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A Journey in Food Justice

Taylor sits in front of her garden

A Journey in Food Justice

Written by Taylor K. Ambrose

They were both green: the can of peas and the money. One Friday every month, cans were currency and, in the moment, needed more than the five dollar bill in my pocket. Around the high school parking lot, my peers walked holding a nonperishable food item in one hand and a date’s hand in the other.

Every month, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at my high school would host a movie screening in the auditorium— a venture that was only successful because there are no movie theatres in the county. The price of admission was one non-perishable food item.

One Monday, I was asked to deliver the earnings from the last movie night. The food pantry is in the Methodist church, on a hill that overlooks town. I carried both boxes in for the elderly lady working there and helped her organize the cans on the sparse shelves. The empty swaths of shelf space suddenly made me realize the absurdity of the situation: that the assistance for community members was reliant on a makeshift movie night and a bunch of high schoolers— many of which were most likely returning the can from where they got it. In a county with over 7,000 residents where food charities serve around 3,000 people a month, it seemed too flimsy and unpredictable.

The issue was not my oblivion to flaws in the way my family and the people around me procured food, but a sobering belief that this system was immovable. My idea of food justice was a pigeonholed view believing that people had a right to food. Full stop. And that I had little power to secure this right.

As a college student, I could hardly secure it for myself. I was reading articles on the horrors of palm oil, Coca-Cola, and the blatant racism of the corporate food system while eating plain rice for dinner for the fourth day in a row. After a particularly convincing documentary, I became a vegetarian. That’s to say, I became the butt of every joke during family dinners and the source of anxiety for my mother. “But what will you eat?”

What would I eat? Why would I take time to make that decision every meal? I was trying to be intentional about what I put in my body, and the impact it had outside my body. I enrolled in the Appalachian Food Justice Initiative believing that it would be a fulfilling conclusion to my collegiate career. I didn’t anticipate it being a door opening as well as a door closing; an exploration of food justice that went far beyond my underdeveloped beliefs and what I had experienced in my own life.

AFJI is an intensive, three week learning program that aims to create food justice leaders in the region. My enthusiasm for the topic in no way made me aspirational toward leadership. In fact, on the first day of class I overslept and missed breakfast which felt like a cruel, ironic sign that I was unqualified to even be enrolled. But I logged on, still, wondering how we would learn about sustainable farming over Zoom.

There were ten students. Each of us restless from quarantine, outraged by racism and police brutality, and motivated by the Black Lives Matter movement. Three weeks in the middle of June 2020; a determining time to study social justice. Daily, I felt immobilized and grossly privileged, reading academic articles on racism in the global food system in a remote part of West Virginia while others were out risking everything to fight it. Our discussions were thorough, insightful, and often therapeutic, straying willingly far from topic then circling back in a seemingly seamless way as we explored the vast implications of injustice.

Food justice was not the solitary entity I constructed it to be, nor could it be solved by individual, better choices. Food justice was racial justice, gender justice, and class justice. Instead of critiquing my own lifestyle, I felt uplifted in the solidarity of activists reforming the way food is produced, delivered, and consumed. As stated in the Nyeleni Declaration, food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods.

It might sound excessive to say that this course changed my life, but considering that food is the foundation of our lives— it is history, culture, community, and comfort— changing perspectives on this daily necessity means a profound, fundamental shift is inevitable.

I couldn’t help but look back on my own life with new, erudite clarity. There was my community’s choice to drive 40 minutes into the neighboring county to go to Walmart or pick through scrappy, sometimes rotting produce at the local Shop ‘n Save. My grandma couldn’t drive to Walmart and compensated by convincing the manager to cut open watermelon or unseal packaging in front of her before she would buy anything. But not everyone had the town wrapped around their finger.

Lectures highlighting the sustainability and sovereignty of small, local farms was mettled with my own, somewhat negative, memories of working in the heat of summer. I thought of my great-grandparents (who were, along with my grandparents, my neighbors) living completely off the land, completely sustainably and, I’m ashamed to admit, only equated this with being poor. I watched my dad spend more time cursing the weather, the groundhogs, the deer, and the soil than he did enjoying the fruits of his labor which made me wonder why he did it at all. He wondered too, and vowed every year this would be the last but every year it was not.

My siblings and I made a show of complaining and dragging our feet all spring and summer throughout my childhood when we had to water or weed. Around 13, I randomly took interest in learning all my dad’s little tricks and became invested in the plants for the first time. That was the same summer our creek flooded and washed away more than half of the sprouts. It’s unbelievably easy to howl at nature for being unjust, a recipient we know will not hear us, but it never occurred to me to howl at policy makers or corporations on the other side of the food coin.

The more I studied food access barriers and systems of oppression in our food, the more I came to realise that this institution is not impenetrable. An equitable, sustainable, and nourishing food system is possible but it will take radical and widespread reform to realize. It will take collective action and advocacy, which AFJI equipped all of us to do. I found my voice in discussions with passionate peers and in newfound knowledge. I found people who cry for institutional systemic change, people who take justice and sovereignty like a movable feast through their lives.