The Fight for Food: Black Women Food Revolutionaries

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by Tania L. Balan-Gaubert

Just when you thought the obesity epidemic couldn’t get any worse in the U.S., obesity was formally recognized as a disease by the American Medical Association. While this proclamation appears to be a step forward in the fight against obesity, it is more likely a devastating step toward increased social pathology with no real resolution.

The AMA and obesity advocates believe that the recognition of obesity will encourage physicians to focus more on treating the newly labeled disease in their patients. More focus however, also includes prescribing obesity drugs. So it comes as no surprise that two new weight management drugs were released into the market this year, Qsymia (Vivus) and Belviaq (Arena Pharmaceuticals and Eisai).

The declaration that obesity is a disease and the acceptance of these and other drugs as an answer to America’s staggeringly high obesity rates shifts focus away from the real and central issue: the quality of our food.

Food, which is meant to nourish our bodies and prevent us from getting sick, is now the leading catalyst for major health problems. The demand for convenience and the simultaneous corporatization of the food industry are responsible for the deterioration of the American diet.

Our current food system not only promotes obesity and illness, it is also responsible for the abundance of processed foods and the lack of fresh organic foods. For poor communities, and particularly communities of color, access to unprocessed foods is an even greater challenge.

The relationship between class, race and food – and in many instances, gender – cannot be overemphasized. Research shows that people of color are disproportionately affected by obesity and obesity-related conditions, with the highest rates occurring among non-Hispanic blacks. Black women account for the highest rates among women, with nearly 60 percent falling into the obese range.

Black women food activists however, are occupying the frontlines in the fight against closed access to healthy food systems. On the community level, individuals like Tanya Fields, an activist and mother living in the South Bronx, are leading the way in local food movements.

Fields founded The BLK Projek in 2009, in response to the limited access she and her children had to fresh non-processed foods; this project also aimed to combat her family’s sudden experience of allergies as new arrivals to the South Bronx. The BLK Projek creates access to healthy food with a focus on economic development and education.

Contributions to the food movement from black women like Fields are a long-standing reality. With the help and leadership of black women, urban farming and community gardens have proven sustainable in several cities across the country.

In Chicago, Erika Allen heads Growing Power, an organization founded by her father Will Allen in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 2013 marks twenty years for Growing Power, demonstrating how urban farming can be successful and feed upward of 10,000 people per year.

In areas like Oakland, the legacy of black activism has stood the test of time and evolved beyond the free school lunch programs coordinated by the Black Panther Party. Today, full on urban gardening education programs for youth and their families as well as organized support initiatives for food pioneers to build their own projects, mark the culmination of this evolution.

Nikki Henderson does all this and more as Executive Director of the People’s Grocery, founded in 2002 in West Oakland. Henderson and the PG team are currently working to open a 12,000 square foot People’s Community Market where the community can not only gather to purchase fresh and prepared foods, but also experience health education, events and entertainment.

While food activists working on the ground level witness the benefits and the value of their work in their communities, some have devoted themselves to fighting the same battle in their own ways.

Dr. Monica M. White investigates grassroots organizations in communities of color. As an assistant professor of Environmental Justice at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she has written extensively on race, food insecurity, urban gardening and resistance in Detroit. Dr. Breeze Harper is a professional research consultant and writer who lectures and conducts webinars on food, race, feminism and the vegan lifestyle. Harper is also the founder of the Sistah Vegan Project.

Both women have carved their own niches in the academic world by successfully bridging scholarship and community activism. Because academia is often perceived to be isolated from broader societal issues (think of the ivory tower), White and Harper's respective commitments to community-oriented work subvert common notions of what it means to be a scholar.

Filmmaking and holistic wellness and lifestyle leadership are also spaces where black women are forging revolutionary paths within the food movement.

Bay Area-based filmmaker Melinda James directed the short documentary film “16 Seeds." In addition, Chef Ahki from Atlanta shares her culinary skills, electric food recipes and homeopathic advice for detoxification and clean living with her celebrity clients and followers of her blog.

Efforts by these women to dedicate their work to wellness are not only undervalued, but are also revolutionary in nature. Access to food that nourishes the body and mind is perhaps the most important civil rights struggle of this and following generations. Without choice, people are forced to make food decisions that negatively affect their health, allowing illnesses like obesity and related conditions to loom large.

Individuals and entities that oppose the food movement's struggle and its philosophy often miss the mark in their argument against real food. The claim that it is anti-capitalist or elitist is inherently problematic.

Capitalism is responsible for the current obesity epidemic through the industrialization of food. Yet, at the core of goods exchange, namely food (real or processed), is production for profit. Activists at every level of the food movement effectively navigate capitalism. Thus, even within a capitalist system real food can exist.

Moreover, the notion that eating healthy food is elitist presumes that only the wealthy deserve unprocessed foods because only they can afford to purchase it or live in areas where access is greater. This way of thinking should be dismantled.

For communities of color disproportionately affected by food-related illnesses, we can’t afford to dismiss the monumental efforts made by food revolutionaries.


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Tania L. Balan-Gaubert is a Haitian American native of Chicago. She received her master’s degree in African American Studies from Columbia University and currently resides in Brooklyn. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @tanialaure.

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