Southern Cooperatives Work for Food Sovereignty

Less than a decade ago, a group of forward-thinking organizers turned the awards industry upside down when they looked at the food prize system from a new angle – the producers that grow for their own communities. Looking at the food system from this indigenous point-of-view meant that rather than awards for profits and consolidation, the Food Sovereignty Alliance would celebrate the folks that stay home and take care of their communities.

Borrowing a statement from the first global forum on food sovereignty, in Mali, 2007, the Food Sovereignty Alliance declares their mission as follows: “Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.”

The upside-down viewpoint came when FSA progressive thinkers saw industry give plaques to each other for policies that take resources from rural places and only make money for Wall Street. The World Food Prize “Hall of Laureates” in Des Moines is a fancy place with exhibits sponsored by big seed companies, tractor manufacturers, chemical companies that have destroyed rural communities worldwide.

Because, let’s face it, industrial consolidation has meant good things for the export-import guys that grow huge monocultures and export valuable resources from home to somewhere else, but it hasn’t meant good things for communities. The folks at home are paying the price with depleted soils, polluted water and depressed economies.

The 2015 winners of the FSP has just been revealed. Lo and behold, one of the winners is from the United States! It’s the Federation ofSouthern Cooperatives, an organization with more than 70 member organizations from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

FSC members provide food to markets, restaurants, schools, hospitals and other institutions in their communities. I hear a report from their director, Ben Burkett, on a call every month with the National Family Farm Coalition and I’m amazed at what they accomplish. Every now and then, somebody says that they don’t know where the next generation of sustainable farmers is coming from – who would work that hard? I agree that the work is hard, but there are a lot of folks in FSC who want to take it on. Recently, Ben reported that FSC leadership is passing to new hands; the energy that rural communities need might come from a newly-energized minority community.

FSC farmers, mostly black, come from the poorest ranks of American society, but they impact areas that mean the most to their members. In the 40 years of existence, the FSC has focussed on building cooperatives and credit unions, saving and expanding landholdings of Black family farmers and supporting public policies to benefit family farmers and low-income rural communities.

It is an uphill battle. In 1960, at the dawn of the modern Civil Rights era, black farmers numbered over 100,000 and owned 8 million acres. Today, FSC estimates that black farmers number fewer than 20,000 and own about 2.3 million acres.

There are all kinds of government programs to help farmers, but folks that watch rural issues realize that most of these programs go toestablished borrowers with access to credit. In other words, the programs help folks who are already rich. They consolidate ownership rather than help poor people. And folks that watch USDA most closely realize that the programs have discriminated for decades.

In 1999, the Federation and other organizations claimed victory in a lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), claiming racial discrimination against African-American farmers. Due to the win of Pigford vs. Glickman, the government has had to pay $1 billion to more than 22,000 farmers in the largest civil rights settlement so far. Another 70,000 farmers will receive payouts numbering more than $1 billion.

And Pigford paved the way for other groups to win after discrimination. Native Americans and Hispanics have been awarded some claims, and women are now getting relief from discriminatory practices. As a result, those groups are becoming new landowners.

Farm programs that are supposed to help farmers pay for seed, fertilizer and other “inputs” can destroy farmers if there is discrimination, and USDA was found to be discriminating. When a black loan was approved, the court found, it took three times as long to process. This meant that money came through after planting season. Or, in another discriminatory strategy, black loans required a signature from a white authority before the money could be taken out. White planters, already big landowners, were able to buy them out and expand into traditionally black areas, pushing black landowners into urban slums.

The Food Sovereignty Prize, first awarded in 2007, brings attention to groups like the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.