Reckoning versus Tokenism: How can markets help?

Anyone who works on farmers markets (hopefully!) understands that one major area that is constantly hampering our effectiveness in creating this new world of community food systems is the lack of reckoning with the institutional racism within the systems that make up our material world.
Or, as Raj Patel said at Slow Food Nations 2018:
“You don’t fix the past with a certain type of tokenism; you fix it with a reckoning. And that reckoning is something the food movement has yet to have.”
To me, the argument among some growers and organizers that there are “too many farmers markets” indicates that the field is in dire need of growing its reach and thinking through re-positioning its outcomes. It seems clear to me that we need to turn back to prioritizing the production side of the equation, supporting growers and other producers more directly and more widely, and increasing purchasers at our thousands of markets by redefining the language of shopping at markets as transformative for the community and nourishing for ones own family even as we continue to make them truly welcoming to all types of people.

So to see the recent strong emergence of the food justice movement, led by people of color, focusing on collaborative production and on innovative messaging on why choosing healthy food is activism at its purest form has been inspiring and humbling at the same time for many white allies. Inspiring to see how the work is imbued with innovation and collaboration at every level (see Dara Cooper’s quote and interview at the end as an example), and humbling because there is so much history around these injustices that many of us still don’t fully comprehend. With the emergence of this chapter, we will gain access to a new set of tools and pilots to learn how to better organize on systemic issues that depress our markets’ and food systems potential. Which means that when market leaders get to the “unconscious competence” level of their market work and build systems, their seasoned staff can join housing boards, mobilize on public transportation systems, work on greenways and environmental degradation hot spots, become a voice on county level policies to incentivize using productive land for food and so on to really grow our market communities.

Another massive contribution that black, native and other writers and organizers of disenfranchised communities are bringing to the food and farming table is a demand for context and disciplined language as seen in the rejection of the “food desert” label. I have long rejected that language, as it implies scarcity rather than the truth: a systemic denial of resources to that community. And often there IS food – sometimes it’s a lot of bad food which is hard to combat when using food desert language to organize, or the structure of food procurement is so informal that it is missed by those defining it (supermarkets are the main indicator of food security which is a pretty weak indicator) or the lines of the supposed desert are drawn in such a way as to not encapsulate actual neighborhoods or assets. This piece is  very helpful to keep in the front of ones mind when discussing this with fellow staff and with the larger community.

The great Karen Washington has said a lot on this subject:
What I would rather say instead of “food desert” is “food apartheid,” because “food apartheid” looks at the whole food system, along with race, geography, faith, and economics. You say “food apartheid” and you get to the root cause of some of the problems around the food system. It brings in hunger and poverty. It brings us to the more important question: What are some of the social inequalities that you see, and what are you doing to erase some of the injustices?

Also vital to think about the language of the “decolonization of food” as Sean Sherman, a member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux nation from Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and founder and CEO of The Sioux Chef  is working towards:

We’re trying to raise awareness of the history of the land and on how to live sustainability on what’s around us,”  Sherman notes that much of his work centers on recovering the cuisine that existed among American Indians prior to the arrival of European settlers. On reservations, American Indians were restricted in their rights to hunt, fish, or forage, and thus forced to make do with US Army rations of flour, lard, and salt—which were later replaced by the commodity food program.

Dara Cooper: “We need the ability to feed and nourish our communities, and the repair of the systematic harm that has and continues to be done to Black people,” Cooper says emphatically. To that end, NBFJA is working on a broad campaign in coalition and community with Black-led “Free the Land” focused organizations. We need to shift away from the ways in which capitalism teaches us to have private control over land. We have to move away from extraction of land for a very few, and shift toward land reform that addresses indigenous right to sovereignty and Black people’s right to self-determination in our communities in a collective way.”

Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm / Farming While Black: “Food sovereignty is about who’s in charge … and ultimately what gets to our plates.”

She, The People: Dara Cooper On Food Redlining, Reparations, And Freeing The Land

Deserts, swamps, or apartheid: the language of food organizing

Brilliant interview with Karen Washington as she breaks down the institutions and words that deflate the potential of our food work. I agree whole-heartedly with her assessment that the term food desert does not describe the actual problem that communities face. I remember when a local academic dismissed it some years back but only substituted the term food swamp because as he said, it is not a lack of food that is the issue, but a swamp of bad food choices. I thought then well maybe that’s slightly better but it still doesn’t define the issue.

In contrast, the term food apartheid is properly defiant and active. Apartheid is the system of segregation, most often based on race, and as such does describe the structural issues with food, in consumption and production, in rural, urban, and suburban places. The solution includes food sovereignty (and health to be understood as the most important type of wealth), but of course in the US, the structure of sovereignty and self-care has been entirely warped by our corporate food structure and our statist political structure.

It is hard for many, but it is vital that all people see the food apartheid that has always been present in the US for people of color and now stretches to every  community. How to see? Look down: note the rolls of fat and the chronic illnesses inside; look around: see the lack of actual food growing in your public spaces and neighbors’ yards; look to City Hall and your state capital: see the policies that discourage or criminalize the production and sale of good food by neighbors. Once made, these observations can lead to action and unity and should become the core of our messages as farmers market leaders.

From the Karen Washington Guardian interview.

The conversation around actual food value is a conversation that we don’t have in low-income neighborhoods, regardless if they’re black or white, rural or urban. But things are changing. People are talking more than ever about food. It’s such a major shift, so you’re seeing major corporations offering different options, like fast-food chains offering salads. The consumer is starting to understand the relationship between food and health. It’s also happening in low-income communities. The rise in school gardens impacts children and they shift their parents’ perspectives. In my neighborhood, every year, we have a block party and they don’t serve soda anymore. The kids are asking for water! Education is working.

I think that food activists who see the work they do as truly measurable in terms of justice or of successful resistance to the dominant system are most likely to achieve actual change and will find themselves less frustrated by small disappointments and failures in their daily work. I also think that those food activists who see their work as organizing -and who see organizing as leadership development at the grassroots level – are also more likely to find allies and to be good allies, which to me is the primary goal of creating public entities like farmers markets or non-profit organizations.

I’ll leave the last words for agricultural leader LaDonna Redmond who eloquently said in the foreword to Professor Monica White’s Freedom Farmers:Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement:

While the white movement describes my community through a deficit model, Monica’s work describes agriculture as a site of resistance…The book is a conduit of those stories and memories that restore our dignity. I hope it will forever remind us that we are people of this land.