Nancy Romer is the General Coordinator at the Brooklyn Food Coalition and a psychology professor at City University of New York’s Brooklyn College. She was instrumental in organizing the first Brooklyn Food Conference in 2009, and established the Brooklyn Food Coalition in the same year after becoming inspired to transform the way people produce, distribute, and consume food.
The Brooklyn Food Coalition hosted its annual Brooklyn Food Conference May 12, at the Brooklyn Technical High School. Over 5,000 people are expected to attend the conference, including the prominent speakers Vandana Shiva, world-renowned environmental activist; Lucas Benitez, Co-Director of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers; and several others. Events and workshops such as “The Future of New York City Food Policy” and “Faith and Feeding the Hungry” will run from 8:30am until 6pm. The conference will also feature cooking demonstrations, film screenings, kids’ activities, and an expo of non-profit and for-profit organizations.
With community gardens and farmers markets sprouting up all over the place lately, why do we still need events like the Brooklyn Food Conference?
We need the Brooklyn Food Conference, and other events that draw together all the actors working to reform the food system, because we need to change policy. We now have a range of activities, like farmers markets in certain neighborhoods, that can improve the lives of individuals or communities—but we still need far-reaching, major changes in policy that will spread these improvements across New York and the country.
It is clear that the will to change policy is not going to come from the top; we need a heavy lift from the bottom to tell policymakers what we need and demand from our food systems, and the Brooklyn Food Conference is a major step in sending that message.
We also need the Brooklyn Food Conference because it is an opportunity for everyone working in food system reform to meet each other, to communicate, and to celebrate the work we are doing and the progress we have made. It is important to celebrate the positive, along with focusing on all the work we still need to do!
What aspect of this year’s conference are you most excited about?
My favorite part of the Conference is seeing all the faces of the people working in the food-system reform movement. It is so empowering and wonderful to see that all of these people—community gardeners, food worker organizers, food cooperative members—are changing the food system in their own way.
But an important part of meeting with all of these activists is getting them out of their ‘silos,’ or the specific areas in which they are working. We need to work as a movement, not as factions with independent goals, because we are all working toward a healthier, fairer, and more sustainable global food system.
What do you see as some of the most pressing challenges to local or regional food sovereignty today?
The biggest problem in the food system is the control of local, regional, state, and national governments by multinational corporations. If we could wrest control over our food choices back from the corporations, the opportunities for sustainable food systems are endless.
The city of New York provides around 1 million meals every day; if city agencies could determine where they sourced the food for those meals, and could choose regional small- or medium-scale farmers as their go-to source, that alone would make a huge difference in strengthening the local food system, as well as the local economy. The same goes for processed and cooked foods—if local suppliers of these foods were given preference over multinational suppliers, New York’s economy would be given a huge boost.
There are a number of other ways we can achieve healthier food systems. Some of them seem tangential to food, but they are all in fact very pertinent: ban fracking, save our farmland, create laws that require non-interference in workers’ organizing, and outlaw advertising of junk food to kids and adults alike. We need to move away from our dependence on factory farms, and doing that requires a huge combined effort from all sectors of the food-system movement.
Does anything in New York or elsewhere give you hope for a more fair and sustainable food system in the future?
Of course! I see reasons for hope every day. Young farmers are seeing farming as a viable career option, more food cooperatives are springing up everywhere, people are buying local and organic, parents are becoming food activists for their children’s health, entrepreneurs are rejecting the large corporate world and starting their own small businesses instead.
Perhaps most importantly, politicians are becoming aware that local food system reform is a way to address climate change. Climate change isn’t just the elephant in the room for policymakers—it is the room. They are struggling to find ways to combat climate change quickly, and building strong local food systems is one of the best ways to do that. New York State Senator Daniel Squadron has proposed a bill to ban the use of antibiotics in animals sold for food in New York.
Because so many factory farms rely on antibiotics to keep their animals healthy, this bill would effectively ban the sale of factory-farmed meat in the state of New York. It is extremely encouraging to see that people are recognizing that we can build our economy with food initiatives that are healthy for the people, animals, and the planet.