Over the past several months, I’ve been exploring what it might take to build a nourishing food system in DC. I’ve had the privilege of hearing ideas from different individuals and groups about what collaboration could look like and how something like a food policy council might help move the city as a whole in the right direction.
To me, the discussions have been exciting and the possibilities seem both endless and achievable. It’s also apparent that the work goes far beyond generating good policy ideas. Speaking with groups who’ve been living and working in the city for a long time, it becomes increasingly clear that as a white, young, relatively new arrival to the district, and someone who came from a pretty comfortable economic background, I need to spend some time reflecting on my identity and role.
It’s no secret that across the country, the impact of a broken food system is disproportionately felt by communities of color. In DC in particular, parts of the city with higher concentration of African Americans often have higher rates of poverty, lower access to healthy and affordable foods, and higher rates of the accompanying diet-related diseases.
Studies and facts are easy to find, yet less often do I find them accompanied by thoughtful analysis of why and of the reality of a racist food system that has been built and perpetuated throughout our nation’s and our city’s history. “Race & the Food System,” a project of WHY Hunger and Growing Food and Justice For All Initiative, explores some of that history and the present reality. From low-cost labor inputs from immigrant workers, to the discriminatory treatment of black farmers by the USDA, to the ongoing unequal wages and employment patterns across all aspects of the food system – it’s clear that race matters.
WHY Hunger and GFJI breaks it down: “The problem is systemic; therefore, the solution must be approached with an eye towards understanding those systems and how to change them.” So what does systemic change in DC look like? And how might something like a food policy council play a role?
As a starting place, it’s clear that white people like me must reflect on our identity (and the privileges that have come with it) and take responsibility for our place in an unjust system. Next, I hope we can prioritize listening and learning – about the history of food and racism in this city, about how ways of working on food politics might perpetuate some of those injustices, about work that’s already being done and ideas that people already have about how to fix it. (I’m excited about this week’s National Black Agricultural Awareness Week as one of those opportunities to reflect and learn. Learn more here )
We can gain strength for the long journey by knowing other cities have made progress – white people and people of color together building the kind of just, transparent, welcoming community needed to do this hard work. Some cities, like Detroit and Oakland, have explicitly built diverse representation and ownership into the mandate and mission of their food policy councils. Others have used participatory action research to engage as broad of a spectrum of impacted groups and individuals as possible in creating and implementing a ‘food systems plan.’ And some, like Toronto’s organized food community, took a few steps back through public conversations and gatherings, with the support of the Growing Food and Justice for All Initiative’s Toronto chapter.
The Community Food Security Coalition summarizes the aim: “In order to dismantle the structural racism within our food system, we must make a determined effort to cultivate and increase the leadership, voice, perspectives and demands of low-income communities of color within the food movement.” I hope that our work in DC can be shaped by that vision.