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.

Southern California’s Seafood Industry Is Choking on Oil — VICE Munchies

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Photograph: Julie Gibbons/Flickr

Photograph: Julie Gibbons/Flickr

In the 1960s, the green movement was still a nascent one in the US: over the course of the decade, the first laws to protect endangered species were established; environmental activist Stewart Brand published the seminal first edition of The Whole Earth Catalog; and Congress passed the earliest of a series of acts safeguarding the country’s rivers and trailways. Then, early in the new year of 1969, an oil well ruptured off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, spewing millions of gallons of black gold into pristine coastal waters. It was the worst oil spill in US history, and it galvanized environmentalists, who began agitating for alternatives to the country’s increasing reliance on fossil fuels.

So last Tuesday, when a Santa Barbara pipeline owned by Plains All American Pipeline burst and sent about 20,000 gallons of oil into the biologically dense Santa Barbara Channel, it was impossible not to compare the two events. As in 1969, miles of California coastline are now sticky with black oil; volunteers are helping to scrub seabirds and shellfish clean; and local fishermen are venturing further out into the Pacific to meet their quotas after state officials announced a ban on fishing that encompasses more than 150 square miles of southern California waters.

“I think our first reaction is that we are never able to learn from our past mistakes,” says Maddalena Bearzi, president of the Ocean Conservation Society based in nearby Marina Del Ray. “We continue to do the exact same things and we never learn.”

Though the fishing ban has the potential to disrupt the area’s robust fishing economy, causing fishermen and uni divers to seek their catches in more distant waters, Bearzi says she’s in favor of it.

“I think it’s a good decision,” she says. “It’s difficult to know for sure how this will affect fishermen, because we don’t know how long the spill will affect sea life.”

Ren Ostry, director of accounts at Community Seafood, a southern California-based community-supported fishery program (CSF), has firsthand experience with the effects of the fishing ban. Normally, the cooperative’s 500 members receive a weekly share of local seafood, but beginning last Thursday and continuing through the coming weekend, the CSF has put all 500 shares on hold. The fishermen that supply Community Seafood will have to find new waters, and that means a change in product.

“We want to ensure that everything we source can be up to our standards,” Ostry says. “We’re hoping to pick back up over the weekend.”

Fortunately for California fishermen, Ostry says, it’s currently king salmon season in the north of the state, which will help tide the industry over until the state’s cleanup efforts bear fruit.

“We’re hopeful that fishing in Santa Barbara can be restored after this cleanup,” she says.

Still, Ostry notes, the entire incident has been nothing short of a travesty.

“It’s really a tragedy, not just for wildlife but also for fishermen,” she says.

Ostry firmly believes that Plains All American, the oil company responsible for the spill, should be disciplined for its actions.

“This company absolutely has to be held accountable,” she says. “And the accountability issue is so much larger than what happens today or this week,” Ostry explains. She says that more than supplying its members with fresh fish, Community Seafood’s mission is to raise public awareness of the sustainability of wild-caught, as opposed to farmed, seafood.

“But incidents like this make our job so much harder,” she says. “Instead of being able to celebrate wild seafood, we’re stuck educating people about environmental tragedies. Instead of playing offense, we’re stuck playing defense,” she says.

Bearzi, of the Ocean Conservation Society, agrees that Plains All American should pay for its mistakes.

“I think they should be fined for sure,” she says. “These guys have not been compliant to regulation in the past,” she says, referring to the company’s checkered past of environmental breaches. Over the past two decades, the company has been responsible for oil spills in Los Angeles, Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Since 1995, Al Jazeera America reports, more than 10,000 incidents have resulted in 371 deaths, 1,398 injuries, and more than $6 billion in reported property damage. At press time, Plains All American had not responded to requests for comment, but the Refugio Response Joint Information Center page reports that nearly 1,000 gallons of oily water mixture have been recovered at the cleanup site.

Bearzi says that in spite of the cleanup efforts, the mood in southern California remains grim.

“We are all very upset that we have to have this type of issue before we really do anything about it.”

Make This Right Now: Brandied Cherries — Food Republic

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Photograph: Lauren Rothman

Photograph: Lauren Rothman

Oh, summer. You make it almost impossible not to eat well every day, supplying us with a bounty of vibrant, delicious produce that needs little embellishment — a drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkling of salt. Summer fruit needs no help whatsoever: peaches, plums and berries are lovely in the season’s crumbles, buckles and crisps, but sometimes they're better all on their own. I gorge on fruit from May through September before fall brings its selection of apples and pears.

Like all that’s best in life, sweet, juicy summer fruit is a fleeting pleasure. It’s easy to preserve cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers via pickling, canning and roasting. But when it comes to fruit, life-extending recipes tend to be limited to jams and preserves. My solution? Douse fruit in booze, the most natural and delicious of preservatives. Many fruits can be stored in alcohol, but my favorite recipe calls for cherries, which I soak in brandy and sugar. My reason? Better winter drinking, of course.

The Manhattan is my cocktail go-to during cold months, but after selecting great bourbon, silky-smooth vermouth and artisanal bitters, it feels like a cop-out to top it off with an industrial hot-pink maraschino cherry. These brandied cherries come to the rescue: dead-simple to make, they last me through the winter, even getting better with age.

You’ll want to make these as soon as possible, as cherry season is drawing to a close. Pick out a pound of red beauties — ones that are about to go over the hill are just fine in this recipe — pit them and simmer in brandy, water and sugar. Finish with a dash of vanilla, a couple of spoonfuls of fresh lemon juice, transfer to jars and store in the fridge while you wait for gin weather to fade into bourbon weather. You’ll be glad to have these cherries on your bar come November. 

Brandied Cherries
Makes 3 cups (plus liquid)

  • 1 pound cherries, rinsed, stems removed and pitted
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 cup VS brandy
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
  1. In a medium saucepan, combine cherries, sugar, water and brandy and bring mixture to a boil over high heat.
  2. Lower heat and simmer for 7 minutes.
  3. Add vanilla and lemon juice to cherries and stir.
  4. Transfer cherries and liquid to a 4-cup glass jar and let cool completely, uncovered.
  5. Cover jar and refrigerate for up to six months.