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Posted May 9, 2018

A working definition of feminism: Feminism is the act of remembering that no humans exist or thrive without the wisdom, agency, and authority of women — as indigenous individuals, as an intergenerational culture (women-to-women), and as the center of a wild species living on this Earth.

At the end of this article is a brief list of Illinois women currently working in the area of food-and-farm policy. It is a very small sample, designed to highlight the key areas of a new, large, and still growing arena of socio-economic-political-spiritual activism. Food-and-farm policy is a 21st century area of intersectional study and practice, also known as food sovereignty, community food security, farm justice, and, more academically, food systems.

It can also be called manifesting feminism.

I don’t know if the women on my list describe themselves as feminists. But I do think that most would agree that the food-and-farm movement is a reclaiming of women’s wisdom, agency, and authority in multiple, highly practical and impactful ways, under all kinds of job titles, paid and unpaid.

COUNTING WOMEN IN 2008 — literally
I first started thinking of food-and-farm policy as manifest feminism in 2008, three years after I co-founded the grassroots Evanston Food Policy Council (2005). Co-founding the Evanston group had been a midlife leap of faith that was immediately validated by the attendance and interest at our first meeting and every month after. Six months later, the validation itself had taken a leap forward when I attended my first major food-and-farm conference—the Chicago Food Summit. Walking into the Chicago Cultural Center that late winter morning, I was gratified to see the big room filled with apparent diversities of all kinds—ages, genders, skin colors, ethnicities, languages, job titles, etc. At that moment, my midlife commitment to unifying our public policy discussions through food-and-farm language felt 100% confirmed.

Two years later, in 2008, the feminist validation broke through to me. Sitting on the stage in the same Cultural Center room, at the third Chicago Food Summit, five of us were waiting for our panel to start. Two legislators and three activists had been invited to talk about the Illinois law that we had written and passed (along with a large coalition): the Illinois Food, Farms, and Jobs Act (IFFJA) which commissioned a comprehensive food-and-farm plan for the state. The author of the bill, my state representative Julie Hamos, looked out at the packed room and leaned over to me. “It’s mostly women?” she asked.

I immediately saw that Julie was right. Through all the diversity I’d experienced in the Chicago food movement in the previous two years, I hadn’t consciously noticed that most participants were women. After our panel was over, I stood in the back of the room (still packed) and started counting, table by table. Of the 200+ people in attendance, 70-80% were women.

During the next few years, at every food-and-farm event, I counted, as co-chair of the Evanston Food Policy Council (2005-10) and co-coordinator of the IFFJA task force (2008-09).  At 18 listening sessions all over Illinois I counted. At other events in Illinois and Iowa, I counted; at large and small events, most attendees were women—70-80%. By 2010, the numbers were so predictable, I stopped counting. Now, as I write this in 2018, I think that 80% women is pretty spot-on for the food-and-farm movement in the U.S.

But by itself the percentage of women practitioners does not explain why food-and-farm policy equates with feminism as fact. The real story is in the substance of food-and-farm policy.

FEMINISM: Manifesting life, liberty and pursuit of happiness
Our American ideals have a wonderful ring: “Life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” from the Declaration of Independence. So do the goals articulated in the U.S. Constitution’s Preamble: “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” But we know that women were not included in the original vision. Nor was the Earth.

Food-and-farm policy in the 21st century tries to rectify that. In fact, getting specific about food, farms, and real democracy—on a daily basis—is where the manifestation takes place. This is why more and more people (women and men), nonprofits, businesses, and universities are getting into food system work. Here’s why food-and-farm policy is such an impactful arena for positive, practical change and why (I believe) so many women are using their skills, knowledge, and energy to articulate and implement food-and-farm objectives—everywhere that women are.

FOOD.  Food is the primary, daily, and extremely real need for our own birth, for giving birth out of our bodies to all humans, and for everyone’s survival. It is the organizing and manifesting principle of all life. Feeding ourselves, our children, families, friends, neighbors is one of the most intimate, specialized, real things that women do and think about. It is direct manifestation (what Marxists and biologists call reproduction).

FARM.  Food comes from the land–the farm. This includes ranches, fisheries, gardens, hunting grounds, and the wild. The land also produces non-food products that we use to survive and enhance our quality of life: lumber, renewable energy, medicinal plants, recreation, ornamental plants, etc. The soil is renewed by the natural decay of previously manifest life forms. The more women care for the land—the interactions between the soil, the water, the air, plants, animals, micro-organisms—the more we embody ourselves in the world.

FOOD-AND-FARM SYSTEM.  Activists started using the term “food-and-farm” system when we saw that a root cause of our socio-economic-political disfunctions is siloed thinking—the separation of farmers from consumers, rural people from urban people, humans from non-humans, food from the land, theory from practice. Now in 2018 it is a non-negotiable tenet of food-and-farm work that nothing can be excluded from our consciousness. The food, the farms, and everything in-between and around—from seed to table to compost—must be included, including all the human beings who work in every sector and who need to eat: transportation, warehouses, food banks, culinary arts, grocery stores, restaurants, healing, science, religion, ethnic traditions, cooking and eating utensils, advertising, packaging, sewage system, garbage pick-up, money, media, workforce development, schools, rural-urban-suburban voters, etc.

Is there anything that is not part of the food-and-farm system—including the earth, sun, and the moon? The more women are involved in and attentive to all those system aspects—and insist that others pay attention—the more we make reality real.

FOOD-AND-FARM POLICY COUNCILS. Food-and-farm policy councils are the communication network between and among the components of the system. They are where we express our realities about the food-and-farm system, especially about using our resources and assets wisely. Councils are also where we listen to each other. Councils can be grassroots, created by statute (city, county, state), or something in-between. When women speak up and tell their truths in council and when others listen, feminism is manifested.

GOVERNMENT.  The government is where food-and-farm policy decisions get codified, implemented, interpreted, and enforced—from school boards, townships, municipalities, counties, and states to the U.S. government and international agreements. The more that women get elected, take staff positions in government, and work with all other women on food-and-farm policies—in all jurisdictions, in all departments, with families, communities, businesses, institutions, nonprofits—the more we live in manifest feminism.

AT THE CENTER: Illinois women in food-and-farm
Check out this short, by-no-means-comprehensive list of some long-time Illinois women activists, working on all kinds of food-and-farm policy. The food-and-farm system IS the universe, at the day-to-day level—meal-by-meal, person-by-person, farm-by-farm, meeting-by-meeting, council-by-council. And women are reclaiming our role at the center of that universe. Not an exaggeration and not hyperbole—just the forgotten truth.

Donna Lehrer (Kane County) – Lamb of God farm (food and fiber)
Vicki Westerhoff (Kankakee County) – Genesis Growers
Beth Vercollo Osmund (LaSalle County) – Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm
Johari Cole-Kweli (Kankakee County) – Iyabo Farms
Breanne Heath (Cook County) – Pie Patch

Farmworkers, restaurant workers, grocery store, other food chain workers
Too many to name, in every Illinois county
Alexandra Sossa (Cook) – Farmworkers & Landscapers Advocacy Project (FLAP)
Restaurant Opportunities Center (Cook) – ROC United

Monika Sudakov (Bureau County) – Chestnut Street Inn Bed & Breakfast
Ellen King (Cook County) – Hewn Bakery

Farmers markets
Janie Maxwell (Kane County) – Illinois Farmers Market Assn.
Connie Spreen (Cook County) – 61st St. Experimental Station

Farmer training
Martha Boyd (Cook County) – Angelic Organics Learning Center
Sheri Doyel (Boone County) – Angelic Organics Learning Center
Angie Mason (Cook, Lake Counties) – Chicago Botanic Garden

Co-op grocery stores
Kathleen Duffy (Cook County) – Dill Pickle Co-op. Kathleen died in July 2017, but I want to honor her work as the mother of the 21st century food co-op movement in Chicago. Dill Pickle lives on.
Mary Meyer & Jocelyn Gerard (Cook County) – Rogers Park Food Co-op (a mother-daughter team). Rogers Park Food Co-op does not have a space yet, but they are getting close.

Communications: Journalists, filmmakers, social media
Monica Eng (Cook County) – WBEZ
Cassandra West (Cook County) – Seven Generations Ahead, Seeding Chicago
Ines Sommer (Cook County) – Sommer Filmworks
Kay Shipman (McLean County) – Farmweek
Mikki Kendall (Cook County) – Twitter, independent writer

Food justice, farm justice, climate justice
Kim Wasserman Nieto (Cook County) – Little Village Environmental Justice Organization
Karen Hudson (Peoria County) – Illinois Citizens for Clean Air and Water (factory farms)
Danielle Diamond (McHenry County) –  ICCAW (factory farms)
Geraldine Perry (Cook County) – author, Climate Change, Land Use, and Monetary Policy

Local food economies, food hubs
Margaret Larson (Stephenson-Winnebago-Jo Daviess Counties) – U. of Illinois Extension
Naomi Davis (Cook County) – Blacks in Green (BIG)
Linda Mallers (Cook County) – FarmLogix

Farmland preservation
Terra Brockman (McLean, Champaign Counties) – The Land Connection
Jennifer Filipiak (McLean County) – American Farmland Trust

Food-and-farm policy
State Sen. Heather Steahns (Cook County) – compost
State Rep. Sonya Harper (Cook County) – urban farming, workforce development
State Rep. Robyn Gabel (Cook County) – public health, maternal health, environmental health
Illinois Stewardship Alliance (Sangamon County) – Liz Moran Stelk, Rebecca Osland
Terri Reardon – Illinois Right to Know GMO

Farm-to-school:  procurement, curricula, and school gardens & farms
— implemented by local farmers, teachers, directors of nutrition services, volunteer mothers
Too many women to name.
Most are part of the Illinois Farm to School Network, hosted by Seven Generations Ahead (Cook County)

Educators: Nutritionists, dietitians, academics
Erin Meyer (Cook, Livingston Counties) – Spence Farm Foundation
Lucille Eckrich (McLean County) – Illinois State University (monetary justice, political economy)

Mothers and care-givers
Too many to name in every Illinois county.