Carlo Petrini’s Slow Food and Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse are often credited as the originators of the farm-to-table movement in America. Some of the most notable names who have written about and championed it are Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan, Dan Barber, Wes Jackson and Barbara Kingsolver. They’ve all done significant work to advance the idea that food sourced directly from farms makes a difference. They’ve inspired many, myself (a cookbook author) included, and today the term is ubiquitous in restaurants and kitchens across the country.
They’re also all white. That’s a problem. It means that the concept and execution of farm-to-table ideas and values are predominately centered on white voices even though so much of the food in this country, from the production of it to the preparation of it, has always and continues to depend on the labor of people of color.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Farm-to-table, if we reframe it, should be a term that better acknowledges the efforts of everyone in the process. Moreover, it should mean that we acknowledge and work to repair the varied, multigenerational, and systemic forms of oppression that directly impact the millions of people who labor to bring food from farms to tables.
To start at the farm, know that 96 percent of rural landowners are white. The five largest landowners in America, all white, own more rural land than all black Americans combined. Land ownership, and the support systems to navigate and maintain it, is vital to a more just food system. The more varied the group of people that own land, the more those with power will be aware of and able to address issues that affect everyone who works the land. Initiatives like Black Urban Growers, the lawyer-slash-organizer Jillian Hinshaw, and the interactive map Reparations for Black-Indigenous Farmers are all working to shift the balance.
When we say farm-to-table, we often leave out the toil of everyone in the 'to.'
And what about everyone who works on the farms? In 2017 the annual median income for agricultural workers was $23,730. This number is already staggeringly low, but keep in mind it doesn’t account for undocumented workers and it includes a range of jobs with varying incomes. According to a 2010 report by Southern Poverty Law Center, the average personal income for female crop workers was $11,250 (compared with $16,250 for male crop workers). Moreover, the industry is rife with wage theft. In a survey of 51 poultry processing plants, the U.S. Department of Labor found that all of them hadn’t paid employees for all of the hours they worked.
Agricultural workers also risk dangerous working conditions, including exposure to pesticides and other toxic chemicals. They, especially immigrant women, also regularly face sexual harassment and abuse at work. In a 2014 study, a farmworker from Salinas, California, made reference to “the field de calzon (field of panties) because so many supervisors take women there to rape them.” And if a worker seeks justice, she or he will rarely find that the legal system protects them.
Too often when we say farm-to-table, we leave out the toil of everyone in the “to.” The same ugly cocktail of racial, economic, and gender discrimination that takes place on farms is mirrored in food processing factories and restaurant kitchens all over America. Risks for workers relying on tips and minimum-wage salaries to make ends meet range from health and safety hazards at poultry processing plants to rampant sexual harassment. Just look at the names that have made headlines in the past few months. Workplace abuse can also come from the very customers that employees serve.
And the tables themselves? They’re just as economically inaccessible as the farms the food came from in the first place. The “farm-to-table” label often sends clear signals about price points and aesthetics. A quick scroll through the 1.4 million Instagram posts marked #farmtotable are primarily of white people with gardens or at nice restaurants. When we say “farm-to-table,” it seems that we are saying the term belongs to wealthy white people with access to tables laden with abundant produce. This means we are leaving out so many and so much.
So what do we do? How do we dismantle the term and reframe it to be more inclusive and equitable?
People’s Kitchen Collective, a group in Oakland, California, has devoted the last year to a series called “From the Farm to the Kitchen to the Table to the Streets,” working specifically to redefine what farm-to-table can mean. Co-founded by Saqib Keval, Jocelyn Jackson, and Sita Bhaumik, the collective aims to show how we can reframe the phrase to keep the whole journey from farm to table in mind while simultaneously honoring and creating space for people of color at each step. “We crave spaces that deliberately center our voices and experiences. As people of color, our lives are shaped by displacement, migration, loss of land, and access to resources. In the absence of land, we create space by eating in public,” reads the organization’s website.
I have been personally so inspired by their work that I asked them to contribute to my last book, Feed the Resistance, and to participate in an event for it.
In April 2017, they hosted a community meal where they asked participants to explore how farming has been a way to create place despite displacement ― how cultivating land means having some ownership over it. In August, they went from the farm to the kitchen and asked participants to share stories of kitchen remedies for illness, trauma, and separation. And in February, they invited people affected by xenophobic immigration policies to come to the table for a meal in remembrance of the signing of the executive order mandating the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. They produced a resource guide to accompany the meal, a way to extend the work past the table.
On Sunday, their largest meal yet will take place in the West Oakland neighborhood, a way to push farm-to-table from private spaces to a large, very public one. The setting will span a city block and the group will provide a free meal for 500 participants.
People’s Kitchen Collective recognizes that cooking is one of the surest ways to create and sustain community. And their work shows us how we can make the term less centered on white experiences and more grounded in food justice.
We can all be part of this reframing, whether we’re communicating to our representatives that we need the 2018 Farm Bill to include considerate provisions for small farms and for everyone eligible for SNAP benefits, making conscious decisions about which farms we source our food from, or considering whose tables we sit at and who we invite to sit at our own.
Let’s go from farm to table ― and beyond.
Julia Turshen is the author of Feed the Resistance, Small Victories, and the forthcoming Now & Again. She is also the founder of Equity at The Table, an inclusive digital directory of women/non-binary individuals in food.