Occupy Big Food’s First Rally in Zuccotti Park: The Start of a Grassroots Movement?

Food reformers took to the streets on Saturday as Occupy Big Food (OBF) the brainchild of Kristin Wartman, a food writer and nutrition educator and Erika Lade, a graduate student in NYU’s Food Studies Program, held its first rally in New York City. The group of approximately 60 people, myself included, held picket signs aloft and chanted “Whose Food? Our Food,” as we marched into Zuccotti Park (or Zucchini Park as it was renamed by one marcher’s sign). Police stationed at the park entrance asked OBF marchers to remove the sticks holding up our picket signs before we entered. Apparently there had been an incident in the park earlier in the day and the police were taking extra precautions — although I would have bet my daughter’s college fund that no one in our group would ever do anything more violent than pare the skin off of an eggplant.  Once inside and surrounded by throngs of supportive Occupy Wall Street protesters, several OBF speakers spoke of the group’s desire for a healthy, sustainable, affordable local food system.

On its website, Occupy Big Food describes itself as a movement to take our food back and out of the hands of just a few large corporations. This rally couldn’t have come at a better time as anger is high due to the recent Congressional decisions to declare “pizza is a vegetable” in our nation’s school cafeterias and to give its blessing to french fries and tater tots as daily school fare at the behest of deep-pocketed corporate lobbyists for ConAgra, Schwan, McCain Foods and J.R. Simplot. Indeed, corporations have long been determining what types of food Americans can purchase in schools, supermarkets, restaurants and other public arenas, while slowly reshaping the American palate to prefer high fat, high sugar and high sodium fare, as former FDA Commissioner Dr. David Kessler explained in his book, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. These often irresistible, chemically concocted, processed foods reap the largest profits for Big Food at the expense of every American’s health.

OBF speakers included the co-organizers; NYU Professor of Food Studies and Nutrition, Marion Nestle; Bill Granfield, president of UNITE HERE Local 100 which represents over 6,000 food service workers in the NY area; the host and creator of the Let’s Get Real cooking show on the Heritage Radio Network, Chef Erica Wides; and CUNY PhD candidate Ryan Ehrat, whose work focuses on the food sovereignty movement. Topics ranged from the dire health implications of the corporate takeover of our food system to food justice to fare wages for food system workers to farm animal welfare to educating Americans on the benefits and joys of cooking. OBF understands the need for Americans be made fully aware of how a few large corporations determine what each of us put into our mouths every day — something that Big Food, to date, has skillfully manipulated into a misleading “personal responsibility” mantra.

Other rallies are planned for the future as organizers are promising “a series of events, activities, and direct actions to critically engage with our food system.”

OBF is a ray of hope as what has been desperately lacking so far in the food movement is an energized, powerful grassroots voice demanding system and policy change. To grow, OBF will need to clearly define its mission and goals as well as advocate for a reasonable list of policies. Saturday’s rally was a promising beginning. I hope that OBF can begin to unite our sometimes fractious food reform movement into a powerful citizen-fueled uprising, urging Americans to take back control of one of our most basic needs — healthy, affordable food.

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