The Irony of Justice

The last six months has found me immersed in a new language; a familiar world and an old concept, but a completely new language. Terminology is tricky.  Concepts and phrases like ‘food justice,’ ‘food security,’ ‘environmental justice,’ ‘urban sustainability,’ and ‘food revolution,’ lend themselves to the notion that we are actively engaged in a progressive movement of fair and equitable distribution of food in this country.  And in shockingly large proportions that is just not true.

Like many east coast foodies, I had an idealistic epicurean perception of California. I imagined boundless access to locally grown fruits and vegetables, outdoor kitchens with large community tables and a universal sovereignty about its contents. I was a struggling graduate student selling home cooked meals out of a backpack in 1996 when Alice Waters’ expanded her innovative philosophies about food to include school food and became infamous with the concept of the “edible schoolyard.’

I found this revolutionary. It sparked a brand new gastronomic movement. The nation was given a novel way of looking at the integration of the economy, the food cycle, sustainability and the traditions of artisanal foods that were groundbreaking. The food practices in Berkeley, California quickly became a model for the rest of the country making way for what would soon become a practical method of addressing the fundamental structural problems in our food system. Thus, by the time Pollan’s The Botany of Desire hit the shelves in 2001 America had an entirely new language to use in our discussion of and about food.

The slow food movement was upon us and urban agricultural sustainability was taking shape all around. Urban farms were sprouting up in notable percentage all across North America. Cities like Chicago and Detroit were changing their landscape and Vancouver was reporting that 4 out of every 10 households were growing food on their properties.

So in 2009, when I first set myself a task to develop a company that would give inner-city folks, people living in the ‘hood’ – low income, under educated and disadvantage people – access to nutritional information in a way that they could not only understand, but fully incorporate into their daily lives, my goal was simple. I wanted my people to have access to a better way of eating well and living a more (w)holistic life. I wanted to address the growing obesity crisis and the health related traumas associated with it by starting an open dialogue about the correlation of excessive ingestion of sugar, salt and fat and its long term effects on personal health.

I convinced myself that I could use my culinary genius in a way that would transform the traditional foods that I had grown up eating and loving into their healthier alternatives and then teach others how to replicate them. I started studying nutritional text; learned a myriad of facts about diabetes, cholesterol and hypertension; traveled to under developed countries to see how others managed their diets while holding true to their culture norms and hit the ground running.

By the time I secured my first set of clients, I had developed a fourteen session workshop series that covered everything from exploring the traditions and phobias that keep us from examining new foods, to debunking the myths that healthy eating is a tasteless and expensive process, to creating meals, packed with familiar proteins, raw foods and whole grains that could be sustained on a seven dollar a day food budget. I was actively engaged in the revolution. I was bringing the slow food movement to the hood. Yay!

This was my work: empowering people to take charge of their dietary consumption and their overall well-being from market to plate. I felt like I was embodying the philosophies of Immanuel Kant – that education without judgment, allowed individuals the freedom to choose their own conceptions of good; conceptions of what it meant to have a good life. And what I witnessed was that once provided with the information and the skills to implement the information, by-in-large, people were making the healthier choice.  And then I moved to the west coast… and it wasn’t until I moved to Northern California, the East Bay in particular, that I would begin to fully understand the concept and the impact of a ‘food desert’.

I grew up poor, in the South Bronx in NYC and there were times when we couldn’t afford to buy food at the market and had to rely on the open hearts of others; and there were other times when the quality of food available was questionable, but I never experienced the absence of a supermarket. There is something both sobering and eye-opening about driving through certain Oakland neighborhoods and not seeing a supermarket, a green grocer or a place to buy whole foods for two miles. For folks living in rural areas with access to cars, this might not seem like a long distance, but Oakland is an urban metropolis with densely populated communities who rely primarily on public transportation. Having to travel for four miles just to secure whole food is absolutely astonishing. A fact that becomes even more critical for health and wellness when you factor in that fast food restaurants like Burger King, which are readily available, post window sized marquees that read, “We Accept EBT Cards.”

My idealistic epicurean perception was shaken. This was not the food revolution I had in mind.

How is it that a dozen and a half years later, in a city less than five miles away from the birthplace of the eco-gastronomic movement that cultivated my belief in food equality for all,  I spend my days plagued with the most bewildering displays of food inequities and insecurities that one can imagine. Which leads me to the question “what, actually, is food justice”?

From an intellectual standpoint, I fully understand that ‘justice’ movements arrive in response to unjust acts, beliefs, policies or practices. But from a moral standpoint, I am baffled by the reality of our food system. Food, whole food, cannot be an elitist construction. It is the moral responsibility of the ‘few’ to hold the ‘many’ – wasn’t that a constitutional right? I mean, of course, the constitution after it got edited a few times.

So perhaps that is where we are: in a state of editing our food system. According to Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi in their book Food Justice,

Putting together the two words food and justice does not by itself accomplish the goal of facilitating the expansion and linkage of groups and issues. Nor does it necessarily create a clear path to advocating for changes to the food system or point to ways to bring about more just policies, economic change, or the restructuring of global, national, and community food pathways. But it does open up those pathways for social and political action. And it helps establish a new language of social change in the food arena. Even as food justice has begun to represent a compelling way to talk about the changes in the food system, it remains a relatively unformed concept, subject to multiple interpretations. At best, it is seen as a work in progress, residing at the edges of an emerging alternative food movement.

So as I prepare for my next foray into the hood, suitcase packed with all of the things we should avoid eating, in my continual attempt to educate the ‘many’ still inflicted by the ills of governmental irresponsibility and by the traditions of poverty, knowing that their story is my story, I am wrapped in the words of Audre Lorde: I am not only a causality, I am also a warrior….divide and conquer must become define and empower. And my friends, I beg of you that we as a community not get so caught up in language and in the rhetoric of ‘justice’ that we forget the irony of what it means to need a “justice movement.”

Eat well. Be Well.

Love, Peace and Progress!


3 Responses to “The Irony of Justice”

  • Good to see you blogging again!
    Stay encouraged my sister.
    I recently found out about a brother in South Central LA who
    is radically changing vacant lots to gardens.
    Look up Ron Finley – Guerrilla Gardener – heard of him?

  • Incredible points that are well made. We are truly in a quandary when it comes to food. Even when it is accessible. Go Sarah go! Your voice and perspective are so incredibly relevant. Now more than ever. Cheers for the future of just food and access to whole food that is just! Keep spreading the love and making the progress.

  • I applaud you for all you’ve done to educate yourself and others on healthy eating. I love your blog.

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