The Future of Food Justice
Saryta Rodríguez, editor of the essay collection, Food Justice: A Primer, shares thoughts on the future of equity and opportunity.
In August, Life & Thyme launched its very first book club with the goal of deepening our community while encouraging meaningful discussion about a range of topics relating to food.
According to its website, our inaugural title, Food Justice: A Primer, “is a collection of essays by activists, academics, farmers, and others involved in the Food Justice Movement examining food justice and food sovereignty from a variety of angles.”
To further the conversation, we’ve invited Saryta Rodríguez, editor of the collection, to share thoughts on what they hope readers will take away, how the topics addressed in the book have evolved during this time or will evolve to meet new and changing needs, the future of food justice, and what individuals can do to make a difference in their own lives.
I am often asked what I hope readers will take away from Food Justice: A Primer, and about what I learned while developing the book. For me, that was primarily a confirmation of what I had long expected, and something many others in the food justice world had addressed: we cannot hope to have meaningful human liberation without nonhuman liberation, and vice-versa.
I don’t just mean that on a moral level; that liberated humans wouldn’t feel all warm and fuzzy inside if nonhumans still suffered, or that nonhumans living in freedom would somehow be less happy if humans were still oppressed. I mean this in a practical sense; human and nonhuman oppressive systems rely on one another and work in tandem. Among the most obvious examples of this is the slaughterhouse, in which human workers are abused while nonhumans are murdered. The only perceivable benefit to this practice goes straight to the top of the capitalist food chain.
A second, related fact that I did not intentionally set out to prove, but nevertheless emerged from the research and discussions that took place while writing the book, is the roles of colonization and white supremacy in maintaining both human and nonhuman oppressive systems. The practice of colonization and the white supremacist belief that upholds it serve not only to keep humans and nonhumans oppressed, but also to keep each side of the coin from working meaningfully with the other.
For instance, white supremacy causes undue scrutiny and disrespect toward communities of color and Indigenous communities that are not vegan, while offering far less scrutiny to meat- or dairy-consuming white cultures. It also consistently portrays veganism as a “white thing,” erasing the myriad cultures around the world that embraced veganism long before the word was coined.
Meanwhile, the white supremacist culture of the U.S., for instance—in which Black and Brown people are routinely harassed, beaten, caged, and murdered by police, while now also being ravaged by COVID-19 and threats of food insecurity and homelessness—forces us to struggle so much on a daily basis that it is hard for some to focus on becoming vegan. Understandably, we come to resent the white tears that flow for nonhuman animals while so few of those tears flow for humans who are incarcerated, homeless, institutionalized, and so forth.
Finally, white supremacy dictates the distribution of resources in this country; not everyone has a personal choice in what they eat or what they wear. Some people just have to accept whatever they are given, or can take without being thrown in a cage for doing so. This holds true especially for those who are incarcerated or otherwise institutionalized, as institutions predetermine meals based on cost effectiveness, without regard for ethics or even nutrition.
COVID-19 has significantly disrupted the global food supply chain as well. In the U.S., we have seen some items rise slightly in cost; but, for the most part, food is still available for those who have the money to pay for it and the freedom to go get it. That might not be the case going into 2021. Autonomous means of feeding one another are going to be paramount—sharing food, giving food away for free, trying to grow things inside the home. The day will come, sooner than we think, when we will no longer be able to rely on our local grocery store (those of us who could in the first place), even if we still have the money.
In particular, COVID-19 helped highlight the inherent cruelty of factory farming—for both humans and nonhumans. Workers were forced to come to work even during the (first) peak of the pandemic, working the same long hours in the same terrible conditions, thus highlighting how the industry abuses and exploits humans.
Then came the pig massacres. As plants shut down and stopped processing pork, countless pigs were murdered simply because they had ceased to be profitable in the short term. No one wanted to feed them or take care of them without knowing when they might profit from them. I was almost amused, in a dark sort of way, at how people cried out about what a horrible injustice this was, and oh, those poor pigs! Many of these people were not vegan, and may or may not have even eaten part of a pig for breakfast on the day they chose to furiously type out their moral outrage.
As a result of those incidents, a lot of people did start trying out vegan foods, suspecting a long-term disruption in meat supply. One positive that might come out of this is maybe some of those people will see how easy and delicious it can be to go vegan, and won’t bother going back to meat—especially if meat gets prohibitively expensive, and while so many people are still out of work. Veganism, long portrayed as something not just for white people, but specifically for affluent white people, might finally shed this false reputation.
I also see a lot of what I and others talk about in the book manifesting with respect to climate change. The Amazon is still very much on fire. Meanwhile, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is in bed with the ranchers, and keeps selling large plots of previously-protected Indigenous land to ranching, logging and mining interests. We have a violation of Indigenous rights coming to a head right alongside loss of habitat, greenhouse gas-fighting trees, and countless nonhuman lives. The fates of humans and nonhumans in an imperialist, capitalist world are seldom more obviously intertwined. (How fitting, too, that in the same year as COVID-19, the Earth’s own lungs should catch fire.)
I’m hoping that the topics will evolve to meet these challenges in a more holistic way, so that what is happening in the Amazon now is not seen just as a war between the Indigenous and the State, and not just the typical war between human capitalists and nonhumans, but as a more fundamental struggle between Life and Death—between Liberation and Oppression. That global solidarity will increase. That we will no longer accept excuses as to why it’s okay to cage this person, steal land from these people, murder these creatures. That Life— that irrepressible urge within all of us to reach our full potential and bring others along with us—that Life will win.
What does the future hold for the food justice movement? I don’t presume to have all of the answers. However, I can think of two specific areas that will require exceptional focus in the years to come.
First, we must minimize and ultimately end these intricate global supply chains. Food systems will need to be more localized; this has already been happening, but in light of COVID-19, it is more urgent now in countries where it may not have seemed so urgent previously. One very exciting example of this is my beloved Boriken (named Puerto Rico by colonizers), where right now, tons of people are contributing to minimizing the island’s reliance on food from the mainland U.S. (Approximately eighty-five percent of the island’s food is imported.)
This is happening not just through farming initiatives, but also through local investment in solar and wind energy. Having been repeatedly let down by the island’s energy company, hurricane after hurricane, people are taking energy into their own hands and trying to rely less on centralized energy. In the years to come, this trend toward decentralization and autonomy is emblematic of the world we can expect to see emerge from the ashes of this world.
Second, we must end imperialism and white supremacist institutions. It’s a tall order, right? The fact of the matter is, however, as long as we allow empires to behave like empires, they will not allow us to fully free ourselves—because they benefit from our subservience and dependence. Imperialism is the enemy of autonomy. An example: Israel has done a great job of greenwashing its reputation. Some years ago, there was an article about Israeli soldiers wearing “vegan” boots. I remember thinking, those boots are not vegan because they are going to be used to burn down Palestinian houses. Veganism is about causing the least possible amount of harm; how can any military be said to have a “vegan” anything? For a while at least, a lot of “animal whites” people in the U.S. were applauding Israel for its alleged veganism. Meanwhile, countless initiatives began in Palestine around the late nineties and early aughts to make veganism more widely available to people; but it’s hard to convince people to primarily consume produce when an imperial force regularly sets fire to your homeland’s crops.
Now, let’s turn our attention to white supremacy, which underpins most imperial efforts—and undeniably underpins every institution in the United States. Why does ending white supremacist institutions matter for food justice? For starters, white supremacy fills prison cells with Black and Brown bodies—bodies that need to be liberated before anyone else can consider themselves such. Again, the institutionalized are denied food sovereignty— an important feature of food justice— from the first.
Secondly, white supremacy determines where the grocery stores go—and what quality the stores are, and how far apart they are. If we want equity, these resources need to be evenly distributed throughout all neighborhoods. Again, some of this stuff is already happening; but we will need more of it, and we will need to be more strategic about it. We need to start thinking about LAGS: Life After Grocery Stores.
Last but certainly not least, the twin demons of white supremacy and capitalism conspire to allow major corporations to create patents on traditional ways of doing things, while compelling non-white farming communities to use GMOs against their will (for more on this, visit Via Campesina at viacampesina.org).
As individuals, it is imperative that we challenge all of the institutions that perpetuate imperialism and/or white supremacy. Fight, with all of your might, for the return of stolen lands to their rightful keepers. Reject, full force, attempts to patent ways of growing that have been engaged in by families for centuries—efforts to extort poor, Brown farmers for the “right” to do something they have always done, just because some fancy Western white company got some legal document to read, “this is a proprietary method.”
When going shopping for vegan groceries, don’t just look at the list of ingredients for animal products. Look up the company’s labor practices. Look up its environmental impact. And, knowing that these will be abysmal for most companies, above all, minimize your reliance on companies. Rely on friends, neighbors, and family instead—and let them know that they, in turn, can rely on you.
The best thing any of us can do is contribute to helping our communities regain autonomy. That means creating food sharing or growing programs, eviction defense, preparing for acts of civil disobedience—the list goes on. However you can, whenever you can, wherever you can, you should challenge the institutions that brought us here in the first place: imperialism, capitalism and white supremacy. Anything less is putting a Band-Aid on a knife wound.
If there is no food program or eviction defense program in your area, start one. Do your homework—not just on your rights, which are constantly subject to change, or on what you think you’re “allowed” to do. Study history. Research what others have done in the past. Learn and take to heart the differences between strategies that merely placate people temporarily or yield slight improvements, and strategies that have historically resulted in concrete, revolutionary change. We are at a critical moment in world history, and we cannot afford to repeat mistakes. We simply don’t have the time.
The phrase “decolonize” has become very popular these last couple of years. I’ve heard it used for everything from decolonizing food (eating more ancenterally and less of what colonizers forced on your people) to decolonizing art. While there is value to some of the discussions being had along those lines, to me, decolonize is a toothless term unless taken at its most literal.
To truly decolonize, we have to end colonization. Not work around it, not adapt to it, not soften its edges. I mean utterly, unequivocally, end it. That means standing up to representatives of colonial and white supremacist causes, including police officers and politicians. That means refusing to participate in events and practices that result in oppression. That means actively sabotaging such events and actively disrupting such practices.
Ending this system once and for all is the only foreseeable way to yank those dollar signs down from above our heads, thus reclaiming our dignity and lives.