From sustainable agriculture to social justice in just two words

(Photo credit: Chicago Now)

As a graduate student studying food justice at a university with deep historical ties to the field of agricultural education (Michigan State University was the United States first land-grant university and served as the prototype for the entire land-grant system), I have encountered a wide range of opinions and reactions to the idea of racism actively existing within our food system. This past fall, I suggested that racism in the food system should serve as a topic of discussion in an introductory course for my graduate program. After finishing what I believed to be a thoughtful ten-minute presentation to my class about why I think this topic is important and relevant in our field of study, I received several discouraging comments from my classmates. One classmate in particular seemed exceptionally bothered by my presentation and approached me after class to explain to me why she thinks my logic is off because: “clearly this isn’t about racism, it’s about poverty.”

I believe that there is much to be said about the politics behind why my white classmate was particularly “bothered” by my discussion of racism and the subsequent implication of her identity in this system of inequality. There is also much to be said about the silence that filled the classroom after my presentation was over. As a white woman, I have experienced and will continue to experience moments of discomfort and shame when talking and thinking about racism as it relates to my work as a graduate student. But as an individual committed to building a more just and fair food system, I believe that the conversation needs to happen.

As Malik Yakini, the director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network recently said in his keynote address at a food democracy conference in Lansing Michigan, “we can never get past racism if we choose not to address it.” It is with this understanding that I choose to continue engaging in these conversations with my fellow learners, no matter how uncomfortable the conversation may be. I believe that if we can agree that food and agriculture never exist outside of social systems, but instead within a specific social and historical context, then it will become possible to view food as a lens for social justice.

(Photo credit: Community Alliance for Global Justice)

So, I am sharing my presentation about why I think racism in the food system is an issue worthy of discussion, with the hope that at the very least it will encourage more conversation about the role racism plays in the ever-growing sustainable agriculture movement we see today.


Within the sustainable agriculture movement, racism is not often cited as a barrier to success. Lack of access to healthy, fresh food is often viewed as the product of poor economic conditions or the industrialization of the American agricultural system, which has left local food systems fragmented in its wake. Yet these conditions embody just two pieces of the big broken food system puzzle. Recently, ‘food insecurity’ has risen to the forefront of the sustainable agriculture movement as a pressing problem and concern for many urban American communities. But what exactly is ‘food insecurity,’ and what does this term have to do with racism? The structure of the industrialized food system in the United States remains largely obscured from public view, which makes it even more difficult to see where the pervasive hand of racism plays its part. So in an effort to gain some clarity from maze of farmers markets, supermarkets and Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, I’ll attempt to break down some of the “buzzwords” floating around in the sustainable agriculture movement and try to point to at least one place where racism is situated within this system.

Food security is defined as the ability of a community or an individual to have access to affordable, nutritious and culturally appropriate food at all times. This definition implies that the lack of access to affordable, nutritious and culturally appropriate food can also be described as food insecurity, whether on an individual or community level. Food insecurity can only be measured if it occurs within well-defined geographical boundaries; hence, following suit with this cartographic rendering of the food system, a food insecure area within these boundaries is called a food desert.

(Photo credit: Slow Food USA)

Food deserts are typically described as areas where geographic and/or economic barriers prevent access to affordable, nutritious food. Yet this definition of food deserts renders the notion of race insignificant in relation to space and place. Instead, it emphasizes economic conditions alone and fails to account for the historic role of racism in shaping urban spaces and the production of racialized urban geographies.

Consequentially, what is often missing from the discussion of food insecurity, is an acknowledgement that in the United States, an individual’s ability to access to healthy food is shaped not only by their economic ability to purchase it, but also by the “historical processes through which race has come to affect who lives where and who has access to what kind of services” (Alkon et al. 2009). In other words, food deserts are linked to the racialized geographies of urban spaces, and food insecurity in communities of color exist as the product of these historical processes.

Unfortunately, the sustainable agriculture movement as a whole has continued to focus heavily on the environmental benefits of organic, locally grown food, and has “often ignored the role of race in structuring agriculture in the United States. Although the term sustainability includes both ecological protection and social justice by definition, sustainable agriculture activists have primarily aligned themselves with the environmental rather than environmental justice movement” (Alkon et al. 2009). The consequences of this can be seen in a local, sustainable, fresh food movement that fails to acknowledge its responsibility in addressing the root causes of hunger, poverty and oppression, and instead just aims to treat the symptoms of a broken food system.

In working towards a more sustainable food system, it is vital that all people involved in this movement work to connect, symbolically and literally, the sustainable agriculture movement to a larger struggle for freedom, justice and equality. I believe that the concept of food justice has the power to do this by addressing and confronting issues that have been previously overlooked by the sustainable agriculture movement. By serving as a bridge that links sustainable agriculture to social justice, the food justice movement illuminates the path towards cultivating change and creating a more equitable and just food system.

(Reference: Alkon, Alison Hope and Kari Marie Norgaard. “Breaking the Food Chains: An Investigation of Food Justice Activism.”)

I forgot the onions!

My friend Sandra, organizer extraordinaire, once said to me that whenever she’s organizing a meeting she makes sure to put some food on the table for people to share. She said that food can play a powerful role in bringing people together (or something like that; it was a long time ago).

Whatever the exact words, her idea that the simple act of sharing food has a powerful impact stuck with me. For me, the best thing about cooking has always been the way sharing a meal helps people come together, have a good time, and feel the love.

I find cooking really relaxing and fun, one of the few ways I get to express some creativity (given that I’m the world’s worst singer and can’t draw at all). I love to come home on a Friday evening and cook a meal with my partner Judy and spend the evening with her. The meal doesn’t have to be fancy, just something that we prepare with care. We often make pasta with broccoli rabe or some other green cooked in a little olive oil with garlic and hot pepper. We open a bottle of wine and wind down from the week together.

And I do find it relaxing. Still, everyone in our family can recall at least a few moments when I go, “OH, NO!” – most likely when I’m trying to slide a pizza that I’ve spent a few hours preparing into the oven, and it sticks to the peel.

One such moment occurred on New Year’s Eve. We had some friends over for dinner as we usually do. A chance to catch up with each other and talk about the state of the world as we pass into a new year – in this case, the multitude of ways that the Obama administration hasn’t been much better than the Bush fiasco, and how heartened we are by Occupy Wall Street. Not all of us were that hopeful, but still…

I started cooking early and made a couple of pizzas (a la Jim Lahey) as appetizers, and two galettes from a recipe given to me by my daughter and great cook, Naomi. Everyone thought they were amazing. Very rich, though; I wouldn’t make them too often. I also made a Palestinian lentil and rice dish that’s always a favorite, and Judy made one of her great salads. We were halfway through the meal. I put out the rice; everybody liked it, but it didn’t feel like anything special. All of a sudden, Judy says, “John, you forgot to put the onions on the rice!”

The thing is, the onions are what make the dish special. It’s a very simple recipe. Lentils and rice, a little cumin. But you caramelize a couple of big onions and sprinkle them on top and, lo and behold, the dish is amazing.

I had spent about a half hour sautéing the onions that afternoon. When they were a beautiful brown color, I took them out of the pan and put them on a plate between layers of paper towels to remove some of the oil, and there they sat.  I totally forgot to add them in when I put out the rice. I was bummed out. But, of course, no one else cared. We were all having too nice a time to worry about that. We finished the meal and walked up to the park to watch the fireworks.

That's the galette in the foreground and the Palestinian Rice and Lentils (desperately needing onions) in the rear

Here’s the recipe, with only slight modifications, from World Vegetarian by Madhur Jaffrey…try it. I think you’ll like it. Just don’t forget the onions!

½ cup of lentils, picked over and washed
2 cups basmati rice, washed and drained
¼ cup of olive oil
2 large onions, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon of ground cumin
Freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons salt

Soak the lentils for 3-4 hours. Drain.

Soak the rice in cold water for 30 minutes. Then drain.

While the rice is soaking, caramelize the onions. This takes a while. Heat the oil in a large pan and add the onions. Cook them over medium high heat at first and gradually turn down the heat as they get soft. When they turn brown, remove them from the pan with a slotted spoon or spatula, and spread them out on a paper towel to absorb the oil.

Turn the heat back to medium and add the drained lentils and rice to the remaining oil. Add the cumin, black pepper and salt. Sauté, stirring gently, for several minutes, so the rice gets coated with the onion flavored oil. Add 3 ½ cups of water and bring to a boil. Cover tightly, turn the heat down low, and cook for about 25 minutes. There’s some variability to the cooking time and the amount of water you need because of the lentils, so I make sure to check the rice at about 20 minutes and add some water if I need to.

Turn the lentils out into a serving platter, fluff them up, and sprinkle with the caramelized onions.

A Hummus without People for a People without Hummus

In the fall, I wrote a post about why I support boycotting Israeli goods at the Park Slope Food Coop. Since then, I’ve read many articles about the campaign. Including this one, which refers to the shared passion within the Park Slope Food Coop and the state of Israel, for “hummus and couscous.”  And a blog post in which the author opposes boycott, demanding “more hummus, please” – exhibiting an interest in expanding the cuisine they can consume, and no concern for who it’s being taken from.

This casual reference to such historic and common Arab foods, without acknowledging them as such, relates to a much larger process that I’ve been wanting to write about for a long time- unabashed Israeli and Jewish-American appropriation of Arab foods.

This can also be seen within the description of a class that took place at the Coop last night about Jewish foods from around the world, in which the (unacknowledged) politically charged inclusion of hummus, falafel, and tabbouleh is par for the course in these kinds of multicultural Jewish food programs.  I wrote the chef inviting her to consider the bigger context her class will be taking place in and hoping she will be open to making the connections between good food and good politics:

I am writing to reach out from one social justice conscious cook to another. We know that food is inherently cultural, inherently political. As people who have studied and immersed ourselves in the amazingly rich and diverse range of cuisines developed by Jews living in different parts of the world, we can actually use hummus as an important opportunity to open up dialogue about how Jews live amongst and are influenced by other cultures…that there are foods and lands (i.e. Israel/Palestine) that do not belong exclusively to us, and we can give respect to Arab cultural contributions to the world.

She didn’t respond.

This issue goes way back, of course- before Chickpea, Mimi’s Hummus, or The Hummus Place all popped up in NYC…

A large part of the creation of a Jewish state was the rejection of the “weak” culture of Jews living in exile and the attempt to create a native Israeli culture, a culture that was not European. This project has involved the expropriation of many aspects of Palestinian culture as well as Mizrahi (Arab Jewish) cultures. Traditional Middle Eastern foods like falafel, hummus, tabbouleh, and cucumber-tomato salad have been appropriated and presented as typically Israeli foods, with no acknowledgement of the origins of these foods.(much like the state itself and the treatment of the towns and buildings Israelis now reside in).

Student Exhibit at University of Maryland Global Communities

The fascination that the early Jewish settlers in Palestine had with the native Arab population’s agriculture, clothing, and food is apparent in the literary and artistic representations of these Zionist settlers- wearing kuffiyehs, eating olives and Arabic bread- associating themselves with agricultural work and Mediterranean ways of life far from the shtetl back in Europe.

Yael Raviv has analyzed how the falafel became a perfect icon of Israeli national culture because it came to represent a proud, ethnically mixed society rooted in that area of the world. Claiming a traditional and common food of the Middle East was a part of claiming the historic connection and ownership of that land that Israel asserts for itself.  

Political scientist Ahmad Sa’di nails this process for what it is. He observes how the local herbs Palestinians use for cooking and healing, such as Za’atar, have “become a part of an Israeli ‘nativist’ approach…Palestinian culture has thus become a pool from which Israelis pick and choose in order to build an ‘authentic’ Israeli culture.”

In thinking about this piece, I solicited the opinion of my dear friend and fellow Big Ceci contributor, Zein El-Amine, who was born and raised in Lebanon.  I wanted to hear what he has to say as someone whose culture is being breached by this culinary cooptation.

Here is what Zein shared with me:

Many years ago I noticed an increase of the acquisition of unquestionably Arab foods by Israelis and American Zionists.  I noticed this in restaurants where foods such as Fattoush and tabbouleh, distinctly Arab salads, were being referred to as Israeli Salads. In the same period a comedic short film was released mocking the falafel wars between Israelis and Palestinians.  American liberals thought it was funny how something as “silly” as Falafel would be a point of contention. This is consistent with the liberal “balanced” view that gives equates the morality of the cultural domination of an occupier with that of the Arab resistance to the acquisition of its culture.

In the case of Hummus, a food with a long, well documented history of being part of Arab culture, Zionists have not even bothered to change its Arab name to claim as their own.  The word Hummus means chickpeas in Arabic. The actual name for Hummus in most Arab countries is Hummus Bi Tahini which means chickpeas with tahini, to distinguish it from plain chickpeas (note to the colonizers: tahini comes from the Arabic word Tahana, “that which is ground,” because it is made from ground sesame seed.)

Israel has gone to great lengths to claim hummus, at one point breaking the world record for the biggest batch of hummus.  The Lebanese were disgusted at this brazen incursion on Arab culture and answered by breaking the Israeli record and in turn breaking record batches for several Arab and Lebanese dishes that were being claimed by Israel.

To any Arab and any person of conscience, this attempt to occupy Arab food is the same as the occupation of land and displacement of people. Just as there was the Zionist claim that Palestine was “a land without people for a people without land,” Israel is trying to now claim a food without people for a people without food.  I do not say this to denigrate the rich Jewish culture that can be tapped to establish an identity, on the contrary, the question becomes: if you have such a rich culture then why are you taking such desperate measures to claim foreign foods (Palestinian in this case) as your own?  And the answer is quite simply that the folks who are engaged in such a project know that in order to complete the colonial project of ethnic cleansing, you need to dilute the identity of the people that you are displacing.