador.

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Currently, he says the USDA and current farm policies offer few incentives to grow fruits and vegetables – discouraging the production of the very foods federal dietary guidelines recommend. Instead, these policies subsidize “commodity crops” such as corn and soybeans, which are used as feed for livestock and for processed food ingredients — some of it referred to as “junk food.”

“We pay once to a program that makes us sick, and then pay again to cure our diseases,” says Dr. Salvador, explaining these policies require taxpayers to pay for subsidizing commodity crops that become ingredients in unhealthy foods and again through tax dollars that fund Medicare and Medicaid to treat these costly diseases.

He says that these subsidies were meant in good will — to guarantee stable market prices for farmers — but since they these policies were put into place in the 1930’s, they need to be updated.

Although the USDA did not respond for a comment, Dr. Salvador says they do have a lot of programs in place we can benefit from, like “Know Your Farmer Know Your Food” and “My Plate,” which encourage Americans to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables.

“We’re just advocating for the USDA to be more consistent with their own recommendations,” says Dr. Salvador, urging the public to write to Congress to let them know taxpayers want greater access to a healthier food supply and to patronize local farmers markets. “An individual can make a difference, but policy will make the greatest impact.”

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RELATED: The use of GMOs in our food supply – a look at the debate

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

The use of GMOs in our food supply – a look at the debate

People hold signs during a demonstration against agribusiness giant Monsanto and genetically modified organisms (GMO) in front of the White House in Washington on May 25, 2013. (Photo/NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

People hold signs during a demonstration against agribusiness giant Monsanto and genetically modified organisms (GMO) in front of the White House in Washington on May 25, 2013. (Photo/NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

In the past two months alone, there have been international marches against Monsanto, which produces genetically modified seeds, in more than 400 cities, and the company has been named in several lawsuitsOccupy Monsanto is also gaining momentum for a large protest on September 17. On the other hand, others defend genetically modified crops as an answer to providing food for the world’s growing population.

NBC Latino decided to talk to scientists on both sides of the debate about biotech agriculture and the controversial genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) it produces.

“There have been lots of protests against Monsanto, because they sell their seed and want to make sure growers don’t use their own seed for a year,” says Dr. Juan Luis Jurat-Fuentes, a researcher at the Institute of Agriculture at the University of Tennessee who has been working on developing new types of transgenic crops since 1995. “Monsanto is just a company that has spent millions of dollars in research — I don’t think it’s wrong.”

After spending years studying how insects respond to insecticides and transgenic crops, he says he hasn’t seen any negative effects.

“The only negative thing I’ve seen is bugs that develop resistance to these transgenic plants,” he says. “The second thing that can happen is eliminating pests from the field opens up other pests to take their place.”

Currently, he says about 70 percent of corn in the U.S. and 80 percent of cotton is made in the transgenic variety.

Dr. Cecilia Chi-Ham is the director of science and technology at PIPRA — an organization started by the Rockefeller Foundation to make sure the latest technologies reach farmers in developing countries. The researcher agrees with Dr. Jurat-Fuentes that there is nothing dangerous about companies like Monsanto.

“I develop genetically modified crops and research the impact of genetically modified seeds on small farmers,” says Dr. Chi-Ham. “One our biggest challenges is that the world population is growing and we need to produce the same amount of food as before…that’s when technology like GM can be so important.”

She says many organizations such as, The Pontifical Academy of Science (the Vatican) and theAmerican Medical Association have also reached the conclusion that there is no harm in biotechnology. Instead, she feels it has only contributed to improving agriculture and health.

“There are many drugs that are made by using GM organisms — medications like for diabetes, for example,” says Dr. Chi-Ham. “Before, insulin was extracted from the pancreas of cows or pigs, which could cause some problems.”

Other researchers don’t agree and feel that GMOs pose health concerns as well as threaten the rights of small farmers.

Dr. Ignacio Chapela, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, has been an outspoken critic of UC Berkeley’s ties to the biotechnology industry for more than a decade. He’s also appeared in the documentaries “The World According to Monsanto” and “The Future of Food.”

Dr. Chapela pointed to studies showing that Bt toxins found in Monsanto crops damage red blood cells in humans, not only insects, and Dr. Chapela has been talking about the dangers of GM corn for years.

“For example, the corn produc[es] a toxin that kills insects [and] has serious consequences because it’s leaking that insecticide into the environment…through the roots,” said Dr. Chapela in a video. “A lot of that Bt toxin goes into the soil.”

Chapela also says GM seeds lead to crops becoming homogeneous, causing the loss of the diversity we need and require for the future survival of the crop.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that it’s really world food sustainability that’s at stake,” said Dr. Chapela.

Dr. Ricardo Salvador, director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, is also concerned about the monocrops being developed by biotech companies such as Monsanto.

“Through genetic modification, human beings have taken out lots of the characteristics of corn, which are not for human consumption,” says Dr. Salvador. “There’s a lot of people that argue that’s why we are developing huge food allergies and dietary diseases like Crohn’s disease.”

He explains that by changing the DNA of organisms, it’s harder to research the results. The assumption now, he says, is that GM seeds are safe unless there is evidence to the contrary.

“There is effectively no formal approval process for transgenic food crops…We need to produce more of the right stuff and less of the wrong stuff,” says Dr. Salvador, explaining we need healthier fruits and vegetables and less meat and grain — what is being produced now. “We need to do more research on that.”

He also says we need to take a closer look at where the GM products are really going.

“They are not going into the food supply or going to the hungry of the world, but to produce biofuel, fatten livestock, and to produce the raw ingredients for junk food,” says Dr. Salvador. “The market that is buying meat and biofuel is the wealthy of the world.”

As the use of GMOs increase, the debate continues between both sides of the issue.

Originally published on NBCLatino.com