Food Matters: The Work of Alison Hope Alkon and Bryant Terry

 

Food matters – it mattes because it is the sustenance of life; it matters because it a source of pleasure, and nostalgia, a building block of identity, family, and community; it matters because of obesity and starvation, food insecurity, because it is central to global economies – it is a source of profits and profits for some, and despair and anguish for others; it matters because it is local and global. It also matters because it represents a window into broader themes and social realities, to systemic inequalities and persistent violence.   With Black, White, and Green Farmers Markets, Race, and the Green Economy, Alison Hope Alkon makes this clear, illustrating the material and symbolic importance of food. Examining two farmer’s markets in the Bay Area (North Berkeley and West Oakland), Dr. Alkon demonstrates the many ways that race, class, and inequality operate in these spaces, demonstrating how each embodies an distinct intervention against the environmental status quo; they are overlapping poles of a broader food movement.

According to book’s description, “Farmers markets are much more than places to buy produce. According to advocates for sustainable food systems, they are also places to “vote with your fork” for environmental protection, vibrant communities, and strong local economies. Farmers markets have become essential to the movement for food-system reform and are a shining example of a growing green economy where consumers can shop their way to social change.” Situating farmer’s markets in a broader history of the “slow food movement,” Berkeley People’s Park, the Black Panther Party, and countless others challenges to our corporate food hegemony, Dr. Alkon pushes the conversation beyond food as nourishment, and markets as places of commerce to emphasize the ways that these public spaces function in terms of identity, resistance, community, and struggles for change.

Focusing on farmer’s markets as a “cornerstone of food activism,” Dr. Alkon brings to life two spaces that work to challenge everything from food deserts and constrained food choices, to GMOs and the corporate takeover of contemporary foodways. Like other movements, social location and identity impact the goals, methods, and framing mechanism used to galvanize support for the markets and the broader movement of food activism. Racism and differential levels of privilege are visible in these spaces.

The power of the book rests with its ethnographic intervention, with its documentation and how food matters, and its elucidation of food activism; it equally emanates for its willingness to explore and expose the endless contradictions within the food movement. “This contradiction – between farmers markets’ broad, radical aims and individually oriented economic strategies” is at the core of the book. Yet, in focusing on race and class, in examining inequities, Dr. Alkon further reveals the contradictions evidence in those who privilege sustainability and the environment over justice and people.

There is so much richness within this book, as it reveals the ways that “hipster racism” operates alongside of systemic racism; it spotlights the entrenched yet invisible (to some) privileges even among the most progressive people. Dr. Alkon summarizes the markets and the people who inhabit in a profound way:

Many participants envision the North Berkeley Farmer’s Market as a way to improve both environmental and social conditions through green economic exchange. However, environmental themes are prioritized and are thickly interwoven with the farmer’s markets institutional policies…. In West Oakland, the reverse is true. Issues of social and more specifically racial are most prominent, as the West Oakland represents an environmental justice approach to the politics of food. Environmental sustainability underlies the market’s work – the creation of a local organic alternative food system – but is discussed only occasionally (75-76).

Food matters . . . it masks and reveals the persistent inequalities, the contradictions, and the different levels of power and privilege; Dr. Alkon makes this clear over and over again, providing a language for thinking about how foodways and food activism offers spaces of change yet also has workers to maintain the very systems that are supposedly being challenged in a myriad of ways. An important work!

A couple years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Bryant Terry (this was before the publication of his most recent book Afro-Vegan). The interview was never published. As I read Black, White and Green, I thought it was important to return to this interview, to digest the important analysis and profound insights that Terry delivered in the interview.   Each spotlights the importance of not only talking about and understanding food, but food as change, as power, privilege, identity, and both a window into a shade concealing persistent inequalities in American

 

 

 

****

A couple years ago, my friend and colleague Lisa Guerrero bought me Bryant Terry’s cookbook, Vegan Soul Kitchen. Living in a SMALL town, Lisa searched high and low to secure a copy for my birthday, a fact that not only illustrates the kind of a person Lisa is and what a great friend I have, but the power of Bryant Terry’s work. Having now had the opportunity to engage with Bryant on Twitter/Facebook, to learn from him by way of his web show, to read about his newest book, and understand his work as part of longer tradition of activism and social justice work, it is clear that he offers not only food the feeds the body but knowledge that feeds the mind. Terry, a chef, an author, and an activist, teaches the world not only how to cook and do so in a healthy way, but to do so in a way that reflects and reaffirms important values. Like his food, this interview is simply delicious

David Leonard (DJL): Talk to us about your new book

Bryant Terry (BT): The new book – The Inspired Vegan – is a snap shot of where I was at as I was writing it. I thought a lot about my daughter, what type of book I wanted to write, that 40 years from now she would get a sense of the person that I am, what my values are, who my heroes and sheroes are; it is a snap shot of the food justice movement that I am so active in.

I realized that people have a low food IQ. People are so disconnected from growing and cooking wholesome fresh food. So giving people basic skills to prepare a home cooked meal is important. I wanted to give them basic tips and tools so they can make fresh meals for themselves and their families. I also wanted to empower people to put together entire meals devoid of animal of products. One of the critiques of vegetarian and vegan cookbooks is that it is often a bunch of side dishes. People don’t know how to move from a diet where meat is at the center of the plate to a plant-based diet. I wanted to show people that you can have meals that are vegan and also sumptuous and complex, and most importantly delicious.

DJL: You also have a new web show; is the show an extension of your book?

BT: My books are an extension of my politics. I started this work as an activist in New York City. I founded this project called Be Healthy, politicizing young people, understanding that if this food justice movement is going to be successful young people must be at the forefront. The last thing these kids wanted to do was come in for a lecture on structural inequality and food insecurity, especially because in additional to lacking access to wholesome food, they also came from neighborhoods with horrible schools and race issues. One of the creative ways to engage young people was to teach them how to select fresh foods, how to prepare it, which is so important because if they help prepare it they are more likely to try and become accustomed to other types of food. My cookbooks are an extension of this work. I wanted to use the same approach on a national scale. The show is a similar concept, using popular culture to shift people’s hearts and minds.

DJL: What are your goals beyond your work?

BT: My goal is not to convert people to be vegans. While I don’t consume any animal products, I don’t even describe myself as a vegan. I do that very intentionally because I know that for many of the communities I am trying to reach, the term vegan brings up certain images, ideas, and triggers. I want to avoid that.

I also want to avoid the latest fads to seek out remedies. There is no one-size-fits all diets. I really encourage people rather than choosing the label, to think about what your body needs. Rather than just choosing a diet, think about cultural food ways; think about ethics, values, politics, what kind of world do I want to see, what sort of environment do I want leave for my children, how do I want to see animals treated – these are the questions that should guide our food choices rather than a label

DJL: What advice would you give parents about teaching food lessons to their kids?

BT: While I only have 9 months of experiences as a parent, one of the most important lessons I would convey is modeling. You can talk about eating well, but need to model healthy eating habits. Simple things: eating mindfully, not overeating, and taking your time while eating. The basic fundamentals of living are so important. We have to model that for our children. We want to lay down a foundation for her so that when she gets out into the world she can make empowered choices to think about advertisements and peer pressures. At that point, it is about letting them to make decisions based on that knowledge.

Even before our daughter was born, my wife was very conscious of exposing her to a range of taste and flavors while in utero. Now as a child, we are constantly introducing to her to married foods. One of the foundations for our diet crafting an Afro-Asian diet that builds upon African and Asian foodways, so that she appreciates and understands her own foodways. She eats everything from mung beans, to blacked eyed peas, from bok choy to collared greens already.

DJL: How does your work challenge the ways in which healthy eating, organic, and vegan is often imagined in connection to white middle-class identities?

BT: So much of work is response to narrative that concludes that African American cuisine contributes to poor African American health. It is a simplistic way of looking at the public health crisis. It is important to understand that most of the communities with high rates of obesity, diet related illness – cancer, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension – are saturated with processed and fast foods. Focusing on soul food completely erases the issue of people over consuming fast foods, processed foods, package foods, and those high sugar, salt and fat, and low in the nutrients we need. It complete ignores the ranges of oppression and environmental stressors people are enduring that leads to stress, that might lead to overeating. People need to understand the complex reasons why African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans are dealing with these health crises. When we revisit the traditional foodways of African Americans, it is extremely healthy. Sweet potatoes, squashes, dandelion greens, collared greens. These are the types of foods my grandpa was growing and these are the foods that most of people in our communities were eating. These foods are as authentic and traditional as the comfort foods and survival foods so often associated with African American cuisine.

DJL: In recent years there has been an increased awareness and public consciousness about food deserts; what are your thoughts about this trend?

BT: I think so often the focus on food deserts leads to a focus on corporate food interventions. Every community should have a full-service market, but that is not the solution. Food security and increasing food health will come from producing economically empowered communities.   We need to have solutions owned and driven by those living with these communities. Lack of access to food is one indicator of poverty. It has to be about more than food. I also think talking about food deserts erases the ways that people are already combating the lack of choices. We need to recognize there is a lot of knowledge and movements taking place and not imagining these places as deserts that need help.

DJL: We also don’t think about how the term deserts naturalizes inequality; we don’t talk about the production of deserts.

BT: Indeed

DJL: Where do you come down on the term of Soul Food?

BT: When people think about soul food, people are thinking about red velvet cake, fried chicken, and chitterlings.   They are not thinking about sautéed butter beans or dandelion greens or even baked chicken; they are thinking about the heaviest, most indulgent foods. Soul food doesn’t evoke the diversity of the cuisine. I prefer to talk about African American cuisine and to think about how colonization, industrialization, and modernization have impacted our cuisine. Lets talk about that rather than pathologizing our food ways as part of this bigger racist game.

DJL: How does your work recognize the constraints on choice while giving voice, power, and agency in determining diet?

BT: It’s tricky.   When we talk about these issues and only focus on personal responsibility, we don’t understand the larger picture of what’s wrong with our food system. That being said, I will be first to admit it is about personal choice; we all are responsible for how we live our lives, what we chose to consume. But when we think about the reality that people are limited by their choices. People are limited by their understanding of those choices; this complicates our discussion. Don’t tell me it is all about choice when there isn’t safe green spaces, when there isn’t food co-ops, farmer markets, or full-service supermarkets within their communities. There are corner stones that only have processed foods, cigarettes, alcohol, and if they have fresh foods they are 50% more expensive. Understanding the options that are providing in working poor neighborhoods are not there even though people want healthy food options.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s