TEDx Manhattan: Food, Race, Class

Once again, I’ve been terrible at getting to blogging lately. Life can be so distracting, especially when the chaos of SXSW is on all around you and it’s your first time with your entire city turned inside out and upside down by music and people and then more music.

About two weeks ago though, I went to a viewing of the TEDx Manhattan conference at the Sustainable Food Center. It was a really relaxed afternoon, but it was also an opportunity for me to really stretch my own understanding of food systems and food justice in America in particular. Hearing about day to day life as a Black woman living in New York and the food challenges associated with race and class in that area that was something entirely new to me, and really thought-provoking. The talk I’m mainly referring to here was by Dr. Regina Bernard-Carreno (although another really noteworthy and fantastic talk on race and food was by Nikki Silvestri who did one of my favourite talks of the day).

You can watch Dr Bernard-Carreno’s talk here (NB: It seems to be incorrectly named, but this is definitely the talk!):

Part of what I found so fascinating about Dr Bernard-Carreno’s talk was the divide that also exists, not just in food access, but between those working to ensure food access.

‘Everyone here too, was young [and] white’

Dr Bernard-Carreno describes her journey around New York with her students, trying to find a good, local, city-gardening model that they could replicate on their own small plot in Queens. The first three or so gardens that they visited sound as though they were run by young-white-hipster types with absolutely zero idea of how to engage with and understand their local community. To be honest, some sounded like they weren’t even that interested in working with their neighbours either, charging exorbitant fees for tours and/or setting visitors to work hard in their garden while sitting down to enjoy their own lunch. There was a social gulf between the farmers and the visitors that should not have been there. Hearing this story really bothered me. On the one level, it bothered me because to me, urban gardening is about community and sharing and engagement and equality.  On another level, it bothered me because food access isn’t just about food on shelves, it’s about sharing the knowledge and skills to grow and provide food. None of these things were provided by these young urban farmers and this concerns me. Changing our food system to ensure equitable food access cannot be an exclusive venture. It can’t be the privileged handing out food to the underprivileged. It needs to be an inclusive action, a sharing of ideas, a development of the strengths of the whole community, whatever their circumstances.

The good thing is, there are groups who recognise this. Eventually, Dr Bernard-Carreno and her students found an urban farm that operated on those principles. This article on NPR’s website about JuJu Harris was absolutely inspirational – a real joy to read. It also shows what is so, so important: that sharing of knowledge and skill with everyone, no matter their race or socioeconomic status.

We can change the food system for the better, but not if we’re letting our social circumstances divide us.

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