Food & Race: 10 Years of Creating a More Just Food System

Four food justice leaders talk about what has changed in the broader movement to support food workers, farmers of color, and other marginalized communities.



The food system, like every other aspect of life in America, has been shaped by structural racism and racial injustice. For many years, the most high-profile conversations about food and agriculture have been led by a small number of (mostly white) folks, while the many who are working to bridge communities of color have remained on the sidelines. It’s a pattern that’s reflected nationwide on every level and has led to disastrous consequences—and a pattern that a growing number of people are working to change.

Since our inception, Civil Eats has chronicled the myriad efforts to expose and address the ways that structures in the food system actively work to silence, marginalize, and disadvantage people of color. To mark the site’s 10th anniversary this year, we have conducted a series of roundtable discussions in an effort to take an in-depth look at many of the most important topics we’ve covered since 2009. In our final conversation of the series, we invited four experts to discuss their own work on food justice and some of the pervasive, systemic issues facing people of color working to put food on our tables.

A-dae Romero-Briones is the director of programs, Native Agriculture and Food Systems, at the First Nations Development Institute. Nina F. Ichikawa is the executive director for the Berkeley Food Institute. Ricardo Salvador is the senior scientist and director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (and a member of Civil Eats’ advisory board). Malik Yakini is the executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network.

These four outspoken visionaries represent just a few of the many individuals and organizations working to transform the food system by creating solutions to increase justice and fairness, and ultimately, a much more inclusive, diverse, and sustainable food system, including API Forward Movement, Asian American Farmers Alliance, California Farmer Justice Collaborative, Food Chain Workers Alliance, HEAL Food Alliance, Hmong American Farmers Association, IllumiNatives, National Black Food and Justice Alliance, Natwani Coalition, Soul Fire Farm, and many more.

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Civil Eats’ managing editor, Matthew Wheeland, and contributing editor, Twilight Greenaway, facilitated the discussion, which has also been edited for clarity and length.

What have the last 10 years looked like for people of color in the food system?

Ricardo Salvador.

Ricardo Salvador.

Ricardo Salvador: I looked back 10 years to see what we were talking about then, and the best tool that I could find was the agenda for the 2009 Food and Society Conference [hosted by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation]. It brought together the leadership of the food movement and the major issues at that time: local food, school food, healthy food, and to the extent that racial inequity was on the agenda, it all was on the margin of those issues. The keynote speaker was Will Allen, and what he spoke about was the draft of what would eventually become his book, The Good Food Revolution.

What passed for social justice conversation in those days was to name that it was an issue. Now, jumping ahead, as a result of the work that has been led by organizations like those represented here today and many others, we can actually name the historical roots of racial inequity and exploitation so that food people can legitimately talk about things such as the inequitable working conditions for farmworkers and the need for immigration reform without being marginalized.

There’s now an open conversation about what we can do about reparations and land reform, how to get land redistributed. There are also real, open conversations about how we could change the way money flows in agriculture, so they go to different sorts of farmers rather than the 95 percent who are white, as an indicator of the racist history of the political system.

And to me, it seems that the agricultural systems are going to require a major redesign. It’s completely bankrupt for everybody involved. Everyone’s trying to figure out how to make it work, and rather than just take this on at the level of redesigning production practices and maybe changing the demographics of who gets to participate, we [have a chance] to actually take that concept to redesign in the fullness of its meaning.

So that’s the contrast I see; if my memory serves me, we would have been considered radical, if not completely inappropriate, to have been raising those sorts of issues 10 years ago.

Nina Ichikawa. (Photo credit: Lindsey Pfeiffer)

Nina Ichikawa. (Photo credit: Lindsey Pfeiffer)

Nina Ichikawa: To me, two of the most pivotal things that happened in the last 10 years with respect to food justice and race in the food system were the elections of President Obama and President Trump.

In 2009, after President Obama was elected, I heard through the grapevine he was calling for young people of color to come and transform the federal government. I rushed to D.C., perhaps foolishly, but I was very excited about what I heard was a federal effort to support local and regional food systems, as well as the federal effort led by [Michelle Obama] to reduce food inequities and improve the health outcomes of all Americans. There were a lot of things happening that explicitly acknowledged race and sought to transform historical inequities in our food system, and we saw some important steps forward and then a very deep backlash.

Trump was elected in 2016 on an explicitly racialized platform, and in the years since then, we have seen a new era of terror and hate directed at many Americans. And this has also continued to shape our food system in a different way. So, the food movement is absolutely not separate from what else is happening in this country. And the racial backlash that has colored so much of our country in the past few years, that has been brought out into the open, has been made excessively violent and has also gone viral through social media.

A-dae Romero-Briones.

A-dae Romero-Briones.

Adae Romero-Briones: From my perspective, the last 10 years have been pretty impactful for Native communities. All Indigenous communities have been fighting against intrusions on our lands, intrusions on our resources and our ability to protect those resources. But when Standing Rock happened, it seemed to make people pay attention in a new way.

And so we’ve really seen unprecedented attention to Indigenous people, and it has been gaining mainstream media attention, which is both wonderful and scary at the same time. You see a lot of people in our communities becoming superstars. And that definitely affects how we continue to fight the good fight.

On the other hand, having Native superstars is wonderful because our kids can see them [in the mainstream]. Other important things that have happened include the United Nation’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, which is pretty impactful because it’s really giving leverage to Indigenous communities to help with our domestic situation in the United States—and [creating] linkages to other Indigenous people across the world.

Malik Yakini.

Malik Yakini.

Malik Yakini: Piggybacking on what Nina said, I was actually invited to the White House for the unveiling of the first lady’s [Let’s Move] initiative related to fighting what they called “food deserts.” And I was feeling hopeful because we had one of the loudest voices speaking out about food insecurity. But I was disappointed when I went to the unveiling and the answer to food deserts from her perspective seemed to be Walmart, Walgreens, and other large corporate retailers opening more stores in urban areas. It didn’t seem to have a component that was really empowering people on a community level or building community ownership. But overall, over the last 10 years I think we’ve seen an increase in discussion generally, nationally, on food, health, food justice, urban agriculture, and other related topics.

We’ve also seen the rise and demise of Growing Power and their various efforts, the growing food and justice initiative that they started, which also provided a strong voice for racial justice within the food movement. We’ve seen the creation of more food policy councils. We’ve seen renewed discussion on Black land loss within the last 10 years, while at the same time we’ve seen continued Black land loss. And we’ve seen increased discussion of reparations. And I agree with Ricardo that really the solution to the problems we see within the food system lie in a major restructuring, but also in a radical transformation of power and wealth in society in general.

Living in Detroit, I’m also acutely aware of the increased gentrification, and the impact that has had on the system in various ways. We’ve see the continued concentration of large-scale corporate grocery stores and the kind of strategies that they have taken over the last couple of decades of locating in more densely populated areas which in many cities tend to be in the suburbs surrounding the city, leaving only smaller retailers in the urban areas. We’ve also seen in places like Detroit an increase in new restaurants, an increased discussion of food as one of the defining characteristics of communities—as a destination. But the vast majority of these new restaurants are owned by whites who are moving into communities that were formerly home predominantly to people of color.

What are the biggest challenges to achieving racial justice in the food system and what actions are needed to start to address those challenges?

Romero-Briones: Indigenous governance systems are usually community-based and I think one of the biggest barriers when we enter into mainstream conversations is the idea that community doesn’t have a place at the table. It’s often single leader, individuals [who are given the power]. And even our legal systems are structured in ways that minimize the impact communities have in making decisions. And so from an Indigenous perspective, there needs to be more ways of including community perspectives in the way we talk about food and the way we talk about managing resources.

For example, there are tribes both in the Great Lakes and in California that are working on creating rights of nature, granting personhood to members of a community that may not have voices—whether that be the river, the animals, our elders or our youth. We’re finding ways to have more people [and other living entities] at the table. Instead of focusing on the person with the most degrees or the ability to articulate the argument best, there are slower processes, or ways to include more voices in the conversation, and that’s one change that I see many Indigenous people arguing for right now.

Ichikawa: The work I’m doing interacts with just a slice of Asian-American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, but I will say that the issue of wages that we work on here at the Berkeley Food Institute really affects AAPI communities, because we are disproportionately in many low-wage parts of the food system. I’m glad that there is more social attention and pressure on the issue of low wages, and I think once that’s solved for a lot of people, it will impact a lot of AAPI communities.

One other important thing that’s happened recently was the 2018 Marriot strike, which was the largest hotel strike in U.S. history. I happened to pass by the picket line several times, and I was struck by how heavily immigrant and how heavily AAPI the strikers were. And their successful conclusion of that strike impacted a lot of families.

Going forward, I also think we have to reconcile as a country whether we want to take immigrants’ lives along with their food. Chef Gabriela Camara, had a very powerful line in the Netflix documentary [a Tale of Two Kitchens]. She said, “You know, they want Mexican food, but they don’t want Mexicans.” And I think that holds true right now for a lot of AAPI groups as well. Those who are immigrants are really struggling with anti-immigrant sentiment alongside rising interest in what we can produce and how we can cook for other people. We’re going to have to address that contradiction that if we want to achieve more food justice.

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Salvador: From my standpoint, the very necessary ingredient is for all of us to speak the truth about why we have the food system that we have today … because if we don’t have a uniform analysis, we’re going to continue to work at cross purposes in terms of what we should do as a nation. I have been speaking very intentionally to as many groups made up completely of white people as possible—groups like the National Young Farmers Coalition, the National Sustainable Ag Coalition, or the Greenland Blue Water Initiative of the Upper Midwest. These are completely white rooms and I’ve been walking them through all the reasons why 95 percent of the farmers in the United States are white and the reasons why there is so much economic disparity along these demographic lines.

I’ve been heartened by the fact that when you lock down that history using common touchpoints in terms of historical events that we all recognize and definitions that come from orthodox economics about how we build wealth and so on, you can get an audience of white folks to come along and understand how it is our responsibility to create a future that doesn’t look like our past—that it really is in our hands to commit to making different decisions than our forebears did. And that will mean undoing a lot of what our forebears did.

The Union of Concerned Scientists is working on a tool for folks that want to engage in this conversation to make sure that we have the common analysis and therefore we can have a better chance to agree about what needs to change. It’s a little four-pager identifying what the obstacles are to transforming the food system to one with more social equity. [Those obstacles] largely cluster around access to land, access to finances, and the infrastructure and the knowledge. So we hope that advances the conversation and that it can be used by everyone involved in the food movement, because we need a common analysis, and we need to speak the truth.

Yakini: I really see the work in front of us as dividing into two buckets. The first is what we might broadly call resistance—that work which is trying to oppose policies that create inequity and advocates for policies that create equity on various different levels. And then the other is what some people call visionary organizing, and that is actually creating models of the future that we’d like to see. I think that perhaps we don’t put another energy into that second area of work.

This idea of building grassroots community power is extremely important. So that, first, community is not as vulnerable; and second, so we have more power to actually shape the dynamics within our own community. And then also, as we deal with the larger society, that we’re dealing with systemic change from a more powerful position. We need more grassroots community organizing that is really raising these issues with everyday people and mobilizing people to create community agricultural systems, to create various types of distribution systems, to create food policy councils that have robust discussions about how the food system interacts with power in American society. As part of this kind of general movement building that I think needs to occur.

I go to way too many conferences each year, and I find very similar themes being discussed in all of them. But they’re like dots that aren’t being connected, for the most part. We have to find a way to reduce some of the replication and to consolidate some of the activities so that we have a more powerful movement that can make the changes that we’d like to see on the community level, but also can pressure the larger system to change.

I still haven’t been able to really wrap my head around how we build the kind of broad support that’s necessary to have a farm bill that significantly changes the power dynamic, but I think it’s important we continue to try to figure out how we build support not only across the aisle, but across the region, across so-called races, and across various other interest groups. We also still need to be advocating for policies on the state and local level that create greater justice and equity. And there had been some steps forward, like mandates for institutional buying that have changed where the cash flow goes.

Creating alternatives that give greater power to people in communities of color—and building systems that serve those people better—costs money and we have tremendous funding inequity in both the nonprofit world and the traditional financing world. In the nonprofit world, we see this dynamic where funders are looking for organizations that, from their perspective, have the greatest capacity to carry out the goals the foundation is most aligned with. But typically, those organizations that have the greatest capacity are more established, white-led nonprofits. And the more grassroots community organizations led by people of color are often a smaller and don’t have this long history, so they are considered not to have as great a capacity and thus get a smaller share of the grant funding.

In the financing world, there’s a certain logic to capitalism that is wedded with white supremacy. And what we see is that when you call for financing from traditional sources, the criteria tend to favor wealthy white people. And so we have a similar dynamic where, even as we’re trying to change and build new institutions to change the food system, those who are most eligible for financing are typically wealthy white people or people who know wealthy white people who can put up the kind of collateral that financiers are looking for in case a loan is defaulted on. And so we need to have massive changes both in nonprofit funding and in financing.

I would also say that we need a national dialogue about, first, the genocide that occurred against the Indigenous population and second, we need to have honest discussions about enslavement, a dialogue that has never occurred in this country. Not only about the cruelty of enslavement and the adverse effects that it had on both the self-esteem and the ability to act in a self-governing way of people of African descent. But also, we’ve never had an honest discussion about the wealth that was created as a result of enslavement and how that has played out in contemporary society.

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And then finally, I think the biggest challenge facing humanity and the earth itself is that of climate chaos. We need a much more robust discussion about the food system and its impact on our climate chaos.

Ichikawa: I’m inspired by what you all are saying. And I was thinking also about the power of storytelling and about us knowing some common history, so I’m glad that Ricardo brought that up in one form and Malik in another form. And I just want to really echo it. I was struck by the popularity of The New York Times’ 1619 Project commemorating 400 years of enslavement of Africans in the Americas. I was lucky enough to have African American studies as a high school student, and a lot of [The 1619 Project] seemed like a introduction to African American studies.

Reading this special in the newspaper was transformative for a lot of people, and I think that’s work in a good direction. And perhaps we need to think about how this applies to the food movement; what texts could we read together and understand together? Because there’s a lot of information that is true and has been published and is not really understood and shared commonly among us as Americans. That would that would be a very fine and difficult but important to-do list, if we’re serious about solving racial inequity in our food system. I mean, we’re just going to be talking past each other if some people know history and others don’t.

How do we de-center whiteness in food and agriculture?

Yakini: The food system operates within a context, and the de-centering of whiteness is not just something that has to occur within the food system, but it’s something that has to occur within American society in general. And de-centering the European and European American conquerors history that is still typically taught in schools throughout the United States—and which gives people this kind of false historical narrative—is important. Changes in the food system have to be made in concert with larger changes that we’re making in the society in general.

Briones: Malik is spot on. One of the narratives that is often perpetrated in the work we do in the food system is this timeline: America was wild and then Europeans came, and they started agriculture and farming. Then from farming we went to industrialization, and from industrialization we went to tech. That linear timeline is so common in every version of history, but it is so damaging to the way we view our food system. It’s this idea that wild is bad.

There are some organizations that are challenging that, but the [current] intensive agriculture model is a direct result of that linear narrative. When you think of Indigenous people, you think of them tending nature and you think of them herding wild deer or following the moose. It’s this idea that we can live with nature, that we don’t have to conquer it. But it’s a narrative that’s reflected in almost every interaction we have after the point of contact, and it influences the way our food system organizes itself.

Starting by changing that linear narrative to one that is more fluid, that is more inclusive of different ways of producing food and forming relationships with other beings on this Earth is an important way to re-envision not only how we do food work, but how we interact with one another and how we interact with our own history. [Food production] is not about conquering anything, but that is exactly how we envision our food system because of the way we’re taught history. Agriculture is seen as the starting point of our nation. [Many forms of agriculture] excluded a whole lot of people from the starting point. So if we can go back to that starting point and start redefining what we mean by agriculture. I’m hoping we can all be included in conversations have excluded [Indigenous people] for the last 500 years.

Salvador: There’s very good research out of England that shows that when we invest in ourselves, in other words, the less economic inequality there is in the community—and they analyzed nations as well as states within the United States—that the better off we all are collectively, as opposed to [living with] wide inequity. We’re one of the nations with the greatest economic disparity and so [redistributing wealth] would be an inconvenience to a set of people that are arbiters of great wealth and that have this narrative in their heads that justifies why they hold on to that wealth.

But when I speak to modern white audiences of all ages who don’t have a direct stake in the decisions that their ancestors made, but are benefiting from the decisions and the actions that their ancestors took, and you lay out that if it weren’t for the massive land grab of the American continent and if it weren’t for stealing the labor of 12 million enslaved people and their descendants, and if it weren’t for exploiting immigrant labor that performed the menial work in this society, including agriculture, you couldn’t really sustain this heroic narrative of white people using that timeline that Adae described so well. Without those factors, you would have a small population of poor white people either still in Europe or who never would have made it on the American continent. Realizing that this nation is only possible because of the people who were eliminated and the land taken from them, as well as the folks that provided the labor to build the preindustrial American economy.

When you lay that out and then you ask these audiences: Do you want to continue to be a part of society that’s only possible because of past exploitation? Or do you want to live your values in a different world? And if we can get agreement on that, and there’s a very illuminating analysis from john powell at Berkeley. He asks us to not continue to prop up this fiction of race, which is a tool to erase us and to justify why some of us have done more poorly than others, but to conceive of ourselves as a community where in each member, in full awareness of the path and with aspiration for a completely different future, recognizes the contributions that all of us can make in order to create this new, inclusive society.

Yakini: One of the dilemmas I have is that as we try to move past this idea of race, it’s like we have to hold a contradiction because on one level we know it’s a fictitious construct, but on another level, it does play out in American society. And so for me, it’s always a dilemma as to how we minimize it, while at the same time protecting those communities that are most vulnerable because this idea of race is so prominent in American society. So it’s almost like we have to work through it to get past it.

Ichikawa: What various teachers have taught me is that white supremacy and Eurocentrism are illusions and actually they’re sicknesses. So, if you find yourself suffering from this affliction, I mean, I’m not a doctor, but I would recommend that you try to stay healthy even as this sickness pervades our society. And anyone who may have diagnosed themselves as suffering from it should seek remedies immediately to heal themselves, whether that be reading books, going to prayer and meditation, or seeking the services of a professional, or working in community with many other people to find the answers together. (I need a tune up all the time as well.) But the fact of the matter is that white is not the center. So anyone who is operating in that is really spinning their wheels and wasting time, in my view.

Salvador: The American Association of Physical Anthropologists essentially make is clear that from the genetic and biological standpoint, race does not exist. However, racism is very real. And so therefore we need to act on the realization that we can’t just sweep away the fact that science says that race isn’t real; we behave as if it is real. And that’s the thing that matters.

Yakini: I hear you Nina, and I think we’re all afflicted with the sickness of white supremacy and Eurocentricity, regardless of what our so-called race or ethnicity is. But I, for one, have little confidence that a critical mass of so-called white people will really come to terms with the degree to which they have internalized this false concept or will come to terms with what it means to behave in a more equitable manner, which really means giving up some of the privilege that they have unjustly acquired. I don’t see that happening on a mass level anytime in the near future.

All those communities which are most disinvested in, most disempowered, most marginalized from the benefits of the mainstream society have to build [their own] power on the basis of their common interests. I’m an unapologetic advocate of Black communities building power. I think the thing is that we have to figure out how to do it in a way that takes into account the greater good and the fact that we are part of a human family and that we don’t want to perpetuate our racial divisions.

Romero-Briones: I find it really strange when we talk about white supremacy. We can only speak from our experiences, and I live near a reservation where I could not see a white person for a very long time. So, when I go into these spaces where I see nothing but white people, to me that is a deliberate construct. They are deliberately choosing to be only around other white people because there are definitely spaces where there are not any white people. And that makes me reflect about what I see in the media and in newspapers, which is just more white people. And again, that’s deliberate. And I hear you Malik about asking people in power to be more inclusive. I don’t know if they know what it means to more inclusive except to invite maybe another brown person to participate. If I were ever to give advice to a white person in [certain] organizations, it would be to go to a place where you’re one of the only white people. I mean, I don’t know if many people in power have ever experienced that.

What gives you hope for the future?

Yakini: I think we see a rise in consciousness globally where people want to see more participatory democracy. We’re seeing a rise in consciousness generally as it relates to a human being’s relationship to the environment, about the need to have a more localized food system, and toward a planet where there is greater respect for people of all so-called races and genders. I think we’re seeing the rise of feminine energy and the decline, to some degree, of patriarchy. And so for me all of those things are hopeful. I think we need to, as the Black Panther Party says, seize the time, build on this rhythm that is engulfing the planet, and try to figure out how we can capture this energy and build it into changes that actually impact people’s lives.

Romero-Briones: I mentioned it earlier, but there are tribes and communities that are utilizing their own authority to craft their own rules around personhood for nature or trying to include [Indigenous] world views in the way they organize their society and are doing so, of course, with the eye on external actors, but really trying to demonstrate ways of regulating community by codifying traditional laws. I think that’s exciting.

Salvador: Well, there are things that give me hope, but every time that I answer that question, it’s important to ground it in the reality of the very dark times that we’re in. So with full awareness of that, people like you all give me hope. And I am inspired continuously when I’m around young people who get so many profound truths that took me decades to figure out. And like Malik, I’m very thankful for female energy and leadership.

Ichikawa: Young people are inspiring, but I’m also very inspired by older people right now because of all they’ve been through. My grandmother lived to 103, and she taught me a lot of wisdom about the system. She lived through multiple wars, relocations of her family, and through government imprisonment. So, I think in times that feel tumultuous in the near term or in the long term, I’m getting a lot of inspiration by talking to those people who are lucky enough to have lived a long time and can put a steady hand on my hand and say, “It’s going to be okay. We’re in this for the long haul. Just keep going.”

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