Talking about food justice, hitting a wall

[Note: I had originally posted this on my Tumblr, but decided to repost here for better documentation and possibly more discussion. There was a news article I referred to that immediately preceded my own musings– for clarity, I just added an external link here. Would love any thoughts and feedbacks on this quickly-written musing!]

I had a challenging time last night trying to facilitate an educational discussion about food justice in the SD Fil/Am community with some friends of mine that I volunteer with (we are in a progressive Filipino/American high school student mentoring program together). I tried to get us all thinking about ours and our families’ shopping and consumption practices as a gateway to talking about structural barriers to getting affordable, healthy food, but we never seemed to get beyond a discussion of “cultural differences” between Filipino markets like Seafood City versus mainstream shops like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s or even Von’s. “Cultural differences” became the explanation for why prices are lower and why Filipino folks keep returning to ethnic groceries, and that alone was the answer.

Now, while it’s true that there are things that ethnic grocers can provide many services, products and relationships that puti markets can’t, to claim that a cultural difference alone keeps prices lower and products varied at Seafood City is to ignore the vast structures underlying food production and consumption in the US and around the world. To say that Filipino/Americans just “aren’t used” to buying organic food or even lots of vegetables (organic or not) is to defer a conversation about why our national or cultural diet might be so poor— about why many in our community have limited financial means or access to fresh produce and meats; about the colonial and neo-colonial origins for many of our so-called “unhealthy staple foods” (such as SPAM and sisig); about the linked causes for hunger and obesity in communities of color in the US with the growing international food crises in places like Korea and the Philippines. The conversation wasn’t able to progress to even begin discussing these things, and I self-critique for not being able to facilitate in a way that could get us there.

I guess it was so hard for me to have this discussion about food justice and communities of color without getting into everything— the FDA complicity with corporate ag; the neo-imperialism of land and labor exploitation on Third World plantations (aka the Philippines); white middle class privilege in demanding “good food” at the expense of poor immigrants of color who are being paid below living wage to produce it; and so on. These are all huge topics that at the very least folks should ideally read a little about before we engage in a (BRIEF!) 30 minute educational discussion about it, but in the absence of that, what else could I have done? Lecture? Brought in a news article like the one above as a piece to center our discussion?

Even in a very short news article like the one above, you have so many issues at once intersecting— gentrification, white privilege (and white guilt), different cultural discourses on what qualifies as “healthy food” and “diverse neighborhoods,” and that’s just hitting the surface. Even bringing in these two paragraphs seems overwhelming, when folks are coming from different places and have different viewpoints on all these topics…

Meh. I’m not trying to figure it all out now, just venting/processing a little on this blog. More or less, I’m frustrated with my own inability to translate my “intellectual work” (whatever that means) into real talk, to actually work with the community instead of me continuing to talk “at” them.

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Posted on March 17, 2011, in food justice, mutterings and musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Maybe you could conduct lectures with follow-up discussion groups – in the lecture you could touch on everything involved, what food justice means, why they should care, maybe even what day to day behavior changes/actions they could do to help. There could be follow-up discussion groups scheduled to go deeper into each topic individually (one discussion group = one topic). At the lecture you could pass out or recommend resources to check out before attending disussion groups, and the attendees of the lecture can decide which groups they’d like to attend…

    Just a thought :) I understand the challenge of engaging people from diverse backgrounds, all at different places in their lives, in meaningful discussion… and translating your passion into practicality. You’ll figure it out! The work you are doing is very important – best of luck to you.

  2. I wished you did say something at the meeting =) I have to admit I did not broaden my inquiry about the subject beyond “cultural differences”. It shows how we can get complacent and default to what’s readily apparent. At times we need to challenge our thinking to yield for a better analysis and hopefully arrive at a conclusion or at least an explanation. Thanks for posting!

    ~Theresa

  3. Thanks for your suggestions, Genivere! The format for the workshops we do isn’t ideal in the sense that every month is a new topic relevant to what we are teaching in the classroom that month– the topics are “optional” only in the sense that some people in the mentorship program aren’t able to come to meetings, so miss out on the discussion! I would so want to do small discussion groups as you suggest– in fact it’s how I run my own classrooms in my “real” job– but with folks’ other commitments and availability it’s just not feasible right now. I think that a list of recommended resources passed out before, or even a short primer article, would have been a good way to introduce the topic prior to the meeting– will definitely incorporate that into future workshops like this!

  4. Theresa,
    Thanks for your comment. Would love to talk with you more about your experiences in the org so far, and your feedback on how we can improve our educational discussions to be engaging and challenging for everyone, no matter what their background in the topics being discussed or prior educational and professional experience. We’ve long struggled in the group with what kinds of formats work best for educational discussions– there have been critiques in the past of EDs being too “intellectual” or too difficult, and there is a general desire to stay away from doing heavy (or *any*) reading beforehand, which as an educator I have some issues with. Like you say, I think we do need to challenge ourselves, and while I’m certainly for making our work accessible to everyone, I also think the anti-theory/anti-intellectual bias is problematic, as it is often used to shut down conversation and avoid facing challenges. Your feedback and presence is so necessary to helping us develop as an org, and move through these growing pains with grace!

  5. Hi T! I deeply appreciate this work you’re doing and the self-critical reflection in this post. I’m just brainstorming with you here, with much respect.
    * “holistic” health, transformative justice, decolonizing the diet, increasing life chances, etc = frameworks that are roomy enough for everyone to define collectively, using tools, sources, exercises, stories; and eliciting more stories and strategies
    * proposing a goal for the time period, like answers to the questions: What does “food justice” mean to us, right here, right now? Who among us and in our circles experiences “food injustice”? What can we do about that?
    * disagreements and discussions can be useful, and really should arise because these are difficult issues. so it would be helpful to have some evidence on hand that would complicate or counter the “cultural difference” argument, ie Filipino activists connected to La Via Campesina food sovereignty movement. Or just the simpler response: does our “culture” *really* mean to kill us? :)
    * follow-up questions at the end: What steps can we take after this workshop? What other concepts or activist struggles might we learn mmore about to help us after this workshop?

    By the way, I got here via Jean Vengua’s blog, Local Nomad.

    warm regards, k

  1. Pingback: Food Justice in the Fil-Am Community | Local Nomad

  2. Pingback: Like White on Rice: June Kulinarya Cooking Club challenge « Words and Nosh

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