It dawned on me over 10 years ago while in a rural village in Guatemala. I got into a conversation with a local woman regarding food. She told me that her family eats primarily beans with a few herbs she finds growing wild around her home. Although her husband worked at the nearby corn plantation, all the food produced there was bound for the US and never made it back home to feed the hungry bellies of their children. That’s when I knew.
Our food system is flawed.
As time went on, I started thinking more and more about how is it we can have such sophisticated systems of food production and distribution, yet have so many people without enough to eat? I began asking questions and that’s when I discovered permaculture, an agricultural design practice that uses principles based upon mimicking what is seen in nature. It’s a whole-system approach to growing food and reconnecting people to the land that is both sustainable and regenerative. I visited different permaculture farms, took workshops and was blown away by the abundant and beautiful food that was coming from these farms. Why can’t we feed the world this way?
This is the question that has led me to graduate school.
I am now half-way through my first year of a Master’s in Public Health Nutrition at UC Berkeley. I toyed with many different paths and approaches to go about seeking answers to my question, and landed on Public Health as a way to examine food systems as the bridge that connects human health and agriculture. Only six months in to my studies and I’ve discovered a mountain of information, research and ideas dealing with ways to improve our food system; and this is only the tip of the ice berg. I’ve also discovered there are many mind-boggling complex systemic, political and economic structures at play which have led to and perpetuate our current state of food system obscurity. This should be fun… heh.
Truth be told, I can’t get enough. I find myself shouting at the articles I’m reading (sometimes profanities, sometimes in exaltation) and scribbling in the margins of books “WTF?!? Why don’t we fix this?” or “OMG! Yes! Yes! Yes!”. My heart breaks when I learn about the food being served to our children in schools, which is undoubtedly contributing to the rise in childhood obesity (nearly 19% in the US). And then it swells to the point of bursting when I hear about communities coming together to reclaim, regrow and remember their traditional foodways. One such reading assignment from my class on ‘Sociology and Political Ecology of AgroFood Systems’ led me to discover Freedom Farmer’s Market here in Oakland, Ca.
“The Freedom Farmers Market is a niche market that connects African American agricultural producers together with African Americans and other consumers lacking access to culturally relevant, locally grown fresh & healthy food. In addition to a chance to meet some of California’s Black farmers we have activities like; the Crowder pea shell off, sweet potato pie tasting, watermelon eating, and poetry contest, healthy soul food demos, nutrition workshops, live music by local artist, dancing and chess. The Freedom Farmers’ Market supports the idea of freedom to choose affordable local food and freedom to access legacy food grown by Black farmers.”
I learned from the readings and from the guest lecture by one of The Freedom Farmers Market founders, Gail Meyers, that this market was inspired from the work of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer.
Fannie Lou Hamer
I was familiar with her name, but it wasn’t until taking this class that I learned her story and what an incredible human being she was.
There is so much to be said about the work she did for the civil rights movement, but one of her efforts really struck me: The Freedom Farm Cooperative, founded in 1968. Against tremendous adversity, Fannie Lou Hamer set out to establish an agricultural cooperative built on 680-acres in Mississippi. Freedom Farms included a pig bank, Head Start program, community gardens, commercial kitchen, a garment factory, sewing cooperative, tool bank, and low-income, affordable housing to support the needs of African Americans who were fired and evicted for exercising the right to vote. Freedom Farms offered these sharecroppers and tenant farmers educational and retraining opportunities including health care and disaster relief for those who wanted to stay in the Mississippi Delta.
(Insert: “OMG! Yes! Yes! Yes!”)
As I go through this journey of discovering the stories and truths behind our food system, I find there is so much I feel obligated to share – like the often untold story of Fannie Lou Hamer and the Freedom Farm Cooperative. Information is power and so I hope to share with you my discoveries through this academic journey and invite you to share your thoughts as well.
With that, I bring you ‘Beyond the Plate’. Dedicated to the Fannie Lou Hamers of the world. May we all eat well and be happy.
“Sometimes it seems like to tell the the truth today is to run the risk of being killed. But if I fall, I’ll fall five feet four inches in the fight for freedom. I’m not backing off.”
Fannie Lou Hamer