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CUESA Gets into Civic Engagement Through Food and Voting

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Our food choices can impact the food system, but deep and lasting change requires more than voting with our forks. As good food advocates, we need to vote with our votes and take action in our communities. Earlier this year, CUESA and SPUR co-sponsored Food Democracy 2020: Civic Engagement Through Food, a conversation with community leaders Nina Ichikawa, Executive Director of the Berkeley Food Institute, and Reem Assil, founder of Reem’s California.

Nina and Reem have extensive experience working with communities for policy change. Before joining the Berkeley Food Institute, Nina worked on the Obama Administration’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative and was a Food and Community Fellow for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, where she launched the nation’s first food policy platform for Asian Americans and Pacific Islander voters.

Reem is the chef/owner of Reem’s California, a nationally acclaimed restaurant inspired by her passion for Arab street corner bakeries and her Palestinian-Syrian upbringing. Before her culinary career, Reem worked as a community and labor organizer at the Center for Third World Organizing and on policy at the East Bay Alliance for Sustainable Economies.

Their conversation took place prior to the pandemic and many other twists and turns of 2020, but the lessons still resonate in terms of how we can use our collective energies to galvanize the good food movement. Here are some takeaways and tips on staying civically engaged for a just and equitable food system this election season and beyond. (Some updates and resources have been added to reflect the current moment.)


1. Community is key. By its very nature, civic engagement involves people working together to effect change. “We can’t do this on an individual level,” says Reem. “If you aren’t part of an organization, join one. If you don’t have a community, seek out spaces that have communities. It’s with our collective power that we are going to win.” Start with the communities you know. Surrounding yourself with others who share your values and goals will provide support during the inevitable ups and downs of political activism.

2. Foster inclusion. A successful mass movement must be diverse. “If you want to win, you have to include everybody. If you ignore communities, you will lose,” says Nina. While working at the USDA, she saw how food was of universal interest to people from different cultures and regions, both urban and rural. “The good food movement is in every single corner of the United States. People are growing their own food, interested in improving food for their kids in schools, and struggling to provide health care for workers and find access to land.” Collaboration between communities strengthens the movement. “We need to be finding allies, like nonprofits and academia. It has to be a mix of all of us. One group alone can’t affect policy change,” says Reem.

3. Meet people where they are. When engaging people on food issues, find out what really matters to them. “Start with people’s material realities. If people don’t have a self-interest, they won’t get involved. It is usually health, economic resources, or personal or religious values,” says Reem. While living in New York, Nina observed the city’s proposed soda tax fail because of a well-intentioned but ineffective approach. “Food is so intimate to people; you cannot tell people what to put into their mouths and stomachs. Many well-meaning, public health professionals did not engage with the community or think about income, race, or other things pivotal to people’s lives. Instead, their attitude was ‘I decided from my education that this is better for you.’ It absolutely backfired.”

4. Contribute what you can. In addition to those who reach out to policymakers and voters, campaigns need people to donate and fundraise, organize events, research and write, create websites, design artwork, and spread the word on social media. If you’re bilingual, you might provide voting assistance non-English speakers. Or your contribution might be cooking, like Georgia Gilmore, who fed and funded the Civil Rights movement. If you work at a restaurant, join the Take Out The Vote to organize voters in your community.

5. Focus on local. Much of the country’s attention is on the presidential election, but down-ballot local elections are often where you can personally have the most influence and effect change. For example, city planning decisions impact food issues, such as which grocery stores get built where. Attending long meetings at City Hall can be time-consuming, but advocates can share the duty by taking shifts. During the pandemic, the public can participate in virtual hearings and submit comments via email.

6. Know your candidates. Before you vote, do your research. Candidate websites are a good place to start. Voter guides are also helpful. Reputable local media provide useful information including interviews with candidates (for example, KQED’s California Voter Guide). You can see an overview of which California newspapers, nonprofits, and parties are endorsing which measures at California Choices. Constituents can also organize events like candidate forums to press local candidates on food issues.

7. Vote! Commit to voting this year and in all future elections. This year every California voter will receive an absentee ballot that can either be mailed in or dropped off at a ballot box. Make sure to follow the directions and correctly fill out the ballot so that your vote is counted, and get alerts to track your ballot. If you prefer voting in person, you can vote early or on Election Day.

Two women sitting and talking with microphones

8. Stay engaged for the long term. No matter what happens this election, remember that systemic change doesn’t happen overnight. Suffragettes fought for 70 years for women’s right to vote, enduring fierce opposition. It’s important to focus on long-term goals and not get discouraged by losses along the way. “You need incremental change to get systemic change. People get galvanized over time,” says Reem. “It is always a win whenever you shift people’s conscience.”

Hard work will pay off with victories such as the 2018 mid-term elections when record numbers of women, people of color, and members of the LBGQT community were elected. “When our attention is focused, amazing things can happen,” says Nina. Reem sees these big wins resulting from “the long game—a cumulative effect of organizing.”

Both women emphasize that the process of staying engaged and building community is essential. “When I’ve organized, I’ve always cared a lot that we maintain relationships, stay in good communication, and feed each other,” says Nina. “The community bonds and accountability should end up stronger, whether or not you win short-term.”


Check your registration status, find your polling place, and learn about ways to vote in California here or visit vote.org.

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