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The “good food” movement promotes healthy food, available to all, that is sustainably grown through small-scale, local, seasonal, organic production. Although a thread of that movement has focused on access for people of color and poor people, the dominant elements of food discourse are heavily about individual choice and personal responsibility rather than systemic barriers to eating well. We describe, for example, a conflict in Slow Food U.S.A over their recent “$5 challenge” (bring a dish to a potluck that costs less than $5 to make). Long-time foodie leaders objected mightily to an emphasis on affordability, calling it an affront to the small organic farmers whose food they want people to buy. The dominant messages in “good food” consist of exhorting people to buy organic, leave behind fast food and cook at home. Systemic issues of access (who grants all those fast food licenses for poor neighborhoods?) get too little attention, as do wonderful production and distribution innovations in poor communities. In defining “good food” the movement often leaves out crucial factors such as wages, immigration status, and safe conditions.
On the labor side, groups that protect the rights of workers have made significant progress in changing debates and policies, but have reached nothing close to the scale on which food industries as a whole operate. Victories by groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United show that people do care about workplace conditions; yet slum housing is not uncommon in farmworker communities and the minimum wage for tipped workers hasn’t risen in more than 20 years. Labor groups have to think about the consumer too, searching for mutual interests. Many labor advocates don’t address how and why food security and land sovereignty relate to their struggles for workers. Developing collaborative efforts between these movements is key to winning both good food and good jobs.
We found five opportunities for linking the two movements. They involve tying restaurant liquor licenses to labor reviews; supporting subsidies for small and medium-sized manufacturers of ethnic cuisines; creating food purchasing agreements with local and state governments; subsidizing retailers in poor communities and expanding the use of Community Benefits Agreements in public subsidies to advance food security as well as labor rights. To pursue any of these to scale, the fields have to increase their ability to coalesce, broaden their analysis and build alternative systems even while they challenge the existing ones.
It was interesting to listen to Tayari Jones discuss privilege, a concept we mostly hear bandied about in regard to the white, the male, and the wealthy. To be sure, it isn’t a term that springs immediately to mind in conversations about black women in this country. Between earning inequities, media misrepresentations, the “mule of the world” meme, and everything in between, we aren’t exactly the poster children for entitlement.
And yet there are several circumstances that can potentially place us at higher stations in life than those around us. Certainly, some of those circumstances are familial and relational. Wives are often in positions of privilege, as it relates to their husband’s other children. Children who have “full custody” of their fathers are privileged over their siblings who don’t. Maternal grandmothers may spend far more time with their grandchildren than paternal grandmothers. The possibilities along those lines are immense.
But there are plenty of other instances where black women may experience privilege. Some of those are cultural. Consider the hiring bias against applicants with “ethnic-sounding” names. In a hiring pool, Sharon Jones may have the unwitting upper hand over Shaquanita Jackson. Similarly, there are situations in which American-born black women find themselves at a distinct advantage over other women of the diaspora.
Because of its connotations, privilege isn’t always something we want to own. The idea suggests an unearned superiority and the power to oppress. And who wants to be associated with that? But what Jones said in her reading was key: It isn’t the privilege or how we obtain it that matters as much as what we choose to do with it. If we use it to lord our better lot over those less fortunate, we abuse it and squander its ability to heal, reconcile, and improve.