Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Connecting the Local with the Global

Guest blogger Samantha Wittrock shares with us her excellent personal account (below) having attended the Women, Food and Agriculture Network conference this year in Fairfield, Iowa.

Bio: Samantha is a grad student pursuing a Master's degree in Urban and Regional Planning and Public Health at the University of Iowa. She is interested in food systems planning and promoting healthy food access and food justice in both the local and global context.

On November 14th and 15th, I was fortunate to attend the Women, Food and Agriculture Network’s Annual Conference in Fairfield, Iowa. As I am interested in every aspect of the food system and my mom is considering a venture into sustainable farming, it was the perfect opportunity for us to meet and learn about women who are already deeply involved in this movement.

The Women, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN) was founded in 1997 by Denise O’Brienon their long-standing concerns about systemic rural, agricultural, and environmental problems and gender relation in these domains.” Its mission is “to link and empower women to build food systems and communities that are healthy, just, sustainable, and that promote environmental integrity.” WFAN offers many educational and networking opportunities to women farmers. Successful models through WFAN can translate to learning opportunities and best practices to be shared with organizations similarly working on gender empowerment globally like Oxfam America and vice versa.

We started the conference out by attending a Soil Health 101 intensive in which the speakers covered the basics of soil health, the use of cover crops, tips for managed grazing and mine reclamation.  These speakers, representing Practical Farmers of Iowa, Southwest Badger RC&D and Pathfinders RC&D, highlighted the importance of soil health to crop yields and other natural resources. Time and again the speakers emphasized that soil is the foundation for growing food and creating a healthy farm for years to come. While we attended this intensive, tours of local farms, the community orchard, Maharishi University, the Farm to School greenhouse and the Abundance EcoVillage were also taking place.

Following the first session, we were able to taste some of the delicious local food dishes prepared by two of Fairfield’s female chefs. At this meal and the others throughout the conference, there was something for nearly everyone with vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free and dairy-free options. Many of the items in the meals were actually from some of the women attending the conference, which I thought was a great way for them to market their products and further connect producer and consumer.

The final activity on the first evening was a screening and panel discussion of the film Terra Firma: A Film About Women, War and Healing. Terra Firma follows three women veterans who were able to find healing for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) through farming. Sonia Kendrick, founder of Feed Iowa First in Cedar Rapids and Kelly Carlisle of Acta Non Verba: Youth Urban Farm Project in Oakland California, both veterans, served on the panel with the producers of the film, Christine Anthony and Owen Masterson. Through the film and the discussion that followed, it was amazing to see the great impact that farming can have on our society, not only on the people who are eating it, but also on those who are growing it.

Day 2 of the conference was kicked off with a keynote speech by Karen Washington, founder of Black Urban Growers NYC. Karen discussed the challenges and opportunities in urban farming and shared her experiences with inspiring community involvement. She had many ideas on community mobilization and how to make urban farming more equitable and accessible for all populations. Her speech was incredibly motivating and she kept the audience captivated and excited with ideas they could take back to their communities.

After the keynote speaker, we attended a session called Grassroots Science: Measuring Local Impacts of Air and Water Pollution. Linda Wells of PANNA shared information about tools that sustainable farmers can set up at their farm in order to detect pesticide drift from surrounding farms and what they can do with the information after its been collected.  Mary Skopec highlighted IOWATER’s volunteer training program in which volunteers test, record and monitor water quality across the state of Iowa.

We then sat in on a session titled What Your Farm Bill Can Do for YOU!, in which the speakers talked about support, including crop insurance and disaster assistance, that is available for non-conventional farmers. Lunch came after the second session and attendees learned from Diane Rosenberg of Jefferson County Farmers & Neighbors, Inc. how relationships are key to anti-CAFO advocacy.

The third, and final session we attended, entitled Resources for Aspiring and Beginning Women Farmers provided information on available loans, financing and training opportunities for women to get their farms up and running. In addition to resources provided in this session, there were also a number of vendors and organizations set up with other information for farmers. These resources ranged from crop insurance and loan information to educational handouts and books.

Throughout the conference we talked to many women who are some of the movers and shakers of the local foods and sustainable agriculture movement. I was inspired by all of the great things that they are doing and taken aback by how down to earth each and every one of them is. They’re all excited for new people to get involved and willing to help out in any way possible. My mom and I walked away from the conference with many ideas as well as next steps for getting her farm up and running. It was incredible and inspiring to see just how much women are contributing to the food system in our state and across the country.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Where will you sit?! An Oxfam America Hunger Banquet coming your way...

Ready or not, here it comes!

The 2014 holiday season is rapidly approaching and whether your reaction is “YAY!” or “Not again! Didn’t we JUST do this?”, the world around you is about to transform – music, decorations, lights, holiday parties, and (dare I say it) snow for us northern latitude folks. Perhaps the most beloved transformation of all is the food.

Yes, food. The holidays seem drenched in gravies, piled high in side dishes, and sweetened in delectable desserts. Research from the Calorie Control Council indicates that an average American may consume upwards of 4,500 calories during a given holiday dinner. It’s no wonder the media often turns its attention to and reporting on ways to have a slimmer and healthier holiday season. But, for all that conversation about overindulgence, where’s the talk about if you don’t have enough to eat?

Thanksgiving happens to be the traditional kickoff point to the holiday season here in the United States – a celebration of a fruitful harvest and recognition of the many ways in which we privileged folk can share thanks. It makes sense, then, that Thanksgiving is the perfect time to bring up local, national, and global food insecurity – an injustice that nearly 1 in 7 people must live with daily.

So, as we approach Thanksgiving, I have a question for you: Where will you sit?

On Thursday, November 20th, the Iowa Oxfam Action Corps, in partnership with St. Timothy’s Faith and Grace Garden in West Des Moines and the ONE Campaign at Drake University, will host an Oxfam America Hunger Banquet. The Oxfam America Hunger Banquet is an interactive experience designed to raise awareness about poverty in a fun and enlightening way. Participants will share a meal together while learning what it means to live with AND without. Random chance will determine whether you live in poverty and must sit and eat on the floor or have a high income and can sit and eat at a table! Rev. Brigitte Black, Drake professor and pastor at Bethel AME church in Des Moines, will deliver a keynote address.

Come be a part of this moving experience and learn about the injustice of food insecurity and ways that we can all take action in our communities. It'll leave you with an amazing story to share around your table this holiday season. RSVP today!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Farmers Training Centers


A quick Google search of this acronym might bring the following results:

-In the business world: Federal Trade Commission – an agency responsible for consumer protection and promoting competitive business markets.
-In the legal world: Failure to Comply –  the inability to follow the letter of a court order.
-In the engineering world: Fault-Tolerance Control – the ability to design systems of continuity and recovery given the inevitable (something breaks or stops working properly).

These F.T.C.’s are all very important in their own right. However, there’s another very important F.T.C. that’s less well-known but is extremely important to fighting global hunger.

In the agricultural world: Farmers Training Centers – a place of education and community where farmers can learn how to make their lands more productive and ultimately, serve themselves, their families, and their communities better through increased and sustainable food production.

These Farmers Training Centers are one component of overall agricultural extension services in many countries all over the world. Take, for example, the country of Ethiopia. Ethiopia has invested heavily in ag extension services that have established nearly 18,000 F.T.C.’s all over the country. These F.T.C.’s are used as local-level focal points for farmers to receive the latest information, equipment training, demonstration, and classroom and hands-on field education. It boils down to farmers teaching farmers and building community leaders in agriculture.

Want proof of those community leaders? Look no further than Ethopia's very own Female Food Hero Birtukan Dagnachew Tegegn! When her husband passed away in 2000, Birtukan convinced neighbors to help plow her plot of land, a job considered too difficult for a woman to do alone. She sought out agricultural training through extension and learned how to plant crops that would conserve water in her drought-prone region. Her training and education empowered her to make bold decisions, leading to great success. Furthermore, by participating in ag extension, Birtukan can learn new skills and pass along her existing knowledge to other farmers – continuing the cycle of empowerment.

Female Food Hero Birtukan and Oxfam Action Corps Organizer Amy
pose for a picture at the Downtown Des Moines Farmers Market.

Recently, Birtukan and an Oxfam delegation of farmers from Ethopia and Ghana came to Des Moines, Iowa for the World Food Prize 2014 Borlaug Dialogue. During this time, she and the others spoke on panels and further discussed the importance of investing in small-scale women farmers. Birtukan shared the importance of investing in farmers before a crisis occurs (like a drought or famine). It happens to be a more efficient use of funds but, and perhaps most importantly, it's empowering to the farmers and communities who wish to take care of themselves rather than relying on external partners to provide constant support, especially if that support comes after a crisis has already occurred.

Realizing the impact these F.T.C.’s have on communities, organizations such as Oxfam and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have stepped up to supplement the cost of running these centers as well as further building capacity for the centers to have longevity, adequate facilities, and training for extension workers. Their research continues to show that ag extension is a powerful force for fighting global hunger yet, donor support for this common-sense solution of ag extension has historically been low.

By showing support for U.S. government programs such as Feed the Future and legislation such as the Food for Peace Reform Act of 2014 which improves our U.S. food aid system, you too can add your voice for common-sense solutions that can help reduce global poverty for years to come. Click here to send your support to Congress: fully fund these investment strategies that empower small-scale farmers and end inefficient and wasteful food aid practices!

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Active Citizenry

Guest blogger Aaron Schlumbohm wrote a wonderful piece (below) for our blog about his recent experience lobbying at U.S. Senator Grassley's office in Des Moines.

Bio: Aaron Schlumbohm lives in Des Moines and has been an active volunteer with the IA Oxfam Action Corps since fall 2012, even serving as a co-organizer for Des Moines in 2013/2014. He is a University of Iowa grad and USMC veteran currently employed in the Insurance industry. 

On September 5, I had the pleasure of accompanying two other Iowa Oxfam Action Corps members, Amy & Stephen, on a lobby visit to United States Senator Chuck Grassley’s office here in Des Moines. Lobbying typically calls to mind a fair amount of negative associations with special interests, money, and influence – but there we were, three grassroots volunteers, about to speak to a legislative assistant for a United States Senator. The idea that regular citizenry can access that high-level representation is exciting and knowing that this not the case in many other countries I was filled with enthusiasm for this opportunity! How could anyone fail to see the rightness of our cause?

Aaron (left) and Stephen (right) speak with Grassley's office
 about issues important to Oxfam and Iowa supporters.

We spoke to Kurt Kovarik, a Grassley legislative assistant in Washington D.C., via teleconference, which the Des Moines office was kind enough to set up for us. On the table were issues that Oxfam had been working on for, in some cases, years:

A. Poverty focused development assistance
B. Effective foreign aid/co-sponsoring the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act
C. Food aid reform/co-sponsoring the Food for Peace Reform Act
***click hyperlinks for more info***

Mr. Kovarik listened politely and asked relevant questions about the issues we presented. He was very direct and his answers and comments gave us great insight to the landscape of legislative committees, foreign relations, and U.S. interests. At the end of the discussion he thanked us for our time and for the information we left to be forwarded on to the D.C. office, promising to read it thoroughly to present the information it contained to the Senator. We walked out of the office with no commitments. We had not, in-fact, changed the world with our one visit to the local office of a U.S. Senator, and we understood that the bills we advocated for were unlikely to move forward in this legislative session. We would see them stall again, as we have in years past, while we wait for the political will to mobilize around the reforms needed to help people in need of effective, efficient aid. But every year these issues come up and the bills advance a little further, a little closer to passing, because active citizens around the country are walking into elected representatives’ offices to let them know that these things are important.

And we’ll do it again next year.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Let's not forget Oxfam's youngest supporters!

At the beginning of this summer (2014), Oxfam America staff in Boston, working with Action Corps members, put out a call to current and former organizers to share past highlights, stories of lessons learned, and experiences of the unexpected - pleasant or otherwise. The following blog post looks at how one unexpected source of success helped to shape the advocacy being done by Iowa Oxfam Action Corps organizers in 2012...

As the Oxfam Action Corps, we often mobilize around targeted issues, campaign actions, and lobbying stunts. Our ultimate goal is to raise awareness about injustices faced by people all over the globe.

Poverty is wrong, we say.
We can RIGHT that wrong, we say.

Our call for a more just world is heard at farmers markets, music venues, hunger banquets, and sometimes by congressional staffers. And for all the good that that contributes towards, our primary audience is, well, adults.

Should it be so surprising, then, that two significant and memorable successes for the Iowa Oxfam Action Corps came from the help of children?

In July of 2012, the Iowa Action Corps had an opportunity to develop educational activities for a youth “survival” summer camp at the Science Center of Iowa. Here, we prepared activities to teach children about the food and water scarcity experienced by millions around the world. Many children, like adults, had never considered how far some people have to walk to get to their water source or considered how difficult life could be for farmers and the communities who depend on them in drought stricken areas of Africa. For the final activity of the day, we asked the children to prepare a message for farmers experiencing hardships in Senegal, Africa. Their message: believe in the future.

That’s rather amazing when you think about it! These children (a.k.a. “the future”) in some small way were already taking ownership of their distant responsibilities for shaping our shared world. They understood that poverty and hunger won’t be solved overnight – their message was that it’s a multi-generational effort.

Believe in the future, they said.
Believe in us, they said.

Later that year, in September, the Iowa Action Corps had the chance to table at the World Food and Music Festival in the Historic East Village of Des Moines. This annual multi-day (family-friendly) event features nearly 75,000 attendees and, of course, some amazing food! One of our volunteers, a teacher, had suggested that we have an activity at our booth that gives children a chance to participate. We brainstormed and came up with an activity for children to draw and color pictures of food on paper plates, that if they could, they would give to hungry children around the world. The results were amazing! Their work decorated our booth and easily served as a draw for passerby’s throughout the entire event. Our booth stood out because of their work and that, in turn, helped us collect more than 1,000 petition signatures for a campaign action – a huge leap for Oxfam support in Iowa.

For many of these children, their colorful plates of food were drawn with the understanding of our shared human experience of hunger: hunger lacks comfort and empty plates represent the expectation that food is on its way. The plates drawn contained a variety of pictures of fresh fruits, vegetables, proteins, and sometimes, pizza. Seeing all of the plates together delivered a clear message: nutrition, sustenance, abundance. That’s the world they want.

Going hungry is wrong, they said.
Every child should always have enough to eat, they said.

Adults are great supporters of Oxfam’s work but let’s not forget about the potential of the youngest of Oxfam’s supporters: children. In time, they will grow to be our next generation of farmers, teachers, activists, doctors, and politicians – just to name a few. Regardless of their future role, each will have an important part to play in continuing the fight for a more just world. May our efforts leave the world a little less broken for them so they don’t have to fight as hard to right the wrongs of a previous generation.

#desmoines #oxfamactioncorps #iowaoxfamactioncorps #historiceastvillagedm #children #survival #Senegal #rightthewrong #sciowa #worldfoodandmusicfestival #poverty #advocacy

To see more pictures from the Science Center Survival Camp, click here.

To see more pictures from the World Food and Music Festival, click here.

Monday, August 25, 2014

What FUN! Music, Food, and Doing Good!

The Iowa Oxfam Action Corps has had an amazing summer run: volunteering at St. Timothy's Faith and Grace garden, tabling at farmer's markets, and spreading Oxfam's message at major musical events like 80/35 and Fitz and the Tantrums at Des Moines Nitefall on the River.

How about one final summer hurrah?! Yes, please!

The World Food and Music Festival (WFMF) is coming up - September 19th, 20th, and 21st. And, what a way to finish the summer! The Iowa Oxfam Action Corps has had a presence there for the last two years and it's been greatly successful. Check out the photos from 2012 and 2013. As you can see, the festival-goers have really enjoyed Oxfam's message as well as taking part in our table activities.

What's more is that the WFMF is an amazing celebration of culture paired with some truly delicious worldly food and spectacular tunes. 75,000+ people attend this multi-day celebration in the Des Moines East Village. Attendance is free, but food and drink do have a cost. See their website for more details.

Action Corps volunteers Aaron and Brittany
showcase the Oxfam tent!

Your Iowa Oxfam Action Corps will again have a strong presence at the WFMF but we need your help. Tabling at an event like this is best enjoyed with many people to help spread Oxfam's message of righting the many social injustices that face our world. Whether you can offer 1 hour or an entire afternoon, we want to hear from you! Volunteering is a great way to meet new people and we'll provide some basic training on how to speak to people about the issues. Click here to sign-up for a time. Thank you for your help in making this year another successful World Food and Music Festival!

Oh, yeah - I almost forgot! Banana man is making a return appearance...

Monday, August 4, 2014

The New Face of Hunger

Iowa is well-known as a state where a lot of stuff is grown. The dark soil, often described as “black gold”, is rich in nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium - nutrients that corn, soybeans, and a variety of other plants need in order to grow.  Last year (2013), Iowa saw 2.2 billion (yes – with a ‘b’) bushels of corn grown and harvested (the majority going to feed livestock). The numbers are equally impressive for soybeans and other vegetables.

In a place where so much food is grown, it’s hard to believe that still 1 in 5 Iowans faces food insecurity. Fields upon fields of lush green crop spread over tens of millions of acres across Iowa and, yet, 20% of the people living in the state struggle to feed themselves and their families on an ongoing basis.

That isn't right!

National Geographic Magazine (yes, THAT National Geographic) has a new 8-month series focused on the future of food. They recognize that feeding a planet of 9 billion people by the year 2050 will be a major stressor on our planet’s natural resources and want to draw attention to the importance of and struggles of our food system.  Going to their website on hunger in America, a visitor is met with a very basic question:  Why are people malnourished in the richest country on Earth? Now that’s a big (and good!) question! Why should anyone have to experience malnourishment?

As a part of their series, NatGeo spent time investigating hunger and food culture in three specific communities across the United States, including Osage, IA. Yes, Iowa. Land of the farmer. Fields of plentiful corn, soybeans, and other vegetables. Home to “the new face of hunger”.

The magazine’s August issue captures the story of the Dreier family who is supported in part with the money that spouse and father Jim Dreier makes applying pesticides to fields and driving trucks. But it's not enough. The family said their SNAP benefits were cut 16 percent, to $172 a month, after Congress cut the program last year. The Des Moines Register wrote an article about the magazine’s focus in Iowa and further described the food insecurity rate for children in the 16-county region as well as why NatGeo picked a community in Iowa to spotlight. Briefly: farm subsidies.

A nationwide look at the percentage of people around the country who
rely on SNAP assistance. Darker colors represent higher percentages.

Be sure to check out the amazing, yet saddening infographics, videos, pictures, research, and other details on the National Geographic website or pick up a copy of their August magazine to read more about Osage, Iowa and the other communities NatGeo visited.