The Grand Rapids Local Food Discussion through a Food Justice Lens
I was delighted to see some of the responses to Levi Gardner’s article a few weeks back, which raised important questions about the Downtown Market and arguably the local food system.
However, a large part of the problem when discussing the local food system is our inability to recognize the fallacies of a market driven approach to food. What we need is an imaginative view of the local food system through a food justice lens.
I don’t want to provide a lengthy articulation of what Food Justice is, which one can explore in a series of handouts I created for Our Kitchen Table. There are two points about Food Justice that I would like to emphasize. First, Food Justice is an outgrowth of the environmental justice movement, a movement where communities of color confronted not only environmental injustice, but the often narrow focus of White dominated environmental NGOs.
The second point about Food Justice, which is essential to any local food conversation is the needs to see that food insecurity is the result of multiple systems of oppression, such as White Supremacy, Capitalism, Patriarchy and Speciesism. This means that if we are to honestly address the causes of food insecurity and food disparities, we need to address more than just the food system.
Now that we have a Food Justice framework, lets look at what is happening with food in West Michigan in recent years. There has been a growing interest in people growing more of their own food and purchasing locally grown food in a variety of ways. There are lots of new restaurants and foodie projects, like Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), urban food growing projects and plenty of farm to table discussion. However, the problem with much of the food discussion and food-driven projects is that it primarily benefits those with economic and racial privilege. This is in part due to our collective inability to think outside of a market approach to food and the lack of a food justice lens. Don’t get me wrong, I know lots of farmers and urban growers and they work hard, but in order to survive they have to operate within the current economic system, which means that much of their produce ends up in the stomachs of people with lots of privilege. Lets face it, those who are most food insecure in this community cannot afford to eat at the local restaurants that serve locally grown food. This is not the fault of the growers, rather that of the food system.
So what do we do? As with all major social problems, there are no easy answers. However, I would like to offer up some ideas and proposals for how to move forward in a way that promotes Food Justice.
First, the local foodie trend has almost completely ignored one of the prime factors in food production, food workers. West Michigan is home to one of the largest migrant worker populations in the country, which means that we are all dependent upon a workforce that is highly exploited. A 2010 Michigan Civil Rights Commission report stated that migrant worker conditions are as bad as they were in the 1960s. If we care about the local food system then we need to support efforts for migrant worker justice. This is also a racial justice issue, since most of the people who pick our food are Latino/a or indigenous. This food worker justice focus must also extend to those who work in kitchens, bus tables and wait on us when we go to restaurants. These food workers are also highly exploited and rarely are brought into the local food discussion. A local food movement that does not address food worker issues will only perpetuate exploitation and White Supremacy.
Second, we need to confront the current food system, while attempting to create a new food system. For example, one of the major reasons why local farmers cannot compete with agribusiness is because agribusiness is highly subsidized by public tax dollars. The so-called Farm Bill means that the unhealthy and ecologically destructive food system gets billions of dollars in public money, while small, ecologically sound growers get no public assistance. (See who gets food subsidies in Michigan.) The reason why the shitty food that fills some much of supermarkets is cheap is because it is highly subsidized.
What I would propose is that local farmers, both urban and rural, who want to support food justice, should get public funds to offset costs to allow them to make their food affordable to those who are experiencing poverty. Hell, if we can provide millions of dollars of public money to places like the downtown market and Monsanto, why can’t we fund local growers to practice food justice? If Beer City can provide tax break incentives for more bars and distilleries, then why can’t we provide similar financial support to people who want to grow food locally, especially food that serves the nutritional needs of the large number of individuals and families experiencing poverty?
Third, one issue that makes urban food growing difficult for people experiencing poverty is the lack of access to land. I propose that the City of Grand Rapids not only allows people to grow on the vacant lots they current own, but they should wave the fee for people to use those lots and they should provide financial support, along with practical assistance to people who want to grow more of their own food. This would certainly be a way for the city to put into practice their claim to being a Green City. This proposal might be difficult since the City has been in discussion for some time now (with little transparency) with the Kent County Land Bank to transfer those lots out of the public sector into a public/private structure. The Land Bank states that they have already been overwhelmed with requests in the vacant lots. What we need is a process that provides greater access or first priority access to people who are more vulnerable to food insecurity. People with lots of race and class privilege should not be the primary beneficiaries of such land acquisitions.
Fourth, another major issue that people experiencing poverty face and is ignored by the foodie trend, is the hard reality that people who work long hours and often two or three jobs face, is having the time to prepare healthy food. Even if we can get food subsidies to local farmers to truly make food affordable, people still need time to prepare and preserve healthy food. This underscores the fact that we can’t have food justice without confronting poverty and its root causes. Look at the growth of groups like Kids Food Basket. While it is encouraging that this group continues to provide free meals to children experiencing poverty, it is not addressing why those kinds are experiencing poverty.
Just last week Feeding America published a story in The Rapidian with tips on fighting hunger. However, Feeding America is also a food charity agency that does not address root causes of hunger. Instead, they want people to donate to their organization or wear a t-shirt to fight hunger. Why don’t we just make it a goal to NOT have the need for food charity, because we have policies and practices that support food justice. If people made a livable wage like $15 – $20 an hour, then more people could work less hours and have time to practice good nutrition that those of us with privilege take for granted.
Lastly, I come from a tradition where community building means practicing collective liberation. With food this could look like setting up community kitchens all across the city, whether they are in people’s homes or in churches. Community kitchens would be spaces that people can come to collectively make food, eat together, share recipes and then take home lots of prepared food that would save them time and energy during the week. Some of us have practiced this on a small scale. We call it potlucks. The beauty of potlucks and a community kitchen model is that it allows us to think about food and community outside of a market-based model. Indeed, in this sense eating well is simply a basic right, and that, I believe, is what needs to be cultivated in our efforts to build a local food movement.
Jeff Smith has been growing food for 35 years in Grand Rapids, has taught food justice classes and been part of numerous local food efforts over the years.