Cultivating Food Justice… for whom?
Two weekends ago I attended the 4th Annual Cultivating Food Justice Event (not conference, as they were so keen to remind us), a free two-day extravaganza of panels, workshops, keynotes, and of course, delicious food put on every year by San Diego’s most staunch advocates for food justice. I went to this event last year for the first time, and while last year had the (worthy) glitter of the illustrious Raj Patel as keynote speaker, this year’s event was vastly improved (though hardly perfect). In lieu of a huge write up, because once again I’m running so behind, here are a few thoughts on the great, the good, and the things that need a little (or a LOT) of improvement.
- The change in location from SDSU to City Heights
Last year’s conference was on a college campus, and while it was super convenient, it also felt very remote and removed from, you know, the world outside the ivory tower. Not so this year. Basing the event in the heart of City Height’s business district was fantastic– “home base” was at the Farmer’s Market (more on that later) and other workshops were held at community centers such as a locally-run aquaponics farm, a community garden, a health center, local churches, etc. Spreading out the venue probably meant that some folks got lost, but that’s ok. I think that forcing people ostensibly interested in food justice– many of whom probably have never been nor never intended to go to City Heights before– to walk around a “food desert” composed primarily of working-class people of color is a necessary eye-opener. Did it actually change the dialogue on food justice that day? No, from what I saw (again, more on this below), but it’s perhaps a start to get privileged “foodies” out of their bubble.
- Lunch and workshops at and about the City Heights Farmer’s Market
On day one, folks were responsible for getting lunch on their own. It being Saturday and the day of the weekly City Heights Farmers Market, it was a perfect opportunity for conference attendees to visit the market and pick up produce or prepared foods from the vendors. One thing I noticed immediately was how small the market was compared to the massive Hillcrest Farmers Market, or even the North Park Farmers Market, one of the newer weekly markets just a mile or two down the road. A workshop I attended the next day facilitated by Fernanda De Campos really clarified for me why this was so– she is one of the organizers responsible for creating and maintaining City Heights Market, and it’s been a struggle just to get permits, permissions, and EBT access, let alone all the work that goes into drumming up vendors and farmers who will commit to a market without a “built-in clientele” (code speak for bougie folks with disposable income) to charge high prices for organic produce. Educating and organizing the community is also something Fernanda and others have been working hard at– basic education on nutrition and the value of fresh fruits and vegetables over much cheaper processed foods, and then more awareness building on the upsides of organic and local produce. I can only imagine the kind of labor and time this takes, and huge props to Fernanda and the other organizers for taking on this role!
The second day of the event, a vegetarian lunch was provided by conference organizers. Not only was it delicious and good for you, it was also FREE! This day, instead of the usual market vendors, there were tables manned by community food justice groups, non-profits working against hunger, seed-swapping collectives, and socialists and anarchist groups. It was a very positive energy seeing local folks coming together to talk food politics, create sidewalk murals, and just hanging out. It would be nice to see this kind of thing more regularly at all our San Diego farmers markets, but I’ve heard from Fernanda that every 3rd Saturday there will be a Cultivating Food Justice tent at the City Heights Farmers Market, so maybe that’s a start…
- More diverse group of volunteers, planners, speakers, and workshop topics
At last year’s conference, from the opening check-in to the keynote closing speech by Raj Patel, I kept looking around the room for people that looked like me, and saw very few that did. From the volunteers to the workshop leaders, I noticed a dearth of under-30s people, and a shockingly low number of people of color in the mix. Not so this year. The average volunteer range must’ve been in the early- to mid-20s, and a good number of those folks were women of color. I don’t know for sure what came first– the planning of the conference or the rise of younger folks of color in the planning committee, but I for one felt a big difference and for the better in the energy and focus of the entire conference.
The issues being addressed, especially in the keynote talks, were issues that really hit home for me, whereas last year I felt alienated by a lot of the talk to “buy green” and “build victory gardens in my front yard” when I’m a) not a home-owner and can’t legally build anything on the property I live on; and 2) can only buy green insofar as I can afford it. This year, unlike last, there were far more workshops on the schedule that addressed questions of structural barriers to access and food equity, food justice projects being taken up by immigrants, refugees, and other communities of color, and on direct production/farming and not just consumption of organic food. There was still plenty of focus on living sustainably and “urban homesteading” (ugh, I hate that term!) but it wasn’t the only focus of the conference to the exclusion of necessary discussions about who gets to live sustainably and who is barred from it.
The keynote speakers this year really hit it out of the park. It was really empowering that both speakers this year were local organizers working in their communities for real change: N. Diane Moss of the People’s Produce Project, a multifaceted community organization working in Southeastern San Diego, and Bilali Muya, a refugee from Somalia who is a leader in the New Roots Community Farm, an urban farm expressly for refugees in City Heights to sustain themselves and their families. Their talks were invigorating, empowering, and most of all, real. They made the stakes of their work very clear– that food justice is not just for individuals with enough purchasing power to buy green and live sustainably in their hybrid SUVs, but is part of broader systemic change, for entire communities to be able to survive and thrive in the face of economic, political, and cultural barriers to access, education, and livelihood. Don’t get me wrong, I love Raj Patel (his book Stuffed and Starved is a must-read), but this year’s speakers really solidified the need for local solutions to seemingly-insurmountable global issues.
TO BE IMPROVED
- Publicity- where was it?
Once again, this conference is amazing… if you can find it. I didn’t see any promotional materials up in local farmers markets or in the community beforehand, and didn’t even see any love on twitter! Last year’s conference had its own Twitter account and hashtag, but while I searched and searched beforehand, during, and after the event, I still think I was the only person tweeting about this event in real time. I’m hoping it’s because everyone that needed to be there was already there but I’m not so sure about that. The only way I found out about the event was through an email, sent days before, asking prior attendees if they’d like to volunteer this year. I can only hope the organizers did a better job promoting it in the local City Heights community and elsewhere.
- Cancellations and other logistical oversights
I’m kind of anal (no surprise, right?) so I get kind of twitchy if I feel like I’m missing key information. Namely, that registration is ongoing throughout the day, and not just from the 8-9AM timeslot listed both on the website and in the printed program. I almost skipped the event the first day because I thought there wouldn’t be a booth after 9AM to register to get the information about the day’s events, especially since locations for the workshops were not listed online either. Luckily that wasn’t the case, but I wonder how many other people didn’t show because they thought they missed their opportunity.
Also, I know it’s beyond the control of the organizers, but some of the last-minute cancellations really bummed me out. The cancelled workshops were high on my list too as they were on topics explicitly dealing with farmworker conditions and “on-the-ground” projects by people of color. I wonder what could have been done, if anything, to keep these folks from cancelling, or being able to replace them with similar workshops?
- Bad academics who had no business leading workshops
I really respect the work of food justice organizers, even those whose focii are not necessarily my own. I think that the more people the merrier doing this work, and that folks from all backgrounds– from scientists and specialists, to farmers, to blue-collar workers, to students, and so on– have a place in the struggle. BUT. If you are going to hold a panel ostensibly on food trucks, fast food, and Los Angeles, and proceed to give a jargon-y, avant garde performance-y, totally historically ungrounded talk instead, then I say you’re a terrible person who is doing real violence to theory, to Ethnic Studies as an academic field, to food justice organizing, and to communities of color all at once. It’s not even worth getting into the details of this talk except to say that I was probably one of the few people there who’s read the Deleuze, complexity theory, literary theory and Chicana Studies scholarship this academic claimed to base their work in, as well as have had the community organizing experience and food justice politics background to boot… and this talk still didn’t make real sense. The things that one could take away from the talk, moreover, were just plain wrong and could lead to the perpetuation of more violence against immigrants and communities of color. In a word, NO. Also: please never let this person speak at this conference again. Kthanx.
- Finally: why do white folks take up so much space? Are we speaking another language? A meditation.
Throughout the weekend, at different panels and workshops of various topics ranging from victory gardens to refugees in San Diego, there seemed to be the same group of people taking up a lot of room in the Q&A, asking the same three questions. These folks were either really peppy undergraduate students from one of the two large public universities in San Diego or older middle- to middle-upper class white folks wearing similar shades of pale clothing suitable when home gardening. I consistently saw them talking over others, shouting out questions while people of color were politely raising their hands and waiting to speak. Moreover, their questions were not always relevant to the discussion at hand, and in fact seemed to move us, always, towards the same discussions about legality (“how can we legalize these community gardens so everyone can plant a garden?”), procedure (“what is the paperwork process like to make your community garden/farmers market/fruit stand legal?”), and environmental safety (“why doesn’t your community garden/farmers market/fruit stand have organic certification? what kinds of fertilizers/water/planters do you use to keep away bugs without harming the environment?”). These questions are not necessarily bad but hearing them over and over again really made me realize:
Many white “food justice” activists literally and metaphorically speak another language: that of “environmental sustainability” and not that of “food equity” or “food sovereignty”
I need to write much more about this, but I guess the clearest example of this was in the final workshop I attended, run by the community leaders involved with the New Roots Community Farm. There were three main speakers from different refugee communities who work at the farm– Bob Ou (Cambodian), Hermalinda Figuerroa (Chicana), and Khadija Msame (Somalian)– and a fourth speaker, Amy Lint, who works with the International Rescue Committee and has been instrumental to the continuation of New Roots. Both Hermalinda and Khadija had interpreters as they did not speak English well or at all. Hearing Bob, Hermalinda, and Khadija speak was one of the highlights of the weekend- about what farming has done for themselves and their families; of the challenges they have faced but also of the satisfaction of producing what they need to survive. Khadija especially was so fierce– even in translation, it was clear how passionate she is and about how much she wants to empower the Somalian community in San Diego.
When it came time for the Q&A, however, four older white folks asked all the questions, and they were all about the logistics, legality, and enivronmental sustainability of the farm. Some of these same folks were in earlier panels I had attended on Victory Gardens, and the questions were nearly the same. Not a single question came up dealing with the fact that these farmers are not the middle-class homeowners the green movement paints as “urban homesteaders”; there was no discussion of what makes New Roots Farm different from most other community gardens we see in San Diego— the farmers themselves. The conditions the New Roots Farmers are working in, their stakes in the farm, are so much different because of their positionality, because of their race, class, and nationality– how could this basic fact be so overlooked? Moreover, the questions were primarily directed at Amy and not to Bob, Hermalinda, and Khadija. Did the audience members think they wouldn’t understand their questions because of the language barrier? Because of the cultural barrier? Because they weren’t trained like Amy has been, or is perceived to have been? Not only was it patronizing, it was infuriating. This kind of interaction happened throughout the conference, but this incident was the icing on top of the proverbial cake. Disappointing, definitely, but it also crystallized for me the need to continue working on food justice issues, and on getting us speaking the same language. Or, at the very least, getting some folks to be silent sometimes, and listen and learn from others.
So much for not writing a huge post– I guess I got carried away. Even with some of the disappointments, this was a fantastic event to attend– I learned so much, especially from the following individuals and groups, who deserve a special shout-out: The New Roots Community Farm; The City Heights Farmers Market and Fernanda De Campos; N. Diane Moss and The People’s Produce Project; and finally, Lacie Watkins-Bush, whose “Race and Class Deconstruction” workshop I had the privilege of attending last year and who continues to inspire and instruct me in how to teach compassionately yet critically about race, power, and food justice. It’s definitely an educational and eye-opening experience every time, and I hope to see you there next year!
(The photos I took, above, are of farming and agriculture projects started by and for City Heights community members. Even in a food desert do flowers and plants bloom.)