11 November 2020

“Food justice is about solving the racial inequities and power imbalances that affect our food and agriculture systems.”

“For too long these justice issues have been all too invisible for too many people. Yet when we look closely at them it’s easy to see that no discussion of food and agriculture can be complete without prior consideration of these important topics.” So said Al Gore during this panel discussion on the systemic processes that have created and continue to promote food injustice.

In the United States, issues of food security and land sovereignty represent big challenges for Black and Hispanic farmers facing economic and social barriers. This structural and institutional racism is rooted in a system many are beginning to call food apartheid. This is fueled by a food system based on extractivism of land and labor to deliver cheap food. 

Agriculture as a Leverage Point for Racial Justice

The conversation began with the need to look at agriculture as the base for a structural change toward justice. Jim Embry , Slow Food activist and founder of Sustainable Communities Network, brought attention to the founding of the United States. “We recognize that it was the pursuit of agriculture that led to the seizure of land from indigenous people and the enslavement of Africans, a quest that planted the seeds of injustice. Our failures to resolve these foundational contradictions are the basis of injustices today. Resolving these long-standing contradictions within agriculture can provide the fertile soil for seeds of righteous justice in every institution.”

This legacy of enslavement, Jim explains, is the reason agricultural workers, to this day, are paid the least. They also have the greatest income inequality, and have the least workplace benefits and safety measures, as evidenced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Power Imbalance

The marginalization of workers in the food system, especially people of color and immigrants, who work in “over crowded housing, over crowded transportation, unsafe working conditions, and more importantly systematically extreme generational poverty, and little or no access to healthcare,” brought up the topic of Imbalance of Power to the table.  Greg Asbed, co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and a principal author of the Fair Food program, emphasized on how the pandemic exposed the truth of how ‘essential’ workers are treated specially in within the food system, “there was no contact tracing, no isolation, no interventions protecting communities […] the work was essential but the farmworkers were expendable.”

A systematic problem continues to be the lack of corporate social responsibility. This is especially true of large companies pushing to lower the price of food, further creating deplorable living conditions and low wages of food workers.

The Power of Community

Black farmers are particularly affected by unequal access to capital along with other barriers. It is this lack of systematic support that brings the power of uniting as a community to the forefront of the battle to regain food security. Reverend Heber Brown, founder and executive director of the Black Church Food Security Network, spoke about his project to tackle food insecurity and food-related illnesses using the infrastructure and resources already at hand. “I began seeing a pattern with those in our church experiencing diet related illnesses and diseases. I thought pipelining nutrient-rich foods to our congregation would help to address some of the challenges.”

The event was hosted from Al Gore’s farm, Caney Fork, in Tennessee. Photo: Caney Fork Farms

They help churches start gardens on their lawns, connect them and the community with black farmers, and develop the distribution system to bring fresh locally-grown food from small African-American farmers to the cities. We can do our part by piecing together the existing resources of our churches to create this black lead food system where those who are closest to the problem of food apartheid can also recognize that we’re also part of the solution.” Brown contined: “The African-American community should not be pathologized, as if we’re just at risk, we’re just poor, we’re just hungry, we’re just in need of benevolence or charity. No, we’re part of the answer because we have seen the underside and the underbelly of the injustice of this food system.”

Building Just Local Food Systems

Jim Embry closed with an African proverb that says “‘When spider webs unite they can tie up a lion,’ so let’s all be spiders.”

To rebuild socially and environmentally just food systems we must look at the diversity of people and land involved in the process, the panelists agreed. From the ancestral knowledge and traditions of indigenous peoples, to the vital role of women in the community, and the importance of respecting and supporting small and peasant farmers around the world.

“Every two years, small and peasant farmers, people of the rainforests and deserts, herds people and fisher people, activists, the elderly and the youth, teachers, all regarded as the weakest divisions of society, gather in Turin, Italy for Slow Food’s Terra Madre. 10,000 delegates from 170 countries as a part of a global movement of millions of people. We believe that agriculture is the leverage point for more profound change in every country.

The Indigenous Terra Madre Network inspires us and challenge us to think and proclaim that we are all indigenous to the earth. We must learn from and work with indigenous peoples to develop an earth or eco-centric worldview to replace our homocentric worldview,” said Jim.

The human right abuses and the abuse on the environment is a result of the power imbalances we have systematically built for hundreds of years. It is this very system, the panelists agreed, the one we must reshape and rebuild through greater collaboration and respect. This is the spirit of Terra Madre.

by Paula Thomas,