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On World Food Day, a Colombian farmer provides for the next generation

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Photo: Ilene Perlman/Oxfam America
Nelly Velandia at a farmers' market in Des Moines. Photo: Ilene Perlman/Oxfam America

Nelly Velandia’s plans this weekend include a visit to an Iowa farmers’ market.

That’s not unusual; many of us stop by a farmers’ market as part of our regular shopping routine. I go to my local market for translucent gold tomatoes, earthI am proud to be taking part in Blog Action Day OCT 16 2011 www.blogactionday.orgy carrots still sporting their crown of greens, even locally-made Mexican-style chocolate.

But for Velandia, a community leader from Colombia now visiting the US, farmers’ markets are more than just a place to shop.

“I grew up on a farm,” in rural Boyacá, Velandia told me when we met in Washington, DC. “My parents cultivated a love of the countryside in me, so after [college] I came back to work the land.” There was not enough land to grow new crops on her parents’ farm, but she was able to obtain her own small plot. (A recent UNDP report found that about 80 percent of Colombian farmers’ plots measure less than three acres.) She earned extra money selling her farm-fresh cheese, eggs, and vegetables.

Meanwhile, Velandia joined with others to advocate for the rights of her fellow women and indigenous people. “It was always my dream to go back and work with the communities where I was raised,” she explained. “What we work on is influence: we want to ensure that rural women can influence government policies to resolve the problems that affect them.” That mission eventually brought her to the capital, Bogotá, where she joined the Communal and Small-Scale Farmers’ Committee for Dialogue (known by its Spanish abbreviation CICC).

Things came full circle for Velandia when CICC came up with a plan to organize farmers’ markets in Bogotá. Supported by Oxfam, these markets would help rural farmers sell directly to city consumers and earn better prices for their crops. Velandia’s group even convinced the mayor’s office to help cover the cost of setting up markets in parks and public squares.

Today, about 2,400 farmers from 60 rural communities sell fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, prepared foods, and even local crafts in the bimonthly markets. Nearly half of the vendors are women.  “The money they make goes directly into their pockets, not through intermediaries,” said Velandia. In a country where about 54 percent of rural people live in poverty, “it has a big impact.”

Urban consumers also benefit from the markets, where food sells for 15 to 25 percent less than it does on supermarket shelves. Velandia noted that the farmers’ produce is fresher, more nutritious, and often organic: in other words, the same reasons we choose to shop at farmers’ markets here in the US.

As part of a global celebration of World Food Day, Oxfam America brought Velandia to the US to share these successes with others. While Oxfam supporters planned World Food Day Sunday Dinners nationwide, Velandia met with legislators in Washington, DC, and agriculture experts at the World Food Prize Symposium in Des Moines. This weekend, she visited an urban farmers’ market in Des Moines and sampled the wares of her Iowa counterparts.

So with all the talk of buying local, I asked Velandia, why should people who care about food support farmers who live thousands of miles away?

She named some urgent reasons why, while shopping locally, we should call on leaders to invest in small-scale farmers worldwide: improving nutrition, keeping global food prices down, reducing poverty and hunger.  But the ultimate reason is to “ensure a better future for the next generation,” whether they live on the farm or the city. “By producing and consuming food in a sustainable way,” she said, “[we can] help save the planet and save humanity.”

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