by Julianne Malveaux
(TriceEdneyWire.com)—Since early November, you’ve been barraged with appeals to donate to food banks, food baskets, and community food events. The hook, of course, is the holidays. We are treated to photos of hungry-looking children or told how many hungry people might have nothing to eat for the holidays. The appeals can be heart-wrenching and sad, designed to get us to give. The requests come by mail, through the Internet, and also from our church pulpits and street corners. While holiday spirits are high, this is the time for food-serving organizations to fatten their coffers.
Food-serving organizations are doing what they always do, and their work is commendable. It’s a shame, though, that it is not year-round work. People need food as much on February 21, April 30, or June 16 as they need during the end-year holidays. But appeals before the end of the year are not as moving as they are this time of the year. Tapping on holiday sentiments, some charities raise most of their money during November and December.
Give a person a fish, and you teach them to eat. Teach them to fish, and you teach them to live. While our food-serving organizations help people eat, focusing on food justice will teach them to live. What is food justice? It is a movement to ensure access to nutritious, affordable, and culturally appropriate food for everyone and to advocate for the health and safety of those involved in food production. The food justice movement focuses on disparities in food access, especially for marginalized communities, and examines the structural roots of our food system. (bu.edu.cac/ederef-2/what-is-food-justice/). The movement looks at questions of land ownership (almost 98 percent of all farms are White-owned), agricultural practices, worker rights, and other issues. Dynamic organizations like Food Tank (www.foodtank.com) seek to reform the food system globally. In Washington, DC, Christopher Bradshaw founded Dreaming Out Loud, farms two acres of formerly vacant land, and, in his words, “uses the food system as a lens to examine and dismantle systems of oppression.” A justice-oriented social entrepreneur, Chris leads a group of farmers and food hub assistants. He seeks to connect small farmers and engage in food production. (dreamingoutloud.org). Around the country, food justice advocates are claiming unused urban land to grow food. Some sponsor local farmers’ markets and provide residents with healthy food.
The hunger issue is real, and so is the search for healthy, fresh food. Some call inner cities “food desserts,” but others describe them as “food swamps” because plenty of unhealthy food is available. What kind of system makes it easier to find grease and sugar than fresh produce? What makes the grease more profitable than the greens? Food justice advocates are asking these questions and looking at them through micro-lens and macro-lens. How are people taught to make better food choices at the micro level? At the macro level, who profits from the availability of unhealthy food?
As with everything in this country, there are two food systems, one for the “haves” and one for the “have-nots.” The haves have access to gourmet food, fifty kinds of cheeses, healthy precooked meals, and 24-hour delivery service. The marginalized have none of that. Indeed, many of the marginalized work in stores where a pound of specialty cheese costs more than they make in an hour. The food justice movement focuses on more availability for those at the bottom, advocating more affordable fresh food and better access to it.
Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, a culinary griot who wrote and talked about food and made healthy, culturally-relevant food her mission, once wrote, “Food changes into blood, blood into cells, cells change into energy which changes up into life. . .food is life.” The quality of our lives is connected to the quality of our food. The food industrial complex is designed to extort surplus value from those who need food—all of us. At the top, exploitation comes from pricy, “gourmet,” organic food, but most who indulge in it can afford it. At the bottom, exploitation comes from cheap grease and unhealthy, overprocessed foods.
What must you do? Keep making contributions to food banks, especially this time of year. Also, rethink what food justice means to you. Contribute to the organizations that are advocating for food justice. These holidays are not only the season to be jolly, to eat and drink together. It should also be the season to consider our food system and how it promotes exploitation and inequality.
(Dr. Julianne Malveaux is an economist, author, and Dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at Cal State LA. juliannemalveaux.com)