What on Earth is Food Justice? Chew on This!

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As we walked into The Commons in Brooklyn on Monday, June 20th, we passed by walls of foodie goodies: delicate jars of golden honey, colorful packages of fresh herbs, and a bunch of arugula labeled, “This was grown on the roof of this building. That’s as local as you can get.” This spunky display of food, set out in old, beautifully worn boxes was–to put it lightly–attractive. But one of the questions of the night was present even as we set foot into the building: what is the connection between these foodie gems and food justice?

Professor Louie, a veteran spoken word poet, did more than connect the dots for us. His poem (check it out below!), a 10-minute overview of our broken down food system, was a comprehensive and compelling take on the complexities of the global food industry. Shifting his weight and clapping his hands between lines, he took us all the way from rural El Salvador to Detroit, from hunger to worker’s rights, from access to sovereignty, from corporate control to democracy. And it was all woven together with a refrain that kept bringing us back: “You are what you eat. You know that’s true. So what else is new? You are what you do.” It wasn’t a lecture; it was a challenge.

After listening to Louie’s words, we turned to a text study to explore what exactly is Jewish about food justice. We looked to Shavuot, wrestling with traditional Jewish agricultural practices, and commenting on the laws that command us to allocate some of our harvest for the poor. The Book of Ruth delves into the power dynamics that these practices create and perpetuate; the charity model renders Ruth a helpless dependent, a position influenced by both her class and gender. We broke into small groups to have discussions on the potential and limitations of this model, and examined the words of Paulo Friere in order to investigate the difference between false charity and models of solidarity and empowerment. Then Nancy Romer, the General Coordinator of the Brooklyn Food Coalition, clarified even more for us what it means to be a food democracy organizer.

Her presentation was marked by her passion and engaging personality, spanning the spectrum of issues all the way from obesity and starvation to the 2012 Farm Bill. Our food system, she argued, is so out of whack that it creates a “war on our people.” Gesticulating passionately, she led us through an astonishing graphic of the progression of obesity over the past decades, shared heart-wrenching details of the abuse of animals, and drove home the importance of incorporating workers’ rights into our analysis of the food system. But she didn’t forget to offer opportunities for change. Her talk ended on a hopeful note, suggesting small and large ways that each of us can get involved in the struggle for food justice: join a CSA, volunteer to “crop mob” at an urban farm, organize efforts for advocacy, work for labor rights in the food system. The event as a whole was certainly an engaging first look into the food justice world, and there was a lot to chew on.

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