Food Security vs. Food Sovereignty

Maria Polzin
Community Systems Strengthening for Health (CSS)
Cape Town, South Africa

The more I learned about food security this summer, the more I realized that the global prioritization of food security is not the only existing movement that addresses issues of malnutrition and hunger. In fact, there exists a movement that includes many more crucial yet overlooked layers: the demand for food sovereignty. What is the difference between food security and food sovereignty?

According to the United Nations, “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” La Via Campesina, or the International Peasant’s Movement that first brought food sovereignty into public debate, defines food sovereignty as “the peoples,’ Countries,’ or State Unions’ RIGHT to define their agricultural and food policy, without any dumping vis-à-vis third countries.” They define it as a right because they believe that the United Nations should adapt the right to food to include autonomy over one’s methods of producing, obtaining, and distributing food, amongst other processes of agriculture and food markets. They recognize that this would require the entire upheaval of existing systems and policies to make space for new democratic-decision making in governments, as well as new forms of local to international market cooperation that prioritize fair prices for farmers and sustainability of land.

Food sovereignty more fully embodies the right to food because it adds a human dimension to food security, acknowledging that one should have a say in their relationship with food. This renders the movement more inclusive of other rights, too, as they prioritize the right to cultural life, rights of women (who are disproportionately affected by the oppression of farm workers), indigenous practices, and environmental rights. Ultimately, food sovereignty does not diminish food security, but adds it as one factor to achieving a just and sustainable world.

I see dynamics between the food security movement and the food sovereignty movement highlighted in my work. For example, grocery stores are increasingly being built in townships around Cape Town as a means of addressing food security. However, there is no proof that these efforts through existing markets are actually making a difference. In fact, there is more evidence that this method is decreasing hunger but exacerbating obesity and incommunicable diseases. This are for multitudes of reasons for this phenomenon: many of the individuals I spoke with do not buy their fruits and vegetables at the grocery store because they are often too expensive; participants expressed that they are not educated to understand the important connection between diet and health; and even if the fruits and vegetables are made cheaper, they will prioritize other expenses with their grant money like school fees for their children or transportation costs to get work.

For all of these reasons and more, there is a growing movement in Cape Town for the implementation of home and community gardens as a means of obtaining fresh and local produce, and in some cases, selling the extra produce to obtain money for other needs. These efforts play into the food sovereignty movement–even if the connection is not explicitly made–because community members are increasingly saying: governments’ and corporations’ methods are not working to address food security in the ways that we need, so we are taking the food system into our own hands. The documentary I made this summer focuses on the projects community members are undertaking to address their own food insecurity and sovereignty. The introduction can be found here.

Knowledge as a Human Right

Maria Polzin
Community Systems Strengthening for Health (CSS)
Cape Town, South Africa

I went to South Africa with the goal of building an oral history archive, consisting of long-form interviews with community members and community stakeholders that are involved in CSS’s networks for the realization of the right to food. These interviews would be beneficial to CSS for improving their training materials and policy recommendations, to the University of Cape Town (UCT) for their research on food security, and they would, hopefully, act as a tool for empowerment as community members claim autonomy over their narratives through storytelling.

However, when I arrived in Cape Town, there was a new project manager for CSS, Lucille. Lucille has a background in grassroots activism and community organizing, and she was tired of researchers entering communities, asking their own questions, and leaving to write papers that the community members would never see. While the oral history archive was a bit more accessible because the end product would be solely their own spoken languages, we were still stuck on the question: what could these activists do with hours of audio files?

Lucille and I bounced ideas back and forth for about a week until we finally landed on the medium of film. With film, community members could have more control over their representation by choosing what locations they want to feature, such as their homes, churches, and community gardens, and they could potentially use the film to obtain funding for their projects in the future. We were working with community members that had undergone training through CSS on food security, food gardening, and nutrition, so many of them utilized the training to start or strengthen their own child feeding initiatives, nutritional education programs, and home and community gardens. Furthermore, the film could still serve as a tool for CSS and researchers to better understand through first-person narratives how to improve training programs and access to food.

These conversations with Lucille brought to light an important topic that would be a running theme throughout the summer and, I expect, in all of my future work: knowledge is a human right, making knowledge dissemination a human rights issues. How can we as researchers ensure that our work is both beneficial and accessible to the community members involved? How can we as researchers, often holding privilege in spaces like universities or formal sectors, center community members’ expertise in a format that still makes sense to them?

These questions are particularly important when working on food rights because sustainable agriculture best emerges through the co-creation of knowledge: combining indigenous practices with an understanding of the land and the communities’ needs. There are many ways to approach the human right to knowledge, but it always involves listening. In the weeks that followed, I would meet with community members, before beginning any filming, to build relationships and really listen to learn what stories they wanted to tell.

Below are some stills from the documentary. 

woman standing in a grocery store holding a loaf of bread

Zulfa showing me the local grocery store she shops at to feed the children in her neighborhood.

man standing next to chicken coop

Manelisi showing me his chickens from which he collects eggs to sell.

smiling woman in front of bungalow houses

Felicity showing me around her neighborhood and gardens.

The Impacts of Food Gardening

Maria Polzin
Community Systems Strengthening for Health (CSS)
Cape Town, South Africa

When I was told that CSS trains individuals on food and nutrition, I imagined that the majority of the information would focus on aspects such as what a nutritious diet looks like and food’s connection to noncommunicable diseases. While the programs do touch on these important topics, the bulk of the lessons are actually about how to start and maintain a food garden. This is part of increasing efforts by non-profit organizations and government agencies to promote food gardens as a means of addressing food insecurity. Because of this focus on growing one’s own food, my work largely explored individual’s relationships with food in the context of their home and/or community gardens, which has inevitably required me to ask the question: can food gardens sustainably improve food security and better community health?

I’ll start with what I found to be the positives of food gardening:

  • Empowerment:  Almost every participant with whom I spoke said that gardening made them feel good––feel happy. Many individuals stated that working in their garden gives them peace of mind and that they feel satisfaction and joy when they harvest their own food.
  • Cost reduction:  Every participant said that gardening has helped them reduce costs because the money they save from decreased spendings on groceries far outweighs the money they have to spend on seeds and the occasional supplies.
  • Form of income:  For some participants, their gardens have become a means of income because they can sell their excess fruits and vegetables to their community, and in some cases, to formal farmers markets and grocery stores. This is especially true for those that are retired or unemployed and have time to invest in the health and expansion of their gardens.
  • Strengthening community:  Almost every participant expressed that gardening has brought them closer to their communities. When individuals are not selling their excess food, many choose to give it for free to their neighbors, local children, and soup kitchens. 
  • Education:  All of the community members learned more about health and nutrition, and the majority of those interviewed said that having their own garden and understanding where their food comes from has actually changed their diets for the better. Many have or intend to spread this education to the youth in their community. 
  • Health:  Education has led to an improvement of diets, and it is safe to assume this has led to an increase in health, as all of the participants are also trained on food’s connection to noncommunicable diseases. Furthermore, most participants expressed excitement about their food being organic and believe that eating organically will have a direct positive impact on their health.

Food gardening does, however, have its limitations:

  • Sustainability:  Cape Town recently experienced a severe drought, and all of the CSS participants were negatively impacted, with many having to shut down their gardens all together. Without funding to access boreholes and other technology that help farmers/gardeners withstand natural disasters, food gardens are not a sustainable solution to food security, especially for poor people. This factor does not necessarily outweigh all of the benefits food gardening presents, but it points to a need for better funding of these individuals’ initiatives.
  • Not a panacea:  It would be dangerous to consider food gardening the sole solution to hunger, obesity, and malnutrition. These issues are too rampant to be solved through small gardens, so there simultaneously needs to be more efforts to strengthen smallholder farmers, increase household incomes, and educate people on nutrition and health.
  • Not only for poor people:  Food gardens should not be understood as an activity for poor people. When something is stigmatized as such, it de-incentivizes people to get involved because they do not want to be seen as poor, due to social and cultural norms. Rather, food gardening should be seen as an exciting opportunity for everyone from all classes to form a better relationship with their food and create a more healthy and sustainable community at large.

Based on these observations, I conclude that food gardening is a viable option to better realize the right to food, and by allowing individuals more autonomy over their food and food systems, gardening strengthens minds and communities in ways that cannot be numericized. However, food gardening should not be seen as a panacea to food insecurity, and in order for gardens to be sustainable, they need to receive more support from non-profit organizations and government agencies.

Below are screenshots from my documentary featuring the garden of an individual who has received extensive assistance from Cape Town’s Department of Agriculture, as well as a group of community members that just started their own garden with a little bit of assistance from a non-profit organization.

rows of small green plants on a farm

This is Manelisi’s garden. He has received extensive support from non-profit organizations and the Department of Agriculture over the years.

various plant in a garden

This is Manelisi’s garden. He has received extensive support from non-profit organizations and the Department of Agriculture over the years.

person standing next to row of bricks in dirt walkway

This is the Klapmuts community garden. They just started it a few months ago, and were not yet able to harvest because of the drought.

bricks marking a small grassy plot

This is the Klapmuts community garden. They just started it a few months ago, and were not yet able to harvest because of the drought.

Women in Theatre

Rashi Mishra
The FreedomTheatre
Jenin Refugee Camp, Palestine

As a theater practitioner, I have often come across prejudices associated with the profession, especially being a woman. In most of our patriarchal societies, women who work in theater are considered immoral and indecent, so it did not come as a surprise to me when I saw that women’s participation in TFT theater programs was noticeably less than men’s. There were young girls in photography, film, creative writing, and other workshops conducted by TFT, but theater remains largely a taboo for women in the society.

TFT has been constantly working against this notion and has been trying to encourage more participation from women. “Jinan,” one of the plays produced by TFT, is a beautiful piece of work that breaks many boundaries of fixed gender norms. I got the opportunity to see it when TFT toured with it in West Bank and gave seven performances in Jenin, Ramallah, and Jericho.

The story is an adaptation of the famous Swedish children’s book, Pippi Longstocking, placed in a Palestinian context. The central character, Jinan, is a fun, free-spirited girl. She is witty, brave, and friendly, and is loved by the children in the audience.

The play, I feel, is a brave attempt by TFT–especially when performed in a conservative society like Jenin–to challenge strongly held biases against women in a subtle yet effective manner. Without essentializing gender, the character Jinan connects with the audiences in a way that they laugh with her and root for her, even as she breaks from conventions.

men and women performing onstage

A scene from “Jinan.” Photo credit: Mohammed Mouwia

Another project that TFT has started working on in collaboration with another organization, Inter Peace, focuses on increasing young women’s participation in community security and development and the implementation of UNSCR 1325 in the West Bank.1 As part of this project, TFT conducts theater workshops with young women from six different areas of the West Bank, namely Jenin, Tulkaram, Nablus, Tubas, Hebron, and Ya’bad. These areas are critically affected by the occupation, and the women there thus face subjugation from the multiple overlapping dictates of occupation and patriarchy.

Working with young women through interactive theater in these areas, TFT not only engages in capacity-building for them to become active agents of sociopolitical change, but also creates spaces where women can think and express themselves freely and creatively.

The language of “empowerment” is used in the project reports and other documents. Even as I remain skeptical of this word due to its patronizing tone, it is important to note that since these workshops are facilitated by women who TFT trained as actors, the project also benefits these women, because they enter leadership roles. This involvement of local women as leaders dismantles some of the deep-seated biases that most “empowerment” projects remain blinded to.

[1] Resolution 1325 adopted the United Nations Security Council’s emphasis on equal participation of local women in conflict areas in an effort to attain peace and security.

Children at The Freedom Theatre

Rashi Mishra
The FreedomTheatre
Jenin Refugee Camp, Palestine

Omar, a young boy from the camp, said, “I like to perform on the stage because I like it when the audience claps for me. It makes me feel important. I feel that people care for me.”

A day before the culmination ceremony of TFT’s summer camp, I was talking to the children and workshop trainers at the camp to understand the importance that learning arts and performing on stage holds for them. Excited to go onstage the next day, most of them articulated in different ways how much they enjoyed attending the summer camp and learning new things.

large group of children and man with guitar posing onstage giving peace sign

Music workshop at the summer camp. Photo credit: Mohammed Mouwia

TFT has been organizing summer camps for children from the Jenin refugee camp and surrounding areas for the past four years. Each year, the children attend one month of workshops on singing, dance, drama, painting, and photography, and then present a culminating performance.

I spoke to Nabil Al Raee, the artistic director of TFT, about the idea behind these camps, and he explained that they are organized mainly to introduce the children to various forms of art through play: “Playing can bring a lot of challenge and curiosity for the kids, and for them to learn through playing will bring out their creativity. They will themselves think about the inputs [for creating a performance piece, and] what they want to share.”

One of TFT’s main goals is cultural resistance, which they pursue by working with the youth to foster their ability to think critically and independently and be creative, thus freeing them from the psychological effects of the occupation. The apartheid situation that is enforced by Zionist movement targets not only the economic and social well-being of the Palestinian society but also attacks their cultural identity and sense of self worth, so as to kill them from within. Children and youth are most vulnerable to such tactics of occupation. Countering this intimidating force necessitates rebuilding the Palestinian identity and creating a space for nurturing holistic growth of these young minds.

Acts of Remembering

Rashi Mishra
The FreedomTheatre
Jenin Refugee Camp, Palestine

Walking through the narrow lanes of Jenin refugee camp, one feels the history of the area mark its presence at every corner and every turn of the way.  The walls are full of graffiti of keys (symbol of right of return for Palestinian refugees) and Handalas (iconic cartoon of a Palestinian refugee child). There are posters of young martyrs holding guns and smiling through the frames. One of the roundabouts inside the camp has a big statue of a pre-1948 Palestinian map engraved with names of all the Palestinian villages that were homes to the refugees living in this camp.

diptych showing street at night and key sculpture above archway

On the streets of the camp

Jenin Refugee camp, established in 1953 by the UNRWA  (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East), is one of the 19 camps that were built for Palestinian refugees after the 1948 Nakba (ethnic cleansing of Palestinians under Zionist leadership and foundation of Israel as a nation-state) that forced two-thirds of Palestinians out of their homes. 70 years later, the refugees still await their return to their homes. Their struggle for freedom from the occupation both involves and is kept alive by these remnants of the past, by this insistence on remembering and fighting against the obliteration of memory.

Located in the middle of this refugee camp is The Freedom Theatre (TFT), whose history is as deeply entwined as that of the camp. Adnan, one of the local managers of TFT, narrates TFT’s history with much detail while giving visitors tours of the theater. “It is like taking off dust from the slate,” he casually said during one of the tours. The story starts with the legacy of Arna, an Israeli woman who came to the camp in 1987 during the first intifada and started the Learning and Freedom project for the children of the camp. Afterwards, she opened a theater nearby called Stone Theatre with the help of her son, Juliano Mer Khamis.

The narration then reveals the death of Arna in 1995 due to cancer, Juliano’s departure from the camp, the political circumstances that led to the second intifada in 2000, the Israeli attack on the camp during that time, the massive destruction of homes and of Stone Theater, and the death of most of the children of Stone Theatre–martyrs in this intifada. A few years after this attack on the camp, Juliano, shocked by these turn of events, returned to Jenin in 2006 and started TFT, building it upon the memories of this past and using vigor to continue Arna’s legacy.

mural showing people playing music around a tree

Graffiti outside The Freedom Theatre

As the work of TFT proceeded and focused on ideas of cultural resistance and freedom–or what Juliano called “a movement towards cultural intifada”–it often came under attack from both the Israeli forces as well as conservative elements within the Palestinian society. One of these attacks marked another turning point in TFT’s history: Juliano was murdered by an unknown masked gunman in 2011 on the streets of the camp.

Arna and Juliano’s legacy continues with TFT’s work. Their plays such as “The Siege,” “Return to Palestine,” “Untitled. 70th Nakba?!,” etc., not only showcase cultural resistance through the performance of narratives that are contrary to Israeli propaganda, but they also show ways in which the stories of Palestinian lives and realities are re-told, performed, and kept alive to give hope and fuel for their struggle for rights.

Art for Resistance

Rashi Mirsha
The FreedomTheatre
Palestinian Territory

Written in May 2018

I am a graduate student pursuing masters in performance studies from the Tisch School of Arts. As a theater practitioner and scholar, I’ve always been interested in exploring the potentiality of theater as a form of resistance against social and political oppression.

The first time I heard about The Freedom Theatre (TFT) was at a theater festival in India, where one of the speakers was discussing TFT’s work and their plays, and how TFT is building a cultural framework for the Palestinian liberation struggle. I remember being so impressed by this idea of cultural resistance through theater that I came back home and started looking for more information about the theater group on the internet. I learned how TFT was started in 2006 by  Juliano Mer Khamis and how he envisioned TFT as a space where the youth of Jenin Refugee Camp could imagine and hope to live in a free Palestine one day. With this aim, TFT uses poetry, theater, film, and other arts media as tools for the youth to fight for their rights and seek justice.

I was more than excited when I got accepted for the Gallatin Global Fellowship in Human Rights in the winter of 2017 and when TFT accepted my request to be the host organization for this fellowship. As part of the summer project for the fellowship, I will be interning with the group in Jenin Refugee Camp, where TFT is based.

The internship will give me the opportunity to work with TFT and learn how they approach theater as a form of intervention in a place with perpetual violence and oppression. What is the process of making a play in such a context? How do these performances stand against the massive infrastructure of occupation that violates the social, economic, political, and cultural rights of the Palestinian population and impacts their psychological and physical well-being?

Being an outsider unfamiliar with Palestinians’ native language or their culture, struggles, or the extreme trauma they have faced and continue to face on a regular basis, my only intention is to go there and listen to what they have to say. I hope to listen with intent, in detail, to their stories and their narratives, and to use my own work (my writing and theater) to take their voices forward.

Where I Am Now

Jensine Raihan
Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity (PBKMS)
West Bengal, India

I was inspired to work with Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity (PBKMS), because I had just come back from Latin America, and there I had the privilege of getting acquainted with social movements, labor organizations, parties, and other people’s organizations all around the Global South. I was struck by how many organizations are made up of hundreds of thousands of members, with few or no paid staff members. Further, most of these staff members hold other jobs.

How can these organizations retain so many members with so little staff? It demonstrates their ability to create and retain truly compelling and democratic mass organizations. Additionally, most militants of the organizations have a very sharp class consciousness, something I don’t see quite as often in the States, where most people are accustomed to “privilege” talk based on identity as opposed to understanding our world as a manufactured class-based society. By the end of the summer, I had a better sense of the extent to which developing a class consciousness among people is crucial in our movement.

Since that exposure, I have been interested in learning about how Global Southern mass-based organizations organize, build up their organizations, participate in movements, and develop class consciousness among their base.

When I came back to New York, I had many questions, one being the possibility of building a united, coordinated working-class movement internationally, given the globalized nature of capitalism and the global system that provides tremendous wealth for the few as a result of the horrendous poverty that many live in. I wanted to begin answering that question by learning about the organizations and organizing methods of people’s movements in India.

I learned a lot working with PBKMS, including the critical need of people’s organizations to work hyperlocally. It is important to work locally even if the organization grows geographically because organizations need to deal with the immediate concerns of its members while engaging them in larger struggles.

One of the founding members did mention, however, that PBKMS worked with South Asian migrant workers who were being super-exploited in Southeast Asia. Organizations would contact PBKMS and then help reunite workers with their families and do solidarity actions. However, the organization is not engaged in that work currently.

I am still left with the question I came in with, but I think getting familiar with how PBKMS and its sister organization, Shramajivee Mahila Samity (Working Women’s Union), do their work has helped develop and understand my question better.

Additionally, I wrote in detail about the organization’s functions and what I have learned on my personal blog, and I encourage people to check it out if they are interested.

Transcending Labor Union Methods

Jensine Raihan
Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity (PBKMS)
West Bengal, India

I think what was particularly interesting to me was how Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity (PBKMS) has attempted to not only deal with the immediate economic conditions of its members, like working to end starvation and unemployment in the state, but also deal with gender-based violence, religious communal divides, anti-democratic systems, and individualism.

West Bengal is dominated by highly antagonistic party politics, religious-based communal violence, and gender-based oppression. There is regular violence between Muslim and Hindu communities, between party lines, and against women. However, the organization has been able to successfully have members who are aligned to a diversity of parties and religious affiliations. In fact, Muslims and Hindus together, across party lines, often need to challenge the party in power. For example, most members of PBKMS are part of the Trinamool Congress Party, the current ruling party in West Bengal, but the organization has been able to move its membership to challenge the ruling party to demand that concessions be made to rural poor communities. This is notable given that party affiliates rarely work with other party non-affiliates to challenge a party they have pledged allegiance to. Moreover, in a country that’s labor organizations are mostly directed by the party it is affiliated to, the creation and function of an organization like PBKMS promotes profound democratic processes and involvement of regular people in changing their own lives as opposed to engaging in a revolving door of changing party rule.

The organization has not only broken through the division among party members, but also seeks to organize in a way that transforms society. The organizers, from my conversations with them, have a profound understanding that merely changing certain economic policies will not change the oppressive, anti-democratic, and individualistic society we live in. Instead, the organization needs to be engaging members in conversations around the trade-off that exists when an organization is merely involved in immediate economic fights.

group of men and women sitting on the floor

PBKMS meeting

I got to sit in on such a committee meeting, where one of the founding members of the organization spoke to members regarding exactly that. He went through the various oppressive characteristics that define our society and fell outside of immediate economic needs. The conversation hinted at the start of developing the foundation of creating with members a political vision of the kind of society the organization wants to build because of its attempt to try to transcend merely addressing  immediate economic issues. For me, it is exciting to see this, because I find that organizations can be caught up in their focus on systems that have been created and have a culture of discouraging experiments, which often results in organizations failing the task of fundamentally changing society.

Figuring Out Structures for the Task of Fundamentally Changing Society

Jensine Raihan
Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity (PBKMS)
West Bengal, India

With more than five years of involvement in social movements and other organizations seeking to change our society, there are certain organizations I am most attracted to.  There perhaps is a general acknowledgement of some of the evils that exists in society, but some approach it believing that those evils are a mistake or a failure of our society, while others believe those evils are a characteristic of the kind of society we live in. I fall into the latter and for those of us who do, our task is to completely transform society so it is fundamentally different from the kind of world we live in.

However, if we are really invested in fundamentally transforming society we need to define new organizations that attempt to overcome the oppressive ways in which institutions in our society functions. When we are trying to transform society, we cannot replicate the same undemocratic, individualistic functionalities that define most of the institutions in our world. Instead, we need to seek to build deeply democratic organizations that seeks to build the protagonism–that is, deep involvement in the participation of shaping society, of everyday people. Very few organizations are able to successfully build this kind of process.

I was impressed by how the founding members of Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity (PBKMS), Anuradha Talwar and Swapan Ganguly, have attempted to build such an organization. The organization boasts 100,000 members of agricultural workers all over West Bengal and has been working in the state for three decades. The two were moved to build such an organization because none of their social change-driven academic, party, and NGO work were making substantial changes to the conditions of the people. Even though the two had successes in organizational campaigns, they found that the type of the institutions they were working in were inept in actually changing the material conditions of poor people. So, they decided they needed to get involved in a mass organization organizing the most oppressed people in India—rural agricultural workers.

They were able to identify that in order to change the material conditions of regular people, they need to engage masses of people and build a democratic organization politicizing members and making them the center of social transformation. Currently, PBKMS has an elaborate system of membership engagement whose nucleus comes from a local neighborhood and runs committees up to the state level. It is in these committees of members that organizational decision are made.

diagram of concentric circles with stick figures showing organization levels

organizational structure (image made by me for the organization’s website)

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