Seeking Food Justice with A Full Belly
As a student, there are days when I find myself wide awake for long hours during the night. Sometimes, this has to do with seemingly endless amounts of readings and problem sets, and other times, it is simply because I can’t seem to turn off the thoughts running through my mind. Particularly in navigating the challenges of the past year and a half, it has been daunting and sometimes overwhelming to see its exacerbating impacts on the vast disparities and inequities that exist in our world. At a time when I have been struggling to figure out my future direction, it was easy to feel like I was being swallowed by frustration and by the doubt that we could ever make right the inherently unjust systems and spaces we all occupy. During this time, in the summer of 2020, I was given the opportunity to participate in a community-based program through Vassar College targeted at reducing nutrition insecurity for pregnant and expecting mothers in Poughkeepsie. Through this program, and under the mentorship of a few inspiring change-makers, I have learned to see not only the challenges in advancing social justice, but also the endless opportunities to do so.
Growing up, I was extremely fortunate to live in a house where we had choice in what we wanted to eat, and where there was always enough food on the table. As the daughter of physicians, the importance of our diets in promoting health and well-being was always stressed. While I recognized and was grateful for these immense privileges I enjoyed, it was through the work I participated in during the Community Fellows summer program where I became more aware of the complex challenges that people face to acquire enough nutritious food to sustain themselves and their families.
Throughout the summer, I had the opportunity to intern with Kay Bishop and the team at the Poughkeepsie Mothers Project, an organization that strived to better meet the needs of pregnant and expectant mothers in Poughkeepsie. The goal of fellow interns, Zsa Zsa Toms and Erin Reese, and my project was to support and build upon programs to empower those in the community struggling with nutrition insecurity. As we started working on the project, it immediately became evident that the socio-cultural biases and inequities that underlie food justice, gender-based rights, racial justice, and even the physical structure of urban neighborhoods, are all intimately interconnected. Clearly, a project aimed at making available more nutritious options for these mothers was not so simple as simply distributing food or offering transportation to a nearby food bank.
Although we often view food insecurity as an issue of the individual, in reality it is a social and political failure stemming from chronic low wages, residential segregation, food deserts, and agricultural injustices. In low-income areas, fresh foods may be twice as expensive per serving as the more calorically-dense processed foods, and they tend to require more cooking equipment and time to be palatable. On restrictive budgets, people purchase food that is convenient and satiating instead of food that optimizes health.
While federal economic-assistance programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) Food Supplement Program are essential safety nets for millions of Americans, there are a significant number of neighborhoods with low stocks of WIC-eligible (and culturally relevant) foods, decreased access to transportation services, and households without necessary cooking equipment. Particularly in these areas, the WIC and SNAP government programs are simply not enough.
As Zsa Zsa, Erin, and I began thinking about the issue of nutrition insecurity, we researched not only the recommended nutritional intake of pregnant and expecting mothers, but also the current state of the food justice movement. Recognizing our own positionality, we began talking to community members and reading the works of activists such as Lean Penniman of Soul Fire Farm
and Karen Washington of Rise and Root Farm, and of nonprofit organizations such as the West Side Campaign Against Hunger and those following Food Farmacy/Food as Medicine models. Inspired by their work, it became clear that we wanted to root our program in feminist ideas, expanding culture-based practices, and improved transportation and education accessibility.
The project we ultimately developed was not a solution or subversion of the existing unequal structure of food accessibility by any stretch of the imagination (such a program needs to deconstruct the current societal structure). Instead, it aimed to empower a specific community of people by making the process of choosing and cooking nutritious meals feel more accessible. The project had two components (both of which are freely available to participants in both English and Spanish): to collaborate with Cornell Cooperative Extension on online nutrition education classes, and to develop a recipe book of tasty and affordable recipes. The ongoing nutrition classes address topics such as how to read a nutrition label, the importance of nutritious foods in preventing gestational diabetes, and importantly, they create a space for community. In the classes, women can come together to exchange ideas, stories, and strategies to both feel empowered and inspire others. Along with this course, we also compiled a recipe book with over 35 recipes that utilize ingredients available through WIC, and which don’t require much kitchen space or equipment. The recipes are diverse, tasty, nutrient-dense, and are often centered around a spice, oil, or kitchen utensil that is given out to the mothers each month in supplemental nutrition packages. The recipe book also includes a list of WIC-accepted foods and specifications, as well as a list of local community resources and shops to access such ingredients. One of the most important pieces in developing these programs is that we were adamant that we would not tell people what they “should” be eating. Instead, we wanted to widen their choices by figuring out ways to make the nutritious food that they may already have access to taste good.
While these projects began addressing and acknowledging some of the challenges facing the specific population of patients that the Poughkeepsie Mothers Project works with, they cannot dismantle the pre-existing structures of inequity that underlie our food systems. To do that, more work must be done. We have to recognize that the food justice movement does not, and cannot, exist in isolation from any other social justice movement. To promote food justice necessitates that we fight for agricultural diversification and sustainability, be and act as anti-racists, and rally for gender equality.
Given how much there is to fight for, we have a long road ahead in making the institutional changes needed to create a more just and equitable world. I have been inspired by the many social visionaries who see opportunities for positive change, and who courageously enroll others in their ideas to demand equity and inclusion. As I try to figure out my own future path, I know that it is up to me to open my eyes, listen to and learn from these visionaries, and join forces to work towards a collective goal of creating a more just and connected world.
Sonia Gollerkeri is a 2021 Vassar College Graduate. She is currently a graduate student at the Columbia Mailman Schools of Public Health. She was a summer intern in The Macfarlan Group Summer Intern Program in Nashville, TN.