Nexus: Food Holds the Power to Harm or Heal

by Tamara McFarland, Cooperation Humboldt

Food holds power. The power to heal or to harm. To connect or to divide. To restore or to exploit. With every bite we take, we register a tiny vote for the world we want to live in.

For many of us, decisions about what to feed ourselves and our families are outside of our independent control. If you live under food apartheid, it is tremendously difficult to gain regular access to nutritious foods. (Note that I use “food aparthed” rather than “food desert,” because a desert is a natural phenomenon, whereas apartheid is a human-created system.) If you work three jobs to pay rent, it is  hard to find time to cook from scratch. If you don’t have access to land, you cannot  grow a garden.

Gardening – either at home or in a community setting – is one of the most powerful tools at your disposal. It doesn’t get more local than your own backyard. This mini-garden was planted in Loleta by Cooperation Humboldt volunteers. Photo source: Tamara McFarland

Disparities around food access did not arise out of thin air; they are a result of decisions made by people, and they can be improved – and ultimately eliminated – by people.

  • For many Indigenous peoples, knowledge about – and access to – traditional foodways have been violently taken away through colonization. When California was colonized, settlers not only killed many Native peoples, they also reduced food access by disrupting traditional ecological management practices. (Dr. Cutcha Risling-Baldy, 2021)
  • During the Spanish Mission system, Native people were prohibited from eating their traditional foods as an intentional method of control. Native peoples were forced to labor in agricultural fields, where native plants were removed and replaced with crops like grapes and corn. (Dr. Cutcha Risling-Baldy, 2021)
  • Billions of federal dollars are disbursed every year to agricultural behemoths growing crops including corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice, and to industries like big beef and big pork rather than small family farmers. This results in artificially lowered prices for highly processed, sugar-laden foods, while the cost for healthful, locally grown foods remains much higher in comparison. This literally forces poor people to make unhealthy decisions.
  • Farm and food workers are mainly an immigrant workforce, many of whom are undocumented. They are usually poorly paid and forced to work in harsh or dangerous conditions. This is just the latest chapter in a long history: the US was built on exploitative agricultural labor that dates back to slavery.
  • Racism is built into the DNA of the United States’ food system. Following the theft of land from Indigenous people, colonizers kidnapped skilled farmers from the shores of Africa. Under the brutality of the whip and the devastation of broken families, enslaved Africans cultivated the tobacco and cotton that created vast wealth. Later came convict leasing, a form of legalized slavery that kept many Southern black people on plantations—in some places until the late 1920s. (Leah Penniman, 2021)
  • The ecological toll that results from our modern corporatized food system is heavy indeed. From the widespread impacts of toxic pesticides and herbicides to the massive degradation of topsoil and catastrophic destruction of rainforests to create more land for grazing cattle, things look bleak if big changes aren’t made quickly.

To overcome these huge structural barriers, we must empower individuals and communities to meet their own needs, and we must think – and work – both big and small. From federal and state food policy to community action and individual choices, there is  important work to be done.

  • We must support and uplift Native voices, and support the work that local tribes are doing towards food sovereignty. Locally, check out the Potawot Garden, the Yurok Tribe, the Native Food Sovereignty Lab at HSU, Blue Lake Rancheria and the Klamath-Trinity Resource Conservation district and the Wiyot community garden. 
  • If you are an uninvited guest on this land (like I am), consider paying a voluntary Honor Tax to the original people whose land you inhabit. 
  • Support efforts to restore land to Indigenous peoples, BIPOC farmers, and community land trusts.
  • Support legislation that strengthens workforce protections for farm and other food system workers.
  • Eating with climate justice in mind is about shifting to a region-based diet. You may need to change your approach to menu planning to reflect what’s in season, rather than relying on production somewhere that’s enjoying summer during your winter. This keeps the carbon footprint of your food much lower. 
  • Gardening – either at home or in a community setting – is one of the most powerful tools at your disposal. It doesn’t get more local than your own backyard. Benefits include a reduction in dependence on ‘Big Ag,’ saving money, improving your physical and mental health, sequestering carbon, and becoming better prepared for disasters.

The topic of food justice and its intersection with racism, environmentalism, poverty, and worker rights are explored in greater depth in Cooperation Humboldt’s publication, the Humboldt & Del Norte Community Food Guide, which is available for free at local newsstands and on Cooperation Humboldt’s website (www.cooperationhumboldt.org).

If you want to get involved in harnessing the power of food please reach out. I can be reached at tamara.mcfarland@cooperationhumboldt.com.