Navina Khanna, executive director of the HEAL Food Alliance, has a grand goal: to give power over the global food system — largely controlled by mammoth food and agriculture companies — back to communities. During a Yale Center for Business and Environment webinar titled Building Power for Radical Food System Change with Heal Food Alliance, Khanna herself acknowledged the immense scale of the issue HEAL is trying to solve.
"We need to break up that whole system," she said. "We knew we were not going to be able to do that. Politically it’s not possible. But with a campaign that a bunch of groups have a stake in and could work on together, we can start building our momentum while actually winning substantive change for communities."
According to Khanna, those pushing for change within the agricultural sector are fighting in isolation. Workers fighting for better wages in one region. Fishers fighting for better working conditions in another. Health activists fighting against junk food or pesticides somewhere else.
HEAL members represent 2 million farmers, ranchers, fishers, food chain workers, public health advocates, activists, indigenous groups and policy experts.
To make any headway on her goal, she needs to empower and work with a huge number of people and organizations, so HEAL aims to bring together many organizations from the food sector to break down the silos between them.
The organizations that are part of HEAL "are all in agreement that we will uphold each other’s issues and not throw each other under the bus when it comes to trying to advocate for any kind of policy changes," Khanna said.
HEAL members include Food Chain Workers Alliance, the National Black Food and Justice Alliance, Real Food Generation, Union of Concerned Scientists, Fair World Project and many others. Together they represent 2 million farmers, ranchers, fishers, food chain workers, public health advocates, activists, indigenous groups and policy experts. Through collective action, they have been able to achieve more than any one of these groups could on its own, she said.
"There’s such a diversity of perspectives that [offers understanding about] the ways that the system is currently working," said Anna Canning, campaigns manager at Fair World Project, a member of HEAL. "[Other members] have a really clear vantage point on ways that the current food system is rigged, that I don't have from my office in Portland, Oregon. When you bring all those people together, you can really have a much more robust understanding."
The Alliance’s Real Meals Campaign focuses on three university foodservice giants — Aramark, Sodexo and Compass Group. The Real Meals Campaign calls on these companies to commit to 25 percent of food on campuses to be from local producers, cut out kickbacks that lock out small producers and invest $1 million in infrastructure to increase purchasing from farmers and fishers of colors — alongside many other goals.
According to Khanna, HEAL, through the Real Meals Campaign, was able to get movement from the companies on a set of environmental, animal welfare and labor standards. That included supporting student organizers and Indigenous activists from the Block Corporate Salmon campaign to get Aramark to commit to never sell any genetically modified salmon, and pushing Compass Group and Sodexo to commit to securing contracts with some Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) producers. Combined power with alliance members like the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) also helped the Good Food Purchasing Program, of which HEAL was a national partner, remove $100 million of public money for food away from bad actors that have violated labor standards and environmental standards.
According to Canning, her team struggled to even get fair trade coffee onto college campuses but by working with HEAL, it has been able to address more systemic issues.
The scale of change that we’re trying to make can only happen through mass movement and mass action.
Each member of HEAL is committed to its Platform for Real Food, a 10-point plan that focuses on three buckets: economy; environment; and health. The plan puts BIPOC communities and historically overlooked agricultural workers front and center. According to Khanna, the people really working in the food sector have the least amount of power to influence decisions because of systemic racism, fear of losing their jobs or even being deported out of the country. But they are the ones most affected by bad food practices that trickle down to all of us, she said.
"For example, we’re saying that we don’t want pesticides on our food anymore," Khanna said, noting that people most affected by pesticides are those who are actually spraying or who live in communities that neighbor fields. "What if those folks who don’t want to be spraying pesticides because they don’t want their kids to have birth defects had the right to organize and to speak out and weren’t vulnerable to job losses? It could all look tremendously different forever. We could all benefit."
The U.S. agricultural system has been built on a history of stolen land and slavery, Khanna noted, and that has morphed into a system that deeply undervalues and underpays its workers. Those individuals typically have even less power to influence decisions about their work, she said. HEAL is about finding where that power lies, who has control over where the resources flow and influencing them with opinions from the ground up.
"The scale of change that we’re trying to make can only happen through mass movement and mass action," Khanna said. "Nobody actually has time to do every single thing. We are all going to burn out. We really, really trust each other to take action when it’s needed."
Correction: This article has been updated to clarify which of HEALs partners worked on which campaigns.