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What White People Can Do for Food Justice

White supremacy persists in the movement for food justice.

Best-selling author Mark Bittman prepares lunch in Washington, DC, on Saturday, May 4, 2013. (Photo: Nikki Kahn / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

It is possible that the rich and famous can offer more to society than glimpses into their opulent lifestyles. The cult of celebrity today goes beyond our desire and admiration of superstars’ expensive clothes, cars, and houses. We want to know where they stand on important issues that impact our lives, like racism, sexual violence, the environment, food and land reform.

To our consolation, some of them are actually using their platforms to stand up for these causes.

While in the food movement, Black, Brown and Indigenous folks have been doing the work for decades to bring about equitable solutions, more Americans are paying attention to the system’s inherent racial inequities because of people such as food writer Mark Bittman.

But the movement needs more than just so-called leaders, like Bittman, who writes and speaks about food sustainability and land reform, and whose work, unbeknownst to him, was the inspiration for a training program that teaches cooks how to teach cooking. Black and Brown people need more than just lip service; they need resources, and accountability.

Bittman learned that lesson the hard way a month ago.

At the Stone Barn Center’s Young Farmer’s Conference where he was the keynote speaker, Bittman addressed the need for land reform. But his message took a turn during the Q&A session when food writer and activist Nadine Nelson asked him how he holds himself accountable to the Black, Brown and Indigenous communities he speaks so passionately about.

Rather than asking her to elaborate, Bittman grew defensive, saying he didn’t know what holding himself accountable means.

In a statement on Twitter the next day, Bittman, to his credit, apologized for his flippant remark, saying he recognized that his inability to effectively address the question of accountability to people of color justifiably made many angry and upset. “I regret especially that this was a missed opportunity to say something meaningful to a mostly white audience about racism, because that’s an important part of being accountable,” he wrote.

Recently, Nelson in a phone interview, said what she was seeking was specificity — as a white man who people look up to, what was Bittman doing to overturn the kind of oppression that is the focus of so much of his work. “As a white person who has a position of power there are lots of things you can do,” she said.

For many in the room that day, and in the food movement overall — particularly Black farmers and food activists — Nelson’s question, and the article that reported the incident, spoke to larger systemic issues of accountability and leadership. The inequities inherent in the system didn’t just apply to the issue of land reform, which Bittman has said is needed to undo the damages of racist federal policies. It spoke to the unjust and racially inequitable concentrations of power, and the erasure of Black and Brown people within the mainstream portrayal of the food movement.

The National Black Food and Justice Alliance, which represents hundreds of Black farmers, activists, organizers and organizations throughout the country, wrote in a statement later that the question of accountability is essential. “Accountability often entails taking direction, listening to, accepting feedback and criticism, and most importantly being in deep relationship with those on whose behalf you purport to speak,” it read in part.

It wasn’t the first time Bittman had missed an opportunity to connect with or even recognize Nelson, who was so inspired by his work that she created an entire training program based on one of his articles.

A Canadian immigrant of Jamaican ethnicity, she came to the United States with her parents when she was 10 years old. But they maintained ties with their family-owned land in Jamaica, where they grew their own food, and prepared cultural meals with their crops. They brought with them to the US the culture that land represents — particularly the cuisine.

Nelson’s family continued eating the healthy cultural foods she’d grown up with, and that love of blending food and culture stayed with her.

Ten years ago, when she left her job as an educator in Boston, she tapped into her passion for cooking and teaching and used those skills to instruct cooking classes in partnership with several grassroots organizations, as part of the local food movement there.

But the classes were free and not sustainable, Nelson says. She started to think: What if she had the resources to teach other cooks how to teach healthy, culturally relevant cooking? “Lots of people in our communities know how to cook healthy foods. But not everybody knows how to teach,” she says.

That opportunity presented itself when Parent University in Boston asked Nelson to do a workshop to educate parents there on different aspects of parenting. She worked with three other chefs to develop it, and together they considered the question: If you had 10 things in your pantry, what would they be?

“These items, like beans, rice, lentil, would be those that any family — large or small, rich or poor, American or immigrant — could use for multiple dishes,” she says.

In creating their list, the group, familiar with Bittman’s work, drew ideas from his article about sustainable foods and ways in which to prepare them.

“Chop, Fry, Boil: Eating for One or 6 Billion” would become the afflatus for Nelson’s Master Cooks Corps food program. She wrote the curriculum in 2014, when she relocated to Connecticut. And, with $5,000 through the nonprofit organization City Seed, she was able to roll out the program.

MCC was created to fulfill the “overwhelming request for cooking education,” with a “scalable solution” to the widening health disparities in communities of color and low-income communities. Students learn how to purchase healthy food within a budget. And, instead of organizations paying for expensive third-party providers to conduct workshops, the program trains local leaders to hold interactive classes in their places of influence, such as schools, community centers, and churches.

In addition to taking basic staples and demonstrating the multiple ways of preparing them (the Bittman influence), the program incorporates three essential provisions: culturally relevant culinary instruction; the pedagogy of cooking, which reinforces traditional learning disciplines such as math, science, social studies with food education; and experiential, or hands-on teaching.

Although New Haven, where the program is located, is predominately white, it has large African American, Latino, and immigrant populations. Making healthy cooking easily accessible is pointless without also making them applicable, Nelson says.

The use of cultural referents is important because it values and recognizes students’ own cultures.

“So the Cooks Corps focuses on the interaction with people,” whether they are Dominican, Puerto Rican or from Colombia or El Salvador, Nelson says. “If you’re going to be teaching people, you need to have some kind of understanding about who they are and what they eat, in order to teach them how to change to healthy foods; you can empower them if you understand about their diet.”

In three years, Nelson’s program has prepared more than 40 volunteer cooks in the New Haven area to teach culturally relative cooking to residents there — reaching thousands. Ten volunteers are available for on-call events by Nelson’s company, Global Local Gourmet.

Serena Spruill is one of those volunteers.

Once a client at Connecticut Mental Health, Spruill used food as a healing agent. Now she is a peer support specialist there, helping others prepare to live on their own once they transition out of the facility.

Spruill says it’s one thing to know to choose healthy options, and another to actually know how to prepare them.

“I knew what to order when I would go out to a restaurant. But I didn’t know how to make certain dishes myself,” she says, adding that MCC helped her to be creative, and interested in learning more about cooking healthy foods.

In her classes at the Mental Health Center, she teaches her students how to cook basic meals. “We help [them] learn how to nurture themselves when… they’re ready to get out of the facility and get on their own.”

In one of her sessions, she says, students didn’t know that they could make their own tomato sauce, or salad dressing, hummus, and Alfredo sauce. “They’re used to getting things already prepared.”

Spruill says the most rewarding feeling is seeing the excitement of students, or hearing back from those who’ve prepared the dishes for their families at home.

For example, she did a cooking class for a group of 12- and 13-year-olds who are part of Yale University’s Ulysses S. Grant summer program for local middle school students and received “thank you” notes from them.

“They thanked me for teaching them how to make a healthy meal. And a lot of them had made it for their family, and their family loved it. I was really touched by that.”

After MCC, she went on to complete an 11-month course at Natural Gourmet Institute in New York. “I’m a plant-based vegan chef, now,” she says.

This is what Nelson means by empowerment and accountability. She says she holds herself accountable by empowering people of color to feed themselves and their families with healthy meals.

She says she has approached Bittman on two separate occasions at events where he was speaking to share details of her program with him, but found him dismissive.

From white people, like him, in the food movement she wants to know: what are they doing to empower people of color to do for themselves? It’s easy for affluent whites, she says. Most people of color don’t have access to Rockefeller money — referencing the funders of Stone Barn.

For example, if you have 20 acres of land, don’t lease, loan or sell a couple of acres to a Black farmer. Just give it to them. “It’s simple,” she says.

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