Grassroots organic is alive and well, even in the concrete jungles of New Haven and Boston. Today I spent an hour and a half at a talk called “Food Policy: Addressing Social Justice in the Sustainable and Local Food Movements.” The event’s keynote speakers were two women who work for urban sustainable food initiatives.

One of the organizations, CitySeed, is located in New Haven, Conn. At the talk, CitySeed’s executive director, Jennifer McTiernan, spoke about how her organization works with Connecticut politicians to give low-income eaters access to fresh food and urban farmers’ markets.

The other organization, The Food Project, hails from Boston, and works to integrate urban youth into their network of small scale organic production. Their speaker was a woman named Rebecca Nemec, who works as a policy fellow for the Project.

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Since I’ve been mired in the rural producer side of organic farming for a while, it was a refreshing change to hear these women speak about thriving urban agriculture and their efforts to integrate that into the social justice movement. McTiernan’s organization, CitySeed, is responsible for the explosive growth of farmers markets in New Haven.

But beyond that, CitySeed addresses the economic justice side of sustainable food. Recently, the organization worked with local Connecticut representatives to change bus routes so that public buses serving low-income neighborhoods go by grocery stores, rather than simply corner stores — thereby increasing access to fresh foods for those without cars.

CitySeed’s also been lobbying to increase funding for senior citizen coupons to farmers markets. Because of funding constraints, only 18,000 senior citizens in Connecticut receive the coupons, called Farmers Market Nutrition Coupons, although 55,000 seniors in the state are eligible. CitySeed is working to change that. And CitySeed-run markets were the first in the state to accept EBT/food stamps and WIC coupons at their farmers markets. Of course, the organic food at the markets is still more expensive than conventional food at the grocery store, but the group’s doing their best to make fresh, local, organic food available to eaters of all incomes.

The Food Project takes a different approach. They recruit urban Boston school kids and set them to work in organic gardens. The project involves the students in the entire food-to-table process, from harvesting peppers for an urban farmers market to pickling cucumbers to sell as a value-added organic product. They talk explicitly with the students about issues like justice, poverty, and diversity, as well as the importance of eating well and caring for the earth.

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Both of these organizations recognize that they still have a long way to go. Later on in the discussion, McTiernan acknowledged that CitySeed lacks diversity in both their board and staff. She gave an example of an attempt the group made to recruit a minority single mother, but the woman was simply too busy to become involved in their efforts. So CitySeed still lacks in social and cultural diversity, and the farmers market food remains too pricey for many New Haven residents — hurdles McTiernan said were difficult to overcome.

The Food Project’s Nemec cited a problem that particularly struck me. While the photos she showed of high school workers looked like posters for a pro-diversity campaign, she had a confession to make: “We cannot,” she said, “retain males from the city.” And by this, I was pretty sure she meant black youth. Which is tragic, and provocative.

When a thriving organization that recruits urban Boston schoolchildren from all walks of life fails so specifically with one sector of the population … well, it just makes one wonder about the plight of all these young urban men. And I know that seems unrelated to the sustainable food movement, but that simple acknowledgment was the part of the presentation that stuck with me.

Overall, however, it was a fascinating presentation on the many ways small groups in the sustainable food movement are taking on justice issues from all different angles and perspectives. So that’s something to keep in mind the next time you hear someone saying organic food is only for eco-elite.

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