following article was originally published in Gotham
a publication of the Citizens
One of the great, often
unspoken, forms of oppression that low- and moderate-income communities
suffer through is the lack of access to healthy food. When I moved
back to Central Brooklyn in 1985, I was struck by its barren nutritional
landscape. It wasn’t just that options like fresh produce and organic
foods were hard to come by. But the storefront food provision systems
themselves – "bullet-proof" fast food joints, poorly stocked
and over-crowded supermarkets, cruddy, stomach-curdling bodegas – seemed
to represent a level of self-destruction and dietary corruption that
went well beyond my inability to buy tofu on Nostrand Avenue. While
most residents and activists look at conditions such as public safety,
housing availability, public education, environmental concerns and
economic opportunities when taking on community development issues,
seldom do we consider one of the most basic elements – how an area
feeds itself – as a sign of neighborhood well being.
Recently I stumbled upon a growing movement of activists who have coined
a phrase – "food justice" – that I think places how and what a
community eats squarely in the context of community building and social change.
Up to now "food security" has been a more common term used
to describe a similar, if not broader, area of social concern. While government
bureaucrats and international non-governmental organizations alike have been
using food security to call attention to a whole host of agriculture- and
hunger-related issues, activists have also used it to focus on creating community-based
ways of producing food in an affordable, sustainable and environmentally-friendly
manner. Along the way they have sought to create local jobs, promote good
health and stress the importance of small, local farmers.
New Language and Icons
With the use of the term "food
justice" this activism hasn’t changed so much as it has taken on
fresh new political energy. In an increasing number of grassroots efforts
in New York, local people are re-imagining their collective relationship
to food. According to Bryant Terry, the founder of the youth-based, not-for
profit B-Healthy, food justice starts from the conviction that
access to healthy food is a human rights issue and that the "lack
of access to food in a community is an indicator of material deprivation." Food
justice, Bryant suggests, goes beyond advocacy and direct service. It
calls for organized responses to food security problems, responses that
are locally driven and owned.
For its part, B-Healthy tries to offset the dominance of processed foods
and fast food advertising in the lives of young people with political education
and a sort of counter-insurgency culinary training. With a curriculum that
includes books like Fast
Food Nation, Diet
for a Small Planet and Food
Fight, B-Healthy offers everything from cooking classes to
tips on how to shop for pesticide-free, non-genetically modified foods.
With a Black founding director and a youth-of-color constituency, many of
whom are immigrants, B-Healthy has implicitly challenged the popular image
of health food consciousness as being the strict domain of WASPy vegans who
listen to public radio and shop at the Park Slope Food Co-Op. And rather
than try to introduce 'culturally inappropriate’ foods into the lives of
families, B-Healthy works with foods and seasonings that are familiar to
Food System Alternatives
Education is perhaps the first
line of offense in the long fight to change eating patterns and food
distribution in any given neighborhood. But as most food justice advocates
will tell you, this education has to be coupled with action – the creation
of viable alternatives.
Just Food, which has integrated a social justice mission into its name,
has been the catalyst for the establishment of 30 CSAs – Community Supported
Agriculture – throughout the city, some in areas like Harlem, Bushwick and
East New York. CSAs are arrangements in which people living in a given area
purchase "shares" of organically-grown produce directly from local
sources. CSAs provide urban families with more healthy eating choices, while
also supporting family-run farms. Just as importantly, CSAs, like other local
food systems, eliminate a neighborhood’s dependence on far-flung corporate
growers and a host of intervening processors, handlers, distributors, transporters
and other middle people who have made the business of connecting urban America
to food inefficient and environmentally taxing.
Just Food also works with a small number of community gardeners who are learning
to market and distribute their produce in local settings. In most cases,
local food justice efforts not only provide food, but often help strengthen
neighborhood economies, provide employment and entrepreneurial opportunities
for youth and offer innovative ways to utilize open space.
One text book example of a project that seeks to address a range of community
needs through food activism has recently taken root in Red Hook, a mostly
low-income neighborhood with a food terrain that is decidedly user-hostile.
According to Ian Marvy, co-director of Added
Value, Red Hook has only
one full-service, sit-down restaurant and no major grocery store, but is
otherwise replete with bodegas, steam line eateries, pizza shops and fried
chicken shops. On real estate that is being eyed by hungry developers seeking
new water front opportunities, Added Value and a cadre of young people from
the surrounding area maintain a modest farm with other local farmers and
run a market where young people sell the farm’s collective harvest, as well
as beef, chicken and fish from other local farms. Added Value is also making
plans to build a green house and harvest fish itself.
Marvy is clear about what distinguishes his work and that of his colleagues. "Food
security is more about analyzing problems, ameliorating issues and providing
answers... Food Justice... involves local people from seed to sale. It educates,
organizes and mobilizes new social relations around food. It touches hands,
hearts and pockets."
Bold New World
Efforts like B-Healthy, Just
Food, Added Value and New York-based CSAs are all relatively young. And
right now they are all looking to achieve justice through education and
feeding, rather than agitation and confrontation. Ruth Katz, executive
director of Just Food, is intent on rebuilding a demand for healthy foods
and envisions a return to a time in our nation’s history when, in the
midst of food shortages in the 1940s, forty percent of the nation’s food
was supplied locally.
Still, some are hinting at a slightly more aggressive march towards progress.
Terry sees the young people he works with as one day creating community organizing
campaigns. He looks to take on the perpetrators of structural, food-based
racism that, he feels, has kept areas like Red Hook and Central Brooklyn
flooded with toxic foods and empty of choices. Of course, these days, racism
is often easier to feel than prove. And while the economic development and
food distribution visions of Terry and his peers are clear, a strategy of
what public policies would be targeted by food-centered, grassroots organizing
campaigns is far less so. Any way you look at it, America’s appetites for
fast food and corporate farming – both defining aspects of American culture – are
not retreating anytime soon.
But then again I still believe that one day I will help start a black-run
food cooperative in Bed-Stuy; and that affordable, family-style, locally-owned
restaurants will spring up while liquor stores and Burger Kings die a certain
death; and that a loud chorus of my neighbors will compel my community board,
City Council representative and Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce to establish
a farmers market on local abandoned property.
New social realities always begin here, as somebody’s seemingly far-fetched
dreams. In the meantime, I’m itching for a food fight.
Mark Winston Griffith, a writer whose work has appeared in the New
York Times, Essence and Spin, is also founder of the non-profit Central
Brooklyn Partnership, which organizes people to build economic