By Andrea Plaid
Like I mentioned at the Facing Race roundtable yesterday, the “No Justice, No Peas” panel left a deep impression on me because it addresses what otherwise great food-movement documentaries like Food, Inc. and Forks Over Knives sometimes touch on but tend to erase entirely: the food workers of color who do the incredible work of bringing the food–both organic and non-organic–to USians’ palettes and gullets and how deeply economic exploitation and racial injustice not only affects their lives but the lives of their families and neighborhoods. (The Storified version of the panel is here.)
Pretty prescient and very relevant, considering the current fast-food workers strikes.
I just had to vibe with the panel’s brilliant and passionate facilitator, Yvonne Yen Liu, who’s the outgoing Senior Research Associate at the Applied Research Center (the people who bring you the Facing Race conference and Colorlines) and the incoming Director of the Global Movements at WhyHunger. We chatted about not only how she found her way to food justice but also how that issue intertwines with race, racism, sexism, and labor justice, and how one journalist cluelessly said that the food movement isn’t a social justice issue.
I know. I know. Read on…
Food justice is your passion. How and why did you gravitate to that?
I see food as a portal to addressing a host of social ills. I am pretty transparent about the fact that I don’t have food politics per se—obviously, I like to eat, and I think that everyone should have access to healthy and affordable food—but, I see the growing interest in local food systems, organic food, slow food, etc. as an opportunity to bring people into the fold of racial justice. Because we all need to eat, food is something that universally touches all of us, we all enter the food chain at one point or another, whether as a consumer, a worker, or grower. How can we shift people from a particular position to recognize that we’re all interlinked, whether we be a small family farmer, a restaurant worker, or an artisanal goat cheese maker.
The food justice movement itself is rather young, but we are informed by other struggles, as I wrote in the Good Food and Good Jobs for All report published by the Applied Research Center this past summer. The food movement has its roots in the back-to-land movement in the 1960s, the environmental justice turn with the People of Color Summit in the 1990s, and even the self-described “survival pending revolution” breakfast programs by the Black Panthers. How can we, the nascent food movement, learn lessons from other struggles, work in conjunction within multiracial coalitions, to build power?
My entry point to food is through labor. Three years ago, I was working on green jobs for the Applied Research Center. We focused on the need for racial equity in crafting green jobs and a renewable energy economy, one that is inclusive and emboldens communities of color. One of the case studies we pursued was of the central coast of California, in partnership with a farmworker women organization Lideres Campesinas. Many groups focused on the urban manifestation of the green economy, but what about rural communities? And, what about agriculture and food production, the first green job, to some extent?
The initial conversations that we had with the leaders at Lideres Campesinas led to a three-year trust building process, which other partners such as the Data Center and the Center for Race, Poverty, and Environment later joined, to craft a participant action research project for campesinas to define a green economy for themselves and their families. I reached out to other farmworker organizations, which led me to connect with a new national network representing workers across the food chain, the Food Chain Workers Alliance.
The network was still in the process of mapping out the landscape of who food chain workers were. We supported them in those efforts with our research, later published in The Color of Food, which outlined the composition of the food workforce by race, class, and gender. We found shocking disparities in wages; for example, for every dollar that a white man earns in the food system, a Black woman makes almost half of that, 53 cents. Latinas make 50 cents.
[This trailer is directed by Sekou Luke for “No Justice, No Peas” co-panelist Saru Jayaraman’s about-to-drop book, Behind the Kitchen Door: What Every Person Should Know About The People Who Feed Us. (More info on the vid and book is here.) I can’t hype both of them enough.–AP]
And it’s apparent that you brought that passion to the panel on the intersecting issues of food justice, racial justice, and labor justice. As discussed at the panel, the public conversations about food justice wraps around the idea about the products themselves, e.g. access to organic food, food “deserts,” and obesity. Less so is the conversation about the people who are processing the organic—and non-organic—food, from the garden and farms to the restaurants and homes. Why is that disconnect still there?
Unfortunately, labor is often ignored in the public discourse. It’s no different in the food movement. I interviewed a well-known food journalist for the Good Food and Good Jobs for All report, who told me, “I don’t know if it’s smart politics for the food movement to take a social justice role. We need to have positions, but if we devolve, we’ll lose our specificity and attraction for people who can deal with food, but not economic systems.”
Now, that’s just sad. To me, it seems self-evident that in order to eat and to eat well, you need a good job that pays living wages. Food and labor are interconnected. But, unfortunately, the majority of good food advocates are wary of collaborating with the labor movement for fear of diluting their mission. Similarly, proponents for good jobs typically focus solely on serving the interests of workers and are generally uninterested in tackling the structural problems in industrial agriculture and the production of food.
Who gets hurt, because of this disconnect? Low-income people and people of color suffer disproportionately from food inequities, as I outlined in Good Food and Good jobs for All, such as obesity, hunger, and earning below minimum wage as a food worker. Therefore, a divide between the struggle for good food and good jobs is an issue of racial and economic justice, because it sharpens socioeconomic disparities for communities of color. Being separated in issue silos also serves the interests of the food and agricultural corporations operated by a minority of white men who dominate both domestic and global markets, thus creating the conditions for these disparities across the world.
As I mentioned in the “Energy Democracy For All” panel, I believe the disconnect rests with the image problem that the green movement still has, namely that the images of the green movement is still white. So, even with the great policies like solar-energy redistribution to benefit communities of color and even incredibly out-front activists like Van Jones, Majora Carter, and you, the message of “going green is for everyone” seems like it still isn’t taking a hold to the point of popular, sustained action. Or is it that communities of color are “going green” in a way that isn’t recognized in the majority of green movements?
Yes, it’s an image problem and I think it’s important for communities of color to see themselves reflected in public images associated with sustainability, be it green energy or urban agriculture. But, beyond representation, we need genuine engagement and leadership of people of color in these movements. Which is part of the work being done in Oakland with community-owned solar projects and in the Navajo Nation.