Courtney Hendrix, Intern
As an intern at California Food and Justice Coalition (CFJC) and a Health Education major at San Francisco State University (SFSU), I had the opportunity to create a collaborative relationship between the student group, Environmentally Concerned Organization of Students (ECOstudents), and CFJC to host a Kitchen Table Talk. I reached out to ECOstudents’ project coordinator, Ivy Anderson, and found that they were in the process of planning a similar event around food justice. After we met and shared ideas for the event, we decided to co-host SFSU’s first potluck Kitchen Table Talk. In attendance were three panelists and about twenty attendees, who were mostly SFSU students and a couple local residents.
The panelists were two SFSU professors and an agroecologist and urban gardener from Bay Area Seed Interexchange Library (BASIL). Melissa Nelson is a Native American Studies professor at SFSU and promotes native, edible landscapes. She gives tours of native landscapes on SFSU’s campus to students, and explains how indigenous cultures used the plants as foods or natural materials for making products. Tendai Chitwere is a Liberal Studies professor at SFSU who researches people’s responses to social and environmental degradation, in the context of consumption in a market economy. Patrick O’Connor, who is from BASIL, promotes growing your own food as a way to heal and the importance of saving your own seeds and exchanging seeds within the community.
After reflecting on the Kitchen Table Talk, I found some underlying themes that were brought up throughout the discussion. The effects of a market economy on our food system, the importance of building community, and a major paradigm shift of how we relate to one another and the land.
Discussion around access to healthy foods, in terms of availability and affordability, for low-income families and for students brought forth ideas around the corporate takeover of our food system. Students and panelists identified how it’s hard to eat healthy because large food and agriculture corporations have teamed up with government agencies in the interest of their bottom line: Money. Tendai proposed that our market economy is fundamentally out of sink with a sustainable and just food system because the goal of capitalism is to maximize profits. Students related the corporate-run food system to the Occupy Movement happening, because of the realization that food justice is a symptom of bigger issues, such as poverty, and that reform is needed in many areas for a true fair and sustainable food system.
Building strong, resourceful, and resilient communities that share information and skills was recognized as a solution to reforming the food system. Those at the talk mentioned wanting more education about our food system, nutrition, how to cook, how to grow your own food, and how to localize food production. I would argue that to get such education we need to be involved in the community. As Patrick from BASIL suggested, a way to build strong communities is to get outside and start planting and talking to your neighbors. Melissa believes that people must get in touch with their roots, learn how ancestors treated the land, grew food, and cooked, and then share that information with other people. Examples of what people are doing locally to create self-sufficient communities are the Growing Youth Project in Alameda, Alemany Farm in San Francisco, BASIL in San Francisco, and projects that take place on SFSU’s campus. An important concept that I have learned as a Health Education student is that the people who are experiencing a problem know why that problem exists, and therefore, they know what solutions to implement. Community-based efforts are key in order to create new systems that work for people’s interests.
Two questions were asked by Tendai that demonstrate the urgency for us to challenge the cultural norms around consumption and the value of material goods: 1. Do we value food or do we value having “stuff”? 2. Is the food justice movement about food, or about the way people, animals, and the environment are being exploited? In my opinion, I feel that as a group we understand that this movement is bigger than having healthy food because we can have healthy food all day, but it can still be at expense others. For us, it is apparent that the problem is deep and includes issues such as land reform, immigration reform, job reform, education reform, housing reform, etc. But as one student asked, how do we get other people to care? This is a major challenge because part of the solution is a shift in our understanding of how we view ourselves in the context of larger society. People must see the interconnections of our relationships with each other and with the land that gives us life if they are to ever value such relationships. Furthermore, it’s through the realization of these interconnections that people are able to view themselves as an agent for positive change in their community.
Students described our society as one that is focused inward and on consumption of material things, and does not place as much value on food or community; however, cultural norms and values can be changed. In closing, Melissa acknowledged the Occupy Movement as a way for positive change, but also cautioned students on the course of the movement and the language used. For indigenous people, an occupation is associated with destruction of resources and culture by a dominant group. This current occupation must be about sustainability and living in harmony with the land and each other. Patrick echoed similar sentiments in that people need to learn how to work with the land to become more self-sufficient in feeding themselves. Encouraging students to fight for what is right and what they believe in, Tendai reminded us that it is easy to get distracted or discouraged because society has been designed that way; and to simply remember to stay focused on your goals. What I found most inspiring about co-hosting this event was that students expressed the desire for more Kitchen Table Talk-type discussions in the future.