Continuing the conversation on food systems work and justice…

This post is contributed by Nikki D’Adamo-Damery.

July has been a good month for reflecting on justice and the food system. Earlier in the month, Phil wrote on how we might look at justice in our food systems work as a process, and a way of thinking, rather than a product or an endpoint. Last week, Becca focused on her personal experience with a client at the local food bank, and some of the larger issues that arose from her encounter—issues of choice, power, dignity, and infrastructure. These are important conversations that highlight why we talk about the idea of community food security, instead of household food security or even “local foods.”

I became involved with food systems work after a short trip to Honduras, where I was able to visit with a community that had been working with Heifer International. At the time, the Heifer model involved several years of community work before animals were brought into the community. This process involved an appreciative inquiry approach, storytelling, and gender equity work—all as a precursor to receiving livestock. What struck me the most about the community—who had healthy, well-established goat and cattle herds—was a short (translated) conversation that one man had with us. He said that, prior to working with Heifer, the community had viewed themselves as mestizos—people with mixed blood and no claim to a cultural heritage. However, through the storytelling process, they discovered that they were actually direct descendants of the Mayans, and heir to a rich cultural and historical legacy. The community began to embrace their identity, and brought in someone from Guatemala to teach their children the Mayan language. They suddenly saw themselves differently, and that resulted in other claims of empowerment: new land and a commitment to educating their community. Yes, the Heifer animals made a huge difference for the community, in terms of income, nutrition, and health. But it went beyond the physical sustenance and economic benefits that livestock could provide. For me, this is what food systems work was all about: a powerful tool for addressing social justice and community development.

We are very fortunate to be working with partners who are using their food systems work to set in motion similar processes in our region. Organizations like Bountiful Cities in Asheville, North Carolina, who are using community gardens as both a space for growing food and a mechanism for creating activists. YES! (also in Asheville), is using food as a means of creating youth leaders trained to address all kinds of issues that impact the quality of life for people in Western North Carolina and across the state.

These are just two examples of work in our region that exemplify the transcendent possibility of what it means to address food systems issues in our region. Food is such a powerful, humanizing equalizer—we can and should use it as a mechanism for addressing larger issues in our communities and our region. As Becca mentioned, we can’t talk about issues of access without addressing infrastructure related to transportation, agency, and dignity. At our very best, we should be utilizing the growing awareness of our food system to open spaces for dialogue around other issues in our communities: race, equity, power, to name a few. When we work with food systems, we have the opportunity to bring more voices to the conversation, to create opportunities for meaningful engagement and learning that transcends the food we eat, even as it is grounded in it.

Nikki D’Adamo-Damery is the Deputy Director for the Appalachian Foodshed Project.  She is based at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia.