August 10, 2022

A political movement for food systems change is taking hold in the Midwest

At last weekend’s People’s Forum, Honduran farmworker and union organizer Ahrax Mayorga and Larry Ginter, a third-generation white farmer from Iowa, shared the stage, both dressed in plaid. Mayorga described the struggle for workers’ rights in Honduras saying, “Until U.S. trade policy and transnational corporations respect the right to organize, the poverty and violence we face will only increase. , and these are the root causes that force us to flee. ”

“When I hear stories like this, it makes me outraged,” Ginter said. “TNCs continue to trample on the rights of Iowa farmers and the rights of agricultural workers in countries like Honduras.” Both were speaking to Senator Bernie Sanders at the People’s Forum, a five-hour political event in Des Moines, Iowa, which allowed the public to lobby four Democratic presidential candidates – Senator Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren, former HUD Secretary Julián Castro and Mayor Pete Buttigieg – on their broad progressive agenda, which includes everything from living wages to universal health care to a Green New Deal.

Ahrax Mayorga and Larry Ginter, talk with Senator Bernie Sanders at the Forum. (People’s Action webcast screenshot)

For Austin Frerick, an Iowa antitrust expert and 2018 congressional candidate, it’s this type of organization that lights a political path to changing food systems. “I cannot name another agriculture and food event that brought together [farmers and foodchain workers]. This is how we balance the power dynamic. Nobody else does that.”

Attended by 2,300 workers and organizers from Iowa and seven neighboring states, the Forum—the first of four planned by organizers People’s Action, a coalition made up of groups in 27 states– marks a resurgence of “movement politics,” a strategy born out of anti-war activism in the 1970s. The evolution of strategy in the 21st century focuses on corruption and corporate control of the political system , and mounts unabashedly progressive candidates who attempt to build the kind of majority that has been deemed unimaginable by establishment Democrats.

As a result, and particularly in Iowa, food and agriculture have been front and center. For example, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the country’s largest private sector union, and the leaders of the Fight for $15 campaign, which was strongly represented at the event, regularly invokes fast food chains as posters for corporate greed and abuse.

SEIU President Mary Kay Henry (left, holding microphone) addresses the forum audience.  (Photo credit: Karla Conrad)

SEIU President Mary Kay Henry (left, holding microphone) addresses the forum audience. (Photo credit: Karla Conrad)

“Trump tried to put the CEO of Hardees in the position of secretary of labor in this country,” said Terrence Wise, a Fight for $15 organizer and one of America’s 4 million fast-food workers, while asking her how she would “ensure Black and brown workers have a seat at the table” in her administration.

In response, Warren said of his choices for Secretary of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board, “we’re going to have people on the labor side who believe in unions.” SEIU President Mary Kay Henry spoke briefly at the event and described the movement’s goal as “to end poverty-wage work in the fast food industry and make those good jobs that people can feed their families with.”

At the People’s Forum, food system workers were joined by organizers working for comprehensive family care, affordable universal housing, a humane immigration system and debt-free education. Under this umbrella, food and agriculture are no longer seen as niche issues, but rather integrated seamlessly into a government vision that puts people and planet first.

“We the people deserve an agricultural system that works for us and the land and there’s no reason we can’t have one,” said Minnesota Land Stewardship Action member and rancher Dayna Burtness. of pigs, at Warren. Echoing the movement’s political ethos, Warren identified corruption as the root cause of inaction, saying “we know what works” for family farmers.

“Big Ag realized that they could continue to make billions from the farmland of this country,” she said. “They have understood that if they invest in Washington, in senators, in congressmen, nobody will stop them.”

Warren’s plan? “It’s enough to make our democracy work, and that means a determined woman supported by millions of people across the country,” she said. Her response embodies a theory of movement politics espoused explicitly by her and Bernie Sanders: individual politicians are insufficient for lasting change.

Sonny Garcia of One People's Campaign asks Julián Castro a question about climate change and the Green New Deal.  (Photo credit: Karla Conrad)

Sonny Garcia of One People’s Campaign asks Julián Castro a question about climate change and the Green New Deal. (Photo credit: Karla Conrad)

By organizing four forums – events are planned in New Hampshire, Michigan and Nevada –popular action focuses on reclaiming Democratic support in rural areas by advancing a far-reaching progressive agenda. The group points to several significant progressive wins from 2018, including Wisconsin State Senator Jeff Smith, Minnesota Congressman Ilhan Omar and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison.