While a contemporary art museum might not be a typical setting for a dialogue on food insecurity, that’s exactly the kind of program you might find at MOCA Cleveland. Recently, the museum was host to a community conversation centered on food access as part of the For Freedoms Town Hall Series.
Eric Gottesman, For Freedoms co-founder, believes that it is important for artists to have a seat at the table. “Artists help us to hold up a mirror to our community and see it in new ways.” MOCA Cleveland’s executive director Jill Snyder agrees that bringing artists and creative people into the conversation is disruptive and ensures inclusion of different viewpoints. The progam is presented in partnership with The City Club of Cleveland.
The For Freedoms series explores ideas conveyed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a 1941 speech where he outlined four specific freedoms that Americans, and all world citizens, should have: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear, and freedom from want. Food is something everyone needs (wants) but aspects of our political and economic systems contribute to inequitable access.
Participants included Mary Lavigne-Butler, vice president of external affairs, Greater Cleveland Food Bank, Ginger Brooks Takahashi, an artist and activist based in Braddock, Pennsylvania, Ben Hall of Detroit’s Russell Street Deli and Marc White, a local entrepreneur and operations manager of Rid-All Farm
Eric Gottesman directed the broad conversation, allowing each participant to share the unique contributions they or their organizations are making to provide greater food access.
Mary Lavigne-Butler shared some sobering numbers: The Greater Cleveland Food Bank provides 55 million meals annually, but nationally food banks provide just 10% of food for the needy, with the rest being provided by government programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Frontline food bank personnel often see the overlooked and the gaps in the system and are concerned about any changes to this established program. “We feel we must advocate for people because we know they are making tough choices. When health care gets gutted or if SNAP sees cuts, we won’t be able to feed everyone.” She and her colleagues are always in search of fresh fruits and vegetables and they see the need first-hand. She said that farmers might not harvest “imperfect” produce, opting to plow it under rather than getting it to people who need it.
Ginger Brooks Takahashi has directed the same bold and challenging perspectives she has for her art to solve food inequity issues in Braddock, Pennsylvania, an economically distressed area just outside of Pittsburgh. Her creation, General Sisters, General Store meets a variety of community needs including “goods, nourishment and perspectives,” according to the website. Ginger takes exception to the common term “food desert,” citing that food deserts are not naturally created. “It’s created through systemic racism, oppression and greedy economic initiatives— factors that are detrimental to an area.”
Detroit-based Ben Hall is always looking at ways to improve the local food system and get nutritious food to people who really need it. He and his business partner believe in paying their employees a living wage and working to solve the challenges of their community. “Educating yourself about policies and voting are very powerful actions,” he said. Ben urges consumers to do some research and vote with dollars. “There are restaurants who say they support farms, and they may be buying a little bit direct, but that are also buying from companies that are contributing to the broken systems we need to fix.”
Marc White oversees the farm operations at Rid-All Green Partnership where he and his partners actively reclaim and improve Cleveland’s urban agriculture zone. His work focuses on devising methods to improve soil and bringing more local food initatives to the urban community through outreach. ”We need regenerative agriculture, not just sustainable agriculture,” he said. “We create soil. It’s important to nurture the soil where our food comes from.” Education and advocacy are part of their mission as well—using urban agriculture to teach the next generation to grow and eat fresh foods and even to develop their own local food businesses. He champions community engagement and caring for one another. “Food security is very relevant. Our lives are in the hands of one another. We are stewards of the earth and we try to subscribe to that in every way.”
MOCA Cleveland will continue to position itself as a place where conversations happen and ideas are exchanged and will announce the next program in the For Freedoms series in the coming weeks.
During this holiday season, Edible Cleveland is partnering up with Cleveland Foodbank to donate a portion of every subscription to help families in need. Find out more here!