Taking Stock And Looking Forward: Food Justice | Civil Eats

Taking Stock And Looking Forward: Food Justice

Jessica B. Harris, Navina Khanna, and Ashanté Reese on systemic racism, justice for Black farmers, and how we move toward a food system for all.

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As 2021 comes to an end, we take stock of another momentous year that marked massive upheavals in the food system and across society. To lead us into 2022, we asked some of the leading thinkers and doers working on the frontlines of food, justice, and climate to share their thoughts with us about the most pressing issues, what they’ll be working toward in the new year, and what propels them to keep going.

Today, we hear from Jessica B. Harris, Navina Khanna and Ashanté Reese about systemic racism, justice for Black farmers, and how we move toward a food system for all.

Jessica B. Harris, journalist, professor emerita at Queens College, author of High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America

Jessica Harris headshot

What are the biggest challenges for the food system you’ve seen this last year?

I think that this last year, these last two years basically, have kind of blown the lid off much of what we had previously lived with as the food system. From food insecurity to service issues to just the gamut . . . have all kind of been upended, exposed, and hopefully it’s all being reshuffled. It has just been an incredible time to live through and it has called into question so much.

As you look ahead to 2022 and beyond, do you see potential solutions that we might work toward or things that give you hope?

When I received the James Beard lifetime achievement award, in the acceptance speech I said, “It’s as though Mother Nature has given us a cosmic time out and said, ‘Go to your room and think about it.’” And in our thinking about it, I do hope that we will begin to come up with new suggestions and thoughts, and alternate ways of being and doing.

And lot of those things are already in the works. We’ve seen seismic shifts over the last 18 months—shifts that have upended systems that have been around for certainly decades and possibly centuries. Just in that brief space, so much has been called into question and brought into scrutiny. And I think what we’re getting out of it is change in what I hope is a real way and not just lip service.

“High on the Hog,” the Netflix series based on your book, was recently renewed for a second season. Do you think there is a new space being made for the Black experience in food, including in food media?

I think that is happening. There are so many new outlets and new possibilities, new ways of looking at things. There are new people looking at things, and when there are new people, there are new eyes, and when there are new eyes, there are new points of view. Hopefully it’s not a blip on the screen. And, while I certainly know that they are not fast enough for some people, changes are seemingly occurring. Now, the question becomes: Is it a fad or is it permanent? And I don’t know. Nothing will tell us that but time.

Navina Khanna, Executive Director, HEAL Food Alliance

Looking back on 2021, what do you see as significant challenges that need to be addressed in 2022?

Navina Khanna headshot

The challenges we’re facing in 2022 are, at their root, the same that we’ve faced since the founding of the U.S. food system: 1. the mentality that puts profits over people and the planet, and 2. white supremacy and the historical and current legacy of racism.

As climate chaos continues to accelerate, we’ll see more false solutions put forward by big corporations that are trying to maintain their power and profit: market solutions like alt-meat, which are themselves doing nothing to end the greenhouse gas pollution caused by CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) and that maintain a corporate stranglehold over the industry, and policies like carbon offsets that allow corporations to continue business as usual.

People are overwhelmed and tired, and when that happens, it’s easy for them to get complacent. COVID-19 and the 2020 uprising brought some of the ways that our food system exploits working people and people of color into sharp focus. In 2022, more than ever, we’ll need sustained effort to make real changes in the fight for safe and dignified working conditions and for decentralized food systems that enable Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color to thrive.

There’s also a big and important election in 2022, and many parts of the country will see a resurgence of blatant white supremacy and corporate control. If you were paying attention in 2021, you know that Stephen Miller and his cronies have been using the courts—which they’ve stacked over the last few decades—to stop BIPOC farmers from receiving the debt relief they were promised by all levels of the current federal government. They’ll be using this election cycle to further erode any hope of a liberated future, and we’ll need to go all out to ensure that policymakers who are truly accountable to people can take office.

What solutions, policies, or practices have you seen implemented or proposed that could make a positive difference?

Investment in these grassroots power-building efforts will make the difference—making sure that frontline folks have the resources to lead the solutions needed for their own communities. When people are able to create these solutions, it offers pathways for policy solutions like a few that we’ve seen drafted this last year. The Justice for Black Farmers Act and the Protecting America’s Meatworkers Act are just two examples of new legislation that lay a framework for the kinds of changes we seek. Getting frontline folks into positions where they can hold power, write policies, and ensure that institutions are working for them—whether that’s the USDA’s new equity commission or local, city-level commissions, or into conversations with key staff at congressional offices—can make a huge difference.

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There are so many examples of work that HEAL members are doing that inspires me. Organizations like Rural Community Workers Alliance, Public Justice, and Venceremos have come together across geography and used a range of tactics, from walkouts to lawsuits to policy advocacy, to fight for worker protections. Farmer groups like La Semilla and Cooperativa Agricultura in New Mexico and Operation Spring Plant in North Carolina have been growing and distributing food in their communities. They’ve shown that when a crisis hits, communities can and will support each other.

We’re also organizing with the National Black Food and Justice Alliance, Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, Black Farmer Fund, Minnow Project, and other groups to grow the pool of resources to invest in BIPOC leadership. This builds on the work of the open letter that we jointly published in 2020 calling out philanthropy—and it’s going to continue to grow. We also worked with allies like Land Stewardship Project, which have organized white farmers to speak out in support of debt relief for BIPOC producers.

What else should we keep in mind for 2022?

It’s going to take all of us—and the diverse resources, relationships, skills, and expertise that each of us have—to make the scale of change that we need. Folks can’t keep expecting that there is some individual figurehead who will wave a magic wand or say a few key words to solve the interrelated problems of food insecurity, biodiversity loss, and inhumane immigration policies that are all symptoms of a food system premised on capitalism and white supremacy.

None of us will survive unless we understand that our struggles are interlinked. We know that we can’t buy our way or eat our way out of white supremacy, capitalism, and climate chaos. But we can organize by investing in our relationships with each other; by listening, learning, and taking action in solidarity. And by moving resources to the frontlines and building collective power, we can create a future where we can all thrive.

Ashanté Reese, Author of Black Food Geographies and Assistant Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas, Austin

Ashantee Reese headshot

Looking back on 2021, what were the most significant challenges that need to be addressed in 2022?

An ongoing challenge is the problem of language, and how food justice, food access, and food sovereignty get collapsed into the same thing when they all have different political demands and policy implications. One of the biggest challenges is for us to get very, very clear about what they mean and what’s at stake for each of these kinds of approaches for thinking about food.

The biggest challenge we’re going to see for a long time is how do we decouple questions of food access from solutions that almost always focus on adding a new supermarket or grocery store. As long as our food system hinges on large corporations in that way, we’re going to always have concerns about food access and inequality, because there’s no way to do this altruistic work of everyone-deserves-to-eat through companies whose bottom line is to make a profit.

There’s also so much more work we need to do around understanding what sovereignty means in the U.S. context. We need to consider questions of Indigenous sovereignty, while thinking about whether sovereignty applies to other groups as well. Land and land policy are at the center of questions around sovereignty, and one other thing we might think about in a classic Marxian sense is who’s controlling the means of production, who’s setting wages, who is determining what is grown, when, where, and why.

What solutions, policies, or practices do you think could make a positive difference?

One practice is that we can always build relationships and coalitions across difference. I have a colleague at the University of Texas who does Indigenous food studies and food sovereignty work. We meet and we talk about sticky things like: What does land ownership mean? When the Justice for Black Farmers Act was released, we spent a lot of time talking about it in relation to Indigenous sovereignty in the U.S. What I love about this practice of working with her is that it’s not based on us agreeing on everything. I get to learn a lot from her, and I hope she learns a lot from me.

Most of us get overwhelmed when we think about all the big problems we’re facing, like hunger and climate disaster. I’m not suggesting that people bury their heads in the sand, but I do think there’s something much more manageable for most of us if we start where we are and think at a very local level. You might be able to engage in mutual aid on a local level, or you might be able to work with a local farm or garden. It’s not going to solve big problems, but it might give you some sense of hope.

Where do you see progress taking place? Is there anyone you look to for inspiration?

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I have been really impressed with the Buffalo Food Equity Network in Buffalo, New York. It’s trying to bring together stakeholders from different kinds of institutions—across class, racial and ethnic groups—to think about how they want to transform their food system.

I’m always shouting out the National Black Food and Justice Alliance. It’s my Northern Star on most days for not only meeting people’s basic needs but also for trying to transform systems. They work really hard to think through questions of land and infrastructure for Black farmers, both urban and rural. These are questions like: How do we make sure people have what they need? How do we link landless farmers with people who have land?

The classroom has also been a source of inspiration and hope. Whenever I think the world is gonna fall completely apart, I [encounter] students who are so much smarter than I was when I was 18. They’re more aware of things that are happening in the world. They’re bold, they’re brave, and that’s the mark of people who know we have everything to lose.

What else gives you hope right now?

There are questions around food justice and food access that have migrated to the mainstream in ways that I think could be productive. Even just the fact that so many people are now familiar with the “food justice” term can be something we leverage in real, transformative work.

Mutual aid has kept me really hopeful. If we’re doing it right, mutual aid forces us to think about the difference between helping your neighbor and charity. I’m challenged by that a lot. Trying to think through how we connect our giving to real sustainable change and building alternative networks makes me hopeful.

I’m also very hopeful about abolition movements in the U.S. and about the work that’s connecting what abolitionists have been working on with prisons, jails, and cops to the food system.

I’ve watched Soul Fire Farm grow over a decade, and I am inspired by their work. I have students, who I have sent to their BIPOC farmer immersion programs, who have had their entire lives change. They learn how to connect with the land, but also to themselves and to each other, and that has been amazing to watch. Insofar as I feel hope generally, it’s when I see people and places honestly transformed in the service of a greater common good. That is so beautiful.

Since 2009, the Civil Eats editorial team has published award-winning and groundbreaking news and commentary about the American food system, and worked to make complicated, underreported stories—on climate change, the environment, social justice, animal welfare, policy, health, nutrition, and the farm bill— more accessible to a mainstream audience. Read more >

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