A just food system has to encompass every step from the soil to your plate
The last several months we’ve been asked to expand our perceptions of reality. We learned what’s most essential to thrive as we navigate both the largest pandemic and most sustained social justice protests in living memory. As we shift to find solutions, it is beautiful to witness the sustained courage and ongoing dedication to positive change.
As a founder of two social justice-centered community food projects, as well as an attorney, artist, and environmental educator, I focus on identifying the people most at risk in the food system. I leverage my time and effort in the direction of healing the old, oppressive assumptions of the food industry — centered on unethical profit — so we can become a thriving and liberated food community centered on people and planet.
Many folks only interact with grocery stores, farmers markets, and restaurants as their primary relationship to food. In fact, our food chain reaches all the way to the seed and the soil and includes all the processing, transportation, and regulatory entities required for food to make its way to our plates. During this pandemic and social unrest, every system is being interrogated and, thankfully, the ones that uphold oppressive structures are being torn from their pedestals of presumed normalcy.
In general, business in the United States was founded upon the legacy of slavery. It is important for every business sector, including food, to eliminate any vestige of white supremacy, and adopt a framework that uplifts liberated systems of cooperative economics and realigns with fundamental human rights.
Here are four specific ways we can begin to build an equitable and collectively held food community.
ETHICAL LABOR PRACTICES
The current profit structure is based on cheap, unprotected labor: undocumented fieldworkers and meatpackers, incarcerated prisoners, line cooks, dishwashers. The same people we have often lauded as essential during this pandemic.
A commonly held value of most people is that everyone working a full-time job should receive a livable wage and healthcare. Unfortunately, food preparation, serving, farming, and fishing are occupations that earn the lowest median wage. Before COVID-19, farm workers already experienced the highest rates of toxic chemical injuries and lifelong health consequences. They often receive only $2 per vessel of fruit or vegetables picked. And the people who grow and serve our food often are food insecure themselves.
Another way food employers circumvent their labor obligations is by saying that tips make up the living-wage difference. Tipping in the U.S. began as a way to selectively compensate Black workers, and it still encourages racism, sexism, harassment, and exploitation. Businesses will also use contract, temporary, and part-time workers to avoid their ethical responsibilities. Every employer needs to renounce these practices and commit to providing workers the wages, safety equipment, and healthcare they require.
Consumers must be vocal about our commitment to ethical practices across the entire food chain. Collectively we can extinguish the fear and desperation that food workers feel in the face of power structures willing to dismiss them at the first sign of dissent.
Resources: HEAL Food Alliance, Food Chain Workers Alliance, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United
If a business isn’t able to make a reasonable profit without using cheap labor and unsustainable environmental practices, their business model is unethical. We must grow beyond these models to rebuild an equitable food community.
Worker cooperatives are a proven concept of business leadership that creates a centrally governed and democratically controlled worker-owner establishment. This model is applicable to every kind of business, including restaurants, grocery stores, and farms. It flattens hierarchies and empowers workers, which leads to less racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and climate-change denial.
Many worker cooperatives have social justice frameworks that honor the whole person in support of their contribution to the business. For example, creating reciprocal relationships with a childcare cooperative and a housing cooperative can make it so that employees are better able to perform their jobs. These are the old-school modes of community support that can be renewed now that collective support is the most realistic and sustainable path forward.
Resources: Mandela Grocery Cooperative, Rainbow Grocery Cooperative, Cheese Board Collective, Arizmendi Association of Cooperatives, Ubuntu Coffee Cooperative, United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives
MUTUAL AID NETWORKS
Many people are hearing the term “mutual aid” for the first time as our society instinctively comes together to provide resources and support for everyone, but especially the people most at risk. But it is important to note that mutual aid isn’t new, and it isn’t a response only in exigent circumstances. It is an ongoing approach to building and maintaining what Martin Luther King Jr. called beloved community. Many restaurants and food banks pivoted to support the huge need created when our cities were called to shelter in place. We witnessed the great capacity and agility we have to meet that need. I propose that we never stop.
Leverage your skills, resources, and networks to be of service to your community. Ask your neighbors what they need. Align with groups committed to mutual aid with communities at the highest risk. This is one of the most profound opportunities we have to take sustained action and manifest the radical hospitality our society needs.
Resources: Las Vegas Town Fridge Project, Mutual Aid Network of Las Vegas, World Central Kitchen, Idealist.org Mutual Aid
Mutual aid and cooperative work structures have a beautiful manifestation in community gardens and community-supported agriculture (CSAs). Before monolithic corporate farming, these collective local enterprises were the standard for sustainable and healthy food systems. In 1982, Booker T. Whatley, from the Tuskegee agricultural legacy that included George Washington Carver, put forth the farming and marketing concept of CSAs with his Clientele Membership Clubs. His goal was to grow healthier food and bring producers and consumers closer together. And with CSAs, a more stable food economy is created when consumers commit to the farmer through seasonal subscriptions to the harvest.
Decide today to support the abundance of our local food community. And in that commitment, we consumers need to also be prepared to pay more for food and/or grow our own to bring balance back to our food community.
Alongside its inequities, the food community is filled with deep love and care. This moment has shown us what we can accomplish together. So let’s eat food harvested, cooked, and served by empowered workers, and give our next generations a legacy of caretaking one another and our planet.
Resources: San Miguel Community Garden, Vegas Roots, Master Gardeners of Clark County