Oakland-Based Nonprofit Organizes Tour of Oaxacan Food and Agriculture


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With new restaurants like Comal shining a light, Bay Area interest in the cuisine of Oaxaca is perhaps higher than ever. But if you want to try the region's seven traditional moles, down shots of mezcal (tequila's smokier, lesser-known sibling), and munch on the fried grasshoppers known as chulapines, why not go to the source?

From December 22 to 30, Food First, an Oakland-based nonprofit food policy think tank, is leading an educational tour of Oaxaca that will allow participants not only to celebrate Christmas in Southern Mexico and eat traditional meals prepared in the homes of local farm families, but also to network with the region's food justice activists — to hear firsthand about the challenges faced by Oaxaca's campesinos and its diverse indigenous peoples.

According to Tanya Kerssen, a researcher with Food First, the trip is tailored to appeal to a wide range of interested parties — academics, activists, and all-around food nerds.

Food First was founded in 1975 by Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins as a response to what Lappé called the "myth of scarcity" — the idea that, in her view, world hunger was caused not by a lack of food, but rather by issues related to poverty, injustice, and the need for a redistribution of resources.

From last years Oaxaca tour: Cooking workshop in Xoxocotlán with Doña Rocio (photo courtesy of Food Sovereignty Tours)
  • From last year's Oaxaca tour: Cooking workshop in Xoxocotlán with Doña Rocio (photo courtesy of Food Sovereignty Tours)
For the past two years, one of the extensions of the organization’s food justice work has been a series of "Food Sovereignty Tours" that the organization has co-sponsored — all focused on the idea that people ought to have the right to determine their own food and agricultural system. Each year there are trips to Cuba, to Bolivia, to the Italian countryside, and more. Each tour is co-organized by a Food First representative and a local guide, who work together to set the itinerary and lead group discussions.

Kerssen herself was the Food First coordinator for the first Food Sovereignty Tour to Oaxaca, which took place last year, also during the winter holidays. Together with an Oaxacan activist named Juan de Dios Gomez — whom she called the "heart and soul behind the trip" — Kerssen put together the schedule, the orientation materials, and the thick packet of texts participants are given to read in preparation for the trip.

All in all, it's an expedition that can seem daunting if you're just looking to have a straightforward vacation or tourist experience.

"I think the trips are really fun, but I’m also a super nerd," Kerrsen said. She stressed that the Oaxacan tour isn't physically taxing, but that it’s intellectually stimulating and can be somewhat emotional, especially when participants have a chance to talk to local farmers and community leaders about their struggles.

"It is tourism in a way, but in another way, I’m introducing you to my friends and colleagues and partners," Kerssen said. "And by the end of this they’ll be your friends and colleagues and partners."

Night of the Radishes (courtesy of Food Sovereignty Tours)
  • Night of the Radishes (courtesy of Food Sovereignty Tours)
This year's Oaxacan trip will include tours of rural open-air markets and a family-run palenque (mezcal production facility), a cooking demonstration led by a local community member, and something called The Night of the Radishes, an exhibition of amazingly intricate sculptures carved from giant red radishes.

According to Kerssen, the demographics of the Food Sovereignty Tours span a broad cross section, from 19-year-old undergrads to 70-year-old retirees. There are professors, employees of nonprofit organizations, people who work at farmers' markets or in the restaurant industry, and the kind of person who has "read Michael Pollan and [feels] very curious."

Kerssen also acknowledged that the cost of the trip — $1,750 per person, not including airfare — isn't insignificant, especially given the fact many of the people who might be interested don't work in high-paying professions. Much of the expense, she said, is due to the fact that Food First fairly pays all of the local contributors — the guides, the translators, the families who are hosting meals in their homes, and so forth.

That said, Kerssen said prospective participants are encouraged to apply for a scholarship that would take $300 to $600 off the total price of the trip.

For more information or to register for the tour, visit the Food Sovereignty Tour website or call Food First at 510-654-440, ext. 223.


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