Beyond Food Fights

BCRW’s 2013 Scholar and Feminist Conference on “Utopia” created a space for its attendees to take our desires seriously and to imagine better outcomes. A broad array of topics were covered, from poverty, to media and pop culture, to food justice. I attended the workshop on the latter, entitled “Beyond Food Fights: Re-Imagining Food Justice,” facilitated by Pamela Phillips and Gwen Beetham. Earlier that day I had attended the prison abolition workshop and my mind was already swimming in ideas about what a prison-free world would look like. In the Prison Abolition workshop, facilitator Reina Gosset contextualized the prison industrial complex within a larger framework of racism, sexism, classism, xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia, pointing out how interrelated forms of oppression often are.

Gwen Beetham and Pam Phillips in front of blackboard at food justice workshop

Pam Phillips and Gwen Beetham facilitate the Food Justice workshop

Food justice is no different. Our food systems are embedded within a capitalist “corporatocracy,” as one workshop attendee phrased it. Although food production and distribution happens on such a large scale, food remains extremely personal, a source of pleasure and nourishment to the bodies who consume it. Thus, the fight for food justice is one for self and community care in the face of political and economic institutions driven by capitalism.

Although solutions were an important part of the discussion we had (it was a conference on utopia, after all), we spent a good part of the workshop just unpacking what the various problems are that obstruct food justice. From the rights of laborers who grow the food all the way to the nutrition of food going into people’s mouths, we touched on almost every aspect of the food industry that needs changing. Gwen discussed how our taxes subsidize the production of corn, wheat, soy and rice, grains which flood our diets, while more nutritious vegetables are referred to as “specialty crops” and remain more expensive and difficult to access.

Participants at the Utopia conference pick up fruit at buffet lunch

Participants at the Utopia conference pick up lunch

We spent the most time discussing inequality of access to healthy food. Important questions were brought up, such as “Why does it cost more to buy organic?” and “What is up with Whole Foods being so expensive?” We identified barriers of physical access to groceries that carry an abundance of fresh, healthful vegetables and fruits as a key issue. To elaborate on the former, Gwen and Pam defined the term “food desert” as a geographical area, typically found in underserved low-income Black and Latino neighborhoods, wherein there is a lack of grocery stores, and food must be bought from a distant location or from a local bodega, which typically does not carry much fresh produce. Pam brought up the point that those who live in these food deserts are very much aware of the lack of access, but often are not familiar with the terminology and discourse of the food movement that could enable more collaboration and grassroots action. Related to knowledge about the food justice movement is basic education about nutrition, particularly in schools. The absence of comprehensive food education in many communities is another important issue identified by the group, who all agreed that it should be a basic human right to be informed about what we are putting in our own bodies.

All of these issues are very much tied up in economics, and for those with the power to fix this broken system, the financial interests of enormous corporations seem to outweigh concern for the health and well being of individuals. Thus, fighting for food justice becomes a daunting task. Nonetheless, as a group we put forth a few ideas about how to achieve food justice for ourselves and within our communities. One idea that was mentioned several times was growing one’s own food. While growing vegetables in a garden is not an option available to everyone, particularly in the city, people have the capacity to grow their own food more than they realize. The process of growing one’s own fruits or vegetables can provide a deeper understanding and value for the food we eat, saves money over time and is a terrific way to assure your vegetables are pesticide free. Another solution we discussed was better food education, particularly for children. Good eating habits are best established at young ages, and educating children about healthy food is a great way to reach entire families as well. One group member who is an educator discussed how she teaches her students to appreciate different flavors of foods and spices so that they don’t have to rely on high salt or fat content to enjoy food, as many of us do. It is important to note, however, these education initiatives can only be truly effective if the healthy foods are made physically and economically accessible as well.

Woman in audience eats cupcake while woman next to her takes notes on cellphone

Participants in the Food Justice workshop enjoyed cupcakes as part of a discussion about the meanings of food

Members of the workshop also concluded that it is important to meet people where they are at in this type of activism. Food habits are deeply ingrained in us both socially and culturally, and financial constraints can make changing food consumption habits difficult. Not all of us can (arguably most of us can’t) simply switch to all organic diets or grow a vegetable garden in our backyard. By educating ourselves and our communities about the food we consume, we can instill deeper investment in health and food justice that enables us to find out which avenues are available in order to improve our eating habits. In addition, it is important to avoid the individual-blaming discourse of the anti-obesity movement which emphasizes self-empowerment and subsequently pathologizes those who are unable to attain “self control.” As we have discussed, health and well being, particularly as they relate to food, are not just issues for individuals to deal with alone, they are embedded in larger communal, societal and economic structures. Many members of low-income, urban communities are systematically barred from attaining “health” in this sense. Thus, better education nationally about healthy eating must go hand in hand with improving access to nutritious food.

As Gwen pointed out, it is vital to keep in mind that food does not only provide nourishment, it provides us with pleasure. Whether it be the physical experience of tasting something delicious or the comfort of a holiday meal with family, food brings together individuals and communities. Food justice is about expanding opportunities for bridging the pleasure and nourishment that food gives us. This means having a holistic vision for food justice that encompasses community, spirituality, health and economic opportunity.

Dina Tyson a recent graduate of Barnard College majoring in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and is a Research Assistant a the Barnard Center for Research on Women. 

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