How Non Profits Can Support Food Justice
Given the urgency of responding to climate change, food movements have featured prominently in urban planning, food policy, and sustainability initiatives, over the past decade. However, mainstream frameworks, such as the Local Food Movement, have typically catered to privilege, namely, a white middle class. They tend to overlook food networks that racialized communities have relied upon to survive social marginalization. Many of these communities have come together to support one another during COVID-19, a time when they’ve experienced profound social and dietary inequities. While the pandemic has presented a parallel crisis to climate change, it has also presented an opportunity to build food movements that are more sustainable, equitable, and inclusive to diverse communities. In this episode, we will understand how we can do so using the framework of food justice.
Host: Audrey Tung, University of Victoria
Guest: Jade Guthrie, FoodShare
Produced by: Deborah Hill, Duke World Food Policy Center
Welcome to Rights Not Charity. This podcast series is about a big idea, ensuring that everyone has enough food, not as a charitable gift, but as a fundamental human right. My name is Audrey Tung, and I’m a PhD student at the University of Victoria. Jade Guthrie, our guest today, is an expert on issues of food justice and food sovereignty, in both theory and practice. She is a Community Food Programs Lead at FoodShare Toronto, and a Community Organizer with Justice for Migrant Workers. Drawing from her background in social work, she applies an intersectional and anti-oppressive approach to your advocacy for the right to food.
So what is food justice and how does it come up in your work?
So for me, I think that food justice is a way of looking at the food systems that we have, and exploring and dissecting them through a really critical lens. It’s really about identifying where and how broader systems of oppression are shaping our experiences and our relationships with food. And then food justice is working to dismantle those systems, to transform our food system into a more just and equitable one.
You know, when we talk about food justice, I think it’s really about recognizing that things like settler colonialism, and capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, these are some of the organizing principles that are very much embedded within our current food system. And, we see, and we feel, this play out every day in people’s lives. So we see it in the ways that black and indigenous folks, disabled folks, poor folks, other groups of marginalized people, these are the folks who are disproportionally facing more barriers to accessing food. These are the same people who are policed within the food system, and the same folks who are exploited as workers along the food chain. So when we talk about food justice, it’s really kind of acknowledging that we can’t talk about these food issues, things like food insecurity, without talking about all of these broader systems that it’s rooted in. You know, going back to this notion of Rights Not Charity, I think when we talk about food justice, what becomes clear is that any meaningful so-called solution to the problem of food insecurity, has to take into account these sites of oppression that breed the conditions for food insecurity, right? So we can’t just continue looking to temporary Band-Aid solutions, but we need to be thinking about sustainability and long-term transformation. So it’s not just about putting food on the table, but it’s about things like anti-oppression, anti-racism, asking questions like, “How can we decolonize the entire food system?” I think it is Karen Washington who I heard say this, but that “food justice is an action word.” So you’ve got to talk the talk and walk the walk when it comes to food justice. So it means that we need to be working to transform these systems, to create a food system that’s really built for the people, right? Not one that’s built on the backs of marginalized folks, which is what we currently have.
Thanks for teasing out the complexities of food justice so succinctly and eloquently. I particularly like how you mention that food insecurity can’t be disentangled from wider systems of oppression, such as racism. So in your workshops, how do you harness the connective power of food towards social change?
I think that food is really special, because our unique relationships with food are incredibly intimate and personal, but at the same time, this notion of having a relationship with food is very universal in the same way. Or like everyone has some sort of relationship with food, even if that relationship might be fraught. And I think also it’s important to note that our relationships with food are very much inherently political too. Our experiences with food and the connections that we have with food, are rooted in notions of things like identity, and community, and culture, and race. The stories that we tell about the foods that we eat, or the foods that we love, or the foods that we want to cook, are very much stories about ourselves. So they tell us a lot about how we move through and experience the world. Outside of that, if we’re looking at food as this social object, it’s a really good meeting point. Food is often this kind of central thing that we all gather around. It really just has this nature of bringing people together and almost acts as like a mediator between folks, right? I think of some of the conversations, the most difficult or the most uncomfortable conversations I’ve had in my life have often been around a kitchen table, and having food there to mediate that conversation makes things a bit easier, eases the tension a little, right? This notion of sharing a meal while we unpack these difficult things. And so, in all of these ways, food is this special entry point into the conversations we have about our lives and about the world that we live in.
So then, in terms of the workshops that we run at FoodShare, when we look at food from this perspective, the idea of facilitating workshops that center around food, whether it’s cooking together or sharing a meal, or even just having a workshop where we’re talking about our own food stories and our own experiences within the food system, using food as this mediator makes a lot of sense. I personally think that one of the best ways we can get to know other people is over food. When you’re making a new friend, often the first plan you make together is going to a new restaurant or cooking together. And so, if we’re talking about trying to build connections and build relationships, and that’s what we need in order to organize and actually push for social change. It’s like, at the core of all of that is this sense of community and connectedness, and building these relationships with folks. And so, I don’t think there’s any better way to do it than in the kitchen or by sharing a meal together. In some of the workshops I do, one example of this would be, I love to bring up different dishes that have a history in a variety of cultures around the world. So an example would be a curry. So many people have so many different versions of curry, and so when you bring it up there’s this great way to build bridges across perceived differences. I might talk about my grandma’s Jamaican curried chicken, while someone else might talk about a curry from India or a curry from Thailand. There’s so many connections we can make to folks who might look different from us, or might have different experiences from us. And then at the same time, having a conversation about something like curry can also open up a lot of space for scaling conversations up to take a more critical look at systems. So you might not think about systemic racism the minute we start talking about curry, but it’s a really good way to open up a conversation about migration or a newcomer experience. The ingredients we use to make curry might lead to a conversation about cooking on a budget, which would lead to a conversation about food insecurity and experiences of poverty.
I think food is this rich vein that we can dive into, in terms of, not only building a sense of connection, but also then taking our conversations up to the next level and applying this critical lens to it, if that makes sense.
That was beautiful Jade. I understand that many of these important conversations can be uncomfortable for many people, so I appreciate how you emphasize the solidarity and celebration in all of this as well. So at FoodShare, how do you connect grassroots organizing with advocacy for structural social supports as well?
I think a lot of it is just understanding your positionality as a nonprofit, and figuring out how you are in the best position to support folks who are already doing this work on the ground. I think it’s really important as a nonprofit to recognize that the nonprofit industrial complex can be, and is often, extremely harmful and perpetuates a lot of violence against marginalized communities and people. So nonprofits that could help through a lens of charity and goodwill, that often perpetuate systems of oppression that are already in place. So, by perpetuating these systems that often allows states and governments to shirk their responsibilities, and at the same time, replicates a lot of depressive power dynamics that are keeping people down to begin with. As a nonprofit, it’s really, really important to really recognize the power and the privilege and the high level of access to resources that we have. And then within that recognition, then to be really intentional about resource sharing, and wealth redistribution, and accountability to the communities that we’re working with.
At FoodShare, we have a clear understanding of how we see food justice working, what our principles are around food justice, what our principles are around supporting liberation. And so in terms of then connecting with grassroots organizing or advocacy that’s happening on the ground, there’s a very intentional process about who we partner with and who we don’t partner with. As a nonprofit, if you’re going to have these radical values or progressive principles, ensuring that the folks we’re partnering with on the ground, also those same principles and have those shared values and that shared mission.
One example of how we do this is we have a supportive partnerships platform at FoodShare where we’ll partner with grassroots organizations and different community initiatives to provide things like mentorship, as well as access to resources like admin support, or even access to a FoodShare company vehicle. Our staff will help them with fundraising, with capacity development and training and that kind of stuff. And I think there’s some really clear guidelines around who we partner with, and a lot of that has to do with having a kind of shared vision of what transforming our food system should look like. And so, moving away from notions of charity and moving away from notions of goodwill around food, and finding the folks on the ground who are already doing such incredible work around food justice. The folks who already know what a transformed food system that is equitable and just should look like, and have been doing that work for years and years and years. And finding those folks who have those shared values and figuring out, okay, how do we, as a nonprofit, rework what we’ve been given to work with to support the work that these folks are already doing? So an example of that would be over the course of the pandemic. Obviously there’s been an increased need for emergency food aid, and FoodShare started this emergency Good Food fund to get Good Food Boxes, which are produce boxes, out to communities who disproportionately were feeling the weight of the pandemic, and the weight of poverty and food insecurity. And so when we opened that fund up and that project, it was really important to ensure that we were partnering with BIPOC-led groups who were working on the ground. People who understand, have lived experiences of these systems, and are working from this space of grassroots organizing rather than top-down approach.