Just Get your Fork in the Dirt….

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Posted: January 22, 2015

The following is a guest post from Emerson Hunger Fellow Nora Leccese. She has been working to identify opportunities for the charitable food system to collaborate with the local food system to make fresh food more accessible to low income Vermonters.  She is focusing specifically on how the Vermont Foodbank could use the Venture Center to minimally process (chop, freeze and bag) fresh produce to reduce waste and provide more nutritious food to clients year round.


“Just Get your Fork in the Dirt”

Conversations on Race, Class, and the Food Movement at the CAE

In the wake of the murder of unarmed Black men by police in Ferguson, New York, and Cleveland, the nation has turned its attention to race and racial justice, and it is a crucial time to address enduring inequity in our own communities. Here at the CAE, we’ve been taking a close look at the race and class differences in our organization, our community, and in the local food system in Vermont. We’ve held a series of conversations about our own homogenous identities, how we might unintentionally create an exclusive atmosphere, and what we can do to change it.

As part of my work here, I’ve focused on helping to make local food easier to prepare and cook, and tried to overcome some of the tangible barriers that prevent low income Vermonters from taking part in our thriving local food system. I’d like to focus this blog on the intangible; the social and cultural aspects that prevent our neighbors from participating and feeling welcome in a movement that has become Vermont’s calling card. There barriers take take thoughtful conversation and committed action to overcome, and start with taking a close look at the stories we tell in the movement; who are they intended for? Who do they exclude? I’ll take a closer look at four aphorisms that help narrate the food movement, how they discourage some from getting involved, and what we can do to change the narrative.

“Vote with your fork”

In 2006, Michael Pollan published an article in the New York Times called “Voting with your Fork” in which he promised to break down some of the difficult choices facing families at the grocery store.  He addressed questions like “in January, [do we choose] the jet-setting winter asparagus from Argentina or the rutabaga from Upstate?” and should I buy “the omega-3 fortified eggs or the cage-free eggs?” These questions are common in the internal monologues of many middle and upper class consumers, but where was Pollan’s encyclopedia of helpful tips for people on a tight budget? Where was he answering questions like “is it more important to feed my kids dairy or vegetables this week?” If we continue to highlight voting with your dollar as the best way to create change in the food system, we continue to tell people who can’t afford those choices that they aren’t welcome in our movement.

“You should only eat what your great-grandmother would recognize as food”

Whose relatives are we talking about here? This edict betrays the assumption that our grandparents had some degree of control over their food supply, which means they had access to land or the liberty to purchase the bulk goods they needed. There is a common belief among people of European descent that their ancestors may have lived humbly without highly processed or packaged food, and that they got to preserve what they grew or visit a neighborhood grocer to fill their pantry. This is not so for indigenous people who were violently separated from their landbase and food supply and descendants of slaves who often made meals with scraps from the “master’s” table. Carolyn Wysinger is an author and activist raised in the South, and reflected on the history of some soul food for the blog Black Girl Dangerous:

“…when the “Master” held celebrations, such as for New Years, he would purchase a hog for the celebration. He would cook up the best cuts of the hog and sent the remaining fattiest and least desired parts such as the fatback, snouts, ears, feet, stomach and intestines to people he held hostage as slaves. It was an easy way to feed them for cheap, regardless of if it was healthy for them or not.”

Great grandmothers undoubtedly showed great resourcefulness and resilience in the face of exploitation and trauma and instructing foodies to model their diets after nebulous white ancestors erases that struggle.

“Everyone should just get their hands in the dirt”

As we recognize the economic and communal benefits of asserting control over our own food supply, we must remember that not everybody would like to return to agrarian past. It can be tempting for non-farmers to romanticize ancestral farming practices before the rise of industrial agriculture made Monsanto and Cargill household names, and when life was supposedly simpler and good food was plentiful. Here in Vermont, we’re under no illusions about what a difficult life farming can be. We must recognize that growing food is not for everybody, that there will be some people who will never want to embrace food production because of historical exploitation of their land and labor. Julie Guthman, UC Santa Cruz Professor and author or articles like “If They Only Knew’: The Unbearable Whiteness of Alternative Food” told the story of watching an urban gardening session in California. A leader suggested it would be “a good idea for the youth to ‘get their hands dirty’ and pick fruit. As my student described it, the African American chaperone, as well as the youth, had scowls on their faces as they left for the field trip. In talking to the youth later, she learned that they resented the expectation to work not only for free, but for white farmers.”

“If people only knew where their food came from…”

The food movement gains nothing from shaming low income families about their consumer purchases. When we lament that we wish low income folks “just looked into the source of their food,” we fail to honor the fact that most people are doing their very best to keep meals on the table. Educating yourself about where your food comes from takes time and energy and may not be a top priority. Each month, 101,000 Vermonters wonder if their 3Squares -formerly know as Food Stamps- benefits will last till the end of the month (not likely, the average 3Squares benefit is $235 per household in Vermont). They may feel rejected when luminaries from the food movement suggest that the vegetables they carefully budgeted for and bought aren’t good enough because they came from California. We need to honor the steps people already take to nourish their families.

Towards a more inclusive food system:

We can do our part to interrupt these harmful narratives by speaking up! It takes some courage, but you would be surprised by what an impact a gentle challenge can have on some of these (supposedly) universal assumptions about local food. Conversation by conversation, we can create a more just and equitable food system, a system built by and for Vermonters from all backgrounds.

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