Nada Khader on the policies that would transform our food system
Good food should not be a privilege: it’s a human right. That principle has been a guiding force for Nada Khader’s work in social justice movements, which has taken her from Washington, D.C. and North Carolina to her current position as director of WESPAC Foundation (Westchester People's Action Coalition), which works to advance progressive causes in Westchester County. Khader talked to Slow Food Metro North about the challenges of accessing local food, the intersectionality of her work at WESPAC, and the White Plains garden where she feels at home.
How would you describe your work in food justice?
There are different lenses by which one can approach food justice work. For me, I’m definitely approaching it as, it should be guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. It’s not a privilege. It should not be considered charitable work. It should be considered a primary human right—we have the freedom of speech, the right to assemble, and we should have the right to be free from hunger. If I’m a poor person, I don’t want to be given charitable contributions of processed foods or foods that I don’t choose. I want to have the choice to choose the foods that myself and my family consume. That’s really a very basic right.
When we look at Westchester County, we see that the most recent housing assessment report that came out ... it shows that more than 40 percent of the households in Westchester County are spending more than 50 percent of their total household income on housing. So it’s intimately linked to food justice because if you’re paying more than your total household budget, more than 50 percent on housing, it means you have much less to spend on very basic foodstuffs. So it means that many families, probably at least half our population in Westchester County—so about 500,000 people—are making food choices based on significantly diminished disposable income because of housing costs.
All of these issues are linked, and that’s what makes WESPAC quite unique because we’re always looking at the intersectionality of issues. We cannot talk about food justice without talking about the exorbitant cost of housing in Westchester County, without talking about racial disparities in Westchester County, without talking about climate issues and our federal government’s policies overseas. So all of this is connected, and I think it’s important to have an institution like WESPAC that is constantly focused on exposing the intersectionality of these issues.
How does climate change enter the conversation at WESPAC around food?
First of all, our small farmers have been suffering for decades. The number of family farms in New York State has declined significantly over the decades. And that’s really really sad to see, because the model of having corporate agriculture, that use acres and acres and acres to grow one product with heavy usage of fossil fuels and chemical pesticides that are killing bees and killing pollinators, it’s so unsustainable and it’s so inefficient. When you do studies of what a small family farm that’s ecological, that’s trying to be sustainable, that’s really trying to minimize the amount of nasty chemical pesticides and fertilizers that they’re using… when you compare that with these huge mono monsters, it’s not comparable. The small family farm is always more efficient and more productive. And it’s so much healthier for the natural environment.
We desperately need a new model. And thank goodness, in Westchester County, we have a lot of consciousness about supporting farmers markets and that’s wonderful, and developing relationships with the farmers. People in Westchester can make a trip, if it’s a local farmer in the Hudson Valley, they can visit the farm, take a look and see the produce, how are the animals being treated, how are the produce being grown, what are some of the issues that the farmers are facing? With the CSA models, you actually share the risk with the farmers, which I think is fair in this era of climate change.
One initiative that could be really helpful—I don’t personally have the capacity to lead the campaign, though there may be others that thought about it—but really linking our county institutions and our state institutions with our local farms. So, for example, passing a law that says it’s mandatory, any county-operated facility must purchase food in the cafeteria from small-scale ecological farmers that are using sustainable methods. That one law would have a transformative effect on our food system. … This is a challenge to capitalism. But for me, this is a very clear path forward that would transform New York state agriculture.
Have there been any recent developments in this field that have caught your attention?
I’ve been reading about food cooperatives in Brooklyn that are specifically focused on the black community, which I find really exciting. I was at an economic democracy meeting in Madison, Wisconsin, and they have this wonderful food co-op that has opened different branches in the city, and one of the food coops is in the northern part of Madison. It was really interesting to hear a representative talk about some of the issues that the food co-op has to pay attention to to make sure the shopping experience is relevant for the communities that it serves.
Food cooperatives can create a community. Many food co-ops have a community center where people can reserve space, and you might have cooking demonstrations—some people may not know how to use a particular vegetable, they might need ideas. The ones I’ve been to, when you walk in, you just feel that there’s a different energy. It’s community friendly, there’s a bulletin board where you can post different things, it’s just a very different experience. Most food coops are focused on having locally grown, local produce available. They might have locally [produced] beverages or jams, teas, things that you might not find in a corporate chain store.
How do you engage with local food personally?
I have a small plot at Baldwin Farms. Baldwin Farms was the last working farm in the city of White Plains. It has a really interesting history. When the farmer passed away, he donated the land to the city of White Plains. It’s 18 acres, but only a small portion is used for community garden plots, and I have a plot there.
What do you grow?
It changes every year. My husband teases me that I’m not a natural grower. [laughs] He has something there. What I really enjoy are growing herbs, partly because they’re less labor intensive, but also because I experiment with really delicious herbal teas. [I make] oregano, lavender—people don’t realize you can make lavender tea, you can mix it with sage. Oregano is a really powerful plant. It helps with the immune system, so even if you take three or four leaves just straight from your garden and eat them, it’s sort of an immune system tonic.
At Baldwin, there’s a sign saying the gardeners are not supposed to use any chemical pesticides or fertilizers, which is really good, because I’m comfortable putting my feet barefoot on the ground there and there’s actually something very healing and very therapeutic about smelling the ground and smelling the herbs and having direct contact with the earth, it feels really therapeutic. … Whether I’m there for one or two or three hours, it’s a time of healing and restoration, just being in that plot. It’s amazing, and I would wish that people would have access to that kind of sanctuary space.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.