Ten years of Food Justice Month at Occidental

Many students received succulent plants for their dorm rooms at the Harvest Festival at Occidental College, Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. Nancy Zhou/The Occidental

The quad buzzed with students collecting free succulents, snacking on honey sticks, grabbing fresh produce and petting farm animals as part of the Food Justice Fair Oct. 24. The fair, hosted by Campus Dining, Programming Board and Renewable Energy and Sustainability Fund (RESF), was the result of a collaboration between a variety of food and environment-focused on-campus organizations for Occidental’s 10th annual Food Justice Month. Throughout the month of October, Campus Dining, Food Energy and Sustainability Team (FEAST), RESF, Urban and Environmental Policy Institute (UEPI), Food Justice House and the Office of Religious of Spiritual Life (ORSL) hosted speaker events, farmers market trips, workshops and the quad fair.

Ten years ago, ORSL joined forces with UEPI and FEAST to bring the first Food Justice Month to Occidental, according to Rev. Dr. Susan Young. A trip to post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, where students and staff learned about grassroots efforts to provide healthy, affordable food to people living in food deserts, sparked ORSL’s desire to raise awareness around issues of food justice, according to Young.

“Many of the programs that we do have a social justice access point,” said Young. “And that’s how Food Justice Month got started: trying to create alternative spaces for conversation where students could talk about their core beliefs and social justice issues, and yet put that into action through volunteer opportunities.”

As part of this Food Justice Month, UEPI invited students to volunteer at the Lorreto Elementary School garden and visit the South Central Farm Oct. 24. The UEP course “Food and the Environment” hosted Joann Lo, the co-director of Food Chain Alliance, a binational coalition of worker-based organizations Oct. 8. With 21.5 million workers, the food service industry is the largest employer yet the lowest paying industry in the U.S. Significant change is vital to achieving fair wages and working conditions, according to Lo. Of the dozen students in the class, most of them had participated in the food service industry serving, preparing or producing.

Student groups that have traditionally participated in Food Justice Month include FEAST, the Food Justice House, Challah for Hunger, Programming Board and the Green Bean, according to Young. Linking the many food justice-related organizations on campus is one of the foundational goals of the month, said Kaye Jenkins (junior), the lead intern for sustainability research and implementation and main organizer of Food Justice Month.

“Essentially, the goal is to unite these food justice-oriented efforts on campus to show our students what they can get involved in and to connect them with food justice efforts that are going on in our greater community,” Jenkins said.

RESF provided funding for many of the events, including the Food Justice Fair, according to its president Naomi Field (senior). In addition to financial support, RESF hosted various workshops and speaker events, including a Foraging Workshop where students learned to scavenge for edible acorns and plants, Field said. FEAST hosted a Tea Workshop Oct. 3 in which participants learned about the history and mental benefits of tea leaves and herbs, according to Lee. Food Justice Month concluded with a harvest-themed meal hosted by FEAST Oct. 27 in which students enjoyed autumnal dishes, mosaic pot decorating and musical performances.

Students took over the planning and execution of Food Justice Month in 2014, but ORSL provided background support by assisting in planning and funding vans for the farmers market trips, according to Young. At the Highland Park Farmer’s Market Trip Oct. 8, vendors sold handpicked fruits, fresh-baked bread, and home-brewed kombucha. This trip, as well as the three other farmers market trips, allowed students to experience sustainability firsthand in their neighborhood, according to FEAST Public Relations Officer Angelina Lee (sophomore).

The Occidental Programming Board brought the petting zoo to campus in celebration of Food Justice Month at the Harvest Festival, Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. Nancy Zhou/The Occidental

“California is referred to as the breadbasket of the US, as a center of food production in many ways, and it’s cool to embrace that,” said Lee. “I think it’s important to raise student awareness of farmers markets that are close by, because not only is it cool to know that that’s happening so close, but also to know what they do, and the foods they have and it’s awesome that it comes from free trips.”

Even though Food Justice Month has come to an end, the dialogue around food justice on Occidental’s campus and the greater LA area is crucial for students to have, said Lee.

“The topic is so important because when we talk about food, we often focus on the health aspects. This is very important by all means, but important issues concerning people who are involved with food, food sourcing, especially local small business, fair trade things are also really important,” Lee said.

From farmers’ markets to foraging workshops to FEAST-hosted feasts, many corners of Occidental came together to make the 10th Food Justice Month a community affair.