Just Food Conference: Learning About Justice from the Ground Up

This past weekend I attended the Just Food Conference at Teacher’s College at Columbia University. Per usual this was a truly inspiring gathering with some of NYC’s most dedicated movers and shakers in the food justice movement. Their motto is “Justice From The Ground Up” and through these conferences and events they offer opportunities for the general public, CSA members, community organizers, and farmers to come together for workshops, skill-building sessions, and plenaries. The conference provides attendees with opportunities to learn about regional farm and food issues, CSA trends, and cooking and food preservation techniques, as well as ways to mobilize communities in order to increase access to farm-fresh, locally grown food.

I attended a few cool workshops and am excited to bring back what we learned to the PRINT. garden and kitchen. First was the Seed Saving in NYC workshop held by Zach Pickens, the farmer at Riverpark’s milk crate container garden. He also grows on the rooftop of his apartment in Brooklyn and even constructed a hoop house so he can grow nearly year round. He is saving seeds from his personal garden and selling them to garden shops and consumers, under the label “Rooftop Ready Seeds.” Each seed he selects to save is a particular variety or plant did very well with rooftop growing conditions and container gardening conditions like shallow root systems and less water retention. I am really excited to purchase some seeds from him since we have the same conditions on our rooftop garden. I am also going to try seed saving myself this fall when the garden dies down and the plants are in the final part of their lifespan. (Interested in starting seeds yourself this spring? Early Spring is when its time to get started. We will be doing a follow up post on how to germinate seeds and when to plant outdoors as we launch our garden over the next few weeks!)

Zach stomping on dried radish plants in a bin during his panel.
Zach stomps on dried radish plants to remove the seeds which then must be sifted on a screen


I also attended another cool work shop, Wild Vegetable Fermentation, held by Tara Whitsitt, the founder of Fermentation on Wheels, which is an old school bus that she has driven across the country teaching people about the health benefits of fermented foods and how to make them at home. The New York Times recently wrote about her adventures and mission. Tara demoed how to make a purple cabbage, green cabbage, and carrot sauerkraut, with only those ingredients and salt. All the equipment needed is a large glass jar, a dish towel, and boiled rocks as weights. We learned that a “wild ferment,” by definition is when you kickstart the fermentation process by solely adding salt to a vegetable. Other types of fermentation like where you add a mother, scobe, or already active bacterial liquid, is called inoculation.

We also learned that contrary to popular belief wild ferments are extremely safe to do at home. The salt will act as a preservative and even molds that may grow in the process are safe and edible (though it is advised to scrape them off the top).

Tara leading the fermentation workshop.

The keynote address of the conference was given by Eric Holt-Gimenez , the Executive Director of Food First, a 40-year-old organization that calls itself a “think and do tank.” Food First was founded in 1975 by Jospeh Collins and Frances Moore Lappe, and has published 60 books exploding commonly held “myths” about hunger and food production. He is dedicated to eliminating injustices that cause hunger and environmental degradation.

This is what he wanted us to take away from his passionate speech:

“The food system is not ‘broken.’ It is working precisely as a food system in a period of late capitalism is supposed to work: it concentrates power and wealth in the hands of oligopolies and passes off the social and environmental costs of its destructive model on to citizens. Just like the climate crisis, we can’t rely on our politicians or industry to solve the food crisis — they are not looking out for our interests. I hope that people are encouraged to build a powerful social movement to transform this inequitable and unsustainable food system.”