Featured Leader: Neelam Sharma, Community Services Unlimited
In this Featured Leader piece, we speak with Neelam Sharma, Co-Executive Director at Community Services Unlimited,a non-profit based in South Central Los Angeles. Thank you, Neelam for sharing your remarkable journey into food systems leadership, your central sources of inspiration and motivation, and your thoughts on how communities can respond to COVID-19 in a way that catalyzes systems change.
An FSLN Community Food Systems Mentor and Equitable Food Oriented Development fellow, we've had the privilege of getting to know Neelam over the past several years and she never ceases to amaze us with her passion, creativity, and wisdom. Get to know her through this piece!
Who are you? (Beyond the job title!)
I am: the child of Punjabis who emigrated to England from India at a time when Britain was in economic upswing and sought them to come do the jobs natives did not want to do; the product of my mother’s yearning for home and family, my father’s anger at dreams deferred; the always cold girl hovering by the heater; the child growing up in Southall experiencing the invitation turn sour as the economy shifted; the woman who moved to yet another continent, for love found and lost; the mother of two incredible souls.
An active, angry, joyful, loving, confused, citizen of the earth.
What inspired you to get involved in food systems work?
When I moved to South Central Los Angeles, like everyone else who lived here, I experienced the lack of access to good food in my neighborhood generally and within the school system. I did what so many mothers do to meet their family needs, set about changing this circumstance and engaging whoever I could in the process.
My 10 year old began to attend school in Los Angeles and would come home hungry despite having lunch tickets. As he and his new friends explained to me, they found the food tasteless and often inedible and they complained most bitterly about the taste of the fruit, when they ever got any. I became interested in why this was the case, given that I was buying some of the best produce I had ever had access to at local farmers markets. As I got to know other parents, teachers, etc. the Healthy School Food Coalition was born, leading to the first soda ban in the US (the healthy Beverages Motion) and to two separate Cafeteria Reform Motions for LAUSD.
At the same time, I began to reclaim growing areas from concrete in our backyard in order to grow fresh food for my family and very quickly ended up with close to 30 different fruit trees and vines, and perennial and seasonal vegetable and herb beds. My own little homestead urban farm became many. My engagement of my kids and their friends in growing food became a youth internship program, and my cooking and sharing of meals and produce I had grown became a social enterprise.
What is the source of your motivation and inspiration as you continue this work?
I am motivated by the ever present desire to create the best possible conditions for my children and their children and so on, to have a healthy and fulfilling life. This work by definition cannot be done from a place of individualism, what any of us does can impact everyone, and in the face of global climate change this has become all too apparent.
I am inspired by the brilliance of my children who are far more knowledgeable and multi skilled than I was at their ages, and of the many committed people I see doing the work that is needed to create an equitable and foreseeable future for us all, and certainly by those I am blessed to work with. I am particularly motivated by the joy I see in anyone who for the first time plants a seed and sees it grow into a beautiful flower and/or food they can harvest and eat. THAT, is always a most incredible moment!
What does food systems leadership mean to you?
It means first and foremost to understand that our current food system globally is not working in the interests of humanity overall, and it does not take into account the damage it has had and continues to have to the home we all occupy. From this logically comes the conclusion that I must work, and urgently, to transform this situation. We are no longer in a debate about whether an economic system based on the greed of a few and the exploitation of the vast majority is righteous, but in a moment where if we don’t change this, then we are all doomed.
Another critical element is to deeply understand that we need to create food system projects, with and by people they serve that create sustainable lasting impact. Food can be a driver to re-generate communities if the resources and tools are placed in the hands of the people. A community food system project should not only impact access to good food, but also create a dividend of other surrounding benefit.
Can you name a person who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader? Maybe someone who has been a mentor to you, or someone you look up to. Why and how has this person impacted your life?
My maternal grandfather, who we called Bauji.
I moved to England with my family when I was just 2, but we went to India every single summer and I lived there for almost a year when I was 5. Bauji passed away when I was a teenager, but fortunately I got to really spend time with him. He was a hard-working self-made man who, from running street stalls, built a robust family business of several shops and ultimately a factory.
I always remember him being the earliest to rise and be on his way to somewhere. As his business grew, he built a multi-story family home and liked nothing better than to have everyone together. Till the very end he was a fun loving man, he always played with his grandchildren, and took great delight in tricking us, surprising us, and just conversing with us. He was also very strict about certain things, he did not like food to be wasted, and young or old you received his wrath if you dared!
Busy as he was, he loved good food, and he himself would go to the local market and buy the vegetables for dinner. He made delicious pickles and sweets with things like jackfruit and pumpkin. He would always return home from a long trip away with yummy treats for the whole family, whether it was a truck load of sugar cane we all sat around and chewed the goodness out of spitting out the roughage, or buckets of mangos so juicy they ran down our arms as we ate till stuffed.
Aside from these very personal memories and interactions, he did things I was around for and observed that I had no idea at the time would be so deeply impactful on who I would become.
As his income grew and he could afford it he began twice a year to hold a “bhandhara”. This was where he would hire a crew of chefs who would set-up a big open air kitchen in the alley way behind the house he built and they would cook huge amounts of delicious fresh food for days. Anyone could come and eat, and many did, all sorts of different people of various castes, and religions. I remember wandering, eating and just observing this event throughout my childhood. Bauji was born a Brahmin, but he did not adhere to the kind of Hindudvista exclusionary hatred that many Hindus in India are currently buying into.
Bauji inspired me to love good food, to understand that no one is too busy to make time for it and to connect with family and community around food.
He directly went through partition and saw horrors committed by all groups in India, including against Hindus by Muslims, yet he maintained his humanity and did not become a hater of any specific group of people based on caste or religion. Bauji impacted me to think deeply outside of what may appear to be obvious and to understand the duty we all as humans have to look out for those with less than us.
What have you enjoyed the most as a member of the FSLN? What do you hope will happen through this network?
One of the most enriching experiences I have had in the last few years has been to serve as a mentor in the FSLN’s Community Food Systems Mentorship Program. It has provided me the opportunity to meet with some of the brilliant young minds that are engaged in food systems work. As I have tried with care and honesty to respond to the questions and issues raised by these individuals, they have provoked me to ask questions of them in return and this has initiated a real dialogical exchange. This free and open sharing of ideas, which helps us sharpen and refine approaches to the work we are doing, ensures that we arrive at the best possible solutions to the problems we are grappling with. We need more spaces like this, where folks can simply share and learn from and support each other. This program has granted me the time and opportunity to reflect on my own journey in this work.
What’s one thing you are most proud of?
The creation of the Paul Robeson Community Wellness Center as the most recent expression of the work of Community Services Unlimited Inc. in South Central Los Angeles, AND the leveraging of this very local and place based work to help build, Equitable Food Oriented Development or EFOD, as a practitioner created national strategy.
What’s one thing you’ve learned in the last month that you’d like to share with the network?
Something I have re-learned in the last month that I have found crucial as a serious change maker to deeply understand: Humans have created a world where most of us act from a place of self interest and preservation. This understanding must inform how we talk about and position our work in order to engage many diverse people, and have the maximum impact to make lasting change.
This is not a negative judgment of humanity, it is simply the case that most people are necessarily concerned with their own, and their family’s survival, and for some, with upward mobility, as it is widely understood by most people. It is now more urgent than ever that we contextualize our work in the frame that we no longer live in a world where our fates can be separated. If the current COVID19 pandemic shows us any one thing clearly, surely it is this!
Global climate shifts, global viral infections and other human caused disasters do not discriminate based on race, color, religion or class. We must plan and execute a food system that provides for everyone if it is to serve anyone, there is no other way at this time.
What’s something about you (a fun fact) that not many of your colleagues know or that we wouldn’t expect from you?
I love to write “food” stories and am slowly beginning to share them.
What’s your greatest leadership challenge now, and what are you looking for support for? Something fellow members could help with.
To plan and execute a smooth, respectful, hope filled and exciting leadership transition at CSU. I have been thinking about this ever since I became ED in 2005 and it is something that many food systems organizations have been and are grappling with. As a field of practice we have not engaged in this conversation, and we need to. How do we usher in the young bright minds to take the helm and at the same time create pathways for different roles for those of us who have been around longer; and by so doing strengthen and honor all involved?
There’s not a single community within the movement for equitable food systems that isn’t impacted by this pandemic, which presents serious challenges on every level and has particular and immediate impact on frontline communities, farmers and farmworkers, food business owners, and food service workers. Given your experience and perspective in the food system, what do communities need now, and how might we collectively and intentionally respond in a way that catalyzes deep transformation and systems change?
First we need to ensure that everyone can access food during this pandemic. The communities with the least resources, where families are already living on the edge are the hardest hit by the current situation. So many people have been faced overnight with job losses, my daughter went from having three jobs to none in just one day and I am hearing many similar stories.
The emergency relief efforts that have been created by ordinary people are such an inspiration, but we need our government, the people elected, to handle situations like this to step up. There are many resources that can be accessed to provide the groceries, soup kitchens and more that are needed so that people don’t go without food. These services should be provided in partnership with folks based in communities already doing food justice work. Resources can thus be used to both help get food to people who need it AND help small businesses, non-profits etc. to stay afloat. These efforts should be built around buying food from small regional farmers, already living on very slim margins, and really taking a hit in this crisis.
As community practitioners we need also to re-group and take stock of the assets within our communities and make a real commitment to build on each others work to leverage our resources to the fullest. There is also some re-thinking to be done in how this field of practice is funded and how money is spent. For example, there seem to be more national gatherings than ever before; perhaps the lack of movement being enforced by COVID19 should give us impetus to consider spending those resources to support actual work. Perhaps funders can come together and collectively hold just one or two national events and focus instead on building real infrastructure within communities that can fundamentally shift conditions for the long term.
Any words of encouragement or advice to share with your fellow food systems leaders?
How about I share one of my food stories instead:
As a very little girl growing up in Medway Towns my favorite time was always the summer.
Because I NEVER got used to the cold of jolly old England and
Because summer meant my favorite things to eat which my mum would go to Rochester farmers market to buy in bulk.
At the time I thought she was going to actual farms to pick these delicious treats herself and would magnanimously invite over my friends to come and eat with me after an afternoon of hard playing in the sun. She would pretend to be annoyed with me, but I would hear her boasting to whoever would listen “you know Neeloo and her friends eat all the fruit it doesn’t matter how much I get”. I always knew she didn’t really mind. We would walk in the house and grabbing a large bowl fill it with the chilled stone fruit from the fridge. Then we’d go out into the garden and lay on the grass. I would pick up the darkest plum I could see and sniff it, always wondering why it didn’t have more of a smell, then quickly bite into it. The first mouthful I would chew slowly and then I would throw all caution to the winds and greedily dig into the sweet flesh as the juice dripped down my chin. I would eat my fill of plums and then take a break, wanting to savor the best that was yet to come, but I could never wait too long. I would carefully select my first peach and take a long whiff of its enticing but delicate scent. With great ceremony I would take the first bite of this my most favorite of all foods (except of course mangos). We would proceed to gorge ourselves until we couldn’t move and then with sticky hands and faces lay down in the grass and when we had the energy we would argue about who had eaten the most; it was actually always me.
A few years later my family moved to London and I forgot about these peach and plum eating summers. Though my mum kept on buying these fruits, they never tasted quite the same. Decades later, I moved to Los Angeles and began to buy fruit from farmers’ markets for my own children. With the first bite I took of a Myung Uh farm peach from the Vermont/Adams farmers market, the taste of the fruits of those long lazy Kentish summers came rushing back to me in vivid color, sound and smell and I was deeply grateful for the simple pleasures of once again eating, and for sharing the deliciousness of my childhood with my children.