Social Work Day at the U.N.: Social Work's Role in Moving Toward Food Security for All

person lifts lettuce from a basket

By Paul R. Pace

Nearly 2.4 billion people lacked access to adequate food in 2020—a rise of 320 million from just a year before. The global pandemic has increased food prices to nearly all-time highs. This has a greater impact on people who live in low- or medium-income countries since a larger share of their pay is devoted to food.

Adding to this crisis is the Russia-Ukraine conflict, which is likely to exacerbate food inflation in developing countries. Both Russia and Ukraine are major suppliers of wheat, maze, barley and sunflower oil.

Because of these important issues, organizers of the 38th Annual Social Work Day at the United Nations (U.N.) chose the theme “Moving Toward Food Security for All: The Role of Social Work” at its March 2022 event.

“We chose this theme because food is an essential part of being alive… and yet, over 800 million people experience chronic and acute hunger due to conflict, socioeconomic conditions, natural hazards, climate change and pests,” said organizer Shirley Gatenio Gabel, a professor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Social Service.

Each year, social workers and social work students from across the U.S. and the world meet for Social Work Day at the U.N. during Social Work Month.

“Our purpose is twofold: to increase social worker knowledge of global social work issues and increase the visibility of social work at United Nations,” Gabel says of the event, which was held virtually this year.

Social Work Day at the U.N. is a collaborative effort by the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW), the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW), and the International Council on Social Welfare (ICSW). The NASW Foundation helps administrate NASW international efforts, including participation at the Social Work Day at the U.N. events.

Robin Sakina Mama, dean of the School of Social Work at Monmouth University in New Jersey, and Gabel are co-chairs of the planning committee for Social Work Day at the U.N.

Gabel introduced a three-person panel of food experts who talked about the ways social workers can address food insecurity.

Community Gardens

Panelist Mama serves as the representative of the IFSW to the U.N. and is chairperson of the NASW International Committee. She discussed the value of community gardening and the Virginia A. Cory Community Garden at Monmouth University. It is a cooperative volunteer effort run by the School of Social Work with the assistance of a steering committee of gardeners and university faculty.

“Since 2010, we have donated close to 23,000 pounds of produce over the years from this garden,” Mama said. “Community gardening is something that has been one of my treasures at Monmouth and something that is near and dear to my heart.”

Community gardens are a vital component in addressing food insecurity. Since the late 1800s, there have been community garden campaigns, Mama said, including the Victory Gardens during World War II. There are community gardens across the world, including in urban areas. While they may come under different names, all these gardens must be managed. In some places it is done by the municipality, while others are run as nonprofit organizations. Some are managed by universities or schools.

These gardens amplify community relationships, said Mama, and many of them try to address food insecurity through donating their produce. They are vehicles for education, as well. The garden at Monmouth, for example, also serves as a springboard to promote the growth of community gardens by hosting education events. “It has become what the university considers part of its sustainability footprint,” Mama said.

Indigenous Peoples

NASW member and panelist Hilary N. Weaver, DSW, is a professor and associate dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the School of Social Work, University at Buffalo (SUNY).

She offered insight on Indigenous Peoples’ perspective on food.

“Food is more than nutrition,” said Weaver, who is Lakota. “For Indigenous people, food is our relative. Food is a spiritual sustenance.”

Traditions and ceremonies tie into food, she noted, whether it is feasting or inviting others. Food is intertwined to continuity, and it connects to the lands and waters that sustain Indigenous Peoples, she said.

About 30 percent of Native American families experience food insecurity. “The United States is a wealthy country, we should not have these statistics,” Weaver said. “In Indigenous communities we often talk about food sovereignty rather than food security. Sovereignty is related to nationhood.”

Weaver said by enhancing self-governance, you enhance the ability to feed yourself. “We should have foods that meet our cultural needs and our food systems and practices, not someone telling us what we should eat,” she said, adding that flipping the script on food insecurity can be done.

“We cannot have adequate access to healthy food if we don’t have climate justice and we don’t have access to land,” Weaver said. “Social workers are good at thinking holistically in terms of this big picture.”

Social workers also can partner and support Indigenous and tribal initiatives. “Social workers are good at critical thinking,” Weaver said. “We need to question what food is available in our current programs. Social workers are advocates. We can challenge regulatory barriers and policies that perpetuate food insecurity.”

“We all have roles to play,” she added. “We must understand, support and advocate for Indigenous food security in the Americas.”

Help For Rural Areas

Panelist Dr. Seki Richemont is a medical doctor who specializes in food and nutrition security with a focus on nutrition-sensitive agriculture and food systems. Everybody should have the right to make food choices, he said. It’s about quantity and quality.

Richemont noted he works for the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). The organization explains that three quarters of the world’s poorest and most undernourished people live in rural areas in developing countries. Most of these people depend on small-scale agriculture for their livelihoods.

In rural areas, different forms of inequality often compound poverty. For instance, because rural women who are poor suffer from unequal access to land, they tend to be restricted to low-return or low-pay economic activities, and they have less access than men to finance, technology, markets, and decision-making.

IFAD supports projects that connect rural people to markets and services so they can grow more and earn more. Social workers are agents of change, Richemont said, adding that it is vital for social work to be involved at the policy-engagement level to address food insecurity.

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