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
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
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