Hank Herrera Plants Seeds for Food Justice

Pamela Stewart | Ignite | Nov 4, 2014

Hank May 2013In a just world, no one would have to read this. You could spend time talking about art or music while sitting down to a meal of healthy, fresh and delicious food. We know it’s not so, which is why Hank Herrera has dedicated his efforts to the food justice movement.

Hank Herrera describes himself as a “food justice freak” on his Twitter. In this case, “freak” means visionary and farmer. Hank doesn’t only toil the land; he also encourages the growth of social action.

Dr. Hank Herrera has a lengthy CV of accomplishments. A Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholar and a Kellogg National Fellow, he has worked as a community builder and grassroots organizer on both sides of the country.

We had the pleasure of speaking with Hank about the food justice movement and his work to bring food parity to the people.

Your resume makes me think of a garden, or a feast where everyone is invited. Your toils have spread seeds that created growth and inspired community action. How did you transition from being an Associate Professor of Psychiatry in Rochester to working as a community builder and a significant contributor to the Food Justice movement?

Hank: I had a Kellogg National Fellowship in the mid-80s while I was at the University of Rochester. The experiences I had, particularly in various places in Latin America and here in the U.S. ignited a passion to get involved in the community with social justice work. It became clear that this interest did not fit into the academic regime, so I went out on my own into private practice.

While I was in my Kellogg fellowship, I got very interested in working with a Spanish speaking African diaspora community which I encountered in Ecuador. This was a community of people who the Jesuits brought as slaves to the sugar cane fields four or five hundred years ago. They escaped, and they’ve been free, but they are a really challenged community due to lack of resources. They are a wonderful community in terms of the people and their spirit.

Stay in the loop with Food First!

Get our independent analysis, research, and other publications you care about to your inbox for free!

Sign up today!

In Rochester, there is a similar Spanish speaking African diaspora community in an African American community—the Puerto Rican community. That community lost its only supermarket when the last one in the area burnt down. Another friend and I and eventually some other people started to work on how to get another supermarket in the community.

It took us about six years, but we succeeded in bringing in what the people wanted, which was a full-service supermarket. It involved a partnership with the City of Rochester and TOPS supermarket chain, but we accomplished that with an organization called Partners Through Food. During that process, I learned a lot about the food industry and the supermarket industry and where the money comes from and where it goes.

TOPS at that time was owned by Dutch corporation Royal Ahold, which is a multinational grocery retail corporation. They brought a brand new supermarket to the neighborhood. They fulfilled their promise of providing eighty percent of the jobs in the supermarket to neighborhood residents.

They became very successful and expanded the store, putting in a pharmacy and the whole works. All the money that they made in profit went to the stockholders of this multinational corporation, it didn’t stay in the community except for the minimum wages that they paid the workers.

How do you increase access to fresh, affordable, healthy food in communities that are vulnerable? How do you make that access and how do you grow local ownership so that the people benefit from that industry?

This neighborhood in Rochester was the poorest neighborhood in a very large area, and it probably still is. It is a problem I’ve been focused on for a long time–how do you change a neighborhood that is poor into a neighborhood that has some assets and some wealth? The solution I have been trying to work on is to build a business structure that captures the wealth that people spend on groceries that other people take out. How do you keep that wealth located in the neighborhood? I think the answer is through ownership, to use a phrase that others have used before me. If you own the means of production and exchange, you can keep the benefit of the exchange should there be any.

I started working on this neighborhood development program at the same time I was working on the supermarket and helped to form something called the NorthEast Neighborhood Alliance. We started market gardens. We had a small farm on foreclosed land that we bought and created a community land trust and microenterprise development program. That’s how I got involved in doing this kind of work and I have been doing it ever since.

North_view_of_a_Chicago_urban_gardenAfter I left the NorthEast Neighborhood Alliance, I managed the New York Sustainable Agriculture Working Group and got involved with doing similar kinds of research and development programs in other communities in New York State. At the NorthEast Neighborhood Alliance, we started a program for youth in the neighborhood to be involved with urban agriculture called Summer on the City Farm. We brought a group of youth to two or three national conferences of a group called Rooted in Community. I managed that for a few years because it is the only group in the country that brings together groups of youth and adults working together for food justice, and it’s largely people of color doing the work and presenting the seminars. I believe very deeply in that and stayed involved.

The opportunity came in 2007 to manage something called The HOPE Collaborative (Help for Oakland’s People & Environment) in California. It was one of nine programs around the country funded by the Kellogg Foundation for planning to improve access to healthy food and creating safe places for people to play.

I did that for a couple of years, and then I left there and helped to start something called Dig Deep Farms & Produce, a project of the Alameda County Deputy Sherriff’s Activities League which is a not for profit.

Now, I am starting with four other people a worker-owned cooperative farm in Pinole, an area north of Oakland. We are developing a diversified farm with sheep, goats, ducks, chickens and vegetables. And we are still working on the same problem. How do you increase access to fresh, affordable, healthy food in communities that are vulnerable–impoverished communities, communities of people of color where people don’t have access to fresh food? How do you make that access and how do you grow local ownership so that the people benefit from that industry?

I live in a small town surrounded by farmland, and I have asked the chain stores numerous times why they don’t sell local produce, but they say they have contracts in place with the large suppliers. I still don’t get why they can’t make room for fresher, cheaper, local produce.

Hank: That’s what I have started to call the big mystery. We’ve done research on how much people spend on food. We’ve found that because poor people often live in neighborhoods with limited access to personal vehicles, people have to travel to buy anything more than what they can get at a corner store or bodega. They go to supermarkets in Oakland, so we go to the supermarkets and we make a list of 20 to 40 products that a hundred years of data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture tells us people buy in the largest quantities. We find out how much those products cost in the store at a certain time and we multiply the per capita consumption by the cost at that point in time by the number of people in the community.

We can get an estimate of what people spend per person per year for a market basket of everyday food products that people purchase most often to eat at home. The numbers vary depending on the community, but the prices per person range from $900 to $1500 annually. If we use a figure of even $1000 per person per year, which is a very conservative figure, in Oakland there are about 300,000 people living in the flatlands (predominately low-income and people of color). That’s $300 million that people spend to buy food for everyday use. Where does the money go and how do we capture it?

People are smart, and they can get the relationship between their physical health and what they put in their mouth, but it’s just so gigantic that people can’t imagine it being different. It used to be different, but all of this resulted from industrial changes since World War II.

This is what we are working on–a network of small, locally owned farms that produce this market basket. If we sell this market basket in small, locally owned stores that sell only healthy food could we capture some share of that income, and if we could, would it be a substantial amount of money?

Yes, it would be, but how to do that and how to do the marketing that makes it happen, those are all mysteries. Food is a vast source of wealth. The concentration in all of the food industry from production to retail limits the distribution of that wealth to a very small number of people and we want to change that.

You’ve worked in a number of communities. For someone, or a group of people who want to start community building, urban farming, and other initiatives to improve their lives and those of their neighbors, where do you suggest they start?

Hank: That’s a really critical question, and it is very difficult because people don’t sit around with time to spare to do new things. They have to work, they have to raise their children and they have to survive. All of those living requirements occupy a lot of time, and because people in oppressed communities have been oppressed for a long time the risk of investing in something new exceeds the potential rewards they may see available to them. Like anybody else, they balance the risk and reward and make the decision that it’s not the right time for them to get involved. It is kind of like any new innovation; there have to be the folks who are the early adopters who decide to get onboard and take the risk anyway.

Spiral gardens young gardeners by Lenor Hurtado 267x300If it works, then there will be more people involved. That’s the approach I am taking, and what I have done over the last little while. Not everybody thinks this approach has any real potential, and it’s kind of like spitting in the wind–it’s not going to go anywhere because the dominant system is that dominant. There are gigantic producers not far from here in the Central Valley of California and in the Salinas Valley, and they supply most of the world’s fruits and vegetables, most of the United States at least.

There are now big producers in other countries that fill in the gaps during seasonal changes, and it is one large system that works very efficiently. How do you break into that? I don’t know, but I am doing my best to figure out some small steps because otherwise we don’t have a prayer.

Look at how in the Midwest farmland is used to grow corn and soy using lots of chemical fertilizers and what it does to the land, the Gulf of Mexico and the climate. It’s crazy, but people keep doing it because that field of corn keeps going to the manufacturers who turn it into high fructose corn syrup, which goes into the stuff you buy at the grocery store, which goes into your body, which causes Type 2 diabetes and obesity. The epidemic keeps growing and people keep getting sick. Obviously, explaining it to people doesn’t stop it.

People are smart, and they can get the relationship between their physical health and what they put in their mouth, but it’s just so gigantic that people can’t imagine it being different. It used to be different, but all of this resulted from industrial changes since World War II.

I’m sure not having access to healthy food, green space, healthcare and other resources causes a kind of collective depression. How can we encourage hope in people who find it almost impossible to see that there is a way out of that cycle?

Hank: There are issues of scale. That is a big challenge for all of us doing this work to try to wrap our heads around. Lots of people in Oakland have their home gardens, go to community gardens and can produce lots of vegetables that they can eat when those vegetables are growing. But the diet includes more than those vegetables, lots of people like to eat meat, or cheese or eggs (except for vegetarians and vegans) and other products that a small home garden or community garden doesn’t have the capacity to produce.

There are 300,000 people in the flatlands of Oakland, if you multiply out the number of pounds of tomatoes that people use every year, times 300,000 that’s a lot of tomatoes. The backyard gardens and urban farms can’t produce that quantity, so you have to find a way to link the urban production with regional production or peri-urban production. You have to find ways to build the cooperative relationships so that the producers are not all competing with one another, but are cooperating to meet that need. Let’s say on average every person consumes about 80 pounds of tomatoes per year that’s 24 million pounds of tomatoes per year (in this area alone). Where do you get 24 million pounds of tomatoes? You need a lot of producers of tomatoes. Tomato sauce and other products are a big part of that. That is the thing that the industrial food system does very well. They put all that together in a way that makes it so extremely efficient that none of us needs to know the details. We just go to the store and pick out the can of tomato sauce.

To change the system, we have to figure out how to do that at a local and regional level on a scale that actually meets the needs. It’s one thing supermarkets are really good at–they don’t run out of stuff.

It’s a huge problem that involves logistics, productions, schedules, planning, education and distribution and on and on. One of the reasons why it is hard to change the system is that the system has already figured out how to do that so well that it is basically invisible to us. We just go to the store and get what we want.

Exactly! It’s even worse in the northern U.S. and Canada where we only have a few months access to fresh produce, and the rest is imported from the south.

Hank: Those are gigantic problems. I think somehow those of us who want to address this by creating alternatives have to put our heads together and figure out how to do it in a collective or cooperative way, otherwise it is never going to change. We will just be bumping up against each other, and it will be like a Brownian movement where everything just moves around at random and never gets solved.

We need to solve the mystery of where does all that money go, and how do you divert it into new structures? Our goal is to not only have a network of farms, but a network of stores that sell the products the farms produce. How do we make it so that people want to go into our store?

We are beginning to focus on creative advertising and hope to use the creativity and energy of young people from the neighborhoods we want to serve to come up with the images and messages that get people’s attention without being preachy, but getting people to say, wow, I love that. I want that. I want to go get some.

Thank you, Hank! We value your contribution, and you inspire us to follow your path.

View the original article at Ignite