A Binational Learning Community on Food, Culture and Social Justice

eduador field image

Photo courtesy of the Food in Culture and Social Justice blog, osufcsj.wordpress.com.

Joan Gross
Oregon State University

I recently completed a pilot run of a binational learning community focused on food, culture and social justice in Ecuador and Oregon. I live in Oregon and have been working with food activists there. I took a sabbatical in Ecuador in 2006 and later watched the development and aftermath of the inclusion of “food sovereignty” in their 2008 constitution. I returned on a Fulbright in 2012 and interviewed food activists, along with beginning the work on this exchange program. In September 2013, we received the Ecuador group in Oregon and spent two weeks touring alternative food sites. This was followed by 10 weeks of linked classes and then a two week food system tour of Ecuador in December. I’ve been in Ecuador since the program ended. Last night I attended a talk by Vandana Shiva at the Central University in Quito and in the question period afterwards (which was more like a mini lecture series) one young man asked her how she has used her education. Without missing a beat Dr. Shiva said that her dissertation was on quantum physics and there were two things that underlay both her work in physics and her work in food systems. The first is that everything is connected and the second is that everything is in flux.  I thought that this might be a good way to think about this program on food, culture and social justice.

Because everything is connected, I formed a learning community of people with a variety of interests: nutrition, farming, public policy, gastronomy and, of course, anthropology. Our site visits ranged from farm to table with presenters constantly emphasizing connections between soil health, plant health and human health. The economic aspects were ever present as we discussed the thorny problem of how to get healthy, fresh food to people without much income when they can more easily fill their stomachs with cheaper, less nutritious food. As much as possible, we tried to pair sites in both countries. We visited urban agriculture projects in Portland and Quito; agroecological farms with culturally specific CSA programs; farmers’ markets; seed savers. In the Willamette Valley we heard from organic seed producer, Frank Morton, about why the Willamette Valley is a prime area of the world to produce seeds and the threat of GMOs to the thriving organic seed industry there. He summed up how GMOs have been surreptitiously introduced in Oregon as a policy of “contaminate, then negotiate.” In Ecuador, we heard from Xavier Leon of Acción Ecológica about the constant threat of GMOs from agroindustries, even though the constitution declares Ecuador a GMO-free country. We also saw how the two countries are connected. Our natural foods co-ops sell high end chocolate and organic bananas from Ecuador and American brands and fast food outlets are very prevalent in Ecuadorian cities.

Vandana Shiva also spent time talking about oppression and liberation within the food system how food should be a human right. This was another theme of the binational learning community. We talked with Latino farmworkers in Oregon and ex-hacienda workers in Ecuador about the injustices of the industrial food system. It was enlightening and depressing to see similar struggles within very different cultural/historical/political contexts. We heard about the innovative community organizing programs at the Oregon Food Bank and later helped the gleaners do a food re-pack and shared their pot luck lunch. There is no food banking system in Ecuador, but we visited the successful Canastas Comunitarias program in Riobamba where low-income urban dwellers have connected with agroecological farmers. Every two weeks they buy in bulk, directly from the farmers and divide up the produce among the urban buyers. This system has spread around the country.

ecuador fruit

Photo courtesy of Food in Culture and Social Justice blog, http://osufcsj.wordpress.com/

Everything is in flux, and through lectures about changing diets through time, we laid the groundwork for change in the future, a predilection of the people inside the learning community and those who presented to us. Often the change they proposed was a return to earlier patterns of consumption. We focused on the particular situations of Native Americans who had their land stolen and their foodways altered and are now suffering from diet-related diseases at a much higher rate than the rest of the population in both countries. A focus on Native Americans also allowed us to understand the importance of ecosystems in the creation of cultural foodways. We spent a day with the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz on the Oregon coast and another couple days with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla on the high plateau. In Ecuador we visited two Kichwa groups who have started community tourism ventures: one at 12,500 feet in Cotopaxi and another group in Misahuallí in the Amazon basin. In each place, we discovered new plants and animals that nourish people there. The Ecuadorians were shocked to eat elk and the American shocked to eat Chontacuro grubs. Most Ecuadorians are a generation closer to farming and to shopping at open air markets, but we heard about how quickly things are changing. Overweight and obese children are more and more common, as well as non-communicable diet-related diseases such as diabetes.

Learning is not simply an intellectual exercise. It involves our emotions and all our senses and is linked to our daily practices. Learning communities work against the fragmentation of information and the decreasing sense of community by setting up a non-hierarchical atmosphere of collaborative learning that is rich in experience. With a focus on food, practically every meal became a classroom as chefs explained where they obtained their food and how they prepared it. We prepared ceviche with Oregon mussels with Slow Food Corvallis and we roasted and ground chocolate in the jungle. We weathered short bouts of intestinal problems (in both places) and altitude sickness in Ecuador. We had numerous conversations on buses and we sang and danced and joked together. We learned new vocabulary in two languages. Sometimes we struggled to understand and other times we struggled to express ourselves in a new language, but we got better at both tasks. We shared our knowledge and learned many new things together. If any of you are interested in putting together a similar program, I’d be happy to talk with you. You might even want to check out the group’s blog at osufcsj.wordpress.com.

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Filed under agriculture, Andes, anthropology, Eduador, food policy, Food Studies, foodways, Latin America, Oregon

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