Buffy Wicks and Jovanka Beckles, candidates running for Assembly District 15, spoke about food policy at the Food in the 15th candidates’ forum in Richmond. Photo: Brooke Anderson

More than 100 people gathered in Richmond last night to hear Assembly District 15 candidates Jovanka Beckles and Buffy Wicks speak about food, or more specifically, how the policies they hope to enact will influence food policy. The panel, called “Food in the 15th,” was organized by the California Food and Farming Network, which is made up of 50 organizations working to improve the food and farming system.

“So often people take food for granted,” said Doria Robinson, executive director of Urban Tilth, a Richmond-based urban farming organization and one of the forum’s co-sponsors, when she introduced the evening program. “It’s a backdrop you don’t often think about as an important thing, but everybody on the planet needs it. It plays into so many of the big challenges and crises we are facing: workers’ rights, climate change, long supply chains. All the fuel we put into industrial agriculture plays a huge role in climate change, but talks are often about energy and transportation, not about food.”

While Robinson’s statement was meant in regards to the general public, it was certainly not true of those in attendance at the forum. There were more than 20 local organizations either hosting or co-sponsoring the event, and many of those in attendance were affiliated with one of them, meaning the audience-at-large had more than just a passing interest in reforming the food system.

Doria Robinson, executive director of Urban Tilth introduced the program. Photo: Brooke Anderson

“Food system issues are not discussed enough in the context of our elections or the state legislature,” said Beth Spitler, an organizing and policy consultant with Pesticide Action Network, a Berkeley-based environmental and social justice nonprofit seeking alternatives to hazardous pesticides. “The food and ag interests that have the most influence in Sacramento are aligned with industrial agriculture and big food and beverage companies, and many legislators don’t see why these issues are vital to the health and well-being of their constituents.”

The panel was moderated by Nina Ichikawa, policy director of the Berkeley Food Institute, as well as a descendant of an immigrant who farmed in Richmond.

In introductory remarks, both Wicks and Beckles spoke to their records of public service as indicators of how they would serve.

Beckles, a longtime resident of Richmond and mental health worker who has spent the last eight years on the Richmond City Council, pointed to her long record of supporting urban agriculture organizations in her home city, like Urban Tilth, as well as farms at local elementary schools.

Wicks, a community organizer who has California roots and who worked for the Obama administration, spoke of her career as a labor organizer fighting for workers’ rights, nutritious food for all children and taking on Walmart over its unfair labor practices.

It should be noted that to someone not in the farming and ag world, there didn’t seem to be a large difference in the candidate’s opinions.

For example, both candidates support a soda tax. They both supported the Farmer Equity Act of 2017, which protects farmers of color against racial discrimination, with Wicks noting “we have to make sure our small farmers are front and center in all our policy conversations,” and Beckles saying “I would support a land trust to empower our small farmers, because public land should belong to the people.”

And they both support urban agriculture programs. Beckles noted that while she’s been on the Richmond City Council, the city had a goal of growing 5% of Richmond resident’s produce and that goal has been exceeded.

When asked about how to ensure schools get enough resources to improve cafeteria meals for low-income students, both pointed to Proposition 13 as at least a partial culprit, and said with its hoped-for eventual reform, that “can bring billions back into our communities,” said Beckles, with Wicks stating, “I will wholeheartedly work to my bone to reform Prop. 13 in 2020.”

And when asked about the housing crisis, with displacement and homelessness such topics of concern, both pointed to building more affordable housing as an obvious solution.

With one in five people living in poverty in District 15 — which covers most of western Alameda County and parts of Contra Costa County — both candidates agreed that the state should be playing a much larger role in providing essential social services to its poorest residents. And both pointed to making improvements in the CalFresh benefits as one way to do that.

“If the federal government can’t supply resources we need, the state government needs to do that,” said Wicks, noting that CalFresh benefits do not last a family the entire month, and with Beckles noting that one isn’t eligible for CalFresh if they make more than $15,000 a year.

“That’s ridiculous,” she said, “Who can live on that?”

Moderator Nina Ichikawa, policy director of the Berkeley Food Institute, (far right) moderated the panel with Wicks and Beckles. Photo: Brooke Anderson

When asked about how the state legislature could help keep food system workers safe from daily ICE raids, which have become normalized under the Trump administration, Wicks and Beckles both said they supported sanctuary cities.

“I oppose everything the Trump administration is doing when it comes to our immigration policy,” said Wicks. “I support a sanctuary state at both the city and state level. It’s not the role of our police officers to be working for ICE. It’s incumbent upon our government and attorney general to implement a sanctuary state and fight Trump on this.”

Meanwhile, Beckles said, “Our responsibility as elected officials is to protect all of our residents regardless of their immigration status.” She cited her involvement in a program to provide municipal identification cards to undocumented workers so they could do such things as use banks and obtain library cards.

Both candidates pointed to their record as to how they would improve the lives of food system workers, as most workers make below minimum wage, with 23% of them relying on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits.

Beckles brought attention on her work while on the Richmond City Council to raise the minimum wage in Richmond to $15, and she said she would advocate for a state-wide minimum wage of $20 as well. Wicks pointed to her organizing efforts on behalf of farmworkers, helping them unionize to have more bargaining power.

“The plight of our farmworkers is one of the most morally imperative issues we face as a state,” said Wicks. “They face harsh working conditions that are unsafe, they are exposed to pesticides. We have to address this head-on.”

In her closing statement, Beckles returned to her record, asking audience members to look at everything she’s done as an indicator of how she would lead. “Working closely with children and families, I’ve seen their needs up close and personal,” she said. “We’re sitting now on stolen land. We’ve got to respect the earth and respect our planet; it’s the only one we have, and we need elected officials who will put the needs of people and children and the planet above profit and be part of this revolution to take back our government and build a government that works for every last one of us.”

More than 100 people, many from local food policy and food justice organizations, attended the forum. Photo: Brooke Anderson

Wicks said this was one of the most thoughtful forums she’d participated in, and spoke of how everyone should have access to the same opportunities she did.

“I grew up in a trailer and went to community college and worked my way up,” she said, “starting in progressive politics and ended up working in the White House. I had a ladder up; a safety net allowed me to do that. Everyone should be allowed those opportunities. Look at our national politics; I can’t even go there, right? Look at the homelessness crises we see every day, that’s on us.”

Moderator Ichikawa ended the evening with the following: “Either way, I want you to vote for a powerful woman for assembly.” The room broke out in loud applause.

Laney Siegner, a Ph.D. student in Cal’s Energy and Resources Group said she was pleased that such a forum took place.

“I was excited to see food and ag being talked about as a focus,” she said. “Both candidates have a lot of similarities, in terms of advocating for an equitable food system. Buffy has more experience at the state and national level, while Jovanka is more of a local advocate and for lower-income people and people of color.” While Siegner didn’t share which way she was leaning, she said: “there was definitely value in hearing from both of them directly for my own voter education.”

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Alix Wall is an Oakland-based freelance writer. She is contributing editor of J., The Jewish News of Northern California, for which she has a food column and writes other features. In addition to Berkeleyside’s...