A scholar of cultural studies encourages a gathering of healthy-food advocates to consider the full spectrum of issues that define how we eat.
By Taylor Sisk
There’s a scene from the IFC series “Portlandia” in which a hipster couple peppers a waitress with questions about the origins of the chicken they may or may not order.
“Is it local?” they ask.
“The chicken is a heritage-breed, woodland-raised chicken that’s been fed a diet of sheep’s milk, soy and hazelnuts,” their waitress informs them.
But that’s not quite enough.
So she produces the chicken’s portfolio. His name was Colin.
“Did he have a lot of other chickens as friends, putting his little wing around another one and kind of like palling around?” the man wants to know.
The couple decides that before they can order in good conscience, they must visit the farm on which the chicken was raised, and pause in ordering to do so.
The farm-to-table movement is on firm ground these days – sufficiently firm that it can withstand some ribbing – and that’s good news for many of us.
But what Psyche Williams-Forson would like to remind us is that for many people, the whole thing means nothing.
Williams-Forson, an associate professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, was in North Carolina recently to speak to a gathering of activists who work to make fresh, locally grown food available to everyone.
Just as it’s possible to go way overboard in our personal commitment to an ideal (see above), Williams-Forson suggested that advocates can push too hard in exerting their ambitions on others.
Certainly, she acknowledged, all people have a right to healthy foods, just as they should have access to a quality education, comprehensive health care, a living wage and affordable housing. We must work as a society to achieve these goals, she said.
But in the meantime, she stressed, people simply gotta eat.
‘If people only knew’
Williams-Forson is the author of Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, & Power and co-editor of Taking Food Public: Redefining Foodways in a Changing World.
She was keynote speaker at the regional convening of the Come to the Table Conference, an annual forum for discussion of strategies to relieve hunger and support local agriculture. The Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA, North Carolina Council of Churches and Duke Endowment hosted the conference, held May 28 at Elon Community Church in Elon.
Williams-Forson’s most recent research is on food shaming and food policing in communities of color. And because many of those in attendance work at the intersection of healthy-food advocacy and social justice, her words were particularly probing.
“Is it important when you’re food insecure simply to have food, or do you need fresh, local food?” she asked.
Williams-Forson took issue with what she termed a common belief that, “If people only knew. If they only knew where their food is coming from, then the ecological and social problems associated with the food system would be on a better road to recovery.’”
What this fails to take into account, she said, is that “our food crisis is really very, very multilayered and complex.” It’s a symptom of underlying structural problems.
Telling a young black man that in order to live a healthy, vibrant life he should be eating more organic kohlrabi may not fully resonate. Not when put in the context of a 2010 Department of Justice report that the rate of firearm homicides for whites is 1.9 per 100,000, compared to 14.6 for blacks.
“Good food is not a panacea,” Williams-Forson said.
Further, she cautioned against attempting to shame people for the culinary choices that have been ingrained in cultures for centuries – the use of salt and pork for seasoning, for example.
Are you trying to “reform people, or are you trying to inform people’s cultures, habits and behaviors?” Williams-Forson asked. “And if you say, ‘Obviously it’s the latter,’ then I’m now going to ask what work you’ve done to really educate yourself about people’s cultures, habits and behaviors. What work have you done? Not what book have you read. What work have you done?…
“What questions have you asked?”
Think more deeply
“I think that she spoke from a very kind place,” said Scott Marlow, RAFI’s executive director. “What she was doing was challenging people to think more deeply about the complexity around the food choices that we make.”
“We try to create a healthy environment in which healthy choices are possible and are supported,” Marlow said. “But we have to be very careful not to go into a punitive or judgmental mode with this.
“And that’s a challenge.”
Williams-Forson stressed that she’s supportive of those who advocate for access to healthy foods.
“I’m not trying to discourage you from the work you’re doing,” she said. Rather, she said, she was encouraging them to “engage a bit deeper and to reflect a bit more.”
“What are your motives? What are you doing?” she asked. “And who are you saving? Soul food doesn’t need saving.”
“Is it pity or is it compassion?” she asked, emphasizing that there’s a difference.
“What is it exactly that we’re doing?’ Are we trying to help people thrive and live, or do we want to prescribe for them what they should do?”
“It seems we should stop trying to force people to live under the burden of a perceived disobedience that constantly casts them into a space of shame,” Williams-Forson said. “If, in fact, we are truly food advocates, then let’s be about the business of social justice and not just cultural policing.”
For Marlow, her message was very much about “how change happens.”
“We have to really be able to meet people where they are,” he said, “and then we can talk about what needs to move.”
Marlow said the feedback he’d received on Williams-Forson’s talk was very positive: “I had lots of people come up at the end of the conference and say, ‘Well, now I have a lot more to think about. I need to go home and rethink this.’
“And that’s what this was for.”