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Inaugural Gathering in Miami for Symposium on the Right to Food, Housing and Racial Justice

Food, Housing, and Racial Justice Symposium

April 13-14, 2023

University of Miami Law School

Miami, Florida

The Human Rights Clinic of the University of Miami’s Law School – together with the National Right to Food Community of Practice, the West Virginia University Center for Resilient Communities, and WhyHunger, organized the first national conference to address the intersectional issues of the rights to food, housing and racial justice in the United States. This was an inaugural moment for frontline communities, organizers and activists, scholars and law students to gather together to examine the opportunities for addressing hunger in communities of color in this country through a human rights lens.

Why this symposium now? Communities of color, including Indigenous Peoples, undocumented immigrants, and low-income populations, experience higher rates of hunger, food insecurity, and homelessness in the United States. The food insecurity rate of people of color in every state is consistently at least two to six times that of whites. The U.S. has long failed to protect its people’s right to food in great part due to the legacy of racial discrimination and colonization that have given way to agricultural, food and nutrition, land, labor, housing, and urban planning policies that systemically deny food to communities of color. Black Americans make up 40% of the homeless population, while only 13% of the overall population. Moreover, intersecting discrimination based on race and gender exacerbates homelessness. Single women with children make up about 21% of the country’s homeless population, and about 50% include single Black mothers.

These violations have been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. The COVID-19 crisis has brought to light the stark inequities that leave tens of millions in persistent hunger and poverty in the U.S. Millions of people lost their jobs during the pandemic, which was followed by an equally staggering rise in food insecurity. Housing inequality has been further exacerbated with thousands of renters evicted from their homes each week. Racial disparities in household net worth and mortgage access place Black families at greater risk of housing instability and homelessness. While almost 75% of white families own their homes, less than half of Black families own their homes.

COVID-19 is pushing the emergency feeding system to its limits, exposing the true extent of the hunger problem in the U.S. at its roots. The U.S. emergency feeding system, a network of 60,000 frontline pantries, soup kitchens and food banks anchored in almost every community in the U.S., is critical at a time like this. That’s what it was designed for in the early 1970s – emergency relief. Community institutions are doing an essential and life-sustaining job of distributing food against all odds. However, the private charitable emergency feeding system in the U.S.—the largest and most sophisticated in the world—has historically never been able to meet the demand or make a real dent in the rate of food insecurity which has hovered between 11 - 12% over the past 30 years. It is simply not possible to ‘foodbank’ our way out of hunger. Even before the pandemic, 37 million Americans were struggling to get food on the table, while four out of five workers lived paycheck to paycheck. Hunger advocates generally focus on defending existing (and inadequate) government nutrition assistance while the average American citizen looks to the private charitable sector to meet the “emergency” needs of hungry families, rather than recognizing citizens, communities, and the natural resources we depend on as rights holders and governments as duty bearers.

The right to food is both a call to action and a global legal framework for coordinated reform in food and nutrition, agriculture, land, labor, housing, and urban planning policies. As the pandemic reshapes public life around the globe, it also offers an opportunity to organize and protect everyone’s basic human right to food in the U.S. On November 2, 2021, Maine became the first state in the U.S. to enshrine the human right to food in its state constitution. On December 9, 2021, a resolution on the right to food was passed in the city of Morgantown, West Virginia, and a right to food constitutional amendment was introduced in both the 2022 and 2023 legislative sessions. Groups in Washington, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, California, Hawaii, and other states are considering the proposal of similar right to food constitutional amendments. There is a nascent right to food movement in the U.S. that is expanding and embracing the shift from charity to rights. In parallel, a vibrant movement to recognize housing as a right, rather than a commodity in the U.S. has also started to take shape. President Biden’s platform endorses a right to housing, and there are movements to establish a right to housing at the state and local levels, including in California and Connecticut.

This symposium was a response to the urgent need for deep reflection, innovative thinking, and joint strategizing with regards to hunger and food equity that put the needs and interests of communities of color and those with lived experience of hunger at the center.

What happened at the symposium?

DAY 1, Part I: Speakers and Panelists

On the first day of the symposium close to 200 people participated in panels and plenary discussions where the lived experiences and strategies of survival and resistance of communities of color were uplifted. Presentations framed issues of food insecurity, food system governance, access to land and natural resources, and the environment as violations of the right to food.

The morning keynote panel featured:

  • Michael Fakhri, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food (video remarks)

  • Smita Narula, Haub Distinguished Professor of International Law, Elisabeth Haub School of Law, Pace University

  • Delegate Danielle Walker, Executive Director of the ACLU West Virginia chapter and former Delegate to the West Virginia State Legislature [insert photo of Dani speaking]

  • David Peery, Founder and Executive Director, Miami Coalition to Advance Racial Equity (MCARE) The second panel on the Human Right to Food was moderated by Denisse Córdova Montes, Acting Associate Director, Human Rights Clinic; Faculty Advisor, Human Rights Program; Lecturer in Law, University of Miami School of Law.

The panelists, representing a diversity of perspectives and lived experiences, featured:

A third and final panel on Right to Food and Housing Intersections was moderated by Tamar Ezer, Acting Director, Human Rights Clinic; Faculty Director, Human Rights Program; Lecturer in Law, University of Miami School of Law

The panelists featured social movement leaders, people with lived experience of homelessness, artists, and legal experts on the right to housing:

  • Abigail Fleming, Mysun Foundation Practitioner-in-Residence, Environmental Justice Clinic; Faculty, Environmental Law Program, University of Miami School of Law

  • Rob Robinson, Partners for Dignity and Rights

  • Rhoda Rosen, Executive Director, Red Line Service; Adjunct Associate Professor, School of the Art Institute of Chicago

  • Hannah Smaglis, Intern, Human Rights Clinic, University of Miami School of Law

  • Eric Tars, Legal Director, National Homelessness Law Center

A packed auditorium for the panels on Day 1 of the symposium.

Day 1, Part 11: The People’s Tribunal

The Miami Coalition to Advance Racial Equity (MCARE) hosted an open dinner, at SMASH House in Miami, followed by a People’s Tribunal to bring attention to the criminalization of homelessness and violations of the right to food in Miami. In 2020, the City of Miami passed an ordinance criminalizing food sharing, or the feeding of people experiencing homelessness in groups of twenty-five or more without a permit and at non-designated feeding locations (with only five inconvenient locations designated). By passing this ordinance, the City of Miami is “using hunger as a weapon against the poor.”

The People’s Tribunal, which took place under a tarp and a stormy sky behind SMASH House, included approximately 50 people in attendance, including participants to the Food, Housing and Racial Symposium, local community members, and staff and supporters of MCARE. The City of Miami was put “on trial” by those in attendance. Testimony was provided by those who have experienced homelessness in the city of Miami and had relied on charitable food access to sustain themselves as they struggled living on the street and those who had been serving hot meals, water and blankets to the homeless in Miami for decades. Both the homeless seeking help and those providing it were facing criminalization under this ordinance banning large group feeding in public spaces. The People’s Judges included Danielle Walker, Eric Tars, and Shanequa Smith. After testimonials were given, the judges ruled that the ordinance violated the constitutional rights of both the homeless and the people and organizations providing food. They also ruled that the State – in this case, the city of Miami – had relegated their obligations to protect its citizens and ensure their basic needs were met to non-governmental charitable organizations.

Eric Tars, Legal Director at the National Homelessness

Law Center, ruled in favor of the people.

Antonio Tovar from the National Family Farm Coalition speaks

on behalf of the struggle for farmworkers in the U.S. at the People’s Tribunal.

Esteemed judges for the People’s Tribunal: (from L to R) Danielle Walker, Executive Director of the West Virginia Chapter of the ACLU; Eric Tars, Legal Director at the National Homelessness Law Center; Dr. Shanequa Smith, West Virginia University.

Day 2: National Right to Food Community of Practice Strategy Session

For the first time since the National Right to Food Community of Practice began convening state-level advocates in early 2021 to share strategies as they developed food and farming legislation through a human rights lens, we came together in person in Miami for a day-long strategy session to define and move our collective work forward. We reaffirmed our shared strategic goals: To organize communities and build a strong national supportive network in the struggle for the right to food, to shift the narrative about how to end hunger and heal our planet from charity to justice; to align with and learn from global social movements for food sovereignty and the right to food.

Participants, including Karen Spiller, Amy Cohen and Antonio Tovar,

discuss advocacy strategies for the right to food on Day 2 of the symposium.

Laughter and surprise punctuated the discussion.

Rob Robinson from NYC and Danielle Walker from West VA debate

the essential aspects of a future where economic, social and cultural rights

are codified in the constitution.

Participants participated in an exercise resulting in a sketch of a pantheon

depicting the pillars maintaining the status quo of hunger and poverty in the U.S.

Participants participated in an exercise resulting in a sketch of a pantheon

depicting the pillars that would be necessary to support a right to food dreamscape.

The closing circle of the National RtF CoP Symposium’s Strategy Meeting.

Watch this space for a forthcoming full report about the symposium, along with a special issue of the University of Miami Law School’s International and Comparative Law Review Journal on the Right to Food in the United States.

Symposium Sponsors

  • National Right to Food Community of Practice

  • West Virginia University Center for Resilient Communities

  • WhyHunger

  • University of Miami School of Law’s Human Rights Clinic

  • University of Miami School of Law’s Human Rights Program

  • University of Miami School of Law’s Office of Intellectual Life

  • University of Miami School of Law’s Human Rights Society

  • University of Miami School of Law International and Comparative Law Review

  • University of Miami School of Law's Environmental Law Program

The symposium was creatively and passionately designed, supported and troubleshooted by the University of Miami Human Rights clinic law students: MacKenzie Steele, Photini Kamviselli Suarez, Julian Seethal and Laura Leira.

(L to R) Julian Seethal, Photini Kamviselli Suarez, Mackenzie Steele,

Professor Denisse Cordova Montes, Laura Leira,

University of Miami Law School Human Rights Clinic.


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