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Hot City: Reimagining Food Justice in an Uprising

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Hot City is a series of short reflections on the state of social movements in NYC, from the long hot summer of 2020 to the coming storm season and beyond. You can read the introduction here, a map of New York City's climate plans here, and the descent of compound crises into New York's most vulnerable neighborhoods here

Due to the pandemic, nearly one in eight U.S. households experience food insecurity, which the New York Times Magazine recently defined as “the struggle to make food last long enough, and to get food that’s healthful.” There are structural, historical reasons for these struggles and this manufactured scarcity, from red-lining and the production of urban food deserts to un- and underemployment disproportionately impacting communities of color. And like any other social or natural disaster, COVID-19 has revealed the violent state and NGO-led responses to food insecurity that further police and militarize communities of color. 

Here in the Northwest Bronx we saw army and national guard troops in the neighborhood handing out food from large spaces like the Kingsbridge Armory, resources that could instead be invested towards community-controlled housing, health care, and food production. Opportunistic nonprofits like World Central Kitchen swooped in to hand out meals, while collaborating with police and ICE (in our article, “Why NYC Mutual Aid Groups are Cutting Ties with World Central Kitchen,” we chronicle our decision to stop distributing their meals once we learned about their complicity with police and ICE). At the same time, militarized police were brutalizing protests against police brutality violence in the Bronx, while failing to respond or investigate when nooses were found in the northwest Bronx and across the city. (The North Bronx Collective, working with a group of Bronx radical grassroots organizations, held a march and vegan cookout on the fourth of July in response.) 

Given this police complicity with food distribution during COVID-19, and the Summer 2020 uprisings against racist violence, what does it mean to see mutual aid food justice work as a project for decolonization or abolition?

In the early days of 2020, a group of artists, educators, community gardeners, scientists, and long-time local organizers began to form a local collective where we live in the northwest Bronx. Several of us had connected through city-wide protests against police brutality and transit fare hikes during the fall/winter of 2019-2020. We were broadly interested in organizing against gentrification, policing, and food apartheid in the area, from the CUNY food insecurity report to the NYBG gentrifying Webster Avenue to the desire to resurrect the local Tibbets Tail cleanup project and create more autonomous green spaces for the community. 

Then COVID-19 hit. We saw decades of deliberate food aparatheid further exacerbated, from the closure of 50% of food pantries and soup kitchens in the Bronx, 90% of which were in high-need areas, to the closure of community gardens that were feeding people with homegrown produce. We saw some of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the northwest Bronx, with little access to testing or PPE. We also learned that no food was being distributed in the north Kingsbridge neighborhood, which because of its proximity to the more wealthy, predominantly white Riverdale is often overlooked as a high-need area. 

The group quickly shifted to mutual aid work to address food insecurity, beginning with small-scale fundraising for a grocery gift-card giveaway and evolving into a weekly food distribution in Kingsbridge in partnership with the women-of-color led plant-based hot food organization Woke Foods. We also distributed produce from City Harvest and food donated by the community (following a list of culturally-relevant foods provided by the Collective), along with political education materials that included information on the eviction moratorium (which many community members had not heard about). We also collaborated with a Bronx-wide mutual aid network to do grocery/PPE deliveries to people’s apartments, and connected with many mutual aid groups that had their roots in community-led responses to Hurricane Sandy. 

We found ourselves asking - why does plant-based eating and mutual aid get framed as white work? As Naomi Jackson (in a forthcoming New Yorker article) has argued, mutual aid has a long history among BIPOC, from people buying each other’s freedom from enslavement to the everyday exchanges of food and childcare that form the fabric of families and communities of color. Books like Veganism of Color and Farming While Black push back against these narratives. We see the white/colonial analysis in local responses to food apartheid that are content to simply hand out food (not necessarily culturally-relevant food). We see it in analyses of plant-based eating that do not consider the health and well being of the land, of agricultural workers, and of the fact that meat production has exacerbated COVID-19 rates among meatpacking workers and disproportionately put Black and Brown workers--who account for 90% of infection rates although they make up 60% of the meatpacking workforce--at risk. 

Working to address local food insecurity from the perspective of abolition and decolonization requires analysis like this, but more deeply, it requires radically reorienting our relationship to food justice work and the land itself. For us, it has required a return to and rethinking of the analysis we began with--one that foregrounds the links among policing, gentrification, and food insecurity. What does it look like to create spaces that seek to dismantle all three? 

At the end of August we turned over the weekly food distribution we had established to a local church’s food justice ministry, and shifted to entirely focus on the Tibbet’s Tail cleanup project. The distribution remains crucial in the Kingsbridge neighborhood; each week there are lines around the block, and emerging partnerships with local “Friendly Fridges” on W. 242nd Street, Kingsbridge Rd., and Bedford Park Boulevard (stocked with City Harvest produce for local residents who cannot make it to the church). We were preoccupied by the question of how we would respond to the next wave of COVID-19, and what it means to be a mutual aid group planning for the long haul of local food insecurity. On city-wide food justice calls, we had found that there is a concentration of groups in the city, but they are predominantly in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Local food sources were needed. 

The Tibbet’s Tail cleanup has required a radical reorientation to the land. People involved in the work see it as regenerating the land into a community-led space where we can receive healing through forest bathing, restoring the soil, growing herbal medicines and produce, improving the health and well being of the area by removing trash that the city is not cleaning up in an area that is struggling to stay rent stabilized while becoming increasingly gentrified, and distributing food directly to the community. In the context of the summer uprisings against police brutality and trauma from police violence, and the devastation to physical and mental health from COVID-19 and social isolation, we have grown to see food justice work as growing medicine, feeding people plant-based foods, healing the soil, and engaging in political education - which includes teaching folks to grow food medicine for themselves. 

By “plant based” we mean an explicitly vegan politic, but not a whitewashed veganism--a veganism defined by BIPOC towards ancestral realities that brings everyone forward - animals, exploited laborers in the food system, food consumers--as we work to heal our bodies and honor the land. This is different from the white savior charity model where there is no thought as to what culturally relevant realities exist around food or the truth that food and food education is denied to Black and Brown peoples. Food justice is not giving rejected food to communities in need. We are working towards food sovereignty, where we all learn to grow our own food/medicine as a reclamation of ancestral knowledge, foregrounding the tensions in using the language of sovereignty in a context of living on unceded Lenni-Lenape territory, and seeing decolonization not as a metaphor but a politic and ethic that shapes the directions of this work. We are all living on the same colonized land and cannot fight each other. 

Besides, as Kim writes in a recent essay in Autostraddle, if we’re being killed we cannot be consuming foods that kill us. If we are fighting against incarceration, we cannot be eating incarcerated beings. We cannot disavow our ancestors by succumbing to the legacy of brutality and derision left by colonialism.  As Angela Davis said at the 27th Empowering Women of Color Conference, “I think there is a connection between...the way we treat animals and the way we treat people who are at the bottom of the hierarchy. Look at the ways in which people who commit such violence on other human beings have often learned how to enjoy that by enacting violence on animals. So there are a lot of ways we can talk about this.” 

Food justice is also un-doing the binarization of people/land that was one of the original violences of colonialism – a hierarchy that underlies racism, sexism, homophobia, and all oppressions. Through cleanup, soil remediation, and planting, how can we repair our community’s relationship to the land and high-lead soil? (When we began cleanup, the space was filled with the medicinal plant burdock, but we could not use it because of the high lead content.) We see this as a space for intergenerational movement building and knowledge exchange--skills from chop-and-drop soil remediation, to burning shit, to cutting away excess foliage so water can reach the ground. We see it as a space to ask thorny questions--when folks have been living on this land, or have used it as a bathroom because there are no other public bathrooms to use, how do we think long-term to maintain the usability of the land in these ways? (For example, a five-year plan that includes a composting toilet and housing structures.) 

We are inspired to rethink how we engage with the land. It is an immediate resource for the community itself. Historically denied access to the very sidewalk residents live on, we want to figure out how to repurpose land to serve the community directly. We believe our work on the land is a way of reimagining our lives together with our community and finding possible new ways of living. So far how we have lived is not working for us (COVID, declining economy, no meaningful skills being taught by state institutions). The land is our kitchen and our apothecary to create food that heals and nurtures our spirits. Our work on the land battles the concrete and gentrification drowning our ability to thrive where we live amidst the perils of COVID-19 and a failing economy.

After months of intensive mutual aid work, and this shift to cleaning up Tibbets Tail, we are left with these questions: how do we create safe spaces for people to be, explore their own ideas, create knowledge together? What does “be” mean in this system? How do we keep people motivated to live and build skills together in a time of quarantine and isolation? How do we engage the amazing creative power of this moment? How do we create the space for people to allow their radical imaginations to breathe life into a new system as we leave behind the dying one? What kind of healing is necessary for this work, and how can we create these healing spaces together?