Growing power

I left campus for winter break confused and troubled by my own privilege. I needed a way to visualize the root causes of hotly contested issues such as race and class, to find something to which I could relate. During my Winter Study internship at the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, this is what I found: Williams students cannot hope to change oppressive societal norms without understanding the underlying issues of food security and choice.

Americans universally belong to a broken food system. Government subsidies cause unhealthy foods to be cheaper than healthy, fresh foods, and over 40 percent of our food is thrown away, even as our hunger crisis worsens. Food sovereignty, defined by the United Nations as the “right of peoples and sovereign states to democratically determine their own agricultural and food policies,” is largely a relic of America’s agricultural past. Americans today have little say in the corporations and federal regulatory agencies that determine current agricultural policies.

Food choices are especially limited in low-income neighborhoods, where liquor stores and fast food chains are often more accessible than markets carrying fresh produce. The children in these neighborhoods go to school so malnourished that they can’t learn. The adults in their lives are at high risk for heart disease, diabetes and other diet-related illnesses that render them unable to pursue good jobs and be good parents. In Boston’s Dudley neighborhood, for example, adults are 27 percent more likely to be obese than the average Bostonian, while children are 75 percent more likely to eat fewer than three servings of vegetables per week. Adjacent to Dudley is Jamaica Plain, a gentrified neighborhood with several local food co-ops, a Whole Foods and a Stop & Shop, not to mention dozens of restaurants. Dudley’s residents have fewer choices and often even these choices are limited by a lack of transportation.

Underlying these class distinctions are racial divisions. Dudley’s inhabitants are predominantly black and Hispanic, while Jamaica Plain’s population has become increasingly white. Though food sovereignty has decreased across the United States as agricultural corporations have grown in size, those with the time, money and opportunity to choose fresh, healthy foods that have been grown in a conscientious manner can do so. Many more cannot. The freedom of a community can be measured by the extent to which it can determine what is available for them to eat. A neighborhood hobbled by poor food accessibility cannot break out of the cycle of poverty.

I had heard of The Food Project (TFP), an urban farm working to erase this disparity in Boston, from Mike Evans, the new assistant director of the Zilkha Center. Halfway through January, I visited TFP’s greenhouse in Dudley. I wanted to understand the day-to-day operation of an organization that has improved the lives of so many.

Urban farms provide their communities with alternatives: alternative food sources, alternative jobs, alternative social spaces, alternative futures. TFP constructs these alternatives so that locals can take full ownership of them. The farm crew leaders and neighborhood outreach coordinators who I met in TFP’s Dudley office are from Dudley. They are high school juniors and seniors, excited about applying to college and hanging out with their friends from the farm. TFP is training them in community leadership and business organization, in the ethics of caring for oneself, one’s community and one’s environment. Princeton graduates and locals who have never been to college occupy the same office space, working towards the same goal of a self-sustaining community.

I shadowed Danielle Andrews, the farmer who oversees TFP in Dudley. The muddy Carhartts, Muck Boots and flannel bearing TFP’s logo distinguished her from the rest of the women there, who were dressed in jeans and casual sweaters. The women each owned a plot at the farm. Community members vote to give plots to those who will best use or most deserve them. Elderly residents are high-priority members, as are the local elementary schools. The sales of salad greens grown in the back of the greenhouse keep it running 11 months out of the year.

Andrews has been working with this community for 14 years. In this time, her knowledge and work ethic have earned her its respect. The women nodded and interjected their own questions, positing their own solutions to each wilting plant or aphid infestation we crossed. They are learning to make this garden their own.

The whole space was breathtakingly beautiful. Vibrant purple stems of beets and Swiss chard fleshed out into leaves of deep green; fronds of celery reached my chest, each stalk thick as my wrist; white snow pea blossoms curled on trellises towards impossibly high ceilings. From the drudgery of winter in south Boston, I had emerged into a world where all life seemed possible. Behind towers of fennel and kale, I made out a sign: GROWING BLACK POWER. This garden fed the souls and dreams that sustained social movements.

Dudley’s residents strengthen their bodies, minds and community ties by participating in urban agriculture. While the movement for a sustainable agricultural system in the United States has a white, well-educated face, food sovereignty is not for a privileged class, race or personality type. Independent agricultural production is a civic action, a civic service. Williams students of all backgrounds should support local foods at the College and in the future.

Mary Ignatiadis ’16 is a geosciences major from Huntsville, Ala. She lives in Mark Hopkins.