Marco Centanaro Garcia, rising fourth-year Commerce student and outgoing president of U.Va. FoodAssist, and rising third-year College student Garreth Bartholomew recently proposed the creation of a food union at the University on behalf of students passionate about food justice and sustainability. Composed of the student leaders of each food-focused CIO, the union would meet a few times a semester to coordinate food-related goals for the University.
These groups include CIOs, student groups and Charlottesville-based organizations — such as Sustainable Food Collaborative, Food Assist, Global Problems, Local Solutions, Food Insecurity Resource Group, Community Food Pantry, A Taste of Home at U.Va., Growing for Change, FeelGood and Challah for Hunger.
During the annual Fighting for Food Justice panel in March, student leaders of the food-focused CIOs, professors and community members called for unity in discussions around food justice — specifically equality and sustainability in how food is produced and consumed.
“I've always seen a problem of miscommunication between all the food-related CIOs,” Centanaro said. “When we're doing an event, no other organization knows about this event. We are sometimes overlapping our work, and we don't know where other organizations are working. It has been super inefficient.”
The food union has the support of faculty across departments, particularly those involved in Global Environments and Sustainability Studies. Assoc. Politics Prof. Paul Freedman has acted as a mentor for students interested in food justice and was a panelist at the food justice panel.
“There are so many different student groups doing really interesting, important and creative work around food and food justice that the idea of some effort to coordinate and really enable groups to work together collaboratively is just a super idea,” Freedman said.
Centanaro and Bartholomew sent a proposal in early March to University administrators outlining their goals, and the group’s first formal meeting took place in April. The proposed food union will be student led and consist of one or two representatives from each CIO. Centanaro mentioned nine student organizations currently interested in having executive members involved.
“It’s in keeping with the U.Va. tradition of student self-governance, and students are really taking the lead on this,” Freedman said. “What I like about it is that faculty can then be supportive in more effective ways — be advisors or mentors or reviewers.”
Centanaro and Bartholomew’s proposal for the food union includes working with Greek life communities and the Office for Sustainability representatives to coordinate goals. Additionally, they aim to educate the University community on food justice and integrate their work with the Charlottesville community.
Many of the CIOs interested in the food union work directly with the Charlottesville community. Erica Szymanski, rising fourth-year Commerce student and incoming president of U.Va. FoodAssist, moderated the food justice panel and stressed the importance of student efforts beyond the University community.
“There's a dichotomy that occurs in Charlottesville where we have a thriving foodie scene and, on the surface, it appears that there aren't food insecurity issues,” Szymanski said. “But if you look a little bit deeper, there's a second system where food is not being dispersed equitably.”
In 2020, 10.5 percent of households nationally were considered food insecure, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. However, in Charlottesville 12 percent of households were considered food insecure, a decrease from 17 percent in 2017. Despite this decrease in food insecure households, Charlottesville still has a rate that is higher than the national percentage as of 2020. Szymanski said that addressing these high rates of food insecurity in Charlottesville can make the community more racially equitable as well.
Szymanski explained that Feeding America reports one in 12 white, non-Hispanic individuals are food insecure yet one in six Latino individuals, one in five Black individuals and one in four Native American individuals are food insecure in America.
“There definitely is a racial divide, so fighting for food justice is also fighting for racial justice,” Szymanski said. Issues such as systemic barriers for minority farmers impact Charlottesville specifically.
Students hope that initiatives, such as the food justice panel and the developing food union, will bring the University into these fights for justice by coordinating efforts across the University community.