What's the difference between free range and organic chickens? Should I eat quinoa? And tell me again why organic spinach is twice the cost of conventional? Given the complexity of contemporary food systems and their related issues, it's not surprising that some consumers latch onto simplistic answers to these confusing series of questions: GMOs = always bad! Small, organic farms = going to save the world! Big ag = the enemy!
The Oakland-based organization Roots of Change avoids this kind of easy thinking through their groundbreaking policy work, educational initiatives, and their engaging social media presence. They post a steady stream of topical articles on their Facebook page -- with added commentary -- which attracts varied opinions from their fans. These well-intentioned commenters occasionally reduce complicated issues into black-and-white, "good guys vs. bad guys" arguments.
Roots of Change genuinely wants to change this dynamic. Their social media manager diplomatically steps into these online debates by gently pointing out hidden facets of the convoluted processes that shape our food systems -- thus encouraging a more balanced discussion.
In response to an individual who advocated that Foster Farms be shut down due to concerns over one of its poultry processing plant's water usage, the manager wrote,“It is a bit more complex." Then he/she went on to explain that Foster contracts with several local farms.
"If you put [them] out of business, you could hurt just those farmers you'd like to see flourish. A better way would be to grow the market for local, organic and sustainably raised birds and attract producers to that marketplace. But no matter what, it takes water to process chickens, lots of water.”
This willingness to think broadly and to deeply engage with the community has made Roots Of Change a formidable organization. (They’ve also attracted a broad audience on Facebook with over 60,000 followers.) The group describes themselves as a “think and do tank,” and their goal is to change current food systems through policy work.
Since their inception in 2002, they've laid the foundation for lasting change through many projects, such as helping San Francisco and Los Angeles create viable, effective food policies. They were instrumental in shaping Market Match, the statewide incentive program that matches nutritional benefits like WIC and CalFresh at farmers markets. And they helped influence Ag Vision, the state’s plan for a healthy agricultural future.
“Our goal is to catalyze the food movement, [and] provide road maps to victories for transforming the food system,” said Michael Dimock, president of Roots of Change.
In the past few years, the group’s main initiative has been the California Food Policy Council. This group of 29 regional food policy councils works together to share ideas, resources, and lobbies on behalf of food and ag-related issues in Sacramento.
The council’s broad goals means that their work can't be narrowly classified. They encompass all aspects of the food system, from the environmental impacts of raising meat to fast food workers’ fight for fair wages.
“We have a long history of working with all elements, what we call grass tops to grassroots,” Dimock said.
It took a spirited debate in the early days of the council to agree on their six main focus areas: healthy food access; ecological farming systems; small farm viability; farm labor; school food environments; and reasonable food system infrastructure. Council members include advocates from a range of fields, including public health, social justice, local economies, environmentalism and labor.
One of Roots Of Change's biggest goals, Dimock said, was to “bring more democracy [and] more people to the food system, because there were too few interest groups controlling the evolution of the food system. That approach has proved to be politically powerful. If you can bring a broad cross section of people into a policy debate, it’s clear that, ‘Wow, people from all walks of life support this. We can get bills passed.’”
When people learn about their work, Dimock says they often assume that mainstream agricultural groups are the enemy, but it’s not true. Agricultural groups, representing farmers weakened by the drought and in search of solutions, have supported Roots of Change on important legislation like climate change bills.
“We try to include farmers in all of the conversations we have around the development of bills so that we can take into account their needs. Our long-term vision is that agriculture remain vibrant and central to the California culture and economy. Part of what makes us California is our incredible diversity, and the innovation and farming systems here,” he said, noting California’s storied history that spans the early days of organic farming to landmark events in the food justice movement. “Ag has to remain at the center of our culture.”
Roots of Change’s success hasn’t been without its challenges. In 2008 and 2009, the group recognized that they were struggling with issues of racism and classism and sought outside help. (They're not alone in facing this type of criticism regarding diversity, however.) Following that, the group embarked on a two-year process with Oakland’s People’s Grocery to improve their "cultural competency" and unite on common goals.
Currently, Dimock said, their biggest problems revolve around funding -- like many non-profits. Historically, the group’s funding has been foundation-based, but as Roots of Change increases their lobbying efforts, many foundations can’t allocate funds for such explicitly political goals.
But Dimock is optimistic about the future of the organization. One of their most recent successes was the signing of bill AB 359 into law by Governor Brown this summer. The new law helps protect grocery store workers from being fired when a store changes owners and is the first statewide law of its kind.
In the next few weeks, Roots of Change will release their yearly legislative report, which outlines the group’s goals for reworking the state's food system, the policies they support, and reveals how politicians across the state voted. The report also serves as a reminder to politicians that their constituents care about food issues -- while praising those who acknowledge them and calling out those who don’t.
And in the coming years, they're planning to expand the California Food Policy Council across the country, creating a collaborative national group that enacts long-term policy change around food systems.