Recent campus newspaper articles, Facebook statuses and blog posts have challenged the Williams community to examine its identity as an open-minded and socially just entity. I left campus for Winter Break confused and troubled by my own privilege. I needed a way to visualize the root causes of the race and class issues which have been so hotly politicized and contested. I cannot relate to the experience of being denied equal employment, equitable health care, and all-around recognition as a full citizen. What I can relate to is being part of a broken food system, in which government subsidies cause unhealthy foods to be cheaper than healthy, fresh foods, many of our water sources are contaminated with agricultural pollutants, and over 40% of our food is thrown away even as the hunger crisis in this country worsens. Food sovereignty, the “right of peoples and sovereign states to democratically determine their own agricultural and food policies” according to the United Nations, is largely a relic in America’s agricultural past. Americans have little say in the agricultural corporations and federal regulatory agencies that determine our current agricultural policies. Williams students cannot hope to change oppressive societal norms without understanding the underlying issues of food security and choice.
Food choices are especially limited in low-income neighborhoods, where liquor stores and fast food chains are often more accessible than markets carrying fresh produce. The children in these neighborhoods go to school so malnourished that they can’t learn. The adults in their lives are at high risk for heart disease, diabetes, and other diet-related illnesses that render them unable to pursue good jobs or be good parents. In Boston’s Dudley neighborhood, for example, adults are 27% more likely to be obese than the average Bostonian, while children are 75% more likely to eat fewer than 3 servings of vegetables per week. Adjacent to Dudley is Jamaica Plain, a gentrified neighborhood with several local food co-ops, a Whole Foods, and a Stop & Shop, not to mention dozens of restaurants. Dudley’s residents have fewer choices and often are limited in even those choices by a lack of transportation.
Underlying this class distinction are racial divisions. Dudley’s inhabitants are black and Hispanic, while Jamaica Plain is increasingly white. Though food sovereignty has decreased across the U.S. as the size of agricultural corporations has grown, those with the time, money, and opportunity to choose fresh, healthy foods that have been grown in a conscientious manner can do so. Many more cannot. The extent to which a community can determine what is available for them to eat is a clear measure of its freedom. A neighborhood that is hobbled by poor food accessibility cannot break out of the cycle of poverty. A disproportionate number of these neighborhoods in America are communities of color.
This disparity weighed heavily on my mind during my Winter Study internship in Jamaica Plain. While working at the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic to develop effective strategies to address America’s food crisis, I often cited successful food justice advocacy groups in Clinic reports. One such group, The Food Project (TFP)- founded in Lincoln, MA in 1991- now has both a greenhouse and a farm in the Dudley neighborhood. I had already heard of the group’s accomplishments over the summer, when I interviewed Mike Evans for the position of Assistant Director of the Zilkha Center. As a program director at The Food Project (TFP) in Boston, and then as a co-founder of Urban Roots in Austin and of Real Food Rising in Salt Lake City, Mike has gotten his hands dirty teaching people how to make their own food. I contacted Mike at his new Williams e-mail address half-way through January: could I visit TFP? I wanted to understand the day-to-day operation of an organization that has improved the lives of so many.
Urban farms provide their communities with alternatives: alternative sources of food, alternative jobs, an alternative social space- alternative futures. TFP constructs these alternatives so that locals can take full ownership of them. The farm crew leaders and neighborhood outreach coordinators who I met in TFP’s Dudley office are from Dudley. They are high school juniors and seniors, excited about applying to college and hanging out with their friends from the farm. TFP is training them in community leadership and business organization, in the ethics of caring for oneself and one’s community and one’s environment. Princeton graduates and locals who have never been to college occupy the same office space, working towards the same goal of a self-sustaining community. On the day that I visit, everyone has taken a break from work to enjoy the labors of that afternoon’s community cooking class.
I shadow Danielle Andrews, the farmer who oversees the Dudley Greenhouse and another TFP farm down the street. She calls me over to the group of women at the center of the greenhouse when I arrive. The muddy Carhartts, Muck Boots, and flannel bearing TFP’s logo distinguish her from the rest of the women, who are dressed in the jeans and casual sweaters my mother wears when she’s gardening. I join the women as we walk from plot to plot. These women each own a plot here; community members vote to give plots to those who will best use or most deserve them. Elderly residents are high-priority members, as are the local elementary schools. The root-zone heating system, the irrigation hoses, the seeds, the salaries of many of the workers- all that keeps the Greenhouse running is paid for by the sales of salad greens grown in the back of the Greenhouse. And unlike TFP’s other urban agricultural projects, the Dudley Greenhouse stays open for up to eleven months every year.
“… See these yellowing leaves here? This is probably from nitrogen deficiency. You might have to thin this bed…” Danielle has been working with this community for 14 years where her knowledge and work ethic have earned her their respect. The women nod and interject their own questions, positing their own solutions to each wilting plant or aphid infestation we cross. They are learning to make this garden their own. And they’re welcoming- each one introduces herself to me, points out her plot with whispered pride.
I whisper back in awe. The whole space- a former brownfield project transformed by the construction of sand floors and raised beds- is breathtakingly beautiful. Vibrant purple stems of beets and swiss chard flesh out into leaves of deep green; fronds of celery reach my chest, each stalk thick as my wrist; white snow pea blossoms curl on trellises towards impossibly high ceilings. From the drudgery of winter in south Boston, I have emerged into a world where all life seems possible. I pass one particularly thriving plot, owned by a man who isn’t present that morning. Behind towers of fennel and kale, I make out a sign: GROWING BLACK POWER. This garden feeds the souls and dreams that sustain social movements.
Dudley’s residents strengthen their bodies, minds, and community ties by participating in urban agriculture. While the movement for a sustainable agricultural system in the United States has a white, well-educated face, food sovereignty is not for a privileged class, race, or personality type. Independent agricultural production is a civic action, a civic service. This is why Williams students of all backgrounds should support local foods in our dining halls and local farms and community gardens wherever we end up in the future.
Mary Ignatiadis ’16