LIVE BLOG: Panel on Food and Social Justice in Chester and the Nation

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

“Food Justice, Social Justice, Culinary Justice: Food Issues in Communities of Color from the Outside Looking in”

Tina Johnson, founder of the Chester Co-op, and Michael W. Twitty, culinary historian, will talk in this panel about “issues related to equality of access to high quality food for communities of color in the United States”.

4:34 TJ: “How many people have been to Chester? What’s the first thing you see?” Johnson was born in Chester. “My family’s history is very deep in Chester.” “At one point in time, Chester was like the New York of the area.” The place has a rich history which is complex. TJ moved back to Chester 8 years ago and started working in the community around areas of food access.

4:38 TJ: There’s no grocery store in Chester, very shocking. “Why can’t the community solve this problem themselves?” Looked at traditional stores, co-op model. Co-op concept seemed best for the situation. “What I did not anticipate … was that food is political.” “There are affluent communities that are food deserts (no grocery stores in the area).” This isn’t a problem because people can get food other ways, but in a less developed communities, this is a problem. More than just giving access to food, the co-op is also about “Being empowered to create your own access, [which] shakes the core of oppression.”

4:42 MWT: “It feels very emotionally and intellectually validating to see a younger person of color doing something like this,” usually it’s older people having these discussions.

4:45 MWT: “Where is the injustice?” — History of “blighted communities” — food deserts, people who cannot vote (unfair felony laws), historical oppression. The myth that “black people don’t care” ignores a lot of this.

4:49 MWT: It is very difficult to try and do work, to deal with the pushback of systemic racism.

4:51 MWT: “We are a food porn society. And that second word I take seriously, there are serious considerations here.” Food is turned into a idol, made into something apolitical. Talking about just “worshipping the food” and not talking about where the food came from, what societal and cultural issues are involved with the food, is problematic.

4:53 MWT: “If we talk about culinary justice, we aren’t just talking about ‘credit where credit is due.'” Rather, do people have access to quality food (economic processes, cultures)? Culinary justice is also about having something “ennobling about our culture.” A lot of culture is just jokes, stereotypes–“they don’t really know us.”

4:55 History Professor Allison Dorsey: Background information on the systemic loss of land (and loss of skill set), the necessity for opening up opportunities for empowerment, the link between younger generations and cultural history. What about allies? How can they help, how can’t they? “How do we negotiate all these things?”

5:02 MWT: What strategies can be used? Friend who is a farmer in Baltimore county (Five Seeds Farm), learned about the laws about farms in the city. Friend begins to farm in vacant lots in the city and sell the produce. Family is involved in the whole process. In Atlanta, farms that are involved in the community, kids hang out there. What was in the soil? Test for asbestos, etc. You have to have a raised field.

5:07 TJ: Empowering people politically? “I think our systems [of government] don’t work” for everybody. Doesn’t meet the needs of all. Communities of color, low-income communities. “We as a society have said ‘its okay if these people get screwed out of what they deserve.'” “If you don’t like it, do something about it.” Very hard work to educate people about the system that we have. “This is something I’m committed to doing for the long haul.”

5:12 TJ: Huge sacrifice to give up a little bit to try and gain something greater. Why are sneakers so important to black men? For people who have so little, even small things are extremely valuable. It’s hard to give up things that we are comfortable with.

5:14 TJ: The hard part is that you can’t guarantee that you will gain anything even if you make sacrifices. “Very few people are willing to do this kind of work.” How can you empower others? Be a model–it takes time. “Kids mimic what they see, and if we aren’t doing what we want them to do, we’re screwed.” What are you doing now to ensure that the future is different?

5:17 It’s not an investment in what your idea of the outcome will be, it’s an investment in the vision of the people. The idea that “Someone else is moving forward and trying to do better.”

5:19 Dorsey: Notice that its so much more than just getting into a van and registering people to vote. “I think Swarthmore College treats Chester as a social science lab where the people are just lab rats for experiments,” reinforcing stereotypes. “It doesn’t mean that we can’t get our students to help.” Instead of superficially helping, do real action.

5:22 Students don’t really know what poverty, inequality, really is. “If students are going to work in Chester, they need to commit.” Discussion opens to the room.

5:24 Student question: Lack of access to nutritionally valuable food? MWT: What happens when you can’t afford certain things? The skill of growing food is very important. What can you do when your meal options are limited? Priorities: You have to make choices about sustaining yourself, or entertainment. “These are difficult choices.” Education is very important. “Teaching people to appreciate their heritage, from within and without.”

5:28 Dorsey: The cheapness of things like ramen is just one dimension of cost. Bad choices do not create bad situations, but they make already skewed situations worse.

5:34 Student question: What are practical things that students can do? TJ: “I’ve had a very good relationship with Swarthmore.” You guys have a lot of money, power. Most Lang Center work is unhelpful: “It’s not a systemic change, it’s a band-aid.” You have to see how people really live there to do any meaningful change. Disconnect between spending time on theory in school, and doing actual practice. You have to use privilege in a beneficial way!

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