Food Matters – But It’s Not Magical

by Garrett Broad, author of More Than Just Food: Food Justice and Community Change

9780520287457Stop me if you’ve heard this oft-repeated claim of the alternative food movement:

We know that low-income people who live in “food deserts” tend to eat unhealthy foods and suffer from diet-related disease. So, if we could simply get them to understand the importance of healthy eating – perhaps by having young boys and girls taste a carrot grown in their own school garden – we would all be well on our way toward community health and sustainability.

I beg to differ, and my new book – More Than Just Food: Food Justice and Community Change – counters this oversimplified, feel good story.

Indeed, throughout the life of the alternative food movement, many of its most popular programs have failed to recognize that nutritional inequity is actually linked to broader histories of racial, economic, and environmental discrimination. The “magic carrot” approach to community health promotion – which imbues gardening and nutrition education with almost mystical powers – has ultimately proved ill-equipped to tackle the systemic barriers that are at the root of food injustice and the health problems associated with it.

Based on years of ethnographic research and scholar-activism, More Than Just Food highlights the work of community-based food justice activists who do engage with these systemic realities. While these practitioners employ many of the same strategies that have come to characterize the alternative food movement in general – building gardens, providing nutrition education, and improving access to healthy food through alternative food networks – they do so in the purpose of a much larger cause. Situating food as a vehicle for a more expansive, people-of-color-led social justice transformation, they look to the legacy of groups like the Black Panther Party and its “Free Breakfast for Children Program” as a model for revolutionary food activism.

A primary aim of the book, then, is to highlight the capacity of community action to serve as a power base for a twenty-first century food justice movement. At the same time, however, the research cautions against overly romanticized visions of autonomous, community-based change, emphasizing instead the complicated and often contradictory nature of nonprofit food justice organizing today.

We are in a moment in which food justice groups, inspired by the likes of the Black Panther Party, also depend upon grants from the United States Department of Agriculture to achieve their community-based goals. What does this mean for the possibilities of a food revolution?

Read the book to find out more. But be advised that it contains neither magic carrots nor magic answers.

Garrett M. Broad is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University.