Organic Broadcaster

Food activist points out path to more inclusive food system

By Bailey Webster, MOSES

At the opening of her 2013 TED talk, LaDonna Redmond tells the audience, “I am an activist. I have always been an activist, and I always will be an activist.” She became a food activist, in particular, when her young son was diagnosed with food allergies. He couldn’t eat eggs, shellfish, dairy products, or peanuts. Like any mother, she wanted what was best for her son. So she started looking for healthy, organic food that he could eat.

What she discovered was that it was easier to get a handgun than a tomato in her neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. She highlights this comparison as a warning—lack of access to healthy food is as much a public health emergency as easy access to handguns.

Redmond will address the issues of equity and justice in the nation’s food system during a workshop at the 2018 MOSES Organic Farming Conference (11 a.m. Friday, Feb. 23). She plans to challenge participants to examine their own positions in the food system to explore ways to build a more diverse and inclusive food system.

Back in her Chicago neighborhood, Redmond set out to increase healthy food access by converting vacant lots into urban gardens, where she grew vegetables with and for her community. She also organized farmers markets, drawing farmers in from the surrounding area.

Seven years ago, Redmond moved to Minneapolis and is now the education and outreach coordinator at Seward Co-op. She has continued her food justice work there, focusing on diversity and inclusion as the co-op recently expanded to a second location in southeast Minneapolis.

The most rewarding part of her work is that she gets to make people happy by helping them find their way and identifying fair solutions to food access issues, she said. “Happy people do things they hadn’t thought they could do, get answers that they didn’t think they could get.”

What people don’t understand about food justice, Redmond explained, is that “it’s about dignity—not just about giving people handouts or SNAP benefits. It’s about the right to food, but also about the right to feed oneself. We’re talking about eliminating wealth inequities.”

If she could change one thing about the food system for the greatest impact, she would make sure that there were no hungry people. There is enough food to feed everybody, we just have to find the political will to move it around, and make sure that nobody is hungry, she added.

In food justice work, Redmond said there is an area of concern around the use of the word “they.” There is an “idea that people are speaking for anonymous groups of people, in hopes that ‘they’ receive some fairness or equity without really investing in a dialogue with ‘they,’” she said. “We need to become more curious in all of our assumptions. When we ask questions, we become more curious. People operate out of their assumptions, and I wish they would check their assumptions more.”

Redmond recalled having had a heated argument with a farmer she worked with in Chicago about bok choy, of all things. This farmer had been used to selling “boutique” vegetables—specialty varieties and sizes that are popular with fancy restaurants. The farmer had brought bok choy (a variety of Chinese cabbage) to the market, and couldn’t sell it. Meanwhile, people were asking him for regular head cabbage. He was frustrated that no one would buy his bok choy, and felt that he knew what people “should” want. Redmond explained to him that “you can’t assume that people are picking something because they don’t know any better. Who told you that was better for them? We have deep assumptions around what we think people know and what they ought to do, and we get into trouble with that.”

On another occasion, one of her vendors ran out of spinach at the market. Redmond stir fried some Swiss chard and told people it tasted like spinach, and handed out samples. People liked it when they were able to try it. There was dignity in their ability to choose, rather than just being told what to do. People should have the right to make their own choices, and shouldn’t be judged based on them, she said.

Redmond believes farmers can be part of the solution to food justice issues.

“Farmers aren’t necessarily going to change the crisis of the food system, but they can change hearts and minds by having conversations where they are,” she explained. She went on to say that farmers need to unlearn the system of independence, and recognize that we’re dependent on one another. We can’t ignore diversity.

As organic farmers know, if you ignore diversity on your farm, you run into all sorts of problems and imbalances. The same is true of human diversity. “People of color are growing food all over the country, and they are really bringing it!” Unfortunately, people of color are often left out of the conversation around food justice because they aren’t in positions of power, she added.

Redmond challenges farmers in predominantly white rural areas who may despair of ever having a diverse community to find diversity in the people around them. “What’s underneath the label of ‘whiteness,’ and how has it been used to erase the ethnicity of European descendants?”

She suggests beginning on the path to social justice by understanding your own cultural positions and assumptions. “You can only be authentic when you examine yourself, come from a place of authenticity, and come from a place of deep knowing (of yourself).” There are people of diverse backgrounds in every community, and it’s valuable to understand all sorts of diversity, she added.

For those wanting to take it a step farther, Redmond recommends traveling to new places. “Go to Chicago, have some interactions with folks of different cultures, urban farmers, Latino producers and workers, etc. Migrant workers are really out there hustling!” She acknowledges that it takes a tremendous amount of courage to begin interacting across cultures, but “as long as there is no ill will and good intentions, you can get pretty far. Assume you are getting together with good intentions, and have interactions that are supportive and educational.”

“Cultivating curiosity is the cornerstone of racial equity,” Redmond said. “Unlearning unconscious bias is really having curiosity about your own assumptions.”

Bailey Webster, MOSES Events Coordinator, manages workshops for the MOSES Conference.

 

From the January | February 2018 Issue

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