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Left Behind

Opinion | March 4, 2013

Each week, when I open my box of vegetables from the CSA Enterprise Farm program at Tufts, I feel like a little kid opening birthday presents . While I realize that not everyone gets quite so excited about vegetables, food is a universal platform where groups and individuals can find common ground and seek opportunities to find connections. The food that we buy, and how we choose to cook and eat it, expresses our identity.

The simple act of purchasing food has come under increased public attention in the past decade as environmentally and socially minded individuals call upon the public to buy local and organic. The aim of this shift is to support small farmers who use sustainable practices, rather than backing the unnamed mono-cropping giants of our conventional food system. It is a simple idea: local and organic food nourishes individuals as well as communities, supporting neighbors rather than corporations. This paints the picture of the ideal food system. But is buying local and organic enough? Do these two conditions alone determine what our ideal food system should look like?

The short answer is a resounding ‘no.’ If we limit ourselves to these two criteria, we create social exclusion and reinforce existing structural inequalities in important, if unseen, ways. The food movement can and should be a vehicle to address social justice issues, especially around low-income communities. As a branch of the larger food movement, the food justice movement attempts to emphasize the ability of all groups to access local, organic, nutritious, and culturally meaningful food. Examining our food system through this lens forces us to challenge the comfortable notion that buying local and organic is enough to affect an important transformation. Are we really supporting a better food system, or are we reinforcing the privilege that has allowed us access to such specialized food?

The Boston local food system has provided some impressive examples of food justice at work. Some efforts seek to make local and nutritious foods more accessible to low-income families. Others aim to use food as a means for immigrants to maintain their cultural heritage.

The high cost of local and organic food is the greatest exclusionary factor in the food movement. In order to address this problem, several Farmers Markets in Somerville, Medford, and the greater Boston area have begun to accept SNAP/EBT benefits, WIC FNFP coupons and seniors’ coupons as forms of payment. The Somerville Winters’ Farmers Market also matches $10/week for SNAP dollars.

For those in greater need, organizations like The Food Project donate fresh, organic produce to local hunger relief organizations. Boston’s Long Island Shelter uses produce from their own Serving Ourselves Farm to feed its residents.

Though access to healthy, nutritious food is the main focus of many food justice campaigns,  for immigrant communities, access to culturally appropriate food can be equally important. The New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, an organization run by  Tufts’ Friedman School of Nutrition, provides training and support for immigrants to build small-scale farming operations. This organization focuses on the technical skills required to run successful farming enterprises, but also emphasizes the importance of culturally appropriate food for immigrants to define their own social space.

Acknowledging some of the gaps in the food movement, should not discourage consumers from participating when appropriate.. Buying from local and organic food sources is a great way to support sustainable practices and augment community development. But we can’t stop there. In the end, the way we spend our dollars now will determine how our future food system will look in the future. We need to ensure that food forms a common, meaningful platform for individuals of all socioeconomic, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. For this reason, it is imperative that we make conscious decisions when it comes to food. We must work to ensure that our food system promotes equality and is inherently inclusive, not exclusive.