This blog is part of a series that explores the themes and issues raised in Farmed and Dangerous, a 4-part satirical web series exploring issues related to the food system and industrial agriculture. If you're interested in joining the conversation, please contact us at FoodForThought@huffingtonpost.com.
Many low-income communities around the country are located in what policy makers, activists and media refer to as "food deserts" -- places where there is an abundance of cheap, processed food and an absence of healthy, fresh, affordable food. In a food desert food options range from a variety of fast food chains to "food" sold at local corner stores, liquor stores, pharmacies, etc. I live in South Central Los Angeles and it is undoubtedly a food desert. But I do not call it that. I call it a food prison. And if our communities do not take the necessary steps to break out of this prison we will remain trapped by the immobilizing confines of our zip code.
From Chicago to Philadelphia to New Orleans, the new epidemic in African American communities and other low-income neighborhoods is a result of the food prison. This epidemic is one of preventable diseases: hypertension, diabetes, obesity, heart disease and so on. In these prisons the green grocer has been replaced by the dialysis center, the drive-thrus have become more deadly than the drive-bys, the rate of malnourished children is on par with the rate of the failing schools and teenagers are having heart attacks. As this epidemic is starting to gain the attention of the general public it is important that we frame it in terms of food injustice so as not to disguise what is really going on.
Food injustice is a structural problem. It is about corporate consolidation of power that has monopolized the agricultural industry and encroached on our food consumption. We need to understand that the demand for big agriculture and fast food did not come from the consumer market. For the past 50 years or so we have been told that the industrialization of food production gives America the power to feed the world, the justification for taking food production from the farm to the laboratory -- a controlled environment in which our food is grown, manufactured and prepared. The end result is a toxic recipe intended to keep our bodies craving a perfect scientific formula comprised of additives, preservatives, salts, manipulated fats and sugars: a recipe for disaster for the people eating this stuff, while ensuring enormous profit financially. In other words, as the girth of the average American has grown, so have the bank accounts of the executives of agribusiness.
Food injustice weakens those at the bottom of the pyramid. Agribusiness and fast food came up with an ingenious model based on quantity at the expense of quality intended to entrap those with the least amount of purchasing power. In a market of cash-strapped consumers the calorie-to-price ratio of fast food versus real food is how choices are made for us. When forced to choose between a meal that offers 2,000 calories or an apple, both costing $1, for someone who lives near the poverty line the choice is simple. Fast food companies, in league with corporate agriculture, manufactured the Big Mac to be the meal of the working class and the poor, producing lifelong consumers addicted to their products and subdued by the physical effects of this consumption.
Food injustice is socially engineered. Living in a food prison means you do not choose what you put in your body. You are dependent on corporations to feed you. Today, elementary school students around the country have a greatly diminished food vocabulary. I have seen a classroom of kids draw a blank when asked to name the tomato I am presenting before them. I have had kids tell me watermelons grow on trees. I have talked to grown adults who do not know that ham and pork both come from a pig. Is the mark of a first world nation, a country that claims to feed the world, one in which its citizens are denied the basic knowledge of Food 101? Is it civilized to disassociate the chicken from the chicken nugget? Or the cow from the steak in the grocery store? If we are what we eat then what are we?
This is how a food prison immobilizes its inhabitants.
In a food desert the soil is impotent. In a food forest the soil is fertile. Food justice is about changing the composition of the soil to change the landscape. It is about resuscitating the nature around us and relearning the art of nature. It is about collaboration, bringing people and communities together to learn how to feed ourselves and feed each other. It is about taking responsibility, building agency in individuals and communities. It is about communities becoming sustainable, learning how to live hyper-local.
In my eyes, the urban gardener today is a renegade and an artist. He uses nature for his canvas and his art changes lives. The urban gardener sees food not only as the problem but also the solution. By breaking free from the entrapment of our modern day food system the urban gardener is breaking down a system constructed -- masterminded -- by corporations motivated solely by their own gain. The urban garden is no longer just a garden; it is an act of defiance.
I see the urban food forest as a gateway to food justice, breaking the chains of the food prison. Every garden changes the composition of the soil of the community cultivating fertile grounds for nourishment. The garden engages and includes. In the urban gardens I have participated in, including my own, I have seen kids and adults explore the wonders of the natural world, one which they can taste, feel, smell, see, hear and create something of great value. I have seen gangsters reform and homeless people remember a feeling of home. Above all, I have seen gardens change an inner-city landscape, providing true nourishment where it is needed most.
Farmed and Dangerous was produced by Chipotle and production company Piro. Chipotle is the sponsor for the Food For Thought initiative.