I am named after my father’s mother, Delta Zenobia Barlow, who was born in the Delta region of Mississippi. When I was about seven years old, we went to visit my father’s relatives, for the first time in my memory, on a plantation in Barlow, Mississippi. I have a few faint memories of that journey: deep, rich, red dirt, a big white house, scattered housing occupied by sharecroppers, and a ramshackle building with a hand-lettered sign that read “The Barlow Store.” The whole plantation scene was strange and wondrous and I was trying my best to make sense of what I was seeing.

But something happened in that store that made an impression on me: an exchange between the shopkeeper and a sharecropper, as my uncle stood silently nearby, that revealed to me in an instant that the price charged to the sharecropper for the goods in the store, advanced against the value of his crop at the end of harvest, was exorbitant, and that the whole exchange, the whole system if you will, was profoundly unfair and exploitive. I can remember a sense of revulsion, of shame, like a body blow — and I remember flushing all the way to my tingling scalp, as my uncle, supposedly an upstanding, church-going, state senator, credentialed the transaction through his silent presence.

The insight that began in that experience, and has been nurtured and reinforced in myriads ways since, is that every intersection in the food system — from planting, growing, harvesting, transporting, processing, packaging and selling to cooking and serving and how we dispose of or recycle waste — is a critical juncture with opportunities to be more creative, wise, and compassionate. Read more