A Helping of Gravy: Why Study Food Justice?

Crescent City Farmers Market
Photo courtesy of the Crescent City Farmers’ Market

This article first appeared in issue #53 of our Gravy quarterly. The author, Catarina Passidomo, is an assistant professor of anthropology and Southern Studies who teaches foodways classes at the University of Mississippi. 

Why Study Food Justice?

Lessons From Post-Katrina New Orleans

by Catarina Passidomo

When I tell people that I study food, the response is usually one of curious interest. When I go on to explain that I study food justice–that is, the connections between food systems and race, class, gender, and other means of oppression–the look of curiosity changes slightly. Is that confusion? Agreement? Concern? People who experience one or multiple forms of oppression in their own lives generally nod with understanding. But for many of us, the connections between food and social justice are abstract. The interlocking systems that bring food from field or factory to fork, spoon, fingers, or chopsticks are most obscured from view. Or they are so familiar that we don’t notice them. But if we look closely and critically, we can begin to see through food to broader systems of oppression and dominance. This makes food a powerful tool for thinking and teaching about social justice.

Food has such promise as a lens for critical inquiry because it is ubiquitous and essential in our lives. Our relationships to food–and its production, procurement, preparation, and consumption–are as varied and personal as our most cherished family recipes, or lack of those. Food and its meanings both unite and divide, highlighting shared experience and illuminating disparity and difference. Because food is at once mundane and tremendously complex, it is a powerful and effective entry point for students and advocates of social justice. In the classroom, we can use food to introduce and explore trenchant concerns of race, class, and gender. Out in the world, we can trace food’s relationship to these concerns, exploring how it draws people and ideas together, or how it pulls them apart.

In my own research in post-Katrina New Orleans, I work to understand the intent and effect of the rebuilding efforts that mobilized food and food access to promote social justice. I worked with a number of different organizations and community groups in New Orleans, and I found interesting distinctions in how they characterized both the problem of food access and its potential solutions. These efforts emerged within a place and at a time that exposed tensions related to race, belonging, and claims to space and resources–including fresh food. The destruction following Katrina was most serious, and slowest to rebound, in low-income neighborhoods where the majority of residents were people of color. Because of a severe lack of infrastructure in these areas, numerous non-profit organizations, advocacy groups, and some businesses stepped in to address a need for fresh-food access. Meanwhile, at the national scale, popular interest in various aspects of the food system has surged in the nine years since Katrina. Particularly among young, well-educated white people, the food movement was and is an intriguing phenomenon. Coupled with a depressed economy and a perceived need for outside assistance in New Orleans, many young people versed in the discourse of a good food revolution were drawn to New Orleans.

Many of those who came to rebuild New Orleans arrived with their own ideas about what food justice should look like and how to achieve it. Some had worked in the non-profit sector and had experience writing grants and mobilizing the funds required to initiate projects, often without the principal involvement of neighborhood residents. This approach led to many worthy and successful projects. In some cases, it also alienated longtime residents who had alternative visions for addressing local problems. For example, one organization started out with the mission to increase access to fresh, healthy foods within a particular low-income, predominantly African American neighborhood. They pursued that mission by obtaining funds to create a community garden and market space where neighbors could both grow their own produce and shop for locally sourced items at a discounted rate. While the intentions behind this project were altruistic, the lack of community involvement in the planning generated a sense among neighborhood residents that the space was not theirs. Ultimately, the project became a place for people of means to shop for local and artisanal products, and the official mission shifted to supporting local farmers. This is a valid and important goal, but it doesn’t solve the initial problems the organization set out to address.

Alternatively, in the Lower Ninth Ward, a historically African American working-class community devastated by flooding following the levee breaches, residents understood the struggle for food access as a manifestation of institutional racism. For them, the food desert landscape post-Katrina reflected decades of neglect and was inextricably connected to their inability to access quality health care, education, or other basic resources. This understanding led to a group of neighborhood residents to form a coalition to improve food access. They conducted a workshop on undoing racism in the food system, with the goal of analyzing how systemic racial injustices had contributed to their neighborhood’s becoming a food desert. The process of determining and realizing an ideal food landscape was directed by residents of the Lower Ninth Ward who felt that they were best suited to fight for what they wanted. Residents mobilized around a specific and pressing goal, situated within a broader struggle for economic and racial justice.

Rather than understanding food access as an isolated problem–which may drive isolated solutions–we can learn from the holistic approach of the Lower Ninth Ward residents. This lesson also serves those of us who use food as a lens in the classroom to consider broader social systems. For example, we can explore how the food system intersects with local and regional politics; with conceptions of nature and land use; with historic and contemporary experiences of agricultural, factory, and other food system labor; with immigration patterns and ethnic identity; with traditional and contemporary gender roles; with popular conceptions of health, wellness and beauty; with economic inequality and racial disparities in food access; with cultural connotations, traditions, and rituals surrounding food…The list is virtually endless. Food is intimately entangled with the systems that shape our society. We can study food to better understand those structures and, where appropriate, we can mobilize food to challenge them.