"Good for you and good to you": the importance of emphasizing race when radicalizing students around the food movement.

Author:Burdick, John M.

"Slavery is over cousin, But then at lunch it wasn't. If food is the last plantation Then I'm Harriet Tubman" --Stic Man of Dead Prez, "Scar Strangled Banner"

The diverse environmental and food justice initiatives that comprise the contemporary "Food Movement" undeniably have the potential of offering radical and anticapitalist alternatives to the corporate agribusiness domination of the global food system. Since the early 1960s, farmers, chefs, grocers, educators, environmentalists, labor organizers, consumers, and a plethora of food justice activists have, by seeing all facets of food as political, worked with much success to fundamentally reshape food production, circulation, and consumption throughout the United States.

Despite the many important challenges being made to the corporate food system, the full radical potential of the varied components that comprise this Movement are often undermined by its (and, more broadly, "foodie" culture's) attachment to a problematic racial politics. Many of the alternative food initiatives emerging in the 1960s materialized as primarily white, self-styled countercultural utopian projects and back to the land movements, formed in part to escape both the strife and privileges of city life. (1) While these numerous alternative food projects emerged under the pretext of moral, ethical, and environmental justifications, many simultaneously exuded a discourse driven by racially exclusionary and color-blind rhetoric that undercut its ability to fully address the ways by which the corporate domination of the food system disproportionally impacts low income communities and communities of color. Of course there is no denying that this mMovement had radical aims, many of which were and are being currently realized. However, by frequently utilizing discourses of pastoralism, localism, purity, a premium placed on agricultural labor, and an idealized national image of a lush agricultural past, many of the advocates of the Food Movement have conjured a romanticized and whitewashed vision of American agriculture. This romanticized vision works to erase both the past and present of an American agricultural and food access system predicated on racial exploitation. (2) By failing to fully address our collective agricultural legacy founded on structures of institutional racism that forced African Americans and Mexicans into agricultural labor and removed Indigenous peoples (Mexicans and African Americans as well) from their land, the various practitioners of the alternative Food Movement unconsciously coded spaces of alternative food practice as white, resulting in the vast majority of those involved in alternative food being both white and (for both economic and cultural reasons) socially middle to upper class. (3)

To be more direct, the Alternative Food Movement, and subsequently the education in it, is dominated by progressive whites in positions of social and economic privilege. Especially at the University level, be it in programs or courses in sustainable agriculture, nutrition, food policy, food systems, or the many that fall under the broad umbrella of Food Studies, the pedagogy of alternative food is largely a white, middle-class endeavor. As a result, many of the courses and programs espousing alternative food practices fail to take a critical position toward these problematic racial politics as they impact their teaching of the Alternative Food Movement. This is not to say that there are not an ever increasing number of important challenges to the corporate food system being made by working-class communities of color, many of which I will address further in the article. Rather, in pointing out the problematic racial logics, I aim to critique the ways by which white, urban, and middle/upper-classed subject positions are continually articulated through these romanticized and pseudo-nativist/settler colonial attachments to local and organic foodways and their continual reproduction through alternative food pedagogy. (4)

These problematic racial logics have not gone unnoticed. An increasing number of food educators are critiquing the ways by which race and class influence our food system, especially among those courses that place the labor conditions of food industry workers at the center of their curriculums. Nonetheless, as Julie Guthman highlights, even when attempting to address issues of race in their curriculums, food scholars frequently utilize two problematic pedagogical strategies. The first, which Guthman labels the discourse of "if they only knew," is the prevalent notion in alternative food education that if food advocates and educators could simply inform more people, including communities of color, about the benefits of alternative food practice, these groups would undoubtedly change their consumption patterns and partake in the movement's unarguably beneficial undertakings. Under such logic, white non-profits (which often tend to dominate resources and funding) are placed in positions of authority over food justice and food security initiatives, as seemingly well-intentioned white activists and educators enter into communities of color under the assumption that their ways of thinking, and their approach to alternative agriculture, are not only best for themselves, but also for the community which they are entering. (5) This rhetoric not only reinforces a legacy of white privilege but also blatantly denies the lived realities of systemic structures like poverty, food deserts, urban decay, and inadequate public transportation that disproportionately affect communities of color and restrict many communities' access to quality food. Perhaps even more troubling, in simply thrusting the aims of the Alternative Food Movement into racialized communities without challenging the Movement's whitewashed rhetoric, it denies that certain food choices, cuisines, and consumption patterns have deep histories that are of central importance to the maintenance of many communities' cultural identities.

The second problematic pedagogical strategy, which Guthman labels "inviting others to the table," is a multicultural approach predicated on inviting an increased multiplicity of voices to the conversation on food practices and policies. (6) In a pedagogical sense, this strategy has resulted in an increased diversity of the initiatives that food educators are exposing their students to. And in fact many food educators do now teach their students about alternative food projects emerging from, by, and for communities of color. While this is a handy gesture, as critics of multicultural education have made clear for over a decade, simply adding a multiplicity of voices to our curriculums does not in and of itself shift the pedagogy towards more productive, and ultimately more racially just, ends. In this "inviting others to the table" approach, students are not given a foundational and in-depth engagement with the facets of the Alternative Food Movement emerging from and ultimately benefiting communities of color. Rather, the food radicalism emerging from these communities is often tacked on as superficial supplements to an existing curriculum that foregrounds white normativity and whitewashed food practices.

It is my contention that as radical educators and food activists, we must push beyond these two limiting paradigms that drive most alternative food education. As educators, we must reject shallow attempts at expanding the reach of our educational initiatives, often resulting in white food scholars and activists entering into communities of color like food missionaries, attempting to "teach" communities of color how to farm or to preach the benefits of organic agriculture. As food educators we must refuse a blind espousal of "healthier" diets that are predicated on whitewashed conceptions of both health and cuisine. As food educators we must refrain from ineffectively and superficially attempting to include a handful of perspectives from communities of color in our teaching...

To continue reading