Joan Gussow, In From The Beginning

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Just Food’s annual conference is less than two weeks away. We are excited to welcome Just Food co-founder, board member, and food movement leader Joan Gussow as one of this year’s speakers. We caught up with Joan to get the inside scoop as she puts the final touches on her Food Talk, which will focus on the history of Just Food.

Just Food: How has the food movement changed since JF started?

Joan Gussow The huge change is that all the programs Just Food started are now widespread. With all the films, books, and stories about the state of american agriculture, people are more aware then they have ever been. However, still only one percent of farmland is organic. There is an illusion that the food movement is taking over, but I’m not sure whether that is completely true. The increase in knowledge is a good thing, but the work of Just Food is not yet done. 

JF: What were the issues Just Food was trying to tackle 20 years ago? What issues in the food world do you think are/will be most important over the next 20 years?

JG: When we started, Kathy Lawrence (a co-founder and the first executive director of Just Food) was aware that farmers around the region were going broke and people in the city were going hungry. Just Food was birthed out of a long time spent trying to connect those two problems.

America is a capitalist country. Someone is always trying to make money, and people are willing to pay for convenience. That, combined with a large consumer interest in fresh produce, results in money-making businesses that directly compete with community supported agriculture groups (CSA), making the commitment to CSA more problematic.

Another issue is a pattern of a need for variety in our food. You look in food sections of major publications and they are obsessive about it.  What we can hope for is a revival of interest in what we can really grow and produce here, in our cuisine in the Northeast region.

JF: What do you remember about the creation of Just Food?

JG: I don't want to give too much of my talk away, but at the start of Just Food, Kathy was a gung-ho representative and leader of many food-related groups in the city. The conversations included an assortment of people working in the food field, including current board member John Ameroso, Peter Mann of Why Hunger, and myself. We all brainstormed what might be done to improve the existing problems in the food realm. Our goal was to avoid competing with any existing projects. We wanted to create a coalition of groups in order to start a new solution.

JF: Why is Just Food still important, 20 years later?

JG: We've had a steady commitment to working with the people who are in underserved neighborhoods to improve their communities. With our help, community members have continued to develop their own solutions and to take power, and, really, we've been quite successful.

Just Food started programs like Training of Trainers and the Community Chef program out of a realization that there weren't enough people to help start these community projects, but the knowledge was there. These programs help community members spread and gain the skills they need to improve their neighborhoods and increase access to healthy, locally grown food.

That is probably the most important aspect of Just Food. There is so much going in and taking charge, telling people instead of helping them, going on. Just Food has a strong underlying commitment to not taking over and to be an assistant to people. That is why Just Food is important and that is what makes us unique.

JF: What are you going to focus on in your Food Talk?

JG: I will be focusing on Just Food’s history. I am remembering, digging up archives, speaking to staff, board members, and other founders, as well as unfolding how our programs started and became the models for how to provide help to communities. I’m also looking at the way Just Food and our community has grown.

JF: What do you hope audience members will take away from your talk?

JG: Put Just Food on your list of organizations to support, either through donating your time or money. Just Food puts all it has out into the community. What we do is very important, and we need the generosity of the public to keep executing this work.


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Joan is one of many food movement leaders scheduled to speak at the 2016 Just Food Conference on March 13th at Teachers College in New York City. For more information and to register, visit justfoodconference.org.