Classroom Activism for a Fairer Food System

by Jana Foxe '16
November 6, 2014

Jana Foxe '16 studies International and Comparative Politics at Brown, and is a participant in the TRI-Lab research seminar on Healthy Food Access.

When the Healthy Food Access TRI-Lab first got started back in August, I admit to having been skeptical about the impact we could make. Always the eternal pessimist, I asked many questions of the lab to myself. How can 20 undergraduate students - with very little real-world experience - influence the powers-that-be to demand a fairer food system? Do we even know what reforms we want to ask for? It is certainly a daunting task, navigating political, regulatory and bureaucratic roadblocks to advocate for statewide reforms on behalf of the indigent and the underserved. TRI-Lab participants are lobbyists for the right to food, but who will hear our call?

Lobbying from the classroom is not something I ever expected to do upon my arrival at Brown, but when the ‘policy and data working group’ gathers in the TRI-Lab every Wednesday afternoon, that’s precisely what we get up to. As well as being an unorthodox and exciting experience, it may well provide the answers to some of the questions I consistently pose of TRI-Lab and about the capacity of Brown students to have direct influences on food policy in the Ocean State.

Through an integrated partnership with the Rhode Island Food Policy Council and with the support and resources of the Kendall Foundation and Food Solutions New England, the TRI-Lab policy team has been charged with producing a briefing document for the Governor-elect’s transition team. This document is being painstakingly crafted by a team of about 15 students, under the watchful eye of Professors Allen Hance and Dawn King, who guide us in the direction of our policy research.

Of course, there are politics behind what we do. TRI-Lab, the RIFPC and Food Solutions New England all have progressive visions for a home-grown food system, with hopes of at least 50 percent of all food consumed in New England being locally sourced by the year 2060, and with 0 per cent food insecurity by the same date. Yet given that food produced on RI farms amounts to a meagre 1 per cent of food consumed in the state, and the state’s food insecurity rate is a worrying 15.4 per cent, changing these figures will take real commitment from our public representatives. The good news is that there are many ways to incentivise local and equitable food production. Rhode Island’s Governor-in-waiting, Gina Raimondo, needs to be brought on board to this frame of thought in a way that aligns with her own economic policies and vision for the state. We cannot afford to be an adversary to the Governor-elect, and that is why we pledge to work with Raimondo, not against her, to lobby for this progressive change, because we know that any RI Governor would want to see the Ocean State’s industry thrive, while all of its citizens can access healthy, affordable food.

What the policy and data group has quickly learned is that a strong and just food system will yield not only opportunities for job creation and economic growth, but will also reduce poverty in the state and will act to protect our environment, mitigating against climate change – a win-win situation that we see as too enticing for a new, idealistic governor, such as Raimondo, to reject. This is why this election season, we’ve seen that there’s more at stake than the broken-record rhetoric of ‘jobs and the economy’ would suggest – the future of our food system is up for negotiation, and it’s a fight we cannot afford to lose.