book review: cultivating food justice: race, class, and sustainablity

while in oakland i picked up a number of books on food justice.  at a grass-roots level, the push for food justice has been feeling pretty strong for several years, but it seems that the academics are catching on, and hopefully the larger community food security movement will too.  i could just do one big review, but wanted to tackle each on their own, both to give them their due, and also to get my thoughts out before i forgot.

first on the docket, cultivating food justice: race, class and sustainability edited by alison hope alkon & julian agyeman.

the book is deep, full and academic, but not so far removed from most of us that it’s not useful.  the editors have managed to get some of the foremost thinkers in the field in one volume and one of the strengths is the diversity of voices and thought.  it’s clear that food justice by comparison to its sister food sovereignty doesn’t have a codified set of beliefs, or the strength of an organization like la via campesina, perhaps that is to come.

of particular interest to me was chapter 8 – as it profiles two organization that have worked for food sovereignty in u.s. that have largely been under represented in conversation around food justice: the nation of islam and the pan african orthodox christian church.  part of my fascination is that both of these organization had their start in detroit.  even living in detroit i admit to being largely ignorant of both organization.  i’ve helped some folks with gardens at the shrine of the black madonna, know some folks that have been members of the paocc  and have a friend that is a member of the nation of islam, but that’s pretty much it.  as part of a learning circle at work we researched a little about the noi’s farms, but this chapter provided further insight.

it’s not surprising that these organization are largely unnoticed in the history of food security, their black separatist rhetoric is generally unpalatable to the white lead food security movement.  perhaps the most significant aspect of the work of these two organizations is how deeply their critical analysis is around food, that in order to have power in a white dominated culture you must have power over you  own food source.  the chapter also helps to highlight that black lead organizations have been working on food issues but have gone unnoticed for years, contradicting the often claimed idea that there is not a historical leadership in the black community around food organizing.   The reality couldn’t be further from the truth – but the truth is that it’s not the right kind of leadership to be palatable by the mostly white lead food security movement, nor is it the sort of leadership that would want to join the white lead movement.

chapter 13’s topic on the meaning of the term justice and how it applies  to the food justice movement was equally personally engaging.  the organization i work with claims to be working on food justice, but we have often struggled by just what that means.  we have spent hours debating what that is – and i wish that we had this chapter as a primer.  turns out that are not the only organizations struggling, and there are actually several ways to thinking about justice.  even with a deeper examination, i still feel a little lost just wonder standing what justice means at a really deep level.

other topics covered include: indigenous people of the northwest and loss of lands and fishing rights, black farmers in the south and loss of land, the effects of farming labor laws on traditional farming methods by hmong immigrants, how redlining and racist housing practices created “food desserts”, the irony of farm workers suffering from hunger, white privilege and those working in food justice work, and much, much more.

taken as a whole – the book can feel a little scattered, not surprising given it’s a collection of essays from a collection of authors, but it certainly gives one a yearning for a more unified direction and a desire for movement building.  i can’t help but ask myself where is this movement going?  when are we gonna get it together instead of acting like it’s a bunch of scattered issues.

but cultivating food justice is really just a start,something to help one set sails in the direction of learning more, all the essays sight numerous important other works, and i’ve already started reading essays sighted in the bibliographies, and am looking forward to more.  i’m left asking more question than i am satisfied with answers.

it’s certainly not the book for those that are just dipping their toe into food justice work – for them it might totally overwhelm, but for those with a dedication to take a deeper more critical eye at the food system it can be a helpful tool in furthering their study.


5 responses to “book review: cultivating food justice: race, class, and sustainablity

  1. Hi Patrick, I’m in New Zealand, and I keep seeing all these *catch phrases* crop up in American blogs.

    Could you please explain to someone who is not American, not living in the USA, and engaged in horticulture, what you define as “Food Justice” ?

    I’m totally perplexed by what ever you mean by this



  2. Pingback: book review: food movements unite! | little house on the urban prairie

  3. hey detroit people – any one wanting to know more about this book, you should come to the source booksellers this saturday @5pm to her alison talk about it.

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