UNIYFPAD: African Americans and community food systems

When we look at the way our food moves from farm to the dinner plate, I see one fundamental thing missing, people of African descent.

Over the years in working in food justice, community food systems and within social justice, I find few organizations or businesses that have been set up or run by people of African descent.

As we have just started the International Year for People of African Descent, I feel there is no better time than now to address this matter.

I have not come across a clear definition for the term “community food system”, but more of a focus of what they should do.

The best example I have seen, comes from the Community Food Security Coalition who state that a community food system should:

Make nutritious and culturally appropriate foods accessible.” NOT JUST ANY FOOD

“Support local, regional, family-scale and sustainable food production building and revitalizing local communities and economies.”

“Provide fair wages and decent working conditions for farms and food system workers.”

“Promote social justice and more equitable access to resources.”

“Empower diverse people to work together to create positive changes in the food system and their communities.”

The overall goal is to create community food security, a place where everyone can have access to healthier foods no matter who they are and where they live.

Examples of community food systems might include: co-ops and csa's to make foods accessible and affordable; community gardens, fresh fruit and vegetable distribution, organic farming, cooking and nutrition programmes that teach about eating what's in season, and community composting for the gardens.

Community food systems are to build upon all these great principles that take away injustices that exist in the current food system, but quite frankly they drop the ball in speaking of and including more people of colour.

I see the same things: few people who look like me, who are making the decision without asking people who look like me and which affect people that look like me.

When you look at community food systems in terms of who starts them and how they operate, people of African descent (and other people of colour for that matter) are always those who need the help, the assistance, or who are being serviced.

If you look at some community food organizations websites you will see the same types of pictures of everyone putting in work on a farm or garden. There is always a picture of one or two black people who are working on a farm or handing out food – basically the field hand.

It is the black face in the photo that makes us feel like everyone is working together, when this is not the case.  Why can't those people of African descent be in charge, be in charge or be the manager?

Is it truly a community effort when the community gets the by-product but is not a part of what's being produced?  In my opinion, no.

Are we truly creating a system of change that affects everyone or a prettier picture of the existing systems that create social welfare?

I don't want to see everyone coming into our neighbourhood with a "we will build it and give it to you" attitude. How can our school have a school garden, we have no grass or we have a lead problem in the soil?

How about coming into our neighbourhood and instead saying what do you need to help your own community?

How about coming and talking to us before looking at statistics and assuming what works in one area with high populations of African Americans has got to work in all areas with African Americans?

The saddest thing is this isn't a Washington DC issue, or a Detroit issue; it’s a global issue and it’s time to do something to change it now. It is the International Year for People of African Descent, so what better time to change it?

The few People of African Descent who have been doing the work around food and access in the community, half the time use our own money to get things done, and never receive the recognition we deserve.

Doing the work is gets people fed, creates opportunities and changes lives for the better, which is what a community food system is all about. Don't dismiss our work because we are not funded by The Kellogg Foundation or The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

We deserve the same credit as any other community food organization, or any other social justice organization, and our work should not be defined by who our funders are.

Taking from the statement by The Community Food Securities Coalition on what a community food system should do; I have to strongly stress this next point.  Getting any food to feed people is not a community food system.

For some reason the rule has been, because people have to eat and are often given any food from anywhere. I have heard national organizations say:

"Call the food bank, they have vegetables, we can sell those to the corner store for our healthy corner store program."

This is not what happens in all communities, this only happens in communities where people look like me. This idea or rule, is horrible, probably illegal and something that would not fly in any other community, so don't do it where people of African Descent or and other people of colour live.

If you need food, call some farmers, hey call some black farmers, we need to keep them sustainable so they don't become extinct. Don't just go to the food bank or to the gleaning group and then sell it to our corner stores, or our mother or fathers. This happens all too frequently and it needs to stop now.

So during my International Year for People of African Descent with the title of Recognition, Justice, and Development, I want people to:

– Recognize that People of African Descent need to be at the table for this movement and not just those who are being serviced.

– Recognize that a justice food system is not one that ethnically looks like the old food system.

– Realize that true Justice comes from the people having a say and ownership of their own food.

– Develop the understanding that if you wouldn't want it for you, then don't give it to me.

A community food system isn't just a thought, idea, or a project to do, or something that gets your organization funded. It is a necessary way to eat, live, and become economically stable, and I am going to make it my business to insure that People of African Descent have that right.

Will you join me?

Tannikka writers from Washington DC and is our first US Correspondent/Editor. She is the Executive Director of Healthy Solutions, an organization with a mission to increase the capacity of communities of colour, particularly African Americans, to achieve self-reliance through distribution, agriculture, entrepreneurship, and cooperative healthy food enterprises.