Farming as a Revolutionary Act of Food Sovereignty – what is it, what to do about it – film and conversation notes

On Monday, February 21st at 6pm (Central), the Northwest Tennessee Local Food Network hosted a virtual film screening and discussion as part of the month-long 2022 Civil Rights Conference theme,“Suppression of the Soul: Examining Restrictions of Freedom” sponsored by The University of Tennessee at Martin. 

The virtual event focused on food sovereignty, the right of all people to have healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through sustainable methods. 

Following the 20 minute documentary, “Farming as a Revolutionary Act of Food Sovereignty”  a panel discussion was held with Caroline Ideus, Outreach Coordinator for the Northwest Tennessee Local Food Network, Somlynn Rorie, the creator and Executive Producer of the Good Food Film Series and the Food and Farms Initiatives Manager at the Local First Arizona, and Josh Arce, president and CEO of Partnership With Native Americans (PWNA).  The panelists discussed the factors and barriers of food sovereignty in their communities and solutions through farming, education, and community conversation. The film screening was hosted by the Northwest Tennessee Local Food Network, a local nonprofit which serves as a catalyst for a thriving and equitable local food system that is accessible to ALL in Northwest Tennessee.

Watch the recorded film and conversation HERE.

Below is a series of questions and discussion points that were shared during the event, including the film “Farming as a Revolutionary Act of Food Sovereignty” and lots of additional links and information!



Somlynn Rorie: Food sovereignty means that people and communities are given the power to create and sustain their own food system and access. This essentially means that all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to culturally appropriate foods as well as healthy, nutritious food that they need and can enjoy. So, in essence, food sovereignty places the control of a local food system into the hands of the people who are eating serving and growing this food instead of relying on a large industrial system. We’re looking at food sovereignty as a right for us to grow our own food, and to share it while strengthening our local food systems.

Joshua Arce
President & CEO
Partnership With Native Americans

How Does Food Sovereignty Relate to Civil Rights?

Josh Arce: Food sovereignty ties in directly with the civil rights movement, now and of a previous generation. It’s not that long ago that major changes took place in our country, but for the native experience – it was about being disenfranchised at a very early stage in American history which really disrupted the native way of life. It stripped populations from those native food systems, in addition to dispossessing tribes of that resource of buffalo land.

When populations don’t have access to their own food sources they are not in control of their food source, and they’re not in control of their children nor their children’s education – these issues have historically been a part of the context that native nations have been dealing with and fighting against throughout history.

The native communities that we serve are oftentimes located in food deserts. If there is access to food, it’s because of the government policies that had taken place, and had to do with survival foods which were commodities. Now, tribal populations are dealing with health disparities as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension. Our organization is trying to return to native food systems. We’re really trying to make sure we put a focus on indigenous foods and spaces, so we can be in control of the food sovereignty and return that ownership.

Food sovereignty is a people’s right to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and the right of people to define their own food and agriculture systems. Get to know local farmers who are farming for a more just food system. Hear their stories about why they got into farming, as well as the causes, advocacy work, and the change they are making for future generations.

 Discuss why you created this video.

Somlynn Rorie: This film represents just one of the 12 films that I produce. I came up with the idea during the pandemic. Normally we had farmer trainings and some events that we’re elevating our local food community by supporting our local farmers. I had to find a way to reach a broader audience. I received feedback from our farmers, and they shared that it is really hard to get people to care about where their food comes from. They can grow great food, but how do you get others to care?

These films represent a way to connect, allowing farmers to share their stories, showcase their diversity, highlight some of the challenges, and open the hearts of people to go back to those roots by supporting their local farmers markets, to get to know their farmers and to begin to care where that source of food comes from. Out here in Arizona, we are facing a lot of land development. Our local growers are quickly vanishing as their farms are getting paved over with housing developments.

How is Food Sovereignty Affecting Tribal Communities Across the Country?

Josh Arce: Recently there’s been a renewed energy behind the food sovereignty initiatives to address these food insecurities. One of the things that native communities have long dealt with is being on the outside. As the pandemic went on, what we learned is people got a lot more wiser about what they are consuming, needing to maintain healthier diets, finding out what is in their food, and everybody had more time on their hands to explore those educational materials.

Our native people are vested in the foods that they have grown up with on their land. We started to see shifts in the administration becoming more focused with natives in different political offices. Now with Deb Holland being the Secretary of Interior, she’s staffed all the way through between USDA and foreign bureaus which has begun a reemergence of priority to Indian country.

People also started to shift their ideas towards a Paleo diet as a healthier diet, which is based off of all traditional native ways of eating: meats, vegetables, and other foods produced from the land. Those types of foods are what nourished us for so many years and so many generations. It’s great to see this shift in eating, and starting to see the development of seed banks, and bringing those native foods back. There is a lot of pride associated with that.

One of the programs we work with in San Carlos is bringing back their king of sugar cane – Apache Sugar Cane. Seed banks are popping up, too, saving seeds from foods that existed, several hundred years ago => seeds from that line of food.

We want to foster an immersive experience, where it is a cultural experience, just like that farmer was talking about in the documentary – building a relationship not just with the land, but with each other. People are able to have community together and community engagement. It’s those types of experiences that grow a community and truly makes the fabric stronger.

The food sovereignty initiatives that we have in place, not just in the Southwest but in the Northern Plains are picking up a lot of momentum. Even with the elders still being the knowledge and cultural holders, they are able to reimplement native food concepts which allows us to continue to share those stories with the next generation.

What are some elemental barriers common for communities that are struggling with food security and food sovereignty?

Food Insecurity
Somlynn Rorie: Food security is when all people at all times have the physical, economic access to nutritious, healthy food that meet their dietary needs, and helps contribute and create a healthy life. Food security, how do you access food, and the concepts of the levels of where healthy food exists, is very prevalent in our society.

Land and Resource Dispossession
Josh Arce: Barriers such as land dispossession and resource dispossession created some deep wells of poverty that we are constantly trying to fight out of, and not having the infrastructure. In Indian country, land ownership is a very complicated situation because of treaty rights, and the political relationship with the United States Government.

The Trail of Tears was part of the Indian removal, an ethnic cleansing and series of forced displacements of approximately 60,000 Native Americans of the Five Civilized Tribes between 1830 and 1850 by the United States government.[3] Removal for this event was gradual, occurring over a period of nearly a decade.[4] Members of the so-called Five Civilized Tribes—the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations (including thousands of their black slaves[5])—were forcibly removed from their ancestral homelands in the Southeastern United States to areas to the west of the Mississippi River that had been designated Indian Territory.[Wikipedia]

With tribes, typically they have been land dispossessed and they may have been moved to a different area. When Native Americans were moved to different areas all over the country, and through relocation programs, they had a very traumatic effect on the community as a whole. That’s why returning to our native diets is such an uplifting activity, because it’s bringing together the community with something more positive to strengthen that fabric, rather than wearing it so thin to breaking point.

A lot of times, our communities that we serve are our reservation communities. Because most are remote, access to transportation is a barrier, and education, also. For example, even going to get compost is difficult because you may not have a vehicle that can travel hundreds of miles in order to get a deal on compost and haul it back, nor get it delivered – it’s very cost prohibitive.

Defining Food Desserts/Food Apartheid
Somlyn Rorie: A food desert essentially centers around communities who do not have access to healthy food. The term has evolved to be renamed: food apartheid. Food apartheid highlights the racial discriminatory structures that impact food access and control such as a food system that is centered and its access to healthy food is based on where one lives, income factors, and the demographic of that community.

“Food apartheid highlights the racial discriminatory structures that impact food access and control such as a food system that is centered and its access to healthy food is based on where one lives, income factors, and the demographic of that community.”

Somlynn Rorie

Defining Food Swamp
Somlynn Rorie: The question for areas that are in extreme poverty is what are their mechanisms for getting food? Terminology that I recently learned was “food swamp” and how does it differ from communities that don’t have access to healthy food or fresh food markets. A food swamp is where there is an abundance of fast food, junk food outlets, convenience stores, and liquor stores that outnumber a supermarket or other markets which provide fresh food.

So, this conversation around food access is such a powerful conversation and there’s so many layers on how do we eat, and how can we afford to eat what is accessible to us. Food sovereignty is a conversation for all of us about our way of how we eat and how do we access cultural foods.

“A food swamp is where there is an abundance of fast food, junk food outlets, convenience stores, and liquor stores that outnumber a supermarket or other markets which provide fresh food.”

Somlynn Rorie


SNAP/EBT Benefits
Josh Arce: I think what’s really exciting about the food sovereignty movement is the ability to tie in SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamp), where participants are able to uplift the community with incentives like two-for-one deals that they get when buying fresh fruits and vegetables.

Growing Your Own Food
Josh Arce: With Farmers Markets popping up, this has increased the ability to sell products, but also share knowledge about planting, harvesting, dehydrating, canning, and preserving foods and the ability to share any of that extra harvest with your neighbors.

Limit Processed Foods – Eat more Fresh Food
Josh Arce: When the pandemic hit Indian country, with many reservation communities are very closed and remote, the nearest grocery store is a journey away. It’s very hard to access what’s there, and by the time they get there, the shelves are bear, with limited food available.

Look at the example of the damage processed foods have had through those commodity food programs. A dependence on processed foods was created through the commodity foods programs which set up so many of the health disparities we see today in our Native American communities.

Through food sovereignty initiatives it is focusing on the foods that we are eating, and encouraging diets that are able to get people’s cholesterol down, and get off of diabetic medications, for example.

Through this movement, and again, I think it’s really rooted in that civil rights movement, our country has a parallel line that goes along with mainstream culture, African American history, and Native American history. The types of issues that were going on at the same time through those civil rights movements were the same things going on for Indian country. It has taken some time for these movements to merge into something that we can build on now, now that we have so much more awareness, and educational components that are available. We can start to build healthy communities again, having a better and healthier way of life, and a way to improve the health, wealth, and prosperity for our native communities and for reservation communities.

“A dependence on processed foods was created through the commodity foods programs which set up so many of the health disparities we see today in our Native American communities.”

Josh Arce

Partner with Organizations that are Making a Difference
Somlynn Rorie: One of the stories that I like to think about is to support the kind of nonprofit organizations that were highlighted in the film such as Spaces of Opportunity.
They are a 19-acre urban farm, in South Phoenix, AZ, and has become a hub for new farmers to start growing. Their farmers are growing native crops, they learn about preserving water, and they grow and sell their products to make a profit which contribute to society. It’s a wonderful case study on how farmers can grow and be successful in an urban setting through the support of nonprofit organizations.

Supporting Companies that are Minority Owned
Josh Arce: Native owned businesses have also been able to sprout up and become very effective as well providing products from kombucha to coffee. The action to support locally owned, diverse companies is part of the solution.

Starting a Community Garden
Josh Arce: One project that stands out in my mind is that we had a small garden with San Carlos Apache. It started with a 12×12 little greenhouse. When we went back to visit they now have multiple fields, while building a huge community resource. San Carlos formed partnerships with the USDA, and offer a seed bank. What they are doing has exceeded everybody’s imagination.

Increased Access to Resources
Josh Arce: When we bring in resources, and connect them with communities in need, the community takes the ball and runs with it because they have the knowledge, they have the people, and they have the drive. The barrier is getting access to those resources; however, when they see that it can be done, and when we can connect them to those community improvement projects, it lifts the whole community. Sharing what you know, and living in the community takes on a bigger role – one seeking those resources and reaching out to places like Bank of America, or writing grants, to improve food distribution for fresh produce and foods. We are starting to see these networks being created.

Support Locally Grown: Know your farmer, know your food, support your Farmers Market.
Somlynn Rorie: I also think that one of the best ways for us to start to engage and participate in this conversation is by talking about how we spend our money on food purchases weekly and monthly, and how to shift some of that money to a local farmer.
It’s hard to be a small farmer, and it’s expensive. Most farmers are renting their land because they cannot afford to buy it. So, we as advocates, as participants, can grow our own food, volunteer at some of these fabulous organizations, develop community gardens, work alongside other farmers, and purchase locally grown products.

“Included in that shift is a visit to your local farmers markets. Get to know your farmers. One of the key ways to to keep this effort moving forward is that we need to show up.”

Somlynn Rorie

Advocate for Youth Advisory Councils
Josh Arce: Showing up is huge! We also found involving youth programs at an earlier age, such as including youth advisory councils, are cultivating a youth movement. It’s something for them to advocate for because they are able to really do something that they can see the fruits of their efforts.

“Bringing in a net youth component is the way to sustainability, a lifeline, and it supports the intergenerational work that we want to achieve.”

Josh Arce


Can you explain how access to food and the ability to choose our food is a civil human right?
Josh Arce: If you don’t have access to choose your own food, then you have to consume whatever is given to you. What we’ve seen, as an example, is looking at the commodities program. We didn’t have a choice for that commodities program. It was what was given to us. It was the food that was provided for us. And that was supposed to keep us fed. What happened is that it was survival food, but it also was high in processed sugars, flours, and starches – all the things that are really harmful long-term, and created a level of dependence.

Not having a food choice – that’s where food sovereignty come to play. We want to own the whole process of our food – we want to own the planting, the maintenance, the harvesting of the food and the seeds. To care for your seeds in the ground to sending seeds to a seed bank is the ability to choose. It is the ability to know what we put in our bodies, and that is when you know we are in control.

“I think that having the choice, and the ability to put our soul into our food, is where it’s definitely a civil rights movement.”

Josh Arce

Now we are talking about food that we ate from time unmemorable, and original foods that we ate, and we can still eat which is the power that has to make us who we are. I think that having the choice, and the ability to put our soul into our food, is where it’s definitely a civil rights movement.

“Whoever controls our food, controls our rights.”

Somlynn Rorie

Somlyn Rorie: Josh well said! I think whoever controls our food, controls our rights. If we can reclaim those rights, the we have the power. This is a beautiful opportunity for us to reclaim those seeds with them in our hands and maintain our power. That’s why through this idea of food sovereignty, it is so quintessential to the civil rights and human rights movements. Food is the sole sustaining thing that we eat, to give us life outside of water.

During this conversation we have been mainly plant focused; however, within tribal communities, have any animal protein sources been utilized in your projects?
Josh Arce: There are bigger operations going on in the Northern Plains right now with buffalo. There are intertribal agricultural Councils in our Tribal Buffalo Council. There is a conscious effort to regenerate buffalo. It is a slower process, but looking at the importance of grass fed beef versus grain fed beef, it takes longer, and it’s more expensive. One of the challenges for the native communities is having access to capital in order to be able to get that type of a business up and off the ground. However, there are some hunting tribes that are blessed with treaty rights for hunting and fishing. There is a conscious effort to make sure that those are included in traditional foods and traditional meals.

In the Southwest, there are some farm animals but it’s not much because they do not have access to the land. They usually have small herds on their family farms, and are butchered when they are needed. It’s not an industrial type operation. It’s really a small farm operation and a quick and easy way to have that protein source, like raising chickens.

In New Mexico, back in the ’80s, there were problems with water issues and growing food. Has anything changed to support the more remote areas on different reservations?
Josh Arce: Not much has changed. Out West, water is is one of the most valued commodities, and it’s going to be like gold real soon because the aquifers are depleting, the droughts that we are having continue to push those record low water levels, and there are a lot of politics about whether to grant access or easements. The infrastructure doesn’t exist to get water where it needs to be.

Do you know what kind of crops are grown in states by refugees that are usually only grown in their home countries?
Somlynn Rorie: Refugee farmers bring their seeds, they bring native crops, and a lot of innovation. Many of them are coming from famished counties, with destroyed food systems. They are coming in and bringing knowledge, and skills with the understanding of how to grow with little to no water. We have Southeast Asian farmers who are growing and planting. They are growing okra which is very bountiful.

A lot of times during the summer months when it is actually very hard for a farmer to grow because it’s so hot, okra is an abundance, as well as eggplant. We are learning the tools of how to grow during the hot summer months, using drought tolerant, sustaining vegetables, as well as an introduction to different foods.

Caroline Ideus: This past weekend, Samantha Goyret and I went to the PICK TN Conference. I met a wonderful individual who has an organic farm in the northern central part of Tennessee. He is a refugee from Rwanda and owns South Main Organic Farms. He came to the Tennessee with zero English. He learned English and is now a very successful farmer and entrepreneur. He is growing for the African diaspora, so he primarily grows African eggplants which are white, looking like an actual egg. He also grows amaranth and other types of African crops that are indigenous to his country. He has found a niche market, and has been able to supply food for his community while also make a living.

Can you talk a bit about how the Northwest Tennessee Local Food Network is trying to address the needs of the impoverished in Northwest Tennessee?
Caroline Ideus: Our main focus right now is supporting Farm to School planning and programming. As Josh mentioned, there are many prongs to getting youth involved and educated, but the primary prongs of farm-to-school is agriculture and nutrition education, local food procurement, and growing food projects on school campuses.

Each school district that we have worked with (7 so far) are creating their own goals and sustainability measures within their district, meeting their schools’ and community’s needs.

We also publish our Northwest Tennessee Local Food Guide magazine that our network creates in partnership with the Weakley County Press. The guide is helping increase access to locally grown and produced foods by listing over 120 producers in our region and featuring special articles of interest, and featured advertisements. Included in the guide are listings of hunger relief agencies and little free food pantries, too.

We have implemented the first Farm to Early Childcare Program in our region, called Nourishing Connection. Right now the program is only offered to early childcare centers in Weakly County. All 12 childcare centers have hanging gardens placed near their playgrounds for children to access fresh growing plants that they help plant, care for, touch, smell, and taste. We offer seasonal education grow kits, too, that are funded through Farm Bureau Ag in the Classroom mini-grants. Additionally, we partner with University of Tennessee at Martin student volunteers in the spring.

On Saturday, April 23rd we are going to kick-off with a FREE SEED DRIVE for our new initiative we started last year – The #Grow Food Challenge. This challenge is open to anybody in the 9-counties of Northwest Tennessee (Benton, Carroll, Crockett, Dyer, Henry, Gibson, Lake, Obion, Weakley), who are willing to grow their own food from a black thumb to green thumb, and reducing their food waste by composting. The challenge works through themed online photo submissions: Start, Grow, and Harvest and will conclude on Saturday, June 18th. By submitting photos, we have prizes throughout this challenge. It’s a great way to build community through food, and also grow something that you can call your own. You can grow anything from an herb, fruit, to any kind of vegetable plant – just whatever you want to try to grow that is edible.

Samantha Goyret: The #Grow Food Challenge is really exciting, because we were able to get free seeds in partnership with the Society of St. Andrews – a gleaning organization based out of Tennessee. We hope folks participating in the challenge will share their food with others who need it or want it.

When almost all prices of goods between gas, food and everything else is climbing across the nation, we got free seeds so more are able to participate. Whether it’s growing lettuce in your a coffee can, or having a garden, to a pot on your shelf by the living room by window. We just want you to try to grow your own food and dabble in the art of composting.

Our ultimate mission is to help you help yourself by increasing access to nourishing, good, healthy food. Anybody can grow their own food! It’s true – try it! AND we are going to be offering amazing prizes through generous donations for incentives to participate. It’s really easy to participate because all you have to do is submit a photo online – with a quick click, a little bit of soil and a seed – you are in! The #Grow Food Challenge is from Saturday, April 23 – Saturday June 18, 2022.

Anybody can grow their own food! It’s true – try it!

Samantha Goyret

We encourage others to be a catalyst for a thriving and equitable local food system that is accessible to all. Being stewards of the land and living by example is the best thing we can do – creating a ripple effect throughout our communities.

Josh Arce: Northwest Tennessee is a beautiful area and you’ve got a lot of preservation through stewardship options in front of you. It’s an important place to take care.

One entity to find good partnerships, honestly, is still with federal programs. Trying to partner with the USDA or coalition building groups is having an impact on policy. That’s where the changes are going to take place. One of our biggest hiccups was starting a farm to school program in the Northern Plains. There’s so much red tape, with different challenges that crop up, but it’s about getting creative with the solutions.

With any type of coalition building partnerships, the USDA is really getting behind these initiatives, especially in rural areas, in order to implement them and to get them off the ground.

Somlynn Rorie: Some of the work that we’ve been doing over here is saving our farms, and preserving our farm land. We are losing a lot of our mid-sized farms, which are primary anchors to our local food sources. A lot of our Phoenix Farmers are not able to afford the land so they’re leasing it from the land owner.

One of the things that we’ve done is by lifting up our own voices. Consumer voices are showing up to the city council. Our voices are showing up by writing letters. If we don’t use our voices, and if we don’t stand in unison for our farmers, they’re going to go, and we need to show up for them.

Samantha Goyret: That goes to show that none of us can do this individually by ourselves. It really takes a village to raise a community. Connecting all of our community work silos together is probably one of the most rippling effects that we can we can possibly do.

Henrietta Giles: Thank you all for for joining us. This was a great discussion, and you know, you said something that was quite powerful in your comments, Somlynn, you said: “Who controls our food controls us,” and if that isn’t a civil rights topic, I don’t know what is. You all have given us a lot to think about. Josh, Somlynn, Samantha, Caroline – we really appreciate you all bringing this topic to us.

To learn more about upcoming events at the UT Martin Civil Rights Conference visit: