Let Us Work Together: Improving AZ's Food System
I spent most of my childhood in a comfortable home in North Central Phoenix. My parents cared about my wellbeing and education, I was fed good healthy food (except for the nutella sandwiches), and I have been lucky to travel outside of the country many times. Like many people I know who grew up in relatively privileged positions, I spent much of my life thinking that I should give back to people who have less than me. I felt guilty for what I had been given in my life, and I thought that the best way to make the world a more egalitarian place was to serve as an advocate for others and give as much as I could to deserving causes.
Until I entered Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, I was content with my life plan of using my position in society to help other people. But when I took classes that discussed people with seemingly altruistic intentions just like mine, those individuals were sometimes hurting the cause they believed they were helping.
I saw this phenomenon in many of my classes. I learned about missionaries in Zimbabwe who isolated children from their families and communities by giving them a Western education. I read about doctors and nurses who paraded into Laos to give vaccinations and other forms of medical care without providing context for their actions or obtaining consent. The people providing aid often were helping from a mindset of ethnocentrism. Granted, these people definitely made changes in communities, but the changes that occurred were not completely beneficial. I grew to understand that helping as if you are saving people is simply perpetuating structures of domination that keep certain people in more powerful positions than others.
An aboriginal elder and activist named Lilla Watson found this “savior” phenomenon to be a roadblock in creating change. As people were becoming aware of the impact that racism and colonialism were having on Aboriginal people, many Australians began asking what they could do to help. Lilla and others were frustrated by such questions because they did not feel that they could tell white people what they should do. The Aboriginal activists also saw signs of perpetuated colonial attitudes and structures of dominance in these offers of aid. (International Women’s Network).
The white Australians needed help from the Aboriginal people to free themselves from these attitudes of dominance that they subconsciously held; thus, the challenge was this:
“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Since learning about these events throughout history, I realized that I need a lot of help unpacking my own perceptions and attitudes about my position in society. If I ever want to have a positive impact, I will need to know 1) if help is even needed 2) what the need is and 3) If the people I am working with will help me better understand how my attitude can be changed in order to help others and myself most effectively.
As an Intern for Local First Arizona, my first day on the job was attending the Food and Farm Finance Forum. This is an event whose purpose is to involve community members from all aspects of the food system to gather, network, learn, and develop new skills. The event brought together local farmers, restaurant owners, government employees, a USDA representative, public health workers, academics, and AmeriCorps program participants. I found the F.E.A.S.T ( Food, Education, Agriculture Solutions Together) Community Conversation the most memorable. The F.E.A.S.T conversation method allows participants to engage in an informed discussion about agriculture, food, and education in their community, and to work towards solutions that will make their food system more equitable and resilient. Our particular conversation focused on relationships, institutional dynamics, and current food systems practices that are involved in providing food to people in Arizona.
In my classes at Willamette University, my peers are passionate about resistance, activism, and reflection, but oftentimes their words come from opinions and lessons learned in school. In nearly all of the discussions taking place in the classroom, the voices of people who have lived experiences to share about the topic at hand are often missing. In some cases, the phenomenon of “saviorism” that Lilla Watson so opposed is hiding under well-meaning words. This dilemma seems present in nearly every topic discussed, and that includes conversations around food systems. What impressed me most about the Food and Farm Finance Forum was that every person participating in the conversation had opinions about topics because of how their lives related to food systems. This was so different from the conversations I have about food at Willamette, where most students have not and will not personally understand food insecurity, balancing tight farming budgets, or struggling to find fresh produce within 20 miles of their home. Of course, I have not and likely will not understand those experiences, either. And that is what made the Forum conversations so valuable to me. These people had stories to share about hardship, joy, success, and failure, and I was able to listen and try to wrap my head around the intricacies of these stories that were all new to me.
A teacher talked about the red tape that surrounds integrating local food into Arizona schools. She said there was a lack of processing plants in Arizona, so much of the food produced here has to travel to another state to be processed. In most cases, by the time that food has been processed, it is more cost-effective to bring in food from out of state than the original food grown here in Arizona.
A farmer discussed the lack of quality in most foods offered to the public. “I don’t even enjoy going to restaurants anymore… The food is nowhere near as good as what I can get from my own farm.” He said there was nothing as flavorful as fresh meat, and that he has been served many disappointing restaurant dishes due to the lack of freshness of the ingredients. The flavorless meat served to the farmer at a restaurant was likely raised in a factory farm before it took a tour around the country to make various stops for processing and packaging. By the time the meat completed its road trip and arrived at a restaurant to be served to the farmer, it will have traveled an average of 1,546 miles. No wonder the farmer’s local fresh meat was more flavorful. (Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture).
It was also intriguing to watch as such diverse opinions were shared at the Forum. When discussing food accessibility, it was observed by the moderator that many people are quick to identify problems, but it is equally important to create solutions. When identifying problems, people discussed transportation that limits some from traveling to places that sell healthy local food (The USDA recorded more than 6,500 food deserts in 2012), a perception that fresh food is expensive, and cultural norms and advertising that encourage the consumption of highly processed foods and drinks.
Finding concrete solutions to the lack of food access won’t be easy, but it isn’t impossible. Participants proposed bringing healthy local foods to more communities, cultivating a culture that supports local foods for everyone, and bringing more healthy local food to schools. As we were thinking about the solutions, despite the diversity and experiences of the group members, we realized that what we needed was more voices in the conversation. The most underprivileged populations weren’t present to voice their concerns about quality and accessibility to food in Arizona. One statement by a participant in the conversation that echoes in my head is this: “My goal is to ask people what they need instead of guessing at what they want.” In order to continue progressing the discussion of accessibility, we have an opportunity to invite people lacking access to healthy, fresh, and local food to join the conversation. But we also have to remain mindful that as we advocate for others, the help we are giving cannot be one-sided. What the F.E.A.S.T. discussion taught me was that the only way we can progress in creating a more equitable world is to ask for help from underprivileged groups in understanding what will benefit them and what privileged people can do to achieve this. In turn, this inclusivity and reciprocal help will benefit society as a whole.