Wednesday, April 28, 2010

True Food Justice Requires Racial Justice

Today I attended an excellent presentation by Gail Christopher, Vice President for Health of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (a major donor of programs for sustainable agriculture, food justice, and fighting racism).

She began with a fascinating look at some familiar material and then went into an even more interesting details about why we need to focus on the intersection between food justice and racism.

Gail first spoke about "bioactive" foods and how they promote health. Of course we all know we need certain amounts of carbohydrates, fats, and protein every day. Gail referred to these as "primary" elements of plants. But then she identified "secondary metabolites" in plants - the chemicals plants use for communication, reproduction, and defense. These substances, she said, are vital to our health. They "affect common pathways of pathogenesis in all of the following diseases: Altered glucose metabolism, chronic inflammation, increased cellular oxidation, and chronic endotoxemia."

For those of you who, like me, aren't physicians, endotoxemia is the presence of endotoxins in your body. Here's how Dictionary.com defines endotoxins:

A toxin that forms an integral part of the cell wall of certain bacteria and is only released upon destruction of the bacterial cell. Endotoxins are less potent and less specific than most exotoxins and do not form toxoids. Also called intracellular toxin.

Toxin present in the cell walls of bacteria that is released after the bacteria has died. May cause chills, fever, leukopenia, and shock depending on the bacterial species and the health of the infected person.
She went on to say that these secondary plant metabolites differ by plant family and plant species, yet the majority of our food comes from only a few plant families. Corn, wheat, rice, and sorghum are all grasses. Soy is a legume. And so the majority of crops grown and eaten by humans and by the animals humans eat in America are grasses and one species of legume.

Compare that with a diverse garden, which includes legumes and grasses plus Cucurbitae (cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, and melons), Alliums (onions, garlic, leeks, scallions, and asparagus), the Sunflower family (Lettuce, sunflowers, Jerusalem artichokes, and artichokes), the Mallow family (Okra), nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplants), the Beet family (beets, chard, and spinach), the Morning glory family (sweet potatoes), the Brassica family (cabbage, broccoli, turnips, radishes, kale, collards, cauliflower, and brussel sprouts), and the Carrot family (Carrots, parsley, cilantro, fennel, and celery).

And yet, only a tiny percent of U.S. cropland is devoted to growing fruits and vegetables. In fact, if the U.S. was to grow enough fruits and vegetables to feed every American the recommended number of servings each day, we would need to grow an extra 13 million acres of fruits and veg. And what's worse, 86% of acres currently used to grow fruits and vegetables are under threat of development.

Furthermore, Gail Christopher reminded us that plants are living foods, and in order to fully gain their benefits, they must be eaten in a living state. In other words, they should be minimally processed. And yet, in our country we don't only grow and eat a tiny number of foods, we also process them beyond recognition before we eat them.

What's the solution? Well to solve this piece of the puzzle, we MUST look at the farm bill and our commodity policy, which tells farmers to continue growing this small number of crops so that processors can turn them into junk food that makes the processors rich and our people sick. It's ridiculous to tell somebody to change their eating habits if the foods we are producing are precisely the foods they should eat less of.

That is where the conversation shifted to race, and that is also an idea uniting both topics addressed in her speech. If it is silly to tell a person to change their eating habits when we produce all of the wrong foods, it is also silly to tell a person to change their eating habits if our institutionalized racism makes it impossible or nearly impossible (i.e. very difficult) for him or her to do so.

Here I'll skip to a story that another speaker told. She was telling about a Latina single mother whose children go to school, where they qualify for free school lunch. The mom desperately wishes to pack lunches for the kids so they could eat food they like for lunch, but she can't afford it. So she sends them to school without a lunch, and on most days they refuse to eat the nasty food the school serves. And then the kids come home and she says "How was school?" The reply is "Mom, I'm so hungry I can't even talk about that. I need food NOW." So the mom does one of the only things she can do, which is buy her children fast food. In that situation, why would you tell the mother or the children to make better choices when better choices aren't available? Step one is making them available.

So now I'll go back to Gail Christopher's talk. She said that institutionalized racism is a problem in this country, and the myth of a "post-racial America" is about as true as the myth of a "happy slave" or "separate but equal." The U.S. needs to stop denying the consequences of and feelings produced by racism and actually address it as an issue. And while efforts are being made to bring grocery stores or healthy corner stores into poor neighborhoods, we won't truly give all Americans the RIGHT foods to eat (so that they CAN make healthy choices) until racism and all of its institutionalized manifestations are gone.

Here are a few statistics that she shared with us:

Percent of Children & Toddlers in Poverty:
Blacks: 66%
Latinos: 63%
Whites: 30%
Asians: 26%

Percent of Children on Poor Families in Poor Neighborhoods:
White: 1.4%
Black: 16.8%
Latinos: 20.5%

That is why Kellogg is funding "racial healing." As Gail Christopher put it, we should not "otherize" groups based on physical characteristics. This is particularly relevant here in Arizona (although we are currently on sovereign Native American land), with its harsh new anti-immigrant law. Some people claim that the law has nothing to do with race, but, she said, "do you see any walls going up between the United States and Canada?"

She said that America is as segregated now as South Africa was at the height of apartheid. We can't deal with school failures and food deserts without dealing with residential segregation. Whether it's the built environment of safe places to play and walk, the availability of public transportation, or dumping of toxic waste, these are all part of the system of denying humanity to certain groups. And while we have this "system of apartheid," most people don't know exists.

And yet, despite the clear statistics showing so-called racial disparities, science has shown that race is a social construct with NO biological basis. We are all 99.9% the same if you look at our DNA. (I would add that the designation of a person as "Hispanic" is a linguistic, not genetic, classification. Another factor that breaks down the myth of race is when you ask "How many races are there and where do you draw the lines between the races?" You can't. Even if you ignore people who are "multiracial" with a black mother and a white father, you'll find that there are parts of the world where the native population has physical characteristics resembling more than one "race.")

And yet our society is set up based on the myth (believed by generations before us and some who are in power now) that there are 4-5 different races and the less pigment you have in your skin, the more superior you are. As Gail Christopher pointed out, that set of beliefs is no longer useful to America. We are approaching a day when the majority of children will be children of color. Therefore, when we talk about reducing rates of incarceration, school drop outs, premature death, or infant mortality among communities of color, we are not only talking about racial equality. We are talking about the future of America. It's essential for all of us, as Americans, to address the institutional racism in our country.

She continued, saying that many progressive policies are "race-neutral," i.e. giving benefits to all people regardless of race. Kellogg thinks that is not good enough. Unless the issue of race is put out in the open and discussed, and then the structures that institutionalize racism are broken down, we won't get where we need to be. It's not enough to just put a grocery store in a disadvantaged black or Latino (or even Native American) area. Ultimately we need to change the hearts and minds of the people, so that the issue of access to healthy food is addressed as a natural matter of course and not by concerted efforts of wealthy funders or organized groups or progressive governments doing the work one small step at a time.

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