Thursday, November 15

Kitchen to Classroom: Food Justice and Sustainability

Photo by Alfred T. Palmer, 1943. Courtesy of the Library of Congress
A weekly dispatch from our postdoctoral fellow, Angela Jill Cooley. 

This week my class continued our exploration of food systems by reading Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability, a collection of essays edited by sociologist Alison Hope Alkon and environmental social scientist Julian Agyeman. These essays argue that institutional racism, public policy, and the industrial food system work to create marginalized communities and then limit access for these populations to foods that promote health and reflect their cultural values.

Two essays focusing on the American South examine how race affects food cultivation. In “From the Past to the Present: Agricultural Development and Black Farmers in the American South,” sociologists John J. Green and Anna M. Kleiner and oral historian Eleanor M. Green trace the process by which African American farmers were systematically dispossessed of their land in the twentieth century. Although all small farmers suffered land loss, the authors contend that structural inequality disproportionately harmed black farmers—with an estimated 98% of black farmers losing their land since 1900.

In “Community Food Security ‘For Us, By Us’: The Nation of Islam and the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church,” Priscilla McCutcheon examines more recent acquisitions of land in Georgia and South Carolina by two black separatist groups that use communal agriculture to battle hunger and enable empowerment. McCutcheon explains the Nation of Islam’s belief that consuming healthy foods cultivated by black farmers can fight white supremacy and encourage self-reliance. She reveals a similar commitment to black autonomy by the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church, which argues that farming can nurture “tangible liberation [of the black community] through mental and spiritual transformation.”

Collectively, this volume questions whether the contemporary food movement provides a sufficient critique of, or alternative to, industrial agriculture. It suggests that the motto “vote with your fork,” which is popular among sustainable-food advocates, means little to the populations that are essentially disfranchised by way of their race, ethnicity, or socio-economic class. Nevertheless, the editors call for leaders of the food movement to recognize food justice as a potential ally in the common goal of reforming the current food system.

Citation: Alison Hope Alkon and Julian Agyeman, ed., Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011).