On the Fight for Food Equity, by CEFS intern Elena Wertenbaker

The ideas of food justice and community development have been very prevalent in my internship experience over the past two weeks. Both of these terms are nebulous and difficult to concretely define, as they refer to complex and shifting ideas, but I will give it a shot. Food justice is indiscriminate access to safe and healthy food, and involves the breaking down of existing barriers to that access, which include physical, economic, and paradigmatic barriers. Community development, as I am beginning to understand it, is the development of whatever a community needs to be successful and productive according to its own standards.

We have had numerous discussions about food access in low-income communities and about the role that “alternative food” advocates and practitioners have been trying to play in such places. The overwhelming tendency in this movement has been to try to implant the ethics of sustainably raised, healthy, local food into these communities preformed, as in to take ideas about food that have risen out of other contexts and needs and “teach” them to folks in low-income areas. This tendency is born of very good intentions- many of the areas in question presently have little or no access to fresh or unprocessed foods, and the want to change things that are currently unjust is natural and common. The trouble is that it makes the assumption that people in very different communities with different needs and resources all want to see the same kind of changes in available food. The situation in an area that currently only has access to conventionally grown food from the global food system is different than that of an area that currently doesn’t have access to fresh food at all. The former community is hungry for the ability to make choices about the kind of the food system it chooses to support, while the latter may actually just want what is perceived to be normal and standard. One of the articles that we read quoted a person in an area with limited food access saying that the change they wanted was to have a Safeway built in their neighborhood.

So then my question is what to do. I have had this conviction for years that connecting with food and land has the capacity to make people feel good in some deep and fundamental way, and my plan has always been to take this idea to places where people may not have ever thought of it, and to groups that might particularly benefit from something of that nature. After having had all of these conversations about not imposing the ideas that one community has about food on others, and acknowledging that my truths are my own, I feel steeped in the question of how to proceed.

My ideas about the healing potential of engaging with food and the earth mostly revolve around the idea of a return to the most basic- bodies and food that nourishes and the land that we slowly and continually draw our very lives from. To me this has the potential to cut through the complexity and franticness that is threaded through our lives and culture, to be a metaphorical deep breath, an opening.

What I keep hearing from folks with more experience actually working with food and people is that to figure out how to be of service to other people and communities, the trick is to listen. To trust that people actually know what they need and that they can let you know what that is. To me this translates as taking on a certain quality in oneself, which really is just a matter of being open, which is really the foundation of the whole healing farm idea to begin with. So what I’ve come around to is that the quality that I need to cultivate in myself in order to have a shot at being successful in this work is the same quality that I hope to inspire in others through the healing farm, which is a very interesting “full-circle” experience.

-Elena Wertenbaker


About tessa eliza thraves

a local food and sustainable energy freak, working for the Center for Environmental Farming Systems on community and youth Food System projects across the state. www.cefs.ncsu.edu www.ncfoodcorps.org ncfoodyouth.wordpress.com

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