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Growing Justice in the Food System

13th Annual Edward and Nancy Dodge Lecture
April 30, 2013

LivableFuture blogpost | Video | Flyer

“There can be no food justice without social justice,” says Malik Yakini, the founder and executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. Addressing the broken food system, sharp class division, and the imbalance of policies that benefit the rich, he stated his position clearly: capitalism is not a good system for human beings. “In the food movement, nothing is more important than justice and equity,” he said.

This week, Mr. Yakini spoke at the Bloomberg School, hosted by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. The talk was the Center’s 13th Annual Edward and Nancy Dodge Lecture, titled “Fostering a Just and Sustainable Food System.” He began by referring to the recent takeover in Detroit by an emergency manager appointed by the governor, a move that preempts the authority of elected officials in the city. “Greetings from Detroit, where democracy has been put into a deep coma,” he said. “Essentially, we have a dictatorship now.”

The U.S. has never effectively responded to the problems of poverty, racism, and the “colonized mind,” said Mr. Yakini. The current situation in Detroit is a living example of that disregard. There are no longer any national chain supermarkets in Detroit; instead, supermarkets ring the city in the mostly white and affluent suburbs. And without supermarkets, populations lack access to what Mr. Yakini calls “good, clean, healthy food.” “In cities like Detroit where the population is predominantly African-American,” he said, “we are seen as markets for inferior goods.”

Mr. Yakini described the core values of he Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN) as justice, equity, democracy, self-determination, and love. “Humans were not put here to dominate the planets,” he said. “We have a responsibility to be good stewards of the Earth.” But in order for any food movement to be just, he said, everyone involved has work to do, both personally and in groups. One important part of this work is to challenge systemic and institutional racism, both in the food movement and at large. The goal, he said, is to restore ma’at on Earth, an ancient Egyptian concept of truth, balance, order, law, morality, and justice.

Specifically, organizations involved in the movement for just food should try to highlight the stories of people of color who are involved in the food movement; funders should try to fund initiatives led by people of color; and food conferences should offer tracks on racial equity. In addition, the image of “the farmer” needs to be reformed, and there needs to be greater recognition of and respect for women, who comprised the majority of farmers in the world.

“We need to reframe farming as honorable work,” said Mr. Yakini. African-Americans thumb their noses at farming, he said, because of the negative associations they hold toward the profession, mainly because of the histories of slavery, tenant farming, and sharecropping. “We need to reframe the work of farming as an act of self-determination,” he said.

Mr. Yakini is currently a fellow at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and a recipient of last year’s James Beard Foundation Leadership Award. He is involved in the organization Uprooting Racism Planting Justice, and he helped to spearhead the Detroit Food Policy Council. With DBCFSN, he helps to run a seven-acre farm, which has a reputation among some Detroiters for growing the sweetest collard greens in town.

-- Christine Grillo