If you care deeply about both environmental and racial justice, the way food is produced in the U.S. is far, far from ideal.
To begin with, industrial farming has negative environmental repercussions of various kinds. (The U.S. ranks second in the world for greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture was responsible for 10.5% of U.S. emissions in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.) Complicating matters is the well established fact that climate change disproportionately impacts Black and Indigenous communities, people of color, and women. A University of North Carolina report, for instance, in 2014 that pollution from industrial pig farms disproportionately impacts Black, Latinx, and Native American communities, which researchers “generally recognized as environmental racism.”
That idea goes back to the food system’s very roots, according to Naima Penniman, the program director at Soul Fire Farm, an Afro-Indigenous centered community farm that trains Black and brown farmers and runs other food sovereignty programs.
“Generations and generations of unpaid, forced labor is the foundation of our food system,” Penniman says. From European slave traders relying on the farming knowledge of enslaved people to the passage of “Black Codes” after the Civil War, which forced Black people into unpaid farming labor at the risk of arrest or violence, Penniman argues a system that started by exploiting both labor and land has only continued on that trajectory.
“At this point, we can safely say the colonial project is not working.”
“At this point, we can safely say the colonial project is not working. We’ve been devastating the planet, as well as creating a system of such intense inequality,” Neiman says. “We’re living in a nation where some people are experiencing food opulence and [producing] extreme food waste, and at the same time way too many people are going hungry.”
Progressive activists hope the end of the Trump administration will provide an opening for rethinking and remaking U.S. society in a way that addresses its systemic, foundational ills, such as the lasting, devastating impact of chattel slavery. They note, however, that it will take concerted work. As activists have said for years, solving systemic problems will require systemic solutions.
None of that’s to say that your everyday actions can’t be part of the push for change, though.
We talked to Penniman, along with Mariah Gladstone (Blackfeet), founder of Indigikitchen, and Shyaam Shabaka, the chair of Food First, a food justice organization, about how we can each counter the environmental racism in our food system at the personal level. Here’s what they had to say.
1. Support Black and Indigenous farmers
Those native to the land now called America have experienced a violent loss of land and culture so immense that non-Indigenous folks likely have difficulty grasping the extent of it.
something I don’t think occurs to settlers is that Indigenous people already are living in a post-apocalyptic world
— @FlourishCaster_ has entered the fight (@IndigenousXca) July 14, 2020
Black farmers have also experienced massive land theft: Today, Black farmers only operate around one percent of America’s farmland. That’s due to a long history of outright discrimination and racist policies, Penniman explains. The “forty acres and a mule” that Gen. William T. Sherman promised to formerly enslaved people after the Civil War was reneged by President Andrew Johnson. The estimated value of that land is in the trillions today.
As Black people tried to access property throughout U.S. history, federal loans were routinely denied, Penniman points out. Discriminatory lending policies have led to a drastic decline in the amount of farmland owned by Black people in the U.S.
To this day, both Black and Indigenous farmers face intense difficulties in gaining access to land and resources needed to start farming at a sustainable scale, Penniman explains.
Without giving Black and Indigenous farmers control over farming practices and land, it’s hard to even know how many potentially could be adopted in the way food is produced and distributed. At Soul Fire Farm, for instance, which is an Afro-Indigenous centered venture, farmers practice regenerative methods, such as using cover crops and no-till techniques that keep carbon in the soil.
Gladstone adds that land in the U.S. has been managed for thousands of years by Indigenous folks, and Indigenous techniques “always” connect humans with their natural environments, she says. (She points to the traditional Native American practice of controlled burns — which, ironically, is now increasingly relied on as a technique for combating wildfires that have grown more frequent and intense in places like California because of climate change.)
Consequently, if you’re looking to counter environmental racism within the food system, supporting Black and Indigenous farmers is a crucial step. For those looking specifically for Indigenous farmers to support, Gladstone notes the Intertribal Agriculture Council has a producer directory, which you can use to find products made or produced by Indigenous people in a given region.
Meanwhile, Penniman points to this list of Black-Indigenous-led farming organizations compiled by Soul Fire Farm. Along with other justice-oriented farming organizations, they’ve shared a reparations map that lists land, agriculture, and food justice projects in need of funding that are led by farmers of color. You can find information about how to support those projects here.
Wherever possible, Gladstone also recommends avoiding meat raised on factory farms because of its environmental impact. A 2014 analysis from the Natural Resources Defense Council found that beef production alone was responsible for 34 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. related to food. If financially and dietarily accessible, cutting mass-produced meat from your diet (either entirely or partially) is an important step to consider, with climate change impacting marginalized groups first and most severely.
2. Learn about the land you occupy
When we’re disconnected from the land we’re on, there’s more opportunity for environmental degradation to go unnoticed, Gladstone notes. For Indigenous folks specifically, she points out that many families and communities have been cut off from “traditional knowledge” about their land and food due to “the appropriation of lands, the eradication of essential food species, the destruction of ecosystems, and the suppression of culture.”
To address that specific need, Gladstone started an online cooking show called Indigikitchen, where she explains how to make meals using native ingredients like elderberry BBQ sauce and mesquite breakfast potatoes. Ultimately, she encourages everyone to learn more about the lands and ecosystems right outside their doors. Doing so, Gladstone explains, can help people understand why it matters to protect and revitalize the living things around us.
“Whether you’re gathering, foraging, or hunting, you see the web that is connecting us to the rest of our environment, and that motivates us to take care of those systems.”
“Whether you’re gathering, foraging, or hunting, you see the web that is connecting us to the rest of our environment, and that motivates us to take care of those systems,” Gladstone explains. “There’s an invisible thread woven between different beings, and humans are one of those beings.”
She suggests finding a plant identification app and using it to start informing yourself about the native plants in your neighborhood. There’s Seek by iNaturalist, for instance, which helps you identify wildlife, plants, and fungi around you. (For a comprehensive guide on urban foraging, we’ve got you covered.)
“Even if you never use that information, you have some cool zombie apocalypse survival skills,” Gladstone says. She points out that yarrow, a plant that grows in northern parts of the U.S., can also be used to clot blood. While she notes that kind of knowledge may just get filed indefinitely under the mysterious trivia section of your brain, it all goes back to “helping us connect with the land,” she explains.
She also emphasizes the importance of learning about, and acknowledging, the original inhabitants of the land you currently occupy if you’re not Indigenous yourself. Gladstone points out that a simple way to start educating yourself is with Native-Land.ca, which shows you what land you’re occupying in the U.S.
3. Work to end food apartheid near you
As Penniman noted, there’s a cruel irony in America’s current food system: Some have so much access to food that they’re routinely producing massive amounts of food waste, which itself has harmful environmental impacts, while many others are regularly food insecure or experiencing hunger. (One in four Black children consistently don’t have enough to eat, according to Feeding America, a food bank nonprofit.)
You’ve probably heard the term “food desert” before, but some food justice activists, like Karen Washington, are pushing back on its usage. It’s usually not the case that communities have zero grocery stores, as the term “desert” implies. It’s that the community’s financial and geographic access to fresh, healthy food is severely limited. Activists, including those at Soul Fire Farm, use the term “food apartheid” to describe the phenomenon instead.
Whatever you call it, it’s a climate justice issue: When a food item is grown on an industrial farm that uses harmful chemicals, that can negatively impact the environment. And when families and communities are only able to access such highly processed foods, there can be harmful long-term health impacts, including diabetes and other chronic diseases.
Shabaka, who has worked at the intersection of public health, sustainable urban agriculture, and food justice for 40 years, notes that for a food insecure family that connection may be neither clear nor fixable.
“Most of their energy is on survival. They’re trying to figure out who has the cheapest tomatoes,” Shabaka explains. “If they go home and slice the tomato, they’re not going to see the direct relationship [between eating a processed or a natural one]. Both tomatoes are looking red and healthy. The detrimental effects are going to be drawn out over a period of time.”
Consequently, supporting efforts to end food apartheid can be part of combating environmental racism within the way food is made, produced, and distributed. Shabaka notes that, in his experience, it’s hands-on, community-building work like community gardens that really empower disenfranchised and food-insecure communities. They put full control of the production of food in their hands.
He also adds that assuming solutions that are “working in the dominant society” will translate to all communities can be a mistake. For instance, when he tried to start a CSA (community-supported agriculture) program in a low-income community, he found it didn’t work sustainably unless it was subsidized in some way, since community members tended to not have the income to pay in advance for food, as is typically required of a CSA program.
With that in mind, you should look for organizations in your area that are working to end food apartheid that are led by people from impacted communities (or those directly familiar with impacted communities). Community garden efforts are a good start, as are mutual aid funds, a longstanding form of social support in which resources are exchanged and distributed for mutual benefit. (They’ve grown in prevalence during the coronavirus pandemic.)
To address immediate need, community organizers, activists, and everyday folks have launched community fridges, stocked with food, in response to the economic burden caused by the pandemic. The theory is simple: You give what you can; you take what you need. Typically, organizers of community fridge efforts will post information online or at the fridge itself about when and how to donate supplies. You might find one near you to support, and donate what you can.
There’s also the farmworkers themselves to consider, who typically lack the right to collective bargaining, a living wage, and fair working conditions while their right to remain in the country is “dangled over their heads,” Penniman explains. She suggests supporting groups like CATA – The Farmworkers Support Committee. You can also start by informing yourself on the many ways in which both climate change and the pandemic are harming farmworkers right now.
Penniman says that we’re in a “moment of reckoning,” amid the pandemic and the presidential transition; a potent time for change. With our current food system, “we’re trashing our planet; we’re trashing our bodies,” she says. Moving forward, she hopes we’ll instead take our cues from “Black and Indigenous growers with a relationship with the Earth.”
Putting some thought into what you put on your plate, where it comes from, and who grew it is a simple but necessary place to start.