A monthly exploration of the relentless pursuit of Black freedom through food justice. Fcuk the Food System is an attestation to Blacks who strategically use food as a tool to fight racial injustice and discrimination.
But first, what is a food system?
“He who controls your stomach, also controls your mouth.”– Neal Watson
It is not “field to fork,” or “farm to table,” nor any other catchy marketing dribble that perpetuates false images of immaculately conceived food from the industrial agricultural complex.
The illusion presented about our food system is that through a perfect process, what we eat is kissed by Mamma Nature then rained down upon us like manna from heaven. Somehow, it magically appears on our plates. Then miraculously, as we digest each morsel, these perfectly sculpted bites deliver nutrient-rich nectar directly from the soil gods; all to sustain our mortal human bodies.
Rather, as witnessed during the pandemic, the industrial food system is a raggedy entanglement of loosely connected structures that may as well be held together with chewing gum and duct tape. Encompassed in this flawed system is any and everything related to growing, processing, transporting, and consuming food. Included are issues, politics, and regulations connected to food production and processing; environmental sustainability; food waste; and how food impacts public health.
As a chef and scholar who grew up in rural Georgia, I have worked in and studied many iterations of the food systems. In my reflection, the current food system shows a mythic process, all the while, upholding an inequitable power structure leaving us all starved and malnourished. This is a total challenge to it and an act of liberation to restructure it by highlighting those who offer solutions and the mechanics that have far too long been the problem.
Watch the breakdown
To understand our food systems, it is important to note that disparity is intentionally created. As a result, food is weaponized against marginalized groups. The purposeful lack of grocery stores with fresh food in Black neighborhoods is food apartheid. Conversely, the abundance of specialty food retailers, farmers’ markets, and fresh food in white neighborhoods are elements that create a food oasis.
To further create havoc in communities of color, food swamps proliferate. They are areas where fast food outlets, convenience stores filled with junk food, and liquor stores outnumber healthy food options. The mainstay of eating options that starve minority communities is a tactic of oppression. Subsequently, the inequity amplifies hunger, malnutrition, and the waste of surplus food that could easily feed those steeped in food insecurity. Yet, the volatility in food access is encouraged.
In fact, the inequality in access to healthy food is a major contributor to health disparities found in Indigenous, Black, Latino, and Asian and Pacific Islander communities. Poor diets lead to disproportionately high rates of diet-related disease; thus, disrupting education and employment–two major pathways for minority communities to achieve financial success and empowerment. As my grandfather, Neal Watson, would often say: “He who controls your stomach, also controls your mouth.” His sage words point to how people lack agency if they cannot determine their own food sources.
That said, food is a necessity and should be a common everyday good that is not to be bought, sold, and traded in the same cavalier manner as gold or copper. Hunger, poor nutrition, and the lack of access to food is a human rights violation. However, the monetization of food and food production is an ideal business model in a capitalist society. So how did we get here?
The modern American food system is based on racism
Systemic racism runs deep in the food system. Reaching back to the arrival of European colonists emboldened by idiotic concepts of “discovering new lands” and “Manifest Destiny,” they stole billions of acres from Indigenous peoples by any means. Some of the oft-practiced deceptions were broken treaties, fake treaties, forced relocation, sexual assault, and finally, genocide. To top it off, laws were changed to signify who was free, who was human and who was marked as a slave. In many cases, the nations that did survive were erased in the annals of revisionist history.
After conquering American lands, colonizers created the Transatlantic slave trade, which forcibly moved Africans to the Americas. During these centuries, they pirated Africans’ knowledge of agriculture and horticulture, in addition to their physical labor. It was through the food production systems created during slavery, that fueled the Americas to become global stalwarts. Eventually, these newly seized and freshly formed nations competed with their former mother countries in Europe as the global economy shapeshifted.
Even after the end of a brutal system of chattel slavery, Europeans who were now coined as “white,” were still able to benefit from the knowledge and labor of Africans and some Natives who were relabeled Black. The revised exploitation was through tactics such as tenant farming and sharecropping.
Over time, the passage of racially unjust laws and regulations, along with the unkept promises of reparations, are just a few of the ways Blacks continue to lose land or are denied the opportunity to purchase it.
While Blacks continue to lose acreage and their critical ties to the food systems birthed from their culture, the industrial food system remains. Its fusion of land theft, labor exploitation and white supremacist ideology, formed the perfect foundation for the modern-day industrial food system. As such, pop culture nomenclatures like “field to fork” and “farm to table,” are in vogue terms describing something that already existed. Withal, these newfangled food phrases should be rebranded as “Piracy to Plate” because all of this shit is stolen.
The seeds planted by deceitful, abusive and greedy colonizers, whose actions went unchecked and without consequence, built and maintained the modern-day food system. The motive is not a mystery, farming and food production are both lucrative because everyone has to eat. The consumer base is any business’s dream, as more hungry humans are added to the population daily–it’s a never-ending supply of customers.
Due to generations of colonial activities, it is easy to distort Black agricultural history and continue to persuade us that farming is the work of the enslaved steeped in a painful past that we need to forget. Fcuk the Food System disrupts these notions, all the while, presents narratives rooted in the lived experiences of those who are intimately intertwined with agriculture.
What can we do as Black people to free Black communities?
For centuries, Blacks have used food as resistance. Since the beginning, enslaved Africans maintained gardens, fished, foraged, and hunted to supplement their inadequate diets.
Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) touted the importance of food and land ownership. In his doctrines, Garvey promoted land ownership as a key strategy for self-sufficiency as it provided an economic pathway.
Similarly, the Nation of Islam (NOI) emphasized the importance of nutritious food in overall health and well-being. Malcolm X, a popular leader in the NOI, learned from the UNIA because his father was a high-ranking member of the diasporic organization. Undoubtedly, Malcolm X, who later renamed himself El Hajj Malik Shabazz, transported the ideology from his Garveyite father to the NOI. Plus, he was an urban grower who always kept a patch of land to farm on.
At the height of the NOI in the 1970s, they held the largest amount of farmland for any Black U.S. organization. Both the UNIA and the NOI established grocery stores and restaurants in Black neighborhoods, along with farms throughout the nation and in Africa.
The UNIA and NOI are not isolated examples. From the Free Breakfast program sponsored by The Black Panther Party that formed the foundation for current public school breakfast and lunch programs to the Black Farmers Index (BFI), created by Dr. Kaia Shivers, Black people have always recognized that land ownership and access to local food is critical in resistance of white supremacy and the key to the success of Black community and culture. This is where Fcuk the Food System steps in.
In the winter quarter, we will explore how the farmers, producers, consumers, community gardeners, activists, and foragers of the Black Farmers Index, Region IV (South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi) resist white supremacy daily by redefining Black food systems to build Black communities one bite at a time.
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