Background image of Karen Washington speaks at Food Tank behind a podium. A photo of herself is being projected on the screen behind her

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Let’s put wheels on this Food Tank!

As leaders in food system reform gathered in Washington, D.C. earlier this month, important questions were raised about equity and inclusion in the good food movement.

“Let’s Put Wheels on This Food Tank!” was the rallying cry of kick-off keynote speaker Karen Washington (pictured above) at the National Food Tank Summit I attended in Washington, D.C. recently. Washington is an urban farmer from the Bronx with infectious energy, and her words are still ringing in my ears a couple of weeks later.

In addition to rousing the on-site and online crowds (many watching remotely via the conference livestream or following the hashtag #FoodTank on Twitter), Washington took the largely white audience to task for frequently adopting a patronizing tone when attempting to engage communities of color.

“People of color and low-income people often get treated as someone’s next food project,” she said.

It was a theme reiterated the second day of the conference by panelist Dream Hampton, award-winning filmmaker, writer, and organizer and consultant to MomsRising, a grassroots organizing network focused on issues facing mothers and women. “Stop patronizing us with programs designed to teach low-income and women of color to cook healthy food for their families. Black women taught you to eat ‘leafy greens,’ they just called them collards!”

The sentiments reminded me of a lesson I learned from Nichole Maher, President of the Northwest Health Foundation, when she spoke to Ecotrust’s staff about equity and inclusion last fall. Maher described research showing definitively that program initiatives cannot be successful if they are not developed in meaningful partnership with the communities they are meant to serve.

“No matter how well-intentioned you are, you must genuinely share both the spotlight and the decision-making power if you want to create effective solutions and actually achieve the desired outcomes,” Maher said at the time. And the research proved it.

The message struck a chord. Over the last six months, I’ve become very sensitive to the lack of representation of communities of color in the food system reform movement, and the lack of direct engagement with people regularly referred to as “low-income,” “vulnerable,” or “marginalized.”

There are explanations for how that situation came to be, despite good intentions by those of us deep in the weeds. Consider, for example, the phenomenon described by another Food Tank panelist — that of the summer internship: Resource-constrained nonprofits regularly lean on college interns who get “paid” in class credit for working on projects, costing the nonprofit only management time. The familiarity and connections developed on such projects often land the interns near the front of the line for early-career jobs when they come available.

Have you ever thought about who can afford to take credit-only internships? You guessed it, mostly students coming from more privilege and affluence. We know from findings by the Pew Research Center and others that income and wealth inequality is correlated to race and ethnicity, which suggests that students who can afford to pursue unpaid internships will mostly be white. So for low-income candidates, including many candidates of color, the current internship structure shuts the door to the recruiting pipeline for highly competitive jobs. Meanwhile, organizations that are seeking to diversify staff to better serve underrepresented communities are bemoaning the fact that they received so few applications from candidates of color.

Awareness is the first step in behavior change, so they say. I’ll be taking another look at our practices for engaging interns in our food and farms work, and writing funding for paid internships into grant applications from here on out. In the meantime, I’m proud of the fact that Ecotrust is launching a formal organizational equity assessment, using a tool designed by the Portland-based Coalition of Communities of Color, that will help us lay a path for intentionally creating inclusive opportunities across all of our work.

As Washington closed out her Food Tank speech, she reminded us that to achieve food equity, access, and justice, we can’t just focus on food alone. We must also engage in the economy, in culture, and yes, in race. The issues are sensitive and complex, and I have no doubt that working through them will be uncomfortable at times, but I’m committed to digging in. Will you join me?