Thursday, June 23, 2016

Food and Privilege

Yesterday, as the sun receded from her longest workday, and the full, ripe strawberry moon rose orange, I had a conversation with a dear friend that is still on my mind today. We had been talking about water springing forth from mountains and food jumping out of the earth in our gardens and fields.

“Good food and pure water, those are the luxuries of our time,” somebody said.
“Yes, and we have to live like peasants to be able to have them.” my friend said.
“It's also a pretty privileged thing to be able to live for and with” I chimed in.
“Well, maybe if you're drinking, like, Fiji water bottles,” my friend replied.
There was kind of a lot going on, a group of us, people talking at once, but he asked me to say more about what I meant. I didn't have a perfectly articulated reply in my pocket, but I tried with “well, if you were a single mom, working three jobs to support your kids, taking the bus, living in a part of a city without access to a grocery store...”
he got the drift and reiterated how hard it would be to be a single mom. But I'm not sure I got across what I really wanted to.

We didn't stop, sit down together, and sift through privilege, bias, access, and environmental racism. We didn't talk about frontline communities. We kind of just kept hanging out, looking for a break in the fence so we could walk around the cemetery, catching up.

It's not terribly startling that a person, even someone with a certain level of expertise about growing food (and standing in the circles where people care about that sort of thing) would be unfamiliar with how privilege plays into food and clean water access, but what keeps this exchange on my mind is that this is a friend I met through a two year educational program about growing food and building community, where we were out in communities working with people around food security and nutrition and gardening and eating vegetables.

For me, this is a stop-and-fix moment, and I think that it's a message for the food movement as a whole. It's not a personal attack on this individual or even the educational program, because people are experts in their lived experiences, and that's pretty much all they have to work with. But I think it is an indication that despite the amazing work food justice folks are doing across the country, the food movement still has conversations to have.

Here's what I didn't quite articulate thoroughly at the time, but I wish I had:

  1. That access to good, clean, fair food is blocked for certain people: not just passively by unfortunate circumstances, like missing the bus and then the grocery store was closed, but also actively and systemically by local urban land use policy, zoning and development, national agriculture policy, and cultural barriers.
  2. That environmental racism means that harmful environmental outcomes are borne by marginalized communities, because they have less political clout than more educated, wealthy, lawyered-up communities. This means that there are black communities, native american communities, appalachian communities, latino communities across the country who have shitty water to drink as their only choice because of an oil refinery or fracking or a massive oil spill in the gulf.
  3. That as overwhelming as these and every set of social justice issues can be to face, the most important thing we can all do is to be okay with the discomfort of them, be brave and vulnerable, and have conversations and listen, listen, listen. People have no more control over being born into privilege than they do being born out of privilege. What everyone CAN actively do is educate themselves about the lived experiences of people whose lives are different, whose struggles are real (all of our struggles are real) and about the way that bias plays in to the world around us. When we talk about uncomfortable things like institutional racism, class struggle, and sexism, we take risks, step outside of our comfort zones, and actually learn to quiet judgements originally directed towards ourselves.

So yeah. I think in a maturing national food movement or scene, it's clear that we still have work to do and conversations to have. That feeling may never go away, but we all can just keep showing up and listening. When we show up and listen we can understand how local issues like development projects affect more members of our communities, see it from a few more angles. 

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