Framing Food Justice: LA Food Policy Council

From 2009-2010, a group of leaders and community members met as part of a task force, and produced the City of Los Angeles’s first Good Food for All Agenda. Out of this process, the LA Food Policy Council (LAFPC) was born to advance the goals of the Agenda—ensuring that food is healthy, affordable, fair and sustainable for all. This intentional yet organic process of convening people for conversations about food, and letting those conversations drive the policy agenda, is at the LAFPC’s core. Executive Director Christine Tran believes wholeheartedly in the power of these conversations, of gathering folks at the same table to define problems, and then working together to create solutions. We spoke about the formation and work of the Council, her love of food and conversations about food, and the power of individuals and communities to be part of the solutions. 

To learn more about the LA Food Policy Council, see their 2020 Annual Report here. You can also check out their latest project, Community Chefs LA, a community-led, made, and inspired series that features Angelenos sharing their food stories and recipes. 

All photos courtesy of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council.

Food Forward: First off, can you introduce yourself and tell us about the work you do with the LA Food Policy Council?

Christine Tran: My name is Christine Tran, I am the Executive Director of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council. Prior to this position, I was a working group member for the Farm to School and Garden Working Group. Before this, I was a Program Officer for First 5 LA. So I went from grantmaker to grantseeker, all during the pandemic! My career has been a little bit of everything—I’ve been on this really amazing life journey of trying to figure out the systems by being a part of the systems in different ways. I was a teacher for the LA Unified School District, teaching for four years in South LA and East LA. I loved my job, but I was pretty frustrated with broader policy. To explore this, I worked for the USDA as a Congressional Hunger Fellow. But then, the 2008 Recession hit and I had to figure out life differently. I ended up living in a number of cities across the country and worked in policy and research. I definitely feel like I’ve lived many lives in the best of ways.

The Los Angeles Food Policy Council (LAFPC)  follows a food policy council model, which began in Tennessee in the 80s, during Reaganomics and a poor economy. A food policy council is essentially a cross-sector approach to addressing issues in the community around food access. That first food policy council was convened because of the economic policy crisis: nonprofits and government were having a hard time responding to the needs of community members. The LAFPC was born out of this movement that began in the 80s, but our journey started a little over 10 years ago, under the leadership of Paula Daniels, who at the time was working for the City of Los Angeles. The LAFPC actually started off as a task force, which basically said: “we need to address some of the issues in LA around food.” A listening tour was conducted, and from there the task force created the “Good Food For All” agenda, which is our charter for making food sustainable, fair, and accessible for the region. That is the mission for the LAFPC—how can we connect the dots between farm to fork, in order for us to have just and accessible healthy, quality food for our communities?

The first Good Food For All Agenda was in 2010, and then it was revised in 2017. With these updated agendas, we’re constantly making sure we’re addressing what the community needs. And since 2017, a whole pandemic has happened! So, the next iteration of this document will be inclusive with pandemic-related, disaster-related conversations. And that’s the beauty of the Agenda—it’s led by the community, but it’s also inclusive of government and other folks who need to be at the table. So I don’t really see the community being separate from our systems—it’s really about getting on the same page, so that we’re not having different conversations. We should really be having a similar conversation about how to get our needs met as communities, as well as what it is that we’re asking our systems to do, and how we want and need them to show up. 

So, who is part of the LAFPC? Everyone is part of the LAFPC—you are part of the Council! We are a nonprofit entity in leading the work, and many of the original task force members are still with us today as part of our leadership circle members, including Rick Nahmias. This long history of who we are comes from our multi-sector perspective. Jonathan Gold was part of our original task force, we also had chefs and farmers.

FF: What does food justice mean to you?

CT: To me, food justice is about access and empathy. In so many ways, we’re disconnected as eaters from our food chain. We often don’t know where our food comes from. The concepts of empathy and access go hand in hand—it’s about better growing practices, how we treat the environment, the land—but also about how people get food. A lot of low income communities don’t have the best access to fresh fruits and vegetables.  People will often assume things about communities, and it’s important for us to understand empathy, because from a policy and decision making perspective, we’re also dealing with lives and livelihoods. If you’re an eater (which is everyone), that’s where you have to think about the system, and how you interact with the system. What are points about the system that you don’t know about? How can you be a conscious consumer? And how can you be a better neighbor when it comes to food security? One person’s food access and availability may be different from their neighbor’s depending on income, on transportation. So I really approach this work, and this concept of food justice, from a lens of both access and empathy, in order to achieve a just and equitable system. There’s so many pieces, and we can’t be everywhere at the same time. But it is important for us to be aware, and not be in the dark about how we get our food, or how our neighbors get their food.

FF: What systems of oppression affect your community’s ability to access healthy foods, and how?

CT: I see myself as belonging to many communities in different ways. There’s cultural and racial connections to communities, but also place-based connections. When I think about systems of oppression, and how that relates to local access to healthy foods, it’s really about understanding historical context. A lot of our communities have been disinvested in for many generations. I often talk about food justice and systems of oppression in terms of that generational impact. The disinvestments of the past create deeper holes that we have to deal with today. In order to support and guide, we need to make sure that the resources are there.

I think social and economic capital go hand in hand when we think about intergenerational wealth. We have to factor in the generational disinvestment, but also the generational capital. Movements like urban gardening, community gardens—to me, they’re about demonstrating the existing knowledge and generational wealth our communities have. Often, when we think of systems of oppression, we see things from a deficit lens, we talk about where communities are lacking. And yes, communities may be lacking resources—but they’re also very rich in lived experiences, cultural knowledge, land ancestry—there’s so much about our communities that often go unseen. This invisibility is part of the system of oppression. Because what you don’t know is also part of that erasure of culture, and the inability to build intergenerational wealth. 

FF: What you’re talking about reminds me of that quote: “No History, No Self. Know History, Know Self.” 

CT: Absolutely! I come from an ethnic studies background, and I didn’t learn about “people of color” history until after K-12. I learned about true American history, true World history when I got to college. I’m a first generation high school graduate, so I had to beat all the odds to actually end up in a college class and learn about all the history I didn’t know before. And even in this conversation, you are collecting my oral history. There’s value in having these conversations. When I was teaching, I actually taught ethnic studies in East LA at Wilson High School. A lot of what I was trying to provide students was the information and knowledge that was not given to me when I was their age. Investing in young folks is a way to address systems of oppression. How do we educate our youth, but also educate them alongside our elders? That intergenerational education is what will combat systems of oppression, in my mind. 

FF: If you were talking to someone who has never heard of your work, what would you want them to know about what the issues are, what the solutions are, and who’s driving the solutions?

CT: It really depends on who you talk to. I really believe that awareness is everything. Awareness is having these critical conversations about what we’re eating, where it comes from, and how to do better at making sure the whole process is just and equitable. Often those conversations aren’t happening, our knowledge of food is not really there. I created a blog for the LAFPC, because I wanted to make space for these conversations. I love storytelling and story listening, because it’s a way to unpack the things we may not know about—there are amazing stories that everyone has, but how do we actually transform those stories into conversation? 

When people interview me, I try to provide context about things they may not think about. For example, earlier in the pandemic folks asked me how I felt about food waste. I care about food waste, and it’s a huge problem—but if we don’t incentivize farmers to seed their land with new crops, we can also end up with a food shortage. That’s the imbalance of the food narrative—sometimes we over-sensationalize food. We either romanticize it or we tell this very devastating story about the supply chain. And we have to ask, what’s missing in this conversation? Food shortages are as much of a problem as food waste. I think there will forever be an imbalance in our supply chain, because there is a challenge between supply and demand. But how do we divert waste, and really reclaim it in the way Food Forward does? Agencies like Food Forward will always have somewhere to direct food, there will always be unintended consequences to the supply chain. What types of knowledge about food do we have about food as individuals, and what types of knowledge don’t we have?

I love this quote from one of my mentors, Dara Cooper. She’s the co-founder of the National Black Food and Justice Alliance. She says: “Definitions are important, because whoever gets to define a problem gets to define a solution.” That is, to me, a reflection of why we are a food policy council. We want folks to be on the same page so these conversations can happen. In the food waste and food shortage example—that’s part of the same conversation, but people may not be in the know to actually ask about those things. And one person’s version of the problem might be another person’s version of something else. How do we connect the dots? 

For another example, when I was working for the USDA, I started having conversations with food service directors at schools around the country. I asked, “why are Florida oranges being purchased by California, and California oranges being purchased by Florida?” They said, “It’s cheaper.” That’s an example of the broken system. 

At the LAFPC, we have programming in addition to our policy agendas. We work with corner store owners who have said that purchasing local is too expensive for them. So I’m able to connect the dots between this national trend of purchasing out of state—it’s the same thing our local corner stores are experiencing. We have a Healthy Neighborhood Market program, where we provide technical assistance to corner store owners around healthy food retail. We teach them about procuring produce, maintaining produce and marketing it. You end up changing the supply chain when you get local customers interested in purchasing produce. 

The majority of our policy efforts are led by our working groups. Throughout the years, we’ve maintained five core working groups, which include: Food Waste, Prevention, and Recovery; Regenerative and Urban Agriculture, the Good Food Economy , Farm to School and Garden, and Good Food Purchasing Policy—that particular working group actually birthed a national nonprofit, the Center for Good Food Purchasing. The Agriculture working group helped pass the Urban Ag Incentive Zone policy. We were a huge player in legalizing Street Vending alongside our partners, including Inclusive Action for the City. So we really just show up in times of need in our community. 

We also provide what I like to call “catalyst moments.” If there’s something pressing happening, we rise to the occasion, and create an ad-hoc working group to organize the space to respond. When the City of LA required that farmers markets provide EBT machines, we knew we wanted to be involved to ensure folks receiving CalFresh benefits could access dollars at their local farmers market. So we got an ad-hoc working group together to push for a motion to require any farmers market within the city of LA to have an EBT machine, and we were successful!

FF: What is a myth you’d like to bust/something you wish people understood about this issue?

CT: I feel like the biggest myth when it comes to food is that people don’t have power. Sometimes we are so reliant on our existing supply chains, our routines, that we don’t question things. As much as I feel it’s important to understand our supply chain, it’s also important to understand where we can show up and speak up. Consumer power has a lot to do with how we drive our supply chain. The other issue is that our food chain is so complicated, it’s not this linear thing of ‘farmer to person.’ We need more relationship-based conversations around our food, because we each get our foods differently. I’m a big fan of diversifying our options—I don’t think grocery stores, corner stores, and farmer stores are single choices, they are many choices together. We need very robust systems to have better choices as community members, as consumers. That is actually how we could improve our supply chain, but also improve our understanding of how we eat and how we interact with our own food. 

I wrote a blog post on how to eat with empathy—the alternative title for this is “How to be a good foodie.” I’m addressing folks who call themselves “foodies”—if you’re a foodie, that means you love food. The word foodie isn’t just a trendy word that just came out of nowhere—it actually has roots in the 80s, when it was developed to counter the narrative of “gourmet.” Gourmet was very high class food, and the word “foodie” was created to describe someone who loves food deeply. So in the blog I unpack some of that history, and also ask: “if you say that you love food, are you also going to say that you know where your food comes from? How are you doing your due diligence?” We should know not only where our food comes from but also the history of our food. 

There is a myth that food is a faraway concept—but when you open your eyes to the process, you realize that food is much closer than you think it is. We often romanticize food, rather than sit with our feelings and reflections about where our food comes from. My love for food is not only where it comes from, but how it came to be. How did it grow, what’s the science behind it? r How are the agricultural workers who are growing your food treated? Having that level of appreciation for where food comes from is deeply tied to that level of empathy. If you know and appreciate food as currency, then you are also going to appreciate food as a resource. It took water, land, and labor to make food happen. You wouldn’t burn money or throw money away—and you don’t do that with food when you value it. 

This also has historical implications, there is a legacy and a history to our food. It’s important to know the historical context of our food. For example, broken rice is a historically popular food item in the south of the US. It’s also a national dish in some southeastern Asian countries, where they grow rice. Rice that was broken was left for folks who were the most poor/who have the least resources. This dynamic is seen with African slaves in the south, specifically South Carolina and Georgia, because those two economies were built on slave rice plantations. Broken rice was eaten by slaves while the whole, unbroken rice was sold at markets. Similarly, in Vietnam, poor rice farmers would sell their rice at markets, and the unbroken rice would be left over for the household. This history is important—to value food means to also value it’s origin story. 

FF: What is your vision for a more just community/society, and how do we get there? 

CT: My vision is people sharing stories, listening to each other, and breaking bread, having meals together. The answers to our problems are right where we live, often where we think about the least. We often think about our solutions being in far off places. But our systems are made up of people, and people can be part of the solution. We should think about it as a “Venn Diagram”— how do we get people from different places together? My vision is to have more same page conversations, have more common ground. And to have more empathy in our decision-making and in our everyday lives. Once we achieve more of that deeper reflection as a system and as people, we can achieve more of that just vision that we’re all working towards. 

FF: How can folks contribute?

CT: The LA Food Policy Council is for anybody! We convene folks who are everyday community members wanting to make a difference in their community or just wanting to work more. We also work with government and philanthropy groups. 

Before I was in this role, the LA Food Policy Council gave me a space, when my day job could not, to address and understand food issues. In my community and education work, I often found myself unable to have conversations about food, because food was seen as a separate issue. So being able to be a working group member allowed me to stay active on food conversations, when my day job couldn’t do that. Now that I’m learning the organization, I want to be that space for other people. I want the LAFPC to be that space for people to have conversations, incubate ideas, and find community.