The New Food Movement Has a Problem with Race — VICE Munchies

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Photographs: Natasha Bowens

Photographs: Natasha Bowens

When you think about the rapidly growing food movement, what comes to mind? Backyard chicken enthusiasts in Portland? Farm-to-table chefs plucking tender bunches of chervil from their Berkeley restaurant gardens? Or maybe you consider a farmer out in the Midwest, plunging her hands into the soil to harvest the potatoes growing there.

In your mind’s eye, what color are those hands? If they’re white (albeit streaked with soil), then your thought process is likely a reflection of how agriculture—and to a larger extent—our entire food system, tends to be portrayed: as a field that’s almost totally lacking in diversity, one that consistently pushes the country’s countless African-American, Latino, and Asian farmers, chefs, and entrepreneurs to the margins.

Daniel Whitaker, hog farmer in Tillery, North Carolina.

Daniel Whitaker, hog farmer in Tillery, North Carolina.

That’s the thesis, at least, laid out by Natasha Bowens, a farmer and food justice advocate based outside Washington, D.C. A former grassroots organizer whose work focused on environmental issues, health care, and social justice, Bowens eventually made food systems central to her work and settled in western Maryland, where she began to grow her own food. As she crossed paths with more and more farmers and activists, Bowens says, she realized that a huge demographic was absent from the conversation: people of color.

“From seed to table, the corporate-controlled food industry in this country is rife with discrimination, oppression, and the denial of rights,” she writes on her website, The Color of Food. “Rights to healthy food, rights to land, rights to a clean environment, and rights to an equal opportunity for success and livelihood for farmers are not fairly attainable.”

In response to the color-washing she repeatedly saw in her chosen field, Bowens developed a multimedia project in 2010—the centerpiece of which is her new book The Color of Food—that seeks to show the food movement in all its diversity. Traveling around the country and meeting with groups such as the Black Farmers and Agriculturists Association and the Traditional Native American Farmers Association, Bowens located the farmers that she features—in full-page, color portraits with accompanying essays—in her new book. MUNCHIES spoke with Bowens about the misrepresentation of the food movement.

MUNCHIES: Hi, Natasha. So how did this become your life’s work?
Natasha Bowens: I was organizing in communities, I was organizing on college campuses, I was courting student organizations, and just really getting a broad perspective of all of these issues that folks around the country were concerned with. I just felt like there was one issue in particular that was tied with our health, social justice issues, and the environment, and that was food.

Sulina of Sulina & Bay’s Farm in Portland, Oregon.

Sulina of Sulina & Bay’s Farm in Portland, Oregon.

I started immersing myself in the food movement, working in urban farms and community gardens. I started working at the local farmers’ market. I started growing my own food, attending conferences, reading tons of books. And it was then when I was really immersing myself in the agriculture movement that I started to really notice the inequities. I realized that it was such an exclusive movement: this whole foods, organic, fresh food, local food thing. And I thought, Where are the people of color being represented?

I started to connect the dots of the inequities in what people call the food justice movement as far as having access to fresh food, and the high rates of diabetes and other illnesses that impact communities of color at such higher rates. I started to see that these inequities in the representation of the food movement were really rooted in inequities and discrimination within the system. And yet in all of the books, at all of the conferences that I was attending, people of color weren’t being represented. Their voices weren’t being heard, even though they were being impacted the most by the broken food system.

On a very personal level, I started to feel a little bit out of place as a woman of color, farming, when the typical image of a farmer is a white man. I really wanted to find solidarity, and to claim that we belong here, too. That was the impetus for getting on the road with The Color of Food.

Natasha Bowens.

Natasha Bowens.

Can you expand a little bit on how you think the food movement is currently portrayed?
The few times that people of color are represented when we’re talking about food or agriculture, it’s about farm workers, migrant labor, food access, food insecurity—showing communities of color lined up at the farmers market with their food stamps. I felt like it was really doing us an injustice because our food narrative is so much richer than that.

While raising awareness about issues of inequities and injustice, I also wanted to celebrate and honor farmers that are out there, right alongside the mainstream exclusive farmer, and there are communities all over the country: Native American communities, Asian communities, Hispanic, black communities that are out there farming, and that have been farming. I interviewed so many farmers that have been on their land for hundreds of years, who have growing organically well before the word existed. Their farms have been passed down within their families, just like our typical American family farm. One farmer, Mr. Gary Grant in Tillery, North Carolina, said, “We’re family farmers, too—why aren’t we called family farmers? We’re black farmers. That’s our label. But we’re family farmers, too.”

Luis Castañada of SOLAR Farm in Chaparral, New Mexico.

Luis Castañada of SOLAR Farm in Chaparral, New Mexico.

You say that your work is political in nature.
Being a person of color, farming and having sovereignty over my food and where it comes from is a political act. A revolutionary act—being out here farming, serving the land in a way that’s environmentally friendly, running our own businesses, having our own independence, having sovereignty over our own seeds, over our foods.

You say that our food system is broken. How so?
Farmers are losing their land and getting put out of business because of corporations that are patenting seeds. And then we have new farmers that can’t attain land, and we have existing and veteran farmers that are losing their land because of discrimination, and because of barriers in the USDA system. We have injustice with folks who are harvesting food—farm workers as well as farmers are not getting paid a fair, living wage. And then we have things being sprayed on our food, food being distributed being unfairly, unjustly: We have great, healthy food going to high-income communities, and not to communities of color. From seed to table, we have so many issues with our system. It’s beyond broken. I think if you dig deep enough, you can find the injustice. You don’t even need to dig that deep.

With your book, you’re hoping to show that our food system is much more diverse than is commonly acknowledged. How else do you think some of these injustices can be corrected?
I think the first step is to start having these really tough conversations. There are intentional gatherings that are happening all around the country, called “Dismantling Racism in the Food System,” and that’s where a lot of food movement activists and farmers are gathering. It really helps everyone to get in the room and start putting together plans for how to address these issues on a system-wide level.

And we need to start putting folks in positions of power. There’s a farmer that I interviewed, Renard Turner, from Virginia. He was complaining about just how long it’s taken to gain leadership as a black farmer in the state of Virginia, and now, this year, he was just elected the president of the Virginia Biological Farming Association. Examples like that are steps in the right direction.

What do you hope readers will gain from the book?
There’s a lot that I hope that comes out of this book, and it’s going to depend on the person. Someone who maybe wasn’t aware of farmers of color, or of what farmers of color contribute to agriculture—I would love them to pick it up and kind of have the light go on for them. I’d love to have a young person of color who might be thinking about farming, or might be thinking about joining the food movement in some regard, to pick up the book and really feel like, Oh, this is a place for me. I haven’t seen my face here, I haven’t felt like this is a space for me, and now I know it is. And I hope that other farmers of color that are out there looking for solidarity and looking for power in numbers can find it here, because often it’s really hard to step up and step forward when you have so many hoops to jump over, just to stand next to the white male farmer. I hope the book really pushes all of these conversations forward.

Thanks for speaking to me, Natasha.