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Food for Thought: February 2024

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Alison Cohen and the National Right to Food   |  Hunger Action Day 2024  |  Volunteer with Northwest Harvest

“We Can Find the Source of this River; We Don’t Have to Stay Downstream”: Alison Cohen and the National Right to Food

headshot of Alison Cohen“We depend on food to lead the best lives that we can, as individuals, communities, families. What we eat and how we nourish our bodies and minds is the pillar of basic wellbeing,” says Alison Cohen, Director of the National Right to Food Community of Practice.

What is the right to food? The United Nations defines the right to food as “when [all people], alone or in community with others, have physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement” (International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, 1966). A right to food directs the government to respect, protect, and fulfill people’s human right to feed themselves with dignity.

Food, beyond providing calories and basic nutrition, plays an important role in our personal, collective, and global daily lives. But a right to food is not a realized and protected right in most of the United States. Alison Cohen, a longtime food justice advocate, wants to see this changed.

Her entire career has been focused on food and farming issues around the world, including working in the agricultural sector in West Africa and Haiti. Cohen spent 15 years working for Heifer International and more recently worked for WhyHunger to address food insecurity in the U.S. Her years of dedicated service around the world have informed her vision of what a food system that is rooted in justice looks like. “Social movements in the global south were leaning into economic, social, and cultural rights and covenants to hold their governments accountable to the human right to food,” recalls Cohen.

group of people at National Right to Food Community of Practice event

Witnessing different organizing and narrative strategies to achieve a right to food inspired Cohen to think about what tactics would be effective in the context of the United States. Ultimately, Cohen convened a national community of practice (a community of practice is a group of people who share a common concern, a set of problems, or an interest in a topic and who come together to fulfill both individual and group goals) around achieving a right to food in the U.S.

Right to Food National Right to Food Community of Practice logoThe National Right to Food Community of Practice was formed in early 2021 to weave together the various streams of right to food work across the U.S., providing dedicated technical support and capacity building for the development of informed food policy. Rooted in shared learning, their growing community includes advocates, legal experts, community organizers, food and farm organizations, small scale food producers, and those with lived experience of hunger.

A main effort of this community of practice is to transform the emergency food system in the U.S. from a charity model to one that is rooted in solidarity and justice. The right to food framework demands that food is adequate, available, accessible, produced sustainably, and is rooted in the self-determination and agency of communities. With food insecurity rates skyrocketing, and the glaring disparities in our society exposed and highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic, hunger is very visible right now. The onset of the pandemic made the existing problems in our food systems readily apparent: there were long lines outside of food banks, essential workers were working without sick leave, there was widespread unemployment, food waste became obvious, and there were massive supply chain disruptions. To solve for these problems, Congress passed a number of emergency social benefits that made a clear positive difference: temporary increases in SNAP benefits, universal school meals, and additional flexible cash supports to low-income families helped keep thousands of people from falling into chronic poverty.

So if we know what works, why does hunger persist? There are strong cultural, political, economic, and social beliefs, practices, and institutions that continue to perpetuate the myth that hunger is unavoidable and a condition we must accept. There is a pervasive distrust, disillusionment, and apathy around political engagement. There has been a notable decrease in civic engagement. The myth of American individualism and exceptionalism, fueled by race-based capitalism and colonialism, is starting to erode. There is growing evidence that food insecurity is a problem of distribution, not of supply: we already produce enough food to feed one and a half times the expected population size of 2050 right now. It is merely an issue of who is able to access food, not that there is not enough to go around.

A human right to food would address food insecurity in our most vulnerable communities, while improving food systems for us all. Pursuing a right to food may involve re-building local and regional farming economies, providing small and mid-sized farmers with greater shares of resources, regulating chemicals used by agricultural producers, mandating a thriving federal minimum wage, worker protections, and other more broadly anti-poverty policies.

Food is not a commodity; it is a necessity. It is also a way of honoring and preserving culture, celebrating important social events, an element of many spiritual rituals, and a method of building community. Food is important for us all, for many reasons.

“A right to food means that you have a government who agrees to protect, respect, and fulfill a right to food, and a society that is able to hold them accountable. It means there is a strong sense of civic duty and a government who feels responsible to its citizens,” says Cohen. “Achieving a right to food bolsters other movements working towards a right to water, a right to land, a right to housing, a right to healthcare. All of these movements are related and all of them are important. When we work to grow power together, we become more powerful.”

Thank you for all you do to grow food justice in your communities. If you are moved to support the work of the National Right to Food Community of Practice, please visit their donation page.

Hunger Action Day 2024

speaker faces crowd at Hunger Action Day 2024

We are happy to report that Hunger Action Day (HAD) was a big success! Thank you to everyone who made it to Olympia to support Northwest Harvest and our food justice partners. It was really impactful to have over 160 attendees participate in conversation with their representatives about anti-hunger and anti-poverty measures.

group poses inside capitol building during Hunger Action Day 2024We advocated for our Legislative Priorities, including fully funding senior meal programs and campus resource navigators, investing in public benefits fixes, housing security, and more. We also advocated for EFAP funding for food pantries, and for Summer EBT so students continue to get access to nutritious meals during the summer months while school isn’t in session.

This year, for the first time ever, Hunger Action Day was a multilingual event! We had live Spanish and Khmer language interpretation, which allowed a huge number of constituents an opportunity to speak directly to their lawmakers in their native language.

Thank you to all our fellow coalition members who helped coordinate Hunger Action Day, and for all the community members who shared their presence, lived experience, and expertise with us and their representatives! Your advocacy is invaluable!

Want to Support the Movement for Food Justice? Volunteer with Northwest Harvest!

Volunteers repack produce at Northwest Harvest's Yakima Distribution CenterVolunteers are the engine of our organization. Our volunteers donate approximately 150,000 hours per year—the rough equivalent of 50 full-time staff—and have a huge impact on all facets of our operations. Whether it’s repacking product at one of our regional distribution centers, distributing food at our SODO Community Market in Seattle, helping out a special events, or hosting food drives, our volunteers are vital to our work to grow food justice.

Volunteer stocks cold case at Northwest Harvest's SODO Community MarketThere are volunteer opportunities available across our three distribution centers, our free community markets, and plenty of options to support our advocacy efforts with your time! If you are interested in learning more about our volunteer programs, visit our website or fill out a volunteer application! We can’t wait to see you!