Interview with Beatriz Beckford, WhyHunger
Beatriz Beckford is the Grassroots Action Network Manager for WhyHunger, a leader in building the movement to end hunger and poverty by connecting people to nutritious, affordable food and by supporting grassroots solutions that inspire self-reliance and community empowerment.
What motivated you to get involved with food policy and to become a food policy advocate? Was there a specific trigger or inciting incident?
I should start by clarifying that I see myself as a community organizer and as an organizer have advocated for and against different policies. An inciting incident that pushed me to develop an understanding and critical analysis around policy overall came years ago when I was working in Connecticut on the age of juvenile jurisdiction. Seeing young people sentenced to prison with adult offenders, being denied judicial process, and that directly related to failed policies of the education and criminal justice system. The youth organizing work I did back then centered a lot on policy advocacy, adult ally work and developing youth leadership around those issues. So, all that to say that as an organizer deeply committed to justice sometimes the path to justice is in shifting systems through policy. So yes I guess I am a policy advocate too. My shift to organizing and advocating around food policy came following the birth of my son. I was working on issues around youth police dynamics at the peak of the financial crisis and as the crisis worsened I too was laid off from my position. I had a new baby and because of the financial hardship caused by the layoff and dwindling job market I had to apply for public assistance and specifically food stamps. I remember waiting in the food stamp office feeling defeated and having moments where I remembered the same feeling as a child and youth when I sat in those spaces with my mother, and there I was with my own son.
I also remember trying to provide nutritious meals while also trying to make the food stamps last the whole month often times to the detriment to my own health. I was angry, I mean really angry, that I had to spend money to go so far outside of my neighborhood to get good quality affordable food. I got together with other friends in the neighborhood and started attending neighborhood meetings of the Bed Stuy Food Council and the rest was history. The people I met there taught me so much and fueled the fire that made me realize that the organizing I was doing in other spaces needed to happen in my own community as well, and that there was a rich history and community in Bed Stuy that I could learn from and organize with.
The food policy world back then looked very different than it does now.Now the possibilities are endless. What I identified back then as “policy people” has also changed. I don’t LOVE policy work in the way others do, and I often engage in it out of necessity. I will add that I believe in the power of people. “People’s Policy”, is grounded in the belief that community members most impacted by social injustice and ineffective policies are the most knowledgeable about the issues. When they are give the resources and space to share their wisdom, they often become the most effective solution makers and change agents. Policy that does not include the voices of the marginalized continues to perpetuate a system that does not serve the very people [ policy makers] claim to serve.
The work I have participated in with BUGs, MXGM, BFC, WhyHunger, and several other NYC based groups has supported my growth as an organizer and policy advocate and in many ways has allowed me to participate in spaces that historically excluded people of color, low income communities, the working poor and countless others that are not included in policy conversations. As a result, key issues (are) devoid of a critical analysis grounded in the lived experiences of community members whose narratives are just as important and whose stories represent policy in practice, both good, bad and everything in between.
Can you describe WhyHunger? What distinguishes WhyHunger’s work in the community?
WhyHunger is an organization in transition. The organization was started 40 years ago with the goal of ending hunger and poverty during a time when hunger as a symptom of poverty was becoming increasingly visible in the US and abroad. Like many other organizations, WhyHunger supported emergency feeding programs and engaged in policy advocacy for federal programs including summer meals, and SNAP. Forty years later, the organization has learned a tremendous amount about the ecology of hunger and poverty from grassroots groups across the country. WhyHunger has transitioned to a grassroots support approach that elevates the work, and voices of historically marginalized communities and leverages its relationships and resources to support the work in those communities. WhyHunger still has a lot to learn and many more organizational pivots to make in that journey., What makes WhyHunger different from other anti hunger organizations is the understanding that change happens at multiple levels- the personal, the organizational and the systemic. Grounding our work in a relationship-based approach connects us to the personal leverage points . Partnering with community-based organizations to reinforce and enhance their capacity to create the change they want in their own communities is how we push on the organizational levers of change. And developing a mutual analysis of the historic, current and potential for collaborative power-building within the US-based food justice movement is a major strategy for contributing to sustainable systemic change , also known as movement building.
Can you describe the role you play as a Grassroots Action Manager?
As Manager of the Grassroots Action Network I work with grassroots groups and U.S based partners and allies engaged in various organizing efforts for food justice. I provide capacity building support to our grassroots partners and help to develop strategic partnerships through the Building Food Justice Initiative, a national peer-to-peer learning program.
What do you believe to be the greatest food policy challenges for New York City? And the greatest opportunities?
One of the biggest food policy challenges in NYC in my personal opinion is the lack of communication around food purchasing within city agencies. NYC is one of the biggest cities on the planet that purchases a whole lot of food in a number of its agencies. Each one operates almost entirely in isolation and rarely communicates. There is no mechanism for communication across city agencies around food purchasing. I understand why that happens in certain situations like school food given where the funding largely comes from, but imagine the industry shift that could happen if the city looked more closely at its food contracts and procurement policies, and set a higher standard for bids connected to those contracts. That to me sounds like a major challenge turned opportunity.
What is the one food policy change at the local (or state or federal) level that would have the greatest impact on health?
I don’t think there is one magic policy that would have the greatest impact. I also think that tends to be a shortfall for traditional policy making. Given the energy in the city around food we have a tremendous opportunity to create comprehensive food policy platforms that address a whole host of issues. Policy that addresses access but does not support workers is not good food policy. Policy that improves working conditions for food workers but does not address access to food in schools is not good food policy. You see where I am going here? We need better policies that intersect a range of issues. Those are the ones that will have the greatest impact on our city and the quality of life of the millions of people who call NYC home.
What do you think are the opportunities for food advocacy in the deBlasio Administration?
There is so much energy in the city around food right now. Communities in all parts of the city are engaged in innovative grassroots projects that seek to create equity in our citiy’s food infrastructure. This energy creates a tremendous opportunity for the Mayor. What has been historically lacking are pathways for civic participation with respect to improving the cities policies around food, land, public health and environmental issues. Lots of groups in the city have pushed for local food hubs to address access issues; green space for community gardens and urban farming operations; improvements to the school food program through universal school meals and improved menu creation; support for nutrition education in schools; building out distribution centers in the city that would create jobs, and build a local food economy; better working conditions for the millions of food sector employees; and that is only the beginning! It a lot of ways the mayor has a city of experts at his administration’s fingertips so the biggest opportunity is to create mechanisms for those voices to be heard.
How does your organization think about the connections between hunger, food insecurity and obesity? What strategies do you suggest for better integrating the efforts to reduce these two food-related problems?
Hunger , food insecurity, obesity, and a whole host of other related issues are largely symptomatic of poverty and other social inequities, and so the approach to addressing those and other issues needs to be layered. We try to represent that connection through our programmatic work. National Hunger Clearinghouse supports the work of emergency food providers across the country. Our Global Movement program works in solidarity with social movements working on similar issues in the global south.In the Grassroots Action Network we work in partnership with community-based leaders, organizations and networks to build and enhance capacity, support and develop leadership, and deepen collective impact for food justice in the US. Understanding food justice as the demand for dignity, respect, rights and equity at all points of the food system, GAN works at the intersection of local, regional and national organizing to prioritize and resource community-based priorities and strategies for the food justice movement. This work is deeply rooted in authentic long-term relationships and takes the form of peer mentoring, training and technical support, storytelling and collaborative project development. This is the strategy we use for integrating efforts on issues and it naturally comes from the amazing work of the grassroots partners we work with every day. They are the innovators, organizers and solution makers in their communities and it is our honor and privilege to support them as allies in this work.
Current Location: Brooklyn, NY specifically Bed Stuy
Last Food Policy book or website you read/visited: Just finished reading Policy Links report Why Race and Place Matter. Highly recommend, here is a link to it. And while not a policy book I recommend Bryant Terry’s Vegan Soul Kitchen, it is such a breath of fresh air and to me represents what it is we all love so much about food and all the feeling it evokes for us all across cultures.
Favorite food: Pomegranates, mainly because it takes so long to de-seed and eat them, I like that the process makes me slow down
Favorite dish to prepare: Ackee and salt fish with tostones on the side
Website: http://about.me/beatrizbeckford & www.whyhunger.org
Interview with Beatriz Beckford, WhyHunger – New York City Food Policy Center