Local2Global Advocates for Food Sovereignty

Thursday, April 25, 2013

"Local Food. Tastes Great. Won't End White Supremacy" ----Raj Patel

"Local Food.  Tastes Great. Won't End White Supremacy"    ----Raj Patel

"Local Food.  Tastes Great. Won't End White Supremacy"    ----Raj Patel

Recently,  Rohit Kumar,  wrote: "How the Local Food Movement is Transforming Race Relations In the USA" and the Huffington Post published it.

Both this article and its  publishing in a progressive space like the Huntington Post deeply saddens me and here is why.

(First, I  want you to know that I write this comment with love and out of love for myself and my colleagues in the local and all the food movements, and for those who are hungry and malnourished and who have lost and are losing their livelihoods and dignity as small farmers.  I know that you and so many people are deeply well intentioned and are working in the local food and other food movements with nothing but the purest and loveliest of intentions.  As well, you are my colleagues and my family and I have been working with you for years now, sometimes led, sometimes frustrated, sometimes disappointed, hurt and sometimes  horrified by what I have seen, and sometimes inspired and emboldened. I want us to succeed. I want us to build the food, health, and agriculture portion of the better world that we all want.  But I am troubled by a lot of what I see in the local and other food movements, so I want to share my concerns with you with the hope that perhaps my little piece of the puzzle can make our work more effective, more just, more fair, more inclusive and ultimately successful in building a better world for all.)

(A world with better food for some is not a distinctly different world in that which we currently live.)

 ( I want to challenge the  food movements to live up to their promise and to, along with myself and others, challenge the status quo to in fact build food and economic systems  which do not create hunger, poverty and malnutrition and that create livelihoods with dignity for family farmers, farm and food workers, as well as sustainably, justly and fairly produced, sufficient amounts of healthy , nutritious, culturally appropriate food for all.)

I am a part of the local to global food sovereignty movements. I have been involved a short time, since about 2006 when I started volunteering at what was then, the  Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture, and is  now Cultivate KC, to work on a small urban garden or farm to do the manual labor of farm work which as a part time volunteer was restorative for me.

 I went to Cuba and studied urban agriculture and then agroecology for which Cuban is now famous and deservedly so, went back to graduate school at the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and the Environment and studied with well-known agroecologists (the scientific basis for sustainable agriculture) Drs. Ivette Perfecto and John VanderMeer.

 I fell completely in love with agroecology and the food sovereignty movement going on around the world for a just and sustainable, truly democratic, food system.  I worked in coalition with many of the national food and farm organizations in the country and finally the globe.  I worked and work with many local organizations working on these issues as well.

Rohit, I was naïve; I thought we were all in this together, but what I found after several years of working in this movement(s) and across it, was work and a movement which deeply mirrored the racial, class, and gender segregation of our larger local, national and global societies.  I found organizations funded by the very global, industrialized,  corporate food system they purported to be replacing, unable to discuss what this might mean for their work.  In short, the movements, local food, food sovereignty, food democracy, sustainable agriculture, community gardening, from the local to the global levels mirrored our deeply divided species and was dominated in large part but not wholly by our global, industrialized, big corporate  food system.

There are the haves and the have nots, the powerful and the elite; the movement is deeply racially segregated, class issues are virtually untouched and little is done to get to the root causes of our failing food and agriculture and world.

Organizations are unwilling to challenge their own oppression much less the oppression in the outside society.  99% of the work is based on charity not change, which in fact perpetuates the system that creates the need for charity, hunger and malnutrition and poor health.

Nonprofits compete among themselves and worse yet with the people they purport to serve for funding.  Global movements are male dominated; white women dominate work in the US.

Many Black farmers still have not received compensation for their land having been robbed and live in poverty; Latino and women farmers still struggle for their own; family farmers are a dying breed over all. Only yesterday did I finally find an organization in the food movement which addresses oppression, including racism and all our societal oppressions, within itself as well as in its work, Pesticide Action Network North America. 

While I have had a very different experience with local food than you; I am delighted that you have had a lovely sharing over food with your diverse neighbors who have been so segregated in your neighborhood.  This is wonderful; I hope more people can have these lovely experiences of sharing and getting to know each other over food which I as well am fortunate to enjoy, but Rohit, a lovely sharing over "ethnic foods,"  does not constitute  a race relations transformation in this country.  I fault the Huffington Post for lifting up your "lovely" piece to the status of essentially saying that local food is transforming race relations in the US.

We, you and I, and all our colleagues in the local food movement and food movements around the world, we want the local food and all the other food movements to make a racial transformation, we want it to provide healthy an djustly cultivated food for all, we want it to provide livelihoods with dignity that can send our children to University and provide a decent life for themselves and their families, and we want it to bring peace on Earth.  One of my colleagues, Geof Lawton of Permaculture Australia said, "Every problem in the world can be solved in a Garden." Even if such a lovely, simplified statement true were ever true, it would not be easy.

But our wanting it to be that way Rohit does not make it so.  To make the claim claim that local food is transforming race relations in the USA now, when we have just scratched the surface of transforming  our food and agriculture, is just getting us off the hook before we do the hard work of really  ending race and other oppressions in our food and agriculture and society.

I think what you are experiencing is a little of the local food movement  transforming race relations in your life.  That  in and of itself is beautiful and something to write about, but I think your extrapolation of this experience to conclude  that local food is transforming race relations in the entire country is naïve and dangerous.

The danger in this my dear colleague is that we don’t want to say we have arrived before we have arrived Rohit, because then we may never do the hard work we need to do to truly arrive, to truly transform race and other oppressive relations  in our nation and world.

For that reason I find your article and the Huffington Post’s lifting it up deeply troubling and a threat to the real potential of our work to transform race relations in our country and world—a task we have found insurmountable thus far.  In fact, as you are probably aware, the nation and the world’s current economic woes are exacerbating race inequity in our nation and world.

I think part of what I find troubling Rohit, is that we human beings want simple answers and solutions to the morass, chaos, ugliness and brutality of our world of which food and agriculture is a fundamental part—genocide, slavery, malnutrition, disease, epidemics, raping of the land, plundering of the land, colonizations, land grabbing, pesticides, poisoning, disease, health epidemics, GMO’s, GE’s, to name a few are some of the horrible issues we face around food and agriculture.  Who would not want to escape from this into a “garden” or to “local food?”   Geoff Lawton, one of the world’s premier permaculturalists, whom I have met and talked to, has said, “All the world’s problems can be solved in a garden.”  We want to believe this.  But even if it were true Rohit; it would not be easy.

Here is the thing my dear Rohit,  and others who truly want to build a better world,  we want to believe that local food can transform race relations,  but to simply  believe that it can without doing more to make it do so; ie.,  without doing the hard, seemingly impossible (and perhaps impossible)  and uncomfortable work of challenging ourselves and our world and without sacrifice and personal and professional discomfort , and without taking on and directly confronting the evil that exists in our world of which food is a critical part, racism and other evils will continue. We cannot make it so by simply saying it.

Your story is lovely but transformation of race relations around food and agriculture it is not.  We have the opportunity to truly transform our race relations around food and agriculture but we as a community and as a species have not yet stepped up to the hard work of doing this.  The best intentioned ones of us are stuck in a naïve, escapist strategy which is failing to flourish because we have failed to take on the evil that is around us, including racism.

Let me share, that I too am naïve.  I just returned from six months in East and Southern Africa where I worked with social movements around food and agriculture and just human decency and freedom from oppression, from the local to the global levels.  When I returned to the US, I had a breakdown of sorts from what I had seen and from which I fled.  I am still in denial, and that is my source of naiveté.  I rather deny what I saw and experienced rather than accept the horror and evil of my world, much less challenge it. But where will that lead us my dear Rohit?  What will the result of our work be if we don’t face reality and don’t base our work and solutions on that reality?

Here are some things I know about local food movement and some observations and why I see a movement reinforcing the segregated and race inequity of our country versus improving them as you have experienced.

I want to start by saying that I do appreciate the local food movement, but I want everyone to be able to enjoy local food, so our work has actually only begun.  I use organic local food and I am solidly middle class and single and able to spend about over $600.00 a month on food (including eating out).  One of my colleagues spends about $400  per month for a family of six (2 adults and 4 children)  eating conventional food!. I eat organic, vegan and low fat after having suffered gallbladder disease in 2010. I eat out at our KC, MO local FUD restaurant at least once a week which is a raw, vegan restaurant using  local produce as well. This past winter I shopped at our local Nature’s Own Health Food Mart which carries a lot of local food even in the winter, and in the summers I will shop at our City Market here in Kansas City, MO.  Local farmer, Pod Huns, sells local organic cheap; it doesn’t provide him a living; he and his family are great at it and generous.  He used to be a chemist until he lost his job; I haven’t talked to him lately, couldn’t find him at the farmers market this past Saturday, but hope to get the update on him and his family this summer at the market.  (Huns farm also sells beautiful flowers.) (And lest you point out this apparent multicultural relationship engendered by food, let me share with you Rohit that I have always enjoyed and been fortunate in having racial and ethnic diversity in my social and professional circles.)

So, local  food is expensive! If you are clever, connected and educated, you can get it for less but it is mostly expensive and only accessible to people like me, solidly middle class, single or upper class, consequently omitting the predominately Indigenous, Black, Latino and some groups of Asian folkss who are the poorest folks in our communities and country and who most need it.  Perhaps in this most important way, local food has failed to do anything different from conventional food or is food for the elite, reinforcing the already gross inequity in race and class relations in our country and communities.

Furthermore, according to a recent report by the Center for Social Inclusion, only 4.6% of farmers markets are in poor inner city communities populated predominantly by Black and Latino folks, and the folks most in need of healthy food.  According to the USDA, less than 1%, or about .47% of the US eats local food.  Again, it is a tiny elite like me who are knowledgeable and able to afford and access it.

Local food  does not pay or provide other than poverty livelihoods for local urban folks trying to make a living through it; as one of my honest colleagues says, it is a  good second living; he teaches at a local well known community college for his good job with benefits. These are not the livelihoods that will allow families to rise out of poverty, send their children to college, and leave the poor inner city for a better, safer and healthier environment with good schools and medical care, free from violence.  These livelihoods do not provide health benefits for these “farmers” or gardeners.    What will happen to them if they are ill and cannot farm or garden?  While many white folks involved in the work may have families whose financial resources can support them;  the poor Black and Latino folks who come from generations of poverty and slavery and other exploitation do not have these family resources to support them.

Many of the people making a living in the local food movement are like me and work for nonprofits promoting local food or working on food and health issues, but are the gardeners and urban farmers themselves making a living?  Could they do this work without the support of their families?

As far as the gardening movement sweeping our country and world promoted by well-intentioned nonprofits and others, do we really want to create a world where poor people have to grow their food,while middle and upper class people can purchase their food and are free to pursue lucrative and powerful careers  to govern our world and industry while we are merely the workers in it?  Are we really giving up on a just and equitable society with equal opportunity for everyone to get an education and better themselves including healthy food and decent livelihoods by requiring some of our citizens to grow their food while others can merely purchase their food, leaving them free for more economical and influential pursuits?  Given the color of poverty in our society and world, will not these create an apartheid system of power and wealth with race and class as a proxy?

There is a very interesting article about the gardening movement raising these and other critical concerns at http://lib.dr.iastate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2162&context=etd called “Looking at Community Gardens through Neoliberal Lenses.”  The author, a graduate student at Iowa state, also point out the class and race differences between those who administer these community gardens and those who are the recipients of these programs and raises questions as to their ability to empower participants given this hierarchy.   He also points out that many of these programs fail after a few years and the gardens are abandoned.  Also many of these gardening and urban farming programs have not managed to own the land on which they reside, a fundamental injustice in itself with grave racial implications since again most of the recipients of the gardening programs are poor people of color who do not own the land on which they are gardening or farming.

Another concern I have about the local food movement is the safety of the product given urban environmental pollution and the lack of financial resources to test land and water and what impact this will have on race relations since most of the people in these areas are poor people of color.  One of my friends who has farmed or gardened for years nearby recently found out that her land was poisoned by lead and is having it just now re mediated.  They have eaten the food for years and sold it as well. 

Global warming is also challenging the local food movement  as local farmers and gardeners cannot keep up with water costs or needs; this will impact the poor most who are being encouraged to rely on gardening for their food and who are predominately people of color.

I have also observed that local food farmer training programs are unable to provide training equally to Black and other people of color as to white folks as well.  Most of these programs are run by white folks and middle class or upper middle class folks of any race who are  unable to reach across racial and class barriers successfully .

My conclusion is that “local food” is currently an  elite movement by a few, feeding those who can already afford healthy food and perhaps providing a little extra income for some folks—the importance of which is not to be discounted. I.e., having a little extra cash. The question is whether it can become a truly inclusive just and fair movement.

Rohit, what I suggest, instead of prematurely congratulating ourselves that local food is transforming race relations in the US, is for those of us who like yourself, myself and so many others working hard in this field and just don’t know what to do to overcome racism in our food, society and work; that we take this opportunity to truly challenge the evil in our society and ourselves (do we doubt any of us (of all races) that we are all capable of evil?)  and do the hard work  to truly overcome the substantial barriers that exist to racial equity in our food and agriculture movements, our organizations and ourselves.

Being people of color, subject to racial and ethnic discrimination, does not omit us from this hard work either.   We need to do our part as well in truly building a local food movement which takes on the race inequity in our food and agriculture as well as our powerful, global, industrialized corporate food system which is inherently destructive of our health and our environment, racist and creates poverty and hunger.

 In other words, we can’t just sit back growing “local food” without taking on the very systems which have destroyed our once vibrant local food systems and be successful in creating a movement which does improve race relations in the US as well as end poverty and hunger.

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