The Bay Area Food Justice Movement
by Hōkū Young.
I have always had access to good food. Rereading that sentence, I am humbled, and feel incredibly grateful. I have never had to go a day wondering where my next meal would come from, or if that food would fuel my body with good clean energy, necessary for growth and sustainability. I spent a lot of my upbringing with my mom’s parents, both immigrants from the Philippines. Everyday after school, my grandpa picked me, my sister, and my cousin up from school, and brought us to their house, where we always had Filipino food waiting for us, or ready to be prepared. My grandparents grew up very poor in the Philippines, sharing a single egg to an entire family, but when they made a life for themselves in Hawai’i, they worked very hard to have plenty of access to food for themselves, and their family. It is a joke in my family that I’ve grown up very full figured because my grandma and grandpa fed me constantly growing up. Essentially, I was made of balatong and adobo. Little did I know when I was stuffing my face with pancit and halohalo that the stories that my grandma and grandpa told me about growing up in poverty in Laoag City, and how little access to food they had because of it, would be the beginning of my understanding of food justice.
I recognize that I come from a place of great privilege, being able to provide myself with food to eat everyday. Coming from this place of privilege, I can’t say that I’ve always been aware of food justice, and the food justice movement. I recently started interning at the Cooking Project, a non-profit organization founded in San Francisco, whose goal it is to “teach young people fundamental cooking skills by focusing on delicious, inexpensive dishes from diverse cultural traditions” (The Cooking Project). TCP works with transitional aged youth, many from marginalized communities, some formerly homeless, or transitioning out of the foster care system, providing free classes to equip this generation with the tools necessary to feed themselves good food. Sasha Bernstein, the co-founder of TCP, said, “some of the kids we work with did grow up with a really great cook in the house, but it definitely wasn’t a given. Some of the kids we have classes with, thats the main meal they’re getting for the day, or a lot of them rely on liquor store goods, like chips and candy and iced tea, which isn’t good, nutritious food” (Bernstein).
Working with youth primarily from communities of color, and being a part of a food sphere having conversations about food insecurity has allowed me to really begin to educate myself about our food system, and the problematic implications of our food system being deeply rooted in the historical, institutional, and systemic oppression of communities of color and low income folk.
Looking at food justice within the context of affluent societies like San Francisco, where food intersects with issues of race, class, and gentrification, the economic injustices which make organizations emerging as a response to our inequitable food system necessary in the bay area become very apparent.
Though the bay area is increasingly viewed as a playground for bougie techies in their twenties, the bay is rooted in activism and social justice movements, most notably the revolutionary black liberation organization, the Black Panther Party. What I hadn’t considered about the Panthers is how deeply rooted they are as a foundation for which the food justice movement in the bay area is built on today. The Free Breakfast for School Children program was one manifestation of the Panthers’ vision in helping improve the wellbeing of the Black community. Billy X Jennings, a former Panther, said, “From coast to coast, feeding the community has always been a part of being a Panther” (Wood). The Panthers were responding to the poverty that Black concentrated communities were living in without assistance from the government, where young kids were unable to participate in their own education due to hunger. The breakfast program was mandatory for every chapter of the Black Panther Party from its establishment in 1969 (Wood). Kanchan Dawn Hunter, co-director of Spiral Gardens, a nonprofit organic community garden focused on providing more and better access to healthy affordable food to local Berkeley residents, said about the Panthers, “They were the first ones to step out in front of everybody and just say, ‘We are going to do this because our people are dying unnecessarily…Let’s feed our people’” (Wood). The Panthers have equipped social justice movements in the bay area with tools to enact progress: If you want change, be the change. If you want a revolution, be the revolution.
The legacy of food justice that the Panthers sparked is manifested by organizations through and through the bay area. The food justice movement is a revolution for a more equitable food system. Food justice is about promoting the basic human right of access to nutritious, affordable, and culturally appropriate food. Organizations emerging in response to food insecurity, and the economic injustices which prevent access, particularly in low-income communities of color, are fighting in all corners: repairing degraded environments, reducing agrochemical use, empowering youth, and dismantling racism in the food system. To do so, organizations are affecting change in urban agriculture, education, community organizing, and green businesses.
Planting Justice, based out of Oakland, CA, is a grassroots organization addressing the structural inequalities embedded in our worlds industrialized food system, particularly responding to the systemic exploitation of food system workers (Planting Justice). The organization empowers people impacted by mass incarceration by employing those transitioning from the prison system with living wages, and comprehensive health insurance. PJs team is changing the system one garden at a time, having built over 400 edible permaculture gardens throughout the East Bay since 2009 (Planting Justice). The organization’s educational program teaches in three high schools, and two prisons.
Planting Justice also runs a YouTube channel, which shares the narratives of formally incarcerated staff members, and how their lives have changed by working with PJ, through videos like “Freedom Chronicles,” “Brothers Out Doing Well,” and “Share the Call to #EndPrisonSlavery.” Though the channel does not have a lot of viewership, I found the content extremely powerful in educating me about re-entry and ending recidivism, and deserving of far more visibility. Chris Lockett, speaking in “#EndPrisonSlavery,” said, “I see myself as a survivor of a system that was made to target me” (“Share the Call to #EndPrisonSlavery”). Mass incarceration of people of color, particularly Black men, is rooted in the systemic racism of the criminal justice system. This injustice is what organizations like the Black Panther Party and Black Lives Matter were/are seeking to dismantle and liberate. This video demonstrates how the goals of different movements intersect, and how issues related to food can also be issues of racial justice.
Another part of Planting Justices’ mission is investing in food workers, and creating “green jobs” by building sustainable food systems. Food sovereignty is a part of food justice that focuses on the movement growing from the bottom up: how is food produced, and most importantly who is producing it. By investing in the producers of our food, the jobs an organization like PJ creates helps to “reinvigorate our local economy, increase access to fresh local produce, and create meaningful employment,” grown from the permaculture garden out (Planting Justice).
In the “Brothers Out Doing Well” video, the Plating Justice team shared their favorite thing about being a part of the PJ community. Many of them shared a sense of accomplishment and pride in being a part of a community, a family, that continues to build gardens, which affect so much positive change in their community: everything from the soil, to the smiles on peoples’ faces, and knowing that their hands contributed to these gardens. Anthony Forrest said, “I enjoy the fact that I’m able to go in to high schools, and teach kids about gardening. Let them know that vegetables don’t come in a can or frozen” (Bell).
My boss, Sasha Bernstein, shared a similar story about what she defines as success for the Cooking Project. For Sasha, success is defined by how the kids progress in our classes, what they learn, and how they apply what they learn while working with TCP to their lives. This past summer, TCP partnered with the Garden Project, a new non-profit to our organization, who do a camp in San Bruno jail with their youth. The organization has a farm on the property, and kids from all over San Francisco, primarily from Bayview, go and work in the garden, but they weren’t ever really turning the produce in to anything. Mostly, the kids were just harvesting, and giving the food away, which was great of course, but the kids weren’t learning how to cook with what they were growing. TCP partnered with the Garden Project, and brought a chef down to teach a class on how to make kale pasta with garlic, chili, and parmesan. The organizers cautioned TCP that a lot of the kids don’t like kale, so it might not be a popular recipe, but most of the kids were begging for seconds, specifically of the kale. One boy said he couldn’t wait to go home and cook this for his family. For Sasha, this was a really successful moment to be able to see kids get excited about fresh food, about cooking, and bringing what they learned back home with them.
Social change, and being a part of a movement is a collection of small moments that make a revolution. Kids eating kale, and roots in the ground: this is change.
Bell, Maurice “Big Moe.” “Brothers Out Doing Well.” YouTube. Youtube, 07 April 2016. 06 December 2017. Web. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qDIAFcCUeiU
Bernstein, Sasha. Personal interview. 08 November 2017.
Planting Justice: Grow Food, Grow Jobs, Grow Community. “About Our Work.” 06 December 2017. Web. http://www.plantingjustice.org/about-us/our-work/
Planting Justice. “Share the Call to #EndPrisonSlavery.” YouTube. Youtube, 09 September 2016. 06 December 2017. Web. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wAMR55EkBV4
The Cooking Project. 06 December 2017. Web. http://thecookingproject.org/
Wood, Cirrus. “East Bay food-justice movement has deep roots in Black Panther Party.” 24 August 2017. 06 December 2017. Web. http://www.berkeleyside.com/2017/08/24/east-bay-food-justice-black-panther-party/