Op-ed: The Revolutionary Power of Food | Civil Eats

Op-ed: The Revolutionary Power of Food

revolutionary fist holding a fork

In my many years of organizing community kitchens, I have seen how food—and organizing to feed people in need—can create profound benefits in even the poorest communities, uniting, organizing and instigating change from the bottom up. And through a review of history, I have also repeatedly encountered the ways food sits at the center of revolutionary movements.

As we mark the Fourth of July—following our first-ever national recognition of Juneteenth as a “second Independence Day”—it’s worth recognizing the power of food to ignite movements for justice and change around the world, and throughout history.

The Abolition Movement in England

In the late 1700s, Thomas Clarkston saw the light of abolition while preparing an essay at Cambridge University arguing against the slave trade. With a young person’s zeal, he set out to be part of the abolition movement, distributing thousands of copies on his travels throughout England, and became a founding member of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, whose members would actively work to get Parliament to end the slave trade.

The group developed the Free Produce Movement as a way to pressure Parliament to act. Urging consumers not to purchase goods made with slave labor—particularly sugar, the widely popular import that had become a staple in almost every British household—Clarkston’s group created the first modern boycott. Although the boycott was not financially crippling in and of itself, it served a higher purpose in revealing the power of poor people’s commerce, when combined and withheld, as well as the fast growing dedication of women to be involved in political action. Through this effort, and years of hard work, in 1807, England became the first European power to abolish slavery.

Mahatma Gandhi’s India

In the 1920s, Mahatma Gandhi used the same tactic to help liberate India from generations of English colonial rule. The key to British rule, Gandhi knew, was to exploit divisions of creed, caste, and community to keep Indians divided and fighting each other, and keep them under British control.

Gandhi, in seeking something to unite all Indians, found it—in salt. The British had made it illegal for Indian people to produce or sell salt; instead, they were forced to buy it from the British.

Gandhi challenged the people of a divided India to see their shared subjugation through salt, and at the end of his famous March to the Sea in 1930, he announced his intention to challenge that policy with his “Salt Satyagraha.” Gandhi, like the British abolitionists before him, used the power of food to unify, and everyday commerce to amplify that unity. It would take another 17 years for Indians to gain independence, but it was simple salt that finally united the nation’s diverse population behind the cause.

Indigenous Sovereignty in the Early Americas

In the Americas, food has a long history of being used to unite subjugated peoples. In 1540, when the Spanish colonizer Francisco Vázquez de Coronado ventured north out of modern day Mexico in search of Cibola, the fabled golden city, he encountered the diverse pueblo communities of the Southwest. Over the next 100 years, Spanish soldiers, missionaries, and settlers enslaved natives, introduced diseases and weapons, and relentlessly punished those who practiced ancient faith traditions.

When Po’pay, a leader from the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, was arrested and publicly whipped in the plaza of Santa Fe, he swore to drive the Spanish out. For five years, Po’pay built alliances amongst diverse, and often hostile, pueblo communities throughout the region. When the final stages of the uprising were being planned, he devised an ingenious use of a staple food to coordinate the attack.

Along with the “three sisters” of corn, beans and squash, maguey—a relative of the agave plant—has been a mainstay of the Indigenous diet for centuries, used as nourishment and medicine, its fibers woven to make paper, clothing, and rope.

To insure that they acted simultaneously, Po’pay sent runners to all the pueblos with a knotted cord of maguey, with instructions to untie a knot every day. The day the last knot was undone was the day to attack the colonizers.

The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 succeeded in uniting the pueblos and expelling the Spanish for 12 years. Although the Spanish returned with a fury, and brutally re-conquered the region, many of the faith traditions that Po’pay fought to preserve remain defiantly intact to this day.

The U.S. Food Justice Movement

Almost 300 years later, food would again unite revolutionaries in the American West, drawn together by their Spanish roots and a shared history of abuse and lack of basic human rights in their places of employment.

In 1965—just as it is today—most Americans enjoyed cheap, plentiful food, while ignoring the plight of the migrants who planted, picked, and packed it. Landowners pitted migrant workers against one another, hiring Mexican and Filipino workers as strikebreakers when their competing unions stopped work.

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When Larry Itliong, who headed the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, led Filipino workers out on strike against Coachella Valley growers, he appealed to César Chávez—who led the competing National Farm Workers Association—to not only not help break the strike, but to join them and form a united front to demand better wages and basic human rights.

The first-of-its-kind alliance led to the creation of the United Farm Workers (UFW); together, through the Delano Grape Boycott, they convinced thousands of consumers to stop buying grapes and brought the plight of migrant workers to the center stage of American life and politics. These two leaders, along with the indomitable Dolores Huerta, inspired their members to endure long strikes against recalcitrant grape-growing landowners who were aligned with racist law enforcement agencies and unsympathetic elected leaders like then Governor Ronald Reagan.

At around the same time, the Black Panther Party launched their Free Breakfast Program, which operated in 45 communities across the U.S. This inventive program used breakfast to challenge deeply rooted, racist tropes while demonstrating the impact that a nutritious meal could have on a child’s ability to learn. Their work laid the groundwork for the expansion of federal school-based meal programs, as well as the need for more community growing spaces in urban America.

The Black Panthers and the UFW also often worked in coalition, supporting one another’s efforts. And just like in England, India, and Indigenous America, they harnessed the symbolic and economic power of food to create resilient and powerful alliances.

All these lessons have driven my work with D.C. Central Kitchen, L.A. Kitchen, the Campus Kitchens Project, and more. Although they’re often seen as simply using surplus food to train undervalued people for jobs, the real revolution has been in bringing culinary students, volunteers, politicians, and funders around to the same side of the table, working side by side as equal and essential members of a shared community.

While my journey of learning about the role food has played in revolutionary movements continues, it also points to another, urgent opportunity to unite groups who are divided and pitted against one another.

On a daily basis, thousands of members of the U.S. food movement—food justice, anti-hunger, workers rights, mutual aid and environmental groups—compete with each other for proverbial scraps from the table of corporate and philanthropic America. They meet at annual forums, or in online echo chambers to talk endlessly about “taking back the food system.”

They fight for funds to continue their mission, each working in their own silo, on their own issue, with their own strategy. Each one is talking about food, versus using food to create an inter-generational political alliance with food as its unifying ingredient, powered by the strength of millions of voters with a powerful hunger for change.

Food has that power. And these divergent movements need to realize that there is only one power that can wrest control of the food system away from the powerful companies, their lobbyists and the elected leaders they’ve placed in D.C. specifically to safeguard their profits: political power. And the only way to gain that power is to unite generations of voters in common cause.

As we have seen so many times before, food can be that unifying force.

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This must begin at the local level, not with Facebook likes or indignant tweets, but with votes. There should not be an election anywhere where voters don’t demand, and candidates don’t provide, details about their food policies.

Where do they stand on universal, free school meals? How will they nourish millions of aging Americans? How will they support the growth of cottage chefs and street vendors movements? How will they work to open grocery stores in every corner of the town, city, or state? How will they enact living wage legislation? How will they push for environmental sustainability throughout the farm system? How will they support small farmers, create a pathway to citizenship for migrant farmworkers and provide childcare for foodservice workers? How will they help confront chronic diet-related illnesses like diabetes and heart disease, and challenge food companies to produce healthier foods and—more importantly—to stop flooding the market with highly-processed, addictive ones?

These are not marginal issues; they are central to the lives and livelihoods of all Americans. And an inter-generational army of diverse voters now cares deeply about them. All we need is a united effort to channel that energy and idealism, and those votes, into a new food movement; one bent on electing a new generation of leaders, and empowering a new generation of consumers to make the food system work for us—not the other way around.

Let’s use food to transform the food system to put public health above corporate wealth, and toward greater justice, equality, opportunity, and healthy, affordable food for all.

There’s room for millions at that revolutionary table.

Robert Egger is the Founder of the DC Central Kitchen, which developed the first 12 week culinary curriculum for people who had been homeless. He is also a Founding Board member of the World Central Kitchen. Read more >

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  1. Trudy Mercadal
    Informative and inspiring! And very thought provoking too. Thank you.

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