Voices of Color From the Food Justice Movement | Omega

People of color disproportionately experience food insecurity, but their stories are often overlooked. There is a growing movement to address that, as these stories illustrate.

Food justice is the idea that everyone should have access to food that is fresh, healthy, and grown nearby. It also includes the principles that the local community is involved from farm to table and that workers are fairly treated and compensated. 

People of color are disproportionately affected by food justice issues, and many activists, are working to remedy that, like Natasha Bowens, author of The Color of Food: Stories of Race, Resilience, and Farming, who challenges us to “make it our mission to truly listen, amplify, and support the work being done in communities of color, to end exploitation, restore justice, and demand equity.” 

Reviving the Plants of the Cherokee

Cherokee Kevin Welch, who is working (with educator Sarah McClellan) to help preserve plants sacred to the Cherokee people, told Bowens in an interview, “One of the things a lot of people don’t realize is that the Cherokee are the original agriculturists of this region. We’ve been growing food here for 6,000 years. Agriculture developed for us as it does for many cultural groups: Once our resources were stable enough and we didn’t need to spend our time searching for those resources, we started cultivating. We started raising squash several thousand years ago and beans and corn in the last 1,400 years.”

But, Welch explained, “Our people have gotten away from who we are. The younger generation has lost their heritage and forgotten how to garden as our elders did. Our diets and health as a community have changed drastically. If we can bring back our cultural foods and put them into the hands of the person that’s putting food on their tables, then we can change things.”

To do that Welch and McClellan run youth gardening programs, and workshops on gardening and the cultural history of Cherokee plants. They also give away kits of plants traditionally cultivated by the Cherokee. Each year they distribute about 700 of these kits.

Keeping Gullah Geechee Food Tradition Alive

Off the coast of South Carolina, on St. Helena island, Sará Reynolds-Green cultivates the Marshview Community Organic Farm on the same land where she was born. The land was purchased by her great-grandfather 30 years after slavery ended in the United States. Reynolds-Green told Bowens in The Color of Food, the problem she sees facing her community. “A lot of kids now want to leave where they come from. I did too, but when I left, I started to lose my identity. I started to lose my memories of how the food tastes, how it smells. I started yearning for that, for family, for community.”

The community Sará refers to is the Gullah Geechee, descendants of slaves who were able to preserve, due to a variety of factors, elements of their original African culture and language. They live in specific areas along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia but today the continuation of this culture is under threat due, in part, to rising property values and uncontrolled coastal development.

To help preserve the Gullah food culture, Reynolds-Green teaches children how to cultivate local varieties of plants in her community garden. The children also learn how to cook this food, a portion of which is sent to The Gullah Grub restaurant.

Educating About Food Sovereignty

Soul Fire Farm is a “Certified Naturally Grown family farm, community resource, and vessel for education.” They “bring diverse communities together…to share skills on sustainable agriculture, cooking, and natural building, and contribute to the movements for food sovereignty and community self-determination.” They do this through food sovereignty education, a Black and Latino Farmers Immersion program, apprenticeships, and more. 

In 2015, they engaged in the ancient Jewish practice of taking a sabbatical (shmita) year, leaving the land uncultivated and pausing their CSA. Soul Fire explained, “We are asking ourselves: How can we use the gift of Sabbatical, offered by our ancestors, to ensure that this farm nourishes the community indefinitely without depleting our own heart reserves?”  

Jewish environmental organization Hazon explains, shmita literally means "release." It is a year “when land is left fallow, debts are forgiven, and host of other agricultural and economic adjustments are made to ensure the maintenance of an equitable, just, and healthy society.”

Creating a New Urban-Rural Relationship

Milk Not Jails is a network of farms who are addressing critical issues of racial inequity while educating about our agricultural system. New York farms Danforth Jersey Farm (whose products are marketed under the Cowbella Creamery label), Hawthorne Valley Farm, Ronnybrook Farm Dairy, and Tonjes Dairy, are all participants.

Milk Not Jails is a dairy marketing and distributing cooperative, with a political mission to build a “sustainable and just regional economy that depends on bringing city residents local, healthy food, not locking them up.” It operates with the goal of “building a new urban-rural relationship” that doesn’t revolve around the prison industry.

Milk Not Jails explains that, during the 1980s and 1990s, there was a jail construction boom in New York, a boom which many rural towns hoped would revitalize their local economy. Today more than 90 percent of the state’s prisons are in rural areas, but the promised economic boost failed to materialize. Yet since the 1980s, the New York state prison population has tripled, with three-quarters of the people imprisoned being disproportionately black or Latino and coming from just seven neighborhoods in New York City.

To change this situation, Milk Not Jails has a specific policy agenda, which, though focused on New York, can be broadly applied to many parts of the United States. Milk Not Jails aims to 1) end the monopoly on milk distribution in the state, 2) protect farmland, and 3) increase the amount of local food in public schools, while 4) legalizing the sale of raw milk products. In terms of racial justice, the cooperative hopes to reform the parole process, end racist arrest practices for marijuana, pass the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, and close portions of prisons currently unused.

Feeding & Connecting Families of Prisoners

The Victory Bus Project, started by Jalal Sabur in conjunction with the Freedom Food Alliance and the VROOM Bus Cooperative, is a bus service that offers affordable rides to people in New York City and nearby Westchester County to 15 upstate prisons to visit family members. Included with the ride is a bag of fresh food, sourced from farms in the Hudson Valley. By setting up the system like a CSA, riders are able to use EBT cards (food stamps) to pay for the food and transportation package. The food goes to prisoners' families and sometimes to the prisoners themselves, who may have the capacity to do some cooking.

Prison food is typically heavily processed and lacks "leafy greens, fiber, whole grains, heart-healthy fats, and other vital nutrients." Sabur says his work is "...just making sure that everyone has access to the most nutritious, healthiest food possible.” 

© 2016 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies

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