5 Food Activists Connecting Hearts and Histories to Heal a Broken System

BY Simran Sethi

Feb 5th 2021

Sustainability is often discussed in a high-level, conceptual way as the connection between people, planet, and profit. But in practice, it can be deeply intimate—a relationship to what nourishes us and enables us to thrive.

Few things are more central to that relationship than food. The changemakers below have dedicated their lives to building a more accessible, nutritious, and just food system, drawing from their own histories and communities. They hail from diverse backgrounds and are addressing sustainability challenges from the fields and seas where our food grows to the dishes we enjoy on our plates. They represent the expansiveness and inclusivity of a food system with the potential to not only feed us, but to equitably support those working within it. Here is what sustainability means to them.

Rowen White: Seed Keeper

Rowen White: Seed keeper, storyteller, and program director of the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network. San Juan, CA.

Seed keeper and storyteller Rowen White is program director of the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network (ISKN) in San Juan, California, an initiative of the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance. She believes survival is both genetic and cultural, held in what is sown and savored.

While my grandparents and great-grandparents had been raised on farms, my immediate family was really disconnected from our relationship to the land and to our food. When, at age 17, I found myself on an organic farm in Western Massachusetts, I felt this amazing re-connectedness and, through planting seeds and getting my hands in the earth, a reinvigoration of my sense of place in the world.

I remember sitting on this dusty farmhouse floor in New England, sifting through seed packets, reading descriptions in seed catalogs, and realizing that seeds not only came in a multitude of shapes and colors, but that they had a lineage to people and place. I remember thinking, “These people look at tomatoes as this thing that their ancestors would have handed down.” That was this huge awakening into the confluence between agricultural biodiversity and culture, and people, and story.

And that led to a question …

I wondered which seeds and foods fed my ancestors.

Equal to my joy and complete enthusiasm for this doorway of biodiversity opening was this grief and longing for something that was not handed down to me. That as a Mohawk woman, I didn’t have a bundle of seeds that had stories and connection to the foods that fed my ancestors. In that moment, I made a commitment to this question. That was almost 25 years ago; it has been the North Star that always guides my work.

She continues to explore that question, as well as many others, through ISKN.

The continuum of challenges that we address is the continuing legacy of settler colonization: access to land and resources, and access to culturally and traditionally significant seeds that may have been lost during the unspeakable acts that resulted in the loss of our land and traditional lifeways over the last several centuries.

People think it happened a long time ago, but settler colonialism is an ongoing issue that we’re addressing even today. We’re always in negotiation with that impact and how [these losses] have affected our health and well-being: physical, mental, and emotional.

Also, in times like this where everybody’s like, “Oh my God, it’s the apocalypse,” I like to remind people that Indigenous peoples are living in a post-apocalyptic reality; we already had our world completely turned upside down four or five hundred years ago.

White works toward a vision that holds recognition of both the past and present in the world—and on the plate.

We’re trying to emerge what I call “dignified resurgence,” where we reclaim our lifeways, take back our power, and have agency. Where we’re not just being told by outside forces, “This is what we should adopt, and this is how we should fix this.”

Our sovereignty is rooted in being able to choose the foods that we care for and that we eat. It is rooted in relationship—defined by our own connection to these foods and seeds—and in reclaiming our agency to make choices around what is culturally significant and appropriate for how we nourish ourselves.

Ancestral, indigenous foods nourish us in ways that no other food can. They go inside of our bodies and inform us of our cosmologies and our place in the world. They combine past and future: all the things that came before us and all the potential on the horizon. These foods have flavors that enliven our senses, so that we can remember who we are as Indigenous peoples, living and thriving in this modern day. They have the taste of the resilience, tenacity, and strength of our ancestors.

Malik Yakini: Urban Farmer

Urban farmer and community organizer Malik Yakini’s path to food activism came early, through an understanding of the legacy of enslavement in the United States and ideas shared by civil rights activist Malcolm X. As the cofounder and executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN), he believes that effective solutions to hunger and increased access to nutritious food must be integrated and address systemic injustices.

Malcolm X talked about what he called the “field slaves” and the “house slaves,” and said the house slaves ate high on the hog and the field slaves ate whatever was leftover: the tail, the snout, the hoof, and the guts. Then he said, “Some of you all still are gut-eaters.” Up to that moment, my very favorite food in the world was chitlins [the guts]. That got me thinking about food within a social, historical, and political context, rather than just thinking if I liked the way something tasted.

Yakini continued to make broader connections …

Later, when I was a principal of an African-centered school, I went to a conference in Atlanta of the [now disbanded] Community Food Security Coalition and saw that what was happening across the country reflected what I saw in Detroit: Most of the work that was being done under the banner of food security, food justice, or urban agriculture was being done in Black and brown communities, but was being led by white nonprofit organizations. That, combined with my long history of activism to build self-determination, led me to think about creating an organization where Detroit’s African-American population could not only participate in the food movement in a robust way, but lead it.

Black people make up nearly 80 percent of the population of Detroit, a city where 39 percent of households are food insecure. Per the latest US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, Detroit is the second-most impoverished large city in the United States.

Food insecurity typically goes hand-in-hand with poverty, and basically speaks of a state when people are not getting enough food to eat when they’re hungry. If you have enough food to eat, then you’re considered food secure. But there’s a more insidious level to this: Food security isn’t the same as getting nutrient-dense food; you can be eating lots of empty calories without being considered food insecure.

That is why DBCFSN is multi-pronged: the seven-acre D-Town FarmFood Warriors Youth Development Program, and, in the near future, with additional community support, the Detroit People’s Food Co-op, a full-service cooperative grocery. It’s sustainability in action.

When we talk about sustainability, we have to also talk about [the work] being multi-generational—work that we are consciously and intentionally bringing forward for young people to inherit. It is not separate from the bigger movement for justice because food injustice and food insecurity are symptoms of a system in which inequity is baked in from the very beginning. Food justice is not possible without a radical transformation of society where we have justice and equity across the board.

Dr. Geeta Maker-Clark: Culinary Medicine Educator

Co-director of the Culinary Medicine Curriculum and clinical assistant professor at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, Dr. Geeta Maker-Clark is among the first people in the country to have developed a culinary medicine curriculum. She is intent on encouraging the medical establishment “to consider food as the most powerful preventative medicine, and to use it along with—and maybe instead of—pharmaceuticals and other medical interventions.”

As a first-generation American born of Indian parents, Maker-Clark has always understood food as a substance that heals.

I grew up very much steeped in that environment of food as medicine, food as love, food as care. I felt like I was growing up with a different sensibility of food than what I was being exposed to in the culture of my [suburban Chicago] community.

And that schism continued even into medical school.

There was not a single class offered on nutrition the entire time I was there. And that disconnection persisted when I finished and was working in Southern California in a clinic where I cared for migrant farmworkers. I met people who were laboring in acres of strawberry fields and lemon and avocado groves—growing this incredibly beautiful, healthy food for the rest of America—but did not have the opportunity to partake of it for themselves or their communities.

It was this really grim irony: farmworkers having some of the worst health of any of my patients. That was the moment when I realized, “I can’t just prescribe pills. I can’t be in a paradigm that doesn’t see the bigger issues at play: how important food and nutrition are, how important lifestyle is.”

Food and medicine are systems that are intended to heal, but Maker-Clark saw both were ruptured. That inspired her to adopt a more integrated approach in her work.

Food is a vital part of a health-promoting prescription. My challenge is to reframe the lens of health to embrace the value and wisdom of using food as medicine—a huge culture shift in the US, but it is possible to bring that tradition back. Most of us are only a couple of generations removed from a culture that treated food with great respect and as a source of healing.

And she has integrated that idea into education.

Historically, medical education has not made a lot of space for nutrition education. Our goal [in the Culinary Medicine Curriculum] is to create something that isn’t just talking about nutrition in the paradigm of interventional medicine but offering an opportunity to learn about food by making it, eating it, and understanding how you can prescribe a meal to a patient.

Culinary medicine is this idea of helping people make good health decisions around the food that they eat—food that can maybe help them treat a disease or prevent future problems, and also restore a sense of self-empowerment and well-being.

That’s how Maker-Clark connects culinary medicine to sustainability.

True, deep health and healing can exist when we are integrated with our food, the earth, and each other. Sustainable food is food that is health-giving for the individual, the community, and the planet; safe, free of toxic chemicals, equitable and accessible, nourishing. A [plant-forward] diet is part of this vision because it makes sense for health and has a low environmental impact. But it’s important to note, it can only exist within a sustainable food system, one that supports economic and ecologic growth, as well as healing.

Suguet López: Farmworkers Advocate

López is the executive director of Líderes Campesinas, an Oxnard, California-based organization with 14 chapters statewide, working to strengthen the leadership of farmworker women. The goal, she explains, is “to reclaim our role in agriculture—not just resist the status quo—so we can be agents of social, economic, and political change.” In the strength and ingenuity of these women, she says, she finds her own.

Most of the women we work with at Líderes Campesinas are immigrants, around 80 percent from Mexico. A lot of them had never worked in the field prior to arriving to the United States. In their countries, they were social workers, teachers, and in healthcare, but many couldn’t find any way to earn a wage [here] but to work in the fields. A great majority are from small communities where farming has been part of their family and culture. So, even if it was not their work before, they bring those experiences and knowledge forward.

Women farmworkers have kept Americans fed during this pandemic and beyond but are rarely represented in leadership positions in agriculture and are among the lowest-paid laborers in the country, engaged in work that comes at a very high cost.

This is why our organization is making sure they are protected in the fields. That they have protective equipment and are protected against pesticides like chlorpyrifos, a chemical that is widely used by very large, powerful grower associations and farmers on crops like almond, citrus, alfalfa, and cotton. This product is very harmful, especially in the developing brains of children.

Our members have been providing testimonies: coming forward and describing the various instances in which they have been exposed to pesticides and the consequences on their health—from women’s perspectives. They have also shared about the impact on our children who were living and going to school near the fields where these pesticides were being applied.

We joined in with other stakeholder groups to help the Environmental Protection Agency adopt updates to the existing regulations because what existed in California was not enough. We are very happy that Governor Newsom has made a decision—based on the evidence and our advocacy efforts—to stop using this chemical by the end of 2020.

Líderes Campesinas’ focus on care also extends to addressing challenges with sexual harassment and violence that are often exacerbated because workers are undocumented or on temporary work visas, making them particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

Our work includes participation in The Bandana Project [a public awareness campaign calling attention to sexual violence against farmworker women]; civic and cultural events that use theatre to educate and encourage more farmworker women and girls to break their silence; and filing harassment and assault claims with state and federal agencies, plus making sure [existing] laws are being enforced.

We are currently working with the California Labor Commissioner’s Office, responsible for enforcing these laws for all workers, so that they hear directly from farmworker women and girls on what is happening in the fields on this and other issues.

I am so proud for who they are and for this hard work. I only wish that they are not only seen—but treated—as essential workers and heroes, now and always.

The work is about fostering community and connectedness …

These women, they have this empowerment amongst themselves. They are courageous and creative, joyful, and always caring for each other—just as they want to care for the community and for the earth. Our vision of sustainability is that women will own the land and work the land with their families, utilizing [ancestral] practices to promote the local economy. And while doing that, empower their economic status and help provide a healthy food supply.

I have benefited so much from the work they have done addressing gender violence, domestic violence, sexual harassment, all the issues they have raised. Their empowerment has inspired a journey of my own empowerment.

Bun Lai: Sustainable Sushi Chef

Bun Lai, sushi chef at Miya’s Sushi. New Haven, Connecticut.

Bun Lai is the sushi chef at Miya’s Sushi in New Haven, Connecticut. As the only chef honored in the Obama Administration’s 2016 Champions of Change for Sustainable Seafood, he is helping change the way his industry thinks about sustainability and satiation. Miya’s offers a unique invasive species menu featuring culturally and commercially unpopular seafood ingredients that threaten the region’s indigenous marine life.

Sustainable seafood, plants, and invasive species are the cornerstones of our cuisine, but, just as important, Miya’s is part of the New Haven community. It’s a haven for innovative thinkers and doers.

Fish consumption is at an all-time high, but that rise has also contributed to the depletion of fish stocks. The 2020 State of the World’s Fisheries and Aquaculture report estimates about one-third of commercial fish stocks are over-harvested at biologically unsustainable levels that could lead to serious declines in the future.

Sustainable food is food produced with transparency. It’s food that is healthy, accessible to all people, and supportive of stable ecosystems and harmonious economies that will continue to thrive into the future. Miya’s doesn’t serve nine out of the 10 types of seafood always found in sushi restaurants [because they are over-harvested].

Lai has been thinking about this impact for decades.

As a child, I loved fishing so much that I used to dream about it. Later, as a young sushi chef, I started to wonder where the seafood I was using came from. But nobody could tell me exactly where the seafood I was purchasing from wholesalers came from or if it was fished or farmed in a responsible way. Little by little, I began to discover how the seafood industry—which included myself—was decimating the oceans and the communities that relied on fish for their livelihood.

And that led to a shift in what was sourced and served. Invasive fish threaten native fish populations, compromise biodiversity, and forever change aquatic habitats. By putting them on the menu in dishes like lionfish sashimi and Burmese python stir-fry, Lai explains, we can reduce their stocks and the damage they cause.

The recipes I create are not only about nourishing bodies and pleasing palates; they are intended to raise awareness about ecological and human problems. It’s not enough for me to make food that looks and tastes good. It’s gotta be meaningful.

How do we, collectively, create meaning?

We must question norms. Think of all the things that used to be normal—like human sacrifice and slavery—that are reprehensible today and ask, “Is there a better way?”

My mother named her restaurant Miya, which means “shrine” in Japanese, because her hope was to create a sacred space for cooking as a sacred act. Most of my childhood, and my entire culinary career, has been spent at Miya’s. I have been fortunate to learn that food can make all the difference in the world.

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Simran Sethi

Simran Sethi is a multimedia journalist, academic and public speaker who's endlessly curious about psychology, sustainability, food, and the people and places that nourish us.

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