This story was originally posted by The 19 and is reproduced here with permission.
Sommer Sibilly-Brown had no intention of joining the food sovereignty movement. The movement found her.
In 2012, Sibilly-Brown was working as a primary school teacher in St. Croix, part of the US Virgin Islands, when her students pitched an idea at an agricultural fair to bring locally grown food to their schools.
While working on their presentation, the students heard about a national initiative that could do just that. It’s called the National Farm to School Network, and it’s a non-profit organization that works to connect local farms to school cafeterias – a model that both strengthens local food systems and provides healthier school meals for children – a win-win for farmers and their communities.
But the network didn’t reach the US Virgin Islands, and Sibilly-Brown recalls one of his students asking: If the program was national, why didn’t it reach their territory?
“That question was the question that guided my work,” Sibilly-Brown said. “If we are in the United States, why not here?
This set her on the path to finding answers and solutions to an important problem: an overreliance on imported food. She wanted her students to be able to eat food grown nearby and for the U.S. Virgin Islands to achieve a level of food sovereignty or the ability to produce healthy, culturally relevant food on the islands.
Sibilly-Brown isn’t alone in wanting to see local food systems grow. Across America’s island territories, women are connecting with each other and working to ensure their communities can be resilient in the face of climate change and future pandemics.
In Guam, one of the few places where matrilineal traditions are still strong, women are empowered to make the decisions that direct their communities and homes. And in Puerto Rico, women have been at the forefront of the community-building aspects of the local food system.
The same goes for the Virgin Islands, where Sibilly-Brown said she mainly encounters women in the work she does on food systems. “I absolutely think it’s a women’s movement,” she said.
“It comes from things as spiritual and inherent as procreation where that seed becomes a baby, or making something from scratch in the kitchen that is delicious for our families,” she said. “We are harnessing the transformative power very, very well, and I see it daily in the food system.”
Although these territories are technically part of the United States, Sibilly-Brown says it’s more accurate to think of them as possessions. They share a particular kind of invisibility, considered strategic military locations and vacation destinations, but overlooked when it comes to supporting their local economies.
This is especially true in the context of food and sustainability. Currently, the US Virgin Islands imports between 95 and 99 percent of its food from the United States and other countries. Other island territories have similarly high rates, with Guam about 90 percentt and Puerto Rico to 85 percent.
Developing the local food system is a way for territories to address the vulnerabilities caused by food imports. Climate change has fueled more intense hurricane seasons, which affect shipping; supply chain issues caused by the pandemic have shown the need for more local production. Additionally, the prevalence of health problems like diabetes, caused in part by highly processed foods brought to the islands, has illustrated the need to reconnect with traditionally grown fruits and vegetables.
So Sibilly-Brown and her students set to work on a year-long service-learning project to bring local food back to the school cafeteria. She began to see important ways in which the islands and the American mainland were disconnected – and still are.
“I realized there was this big knowledge gap between all these different players in the system,” she said. Some of the people she has to work with through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) are based in Virginia and Florida, for example. “I sought to become the bridge that could connect people, much like a pollinator, buzzing around the place and talking about food systems.”
After successfully integrating the U.S. Virgin Islands into the National Farm to School Network, she started a non-profit organization, called Virgin Islands Good Food Coalition, to support and advocate for policies and funds that support the farmers in the Virgin Islands.
In Puerto Rico, Crystal Díaz took a similar approach, looking for ways to strengthen and support local food production by connecting farmers with consumers.
The devastation caused by Hurricane María in 2017 illustrated the need to strengthen local food systems. The main port that sends food to Puerto Rico is in Florida, and it too was damaged by the storm. “Hurricane Maria was a slap in the face for everyone,” said Díaz, who recently spoke on a forum with Brown about food sovereignty in US territories. It was then that many people realized how dependent they were on boats to transport food. “Supermarkets started to have their aisles empty. It was a wake-up call for a lot of people,” she said.
Through an app she co-founded in 2018 called PRoduce, restaurants and residents can now order local produce directly from the island’s small farmers. So far, the app has been able to connect 400 producers to over 70,000 consumers.
She sees food security as a way to build resilience against future storms and says the type of agricultural practices farmers use will also be important.
“We need to do this in a resilient and sustainable way, using soil conservation practices, agroecology and sustainable agricultural practices that then enable us to be resilient to climate change,” she said. “Hurricanes are going to continue to hit the island, and they’re going to get stronger, apparently, because of climate change.”
For Ursula Herrera, who works at the Guam Department of Agriculture, food sovereignty is not just about surviving climate change, but is a tool to reclaim a cultural connection to food that has been eroded by colonialism.
Through her work with the department, Herrera connects local farmers to USDA microgrants that aim to increase the quantity and quality of food grown on Guam. Other initiatives include starting a local food bank supplied with produce by a farmers’ cooperative and promoting seed saving.
Herrera, who is CHamoru — an indigenous person from Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands — said it’s also about finding ways to educate the next generation. She takes groups of young people on hikes on medicinal plants, for example, passing on the knowledge she learned from her grandmother. “(I point out) the plants that heal us and help us and just reclaim our cultural identity with the land,” she said.
Prior to the Japanese occupation during World War II, where residents of CHamoru were sent to concentration camps, Herrera said that most families in Guam – his native name is Guåhan (GWAH-hahn) – practiced subsistence farming. “Each house had its own back garden,” she said. “We traded among ourselves. And then comes war and the loss of prime farmland for (US) military bases. The economy has also become monetary.
A big part of his job is to bring this hyper-local food production back. “We have a nursery and we have the lowest prices on the island so we can support our food growth,” she said. “We have all these food crops and fruits, but also, we carry traditional herbal medicine, medicinal plants.”
But for this work to continue and grow, places like Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and other U.S. territories need government investment and to be better served by the USDA and resources than it can supply farmers, Sibilly-Brown said.
In recent years, she has focused on communicating with government officials on the continent. Most recently, she traveled to Washington, D.C., in February to raise the profile of the territories’ needs while lawmakers worked on the Farm Bill, a piece of legislation passed every five years that sets national policy in areas such as as agriculture, nutrition, conservation and forestry.
“Because we are geographically isolated areas, there are limits to our representation,” she said. The US Virgin Islands, for example, has a nonvoting delegate in the US House of Representatives, but no counterpart in the Senate. Other territories also send someone to the House to represent their voice, but they cannot vote on legislation.
It is therefore up to grassroots groups to defend their own needs.
The first step for Sibilly-Brown and her allies is to raise the profile of territories in the Farm Bill. “We are looking for voice, partnership and visibility within our nation,” she said.
Outside of the micro-grants the USDA has earmarked for the territories, which amount to a maximum of $10,000, farmers on the islands are otherwise in a competitive pool for stronger financing with farms on the mainland, where it there are already more resources and investments. “How will our proposals ever measure up? Sibilly-Brown wonders, as farmers have less contact with USDA officials and less help preparing applications.
That’s why she began advocating for the creation of an Office of Territorial Affairs at the USDA, which could address the unique needs of island territories.
She has no illusions that it will be created anytime soon. But it’s about planting the seeds of what an office could do as a liaison to better serve farmers in remote areas.
“What I want people to understand is that we are not asking for exceptions because we are territories; we are asking to be included in what should be given to every producer that produces in this country,” she said. “We ask them to consider small farms on a large scale. What does scalable hyperlocal agriculture look like (to add food security and work at the intersections of environment and health that our communities really need?”