On Teaching Food Justice

First food stamp. Washington, D.C., April 20, 1939. Harris & Ewing, photographer, Library of Congress,    https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2016875474/

David Beriss

I am trying to figure out what we mean when we invoke “food justice.” Let’s start out with a few recent snapshots from the world of food.

Earlier this week, the Biden administration announced a significant boost in food stamp benefits (the SNAP program). This will result in many people in the United States receiving higher monthly benefits and, presumably, reduce food insecurity. Given the bare bones social safety net in the United States, this is definitely a positive step and has in fact been lauded as such by many food activists. Despite this, it is worth interrogating the very idea of food stamps. There are arguments for SNAP as a very efficient program. Yet the program’s design also seems to imply that people with low incomes are not to be trusted with money. This program limits what they can spend the benefit on, supposedly “freeing” other aspect of their income (which is, of course, low) for other things. Why not just give people a decent basic income, to spend as they choose?

Then there is Brett Anderson’s very interesting article about the closing of Lusco’s, a historic restaurant in Greenwood, Mississippi. The restaurant has been open since the 1930s and is a celebrated institution in the area. Yet as Anderson points out, telling Lusco’s story also requires discussing the racism and segregation that marked much of the restaurant’s history. Lusco’s became part of the national discourse on racism in 1966, when Booker Wright, a Black waiter at the segregated restaurant, spoke about his experiences working there. The video of Wright’s interview is here. He speaks of working despite the indignity of his treatment by the all-white customers so that his children might have opportunities he did not have. Wright’s interview cost him his job and angered white people in the town, anger that apparently still lingers among them today. Anderson also interviewed Kevin Young, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, who wrote the libretto for an oratorio about Mr. Wright’s life. Mr. Young ate at Lusco’s as part of his research for the oratorio, and remarked that “Both because I knew Booker’s story, and because I’m Black, I did not have a pleasant time-travel experience.” Despite what you may have heard, sharing food does not heal all wounds.

Finally, a recent episode of the radio show/podcast “This American Life” examines the impact of the pandemic on the way Americans think about their jobs. Two of the segments are about restaurant work. In one, Chana Joffe-Walt interviews Shelly Ortiz, a long-time restaurant server about her experience of working during the pandemic. In Arizona, where Ortiz worked, restaurant workers were designated “essential workers” and had to keep working. Ortiz recounts experiences of harassment—having a customer demand she remove her mask in order, he said, to determine how much to tip her—and instances in which people seemed oblivious to the dangers she endured by working during a plague. The story shows a disturbing disjuncture between what customers sought in restaurants and the lived experiences of restaurant workers. A key point that Ortiz makes is that this disjuncture existed before the pandemic, but the experience of working while fearing illness and death forced her to think about the situation with greater clarity. She has since left the industry. Joffe-Walt highlights this disjuncture in another segment, interviewing Flato Alexander, a cook at a McDonald’s in Flint, Michigan. Alexander recounts what happened when McDonald’s decided to provide 12 million free “thank you” meals for “essential workers.” He, of course, was one of the workers who cooked those meals, but he was definitely not one of the people who was provided one. The disjuncture between the corporation’s effort to thank some workers, while failing to show any form of appreciation for its own workers drove Alexander to rethink his job. He has since joined efforts to unionize McDonald’s, which is something he would have never done in the past. Ortiz, Alexander, and others Joffe-Walt interviews are angry. And they are pushing for change in ways they would probably never have thought of before.

These stories are clearly all about justice. They all deal with questions of fairness in the organization of society. Food stamps are about food, but the policy is part of a broader social safety net, including income support, housing subsidies, access to health care, education, and much more. Why have we decided to make food distinct among these policies? As I noted, we might make the whole safety net more efficient—or at least give people more dignity—if we established a minimum income and supplied that to people, to spend as they see fit. The story of Lusco’s is explicitly about an historic restaurant and that restaurant’s place within a broader racist structure. Sharing food and the treatment of restaurant workers within that system was only one part of the Jim Crow South or about the workings of white supremacy in the United States. Finally, rethinking the conditions within which we work is something many people have had to do during the pandemic.

Yet I think it is also useful to think about these in terms of food. In each instance, the food itself or the relationships around food indicates something distinct about the situation. The SNAP program points to the paternalistic way we have defined our welfare state, but it also highlights the distinct importance of food as a part of life. Food and shelter are probably the most fundamental things parents can provide for their children in our society and a lack of access to affordable food has brought down governments. Lusco’s provides a focus for thinking about inclusion and exclusion in American society. It reminds us that fights over equal access to amenities were at the core of the Civil Rights movement. Restaurants were central to that struggle and the segregation of both the production and consumption of food provided a significant framework for who was recognized as a full human in the United States. The racial injustice inherent in Booker Wright’s experience seems to have carried forward into our pandemic era, crystallized by the experiences of servers and cooks like Shelly Ortiz and Flato Alexander. All of these stories, framed by food, point us to the deep injustices of class, gender, and race that are central to the organization of society in the United States. Food ties them all together. Food becomes the total social fact that helps us think through the social and cultural relations in all these instances. That is why it is helpful to think about these as questions of food justice.

I am teaching a graduate seminar on food justice this semester, which is why this is on my mind right now. The course will range from discussions of the global food system to discussions of local food in American cities. We are beginning by considering what we mean by food justice, in the context of a broader discussion of what we mean by justice more broadly. Here, if you are interested, is the syllabus. It is overstuffed, yet I am also sure it is missing important material (feel free to send ideas!). That is the nature of syllabi and my hope is that my students, a small-but-impressive bunch, will help me deepen this class for the future. (By the way, this syllabus, along with many others, will soon be part of an updated SAFN syllabus collection. Joining SAFN will get you access to that new collection when it is ready.) One way they will do this is to write for this blog. Watch this space in coming weeks for commentaries from the students on a variety of food justice questions. We look forward to exchanging thoughts with our readers!

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