Meditations on Food, Life, and Equity
I love food. The midwife who attended my birth liked to tease me later in life, being born premature, underweight, and hungry, the first thing I did was eat. Perhaps this is why I started cooking as a four-year-old. Maybe my hunger helped, but what I remember most fondly is the feeling of being in the kitchen.
The kitchen was a place full of smells and stories. Tasting dishes from my mother’s childhood made me feel a peculiar sense of being outside of time. It was a magnificent alchemy that could create a cookie that smelled and tasted the same to me there as it did to my mother when she was my age. It was this same sense of vicarious nostalgia that drew me to cooking shows as a child. My favorite PBS chefs were storytellers, transporting me to China, Louisiana, France, and New England while building a quiet desire to taste what the world had to offer.
As an adult I was drawn to work in the grocery industry, I think in part to get close to my food supply. It was wild to see our food-system from the backstage. The amount of food waste almost made me walk out my first week, and for a long time afterward the emotional guilt of having to throw away so much perfectly good edible food made me feel like I was carrying a horrible secret. Nationally we have more than enough food. In a given year 72 billion pounds of food never reaches consumers (Feeding America 2020). On the local level this means that 40% of food in Colorado could end up wasted (We Don’t Waste 2020). It is a tragedy for food to be treated so carelessly, but even more so because food waste doesn’t just disappear—if nothing is done to rescue it this food will end up in landfills where it will release methane and trap organic matter where it will never nourish soil as compost (EPA 2019).
The organizations that would come to pick up food that would otherwise be thrown away, were for me an important partner in the grocery industry and made me able to hold my head up a little better at work. I remembered that growing up, buying groceries was a difficult and involved process since often in Denver the stores with the best prices and selection were pretty far from where we would be able to afford to live. Working in a grocery store, I learned firsthand how little companies think they can do to change that. It isn’t personal, just that a chain only wants to open a store where they can turn the highest profit.
That means that the only stores that end up in low-income neighborhoods have higher prices because they don’t have the buying power to negotiate the large price breaks that national chains can achieve. Capitalism and the free market economy seemed to be quietly conspiring against the lives and dignity of many marginalized communities. The risk of food-insecurity is not spread through our society evenly or even randomly; the failure of our food-system is felt disproportionately along lines of privilege as “low-income communities and communities of color often lack access to locally available healthy food, and what is available is often more expensive than similar purchases in wealthier areas” (Alkon and Agyeman 2011). Living with hunger and food insecurity has far reaching consequences, it can impact performance in school or the workplace, be a constant source of stress, and also diminish health and longevity. In fact “hunger and obesity are two sides of the same coin. These two forms of malnutrition stem from the same broken food system and often co-exist with risk factors such as poverty, living in neighborhoods with limited access to healthy foods, and increased consumption of low-cost, high calorie foods” (Denver Environmental Health 2014).
Consider the amount of effort it took to take healthful raw ingredients and convert them into junk food that is available in areas where “real” food is scarce. Our food-system wasn’t carelessly structured, it has been carefully and effectively designed to maximize profits for a handful of industries at the expense of succeeding in the mission that “all people at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious foods which meets their dietary needs and food preference for an active and healthy life style” (Denver Environmental Health 2014). Poverty and deprivation are not inherently related to any racial, national, or ethnic group; policies that reinforce generational poverty and hunger must be acknowledged as resulting from intentional social and economic policies; this has caused activists to discuss these problems as a system of food-apartheid. Withholding adequate nutritious food is an act of violence against individuals and communities as conditions such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease are over expressed across communities facing food apartheid. The pandemic has made these disparities more critical as we have learned that complications and mortality from covid-19 are highly concentrated among people with the aforementioned pre-existing conditions.
Then and now: The US has never stopped being hungry for land and labor...
The United States at its core is a colonial state inherently entwined with capitalism. Our settler colonial state was established within Indigenous lands utilizing the agricultural expertise and labor of abducted Africans for the purpose of generating wealth and establishing a social and economic system that would maintain a colonial caste system for generations to come. “The triad relationship among the industrious settler, the erased/invisibilized Native, and the ownable and murderable slave is evident in the ways in which the United States continues to exploit Indigenous, Black, and other peoples deemed ‘illegal’ (or otherwise threatening and usurping) immigrants, which is why we describe settler colonialism as a persistent structure,” (Arvin, Tuck, and Morrill). If we forget that these systems are continuously being enacted and upheld, we risk accepting them as normal and inevitable; the truth is that the systems of inequity in the United States can only continue as long as they are intentionally maintained.
Our food-system still reflects the colonial desire to turn land and non-White bodies into profit through intensive agricultural production.
There are conversations we need to have about how to restructure a food-system that even in good times was failing too many people, a food system that supports an economic system which perpetuates conditions that re-create poverty and insecurity in the same communities generation after generation.
A food-system that depends on destabilizing nations and regions to force agricultural migrations across borders, and into conditions which are criminal and deplorable but easy to avoid talking about. We must have conversations about how privilege is constructed and maintained through a variety of continuing structures of settler colonial violence targeting Indigenous women, communities, and water systems under the moral imperative of profit. Our broken food-system is directly tied to these persisting settler colonial structures and systems of capitalist extraction. Yet our food-system can be modified, re-designed, and rebuilt if we have a will to do so.
Alkon, Alison Hope, and Julian Agyeman. 2011. Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability / Edited by Alison Hope Alkon and Julian Agyeman. Food, Health, and the Environment. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press
Arvin, Maile, Eve Tuck, and Angie Morrill. 2013. "Decolonizing Feminism: Challenging Connections between Settler Colonialism and Heteropatriarchy." Feminist Formations 25, no. 1: 8-34.
Colorado Foundation for Agriculture. “Colorado Agriculture Fun Facts” 2018. Retrieved July 03, 2020, from https://www.growingyourfuture.com/student-center/colorado-agriculture-fun-facts/
Environmental Protection Agency. 2019. “Sustainable Management of Food Basics,” June 19, 2020. https://www.epa.gov/sustainable-management-food/sustainable-management-food-basics.
Feeding America (2014). Map the meal gap 2014: Overall food insecurity in Colorado by County in 2012.
(2018). Retrieved July 03, 2020, from https://www.growingyourfuture.com/student-center/colorado-agriculture-fun-facts/
Mason, Mondi. 2014. “Food System Policies and Population Health: Moving Toward Collective Impact in Denver,” 54. https://www.denvergov.org/content/dam/denvergov/Portals/746/documents/Food%20System%20Policy%20Scan%20Report_FINAL_12.15.2014.pdf
We Don't Waste. “Our Mission.” Accessed July 3, 2020. https://www.wedontwaste.org/.