Food Tank and Mother Jones co-hosted a conversation about access, affordability, and equity in the food system, challenging San Francisco to think more critically about the language and stories advocates choose to represent change in the food system. Speakers Tanya Holland, Executive Chef and owner of Brown Sugar Kitchen; Leigh Gaymon-Jones, Operations Manager of the Castanea Fellowship; Paul Willis, founder and Farmer of Niman Ranch Pork Company; and Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse and founder of the Edible Schoolyard Project talk about the players in food justice that need representation in food justice conversations.
“Food justice, in its most generous spirit, is about making food that is nourishing and readily available to a lot of people. But what is justice? Justice for whom? In justice, there are players that are implied. Who are the players?” says Gaymon-Jones.
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Moderators from Mother Jones, San Francisco Chronicle, and Food Tank pressed the speakers to think about their roles in raising the voices of underrepresented or marginalized players in the food system. “The culinary profession of doing highly skilled restaurant cooking is dominated by not just men, but white men,” admits Tom Philpott, Food and Agriculture Correspondent for Mother Jones. “We’ve heard a lot in recent years about the struggles that women go through in the industry: the sexual harassment, being cut off from opportunities, and not getting investment. But we haven’t heard nearly enough about the stories of what people of color go through in the industry.”
As an award-winning chef and restaurateur—and also as a cookbook author, soul food expert, and television host—Holland uses her Brown Sugar Kitchen to help women of color access opportunities without barriers of discrimination. “There are a lot of young women and a lot of young women of color who have never seen women leading empires. [As a chef] I need to create opportunities for these people by growing them and helping them develop,” says Holland.
In addition to making opportunities for others, Moderator Justin Phillips, staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle, notes that it is important to recognize how people talk about justice, access, and equity. “We throw around words like food justice and food access. But we can toss them around to the point where they become hollow or meaningless,” says Phillips. According to Gaymon-Jones, omitting specific language identifying players wielding power, players subject to the power of others, and ways to improve equity can be damaging to change in the food system.
“The lack of specificity can create a lot of confusion, muddling, if not frustration—or even turning against one another,” says Gaymon-Jones, comparing the conversations about economic colonialism to conversations about opening up farmers markets to work toward a just food system. “If I can be clear and my colleagues can be clear about what it is that I am doing, then we can figure out how to build coalition.” At the Castanea Fellowship, Gaymon-Jones facilitates coalitions among fellows working toward improved Indigenous rights, land access, opportunities for immigrants, and more.
For Waters and Willis, food justice begins with improved livelihoods for the people growing food to feed others. “It really begins in the ground—it begins with the farmers taking care of the land for the future. Those farmers who are making the compost, practicing regenerative agriculture, and addressing climate,” says Waters. Convinced that the best food is sustainably and locally grown, Waters sources ingredients directly from farmers for Chez Panisse and for schools. Without a middleman, the profits go directly to the farmers.
With this support, farmers can continue to produce sustainable and ethically-raised food for everyone in their communities. “We live out here in the land of industrial and commodity farming. It is [a different] way of producing and making this food that brings Niman Ranch farmers together,” advancing access to tasty and sustainably raised food says Willis.
Photo courtesy of Mother Jones.