- Is farm-to-fork racially inclusive?
This is an excerpt of an essay first printed earlier this year in BOOM Magazine. Read the full essay here. The author is Kimberly D. Nettles-Barcelón, an associate professor in African American and African Studies at UC Davis.
In the spring of 2015 I picked up an issue of Sacramento Magazine. While thumbing through it an advertisement featuring the Juneteenth Black Chefs Collaborative immediately caught my eye. I was aware of the city’s rebranding as The Farm-to-Fork Capital but I had not seen any images connected with it featuring Black people. The ad piqued my interest and I spent the next several months gathering additional images associated with the campaign.
What I have come to see is the hard work of recognizing and undoing white privilege is an ongoing, complicated endeavor that needs everyone to engage. — Nettles-Barcelón
The five ads I found, that ran from about January 2015 through January 2016, serve not as markers of how broad-based the work of the farm-to-fork campaign is but rather the degree to which there are fissures that resist containment. The ruptures in the seemingly inclusive narrative of “We are America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital” is stark in the two ads featuring Black folks.
In the Juneteenth Black Chefs Collective ad, what we see are a group of chefs whose foodwork is not connected with the spaces where they cook nor are there any relationships to farmer(s) who supply their raw food and bespoke artisanal products. While the title of the Collaborative is visible, it is unclear what that means or how that ties into “farm-to-fork.” Similarly, when we see the members of the Yisrael Family Urban Farm they are photographed in what appears to be a residential yard, holding farm implements, and dressed in earth toned t-shirts with the name of the farm. Again, how their food work resonates with the farm-to-fork campaign is not clear.
Sacramento’s “Farm-to-Fork Capital” campaign is, at its roots, a marketing campaign designed to boost tourism, development, and economic growth within Sacramento. The romanticized relationship between the local farmer (food or beverage producer) and the consumer is at the center of the “movement.” The uncomfortable, complex, and not-so-pretty bits of the politics of food and eating is deftly pushed to the margins.
“The Fruits of Their Labor”
This farm-to-fork “movement” crosses boundaries between commerce, boosterism, and social change in contradictory/uncomfortable ways. For instance, the December 2014 issue of Sactown Magazine featured a story by Max Whittaker titled, “The Fruits of Their Labor,” which purports to shine light on the often overlooked farm laborers who pick “our” fruits and vegetables. While the author hopes to bring attention to farmworkers, the language used in the photo essay is patronizing, condescending, and ignorant of questions of ownership or histories of farmworker labor struggles. The imagined connections between the production (farm) and consumption (fork), is in reality deeply hierarchical where the products cannot be consumed by laborers in the rarefied venues and events associated with the campaign.
Farm-to-fork in action
Just as Latino farm workers are imagined as noble laborers, other people of color are often portrayed as the needy recipients of the information connected to Sacramento’s “Farm-to-Fork Capital.” As one of the critical cultural workers in Sacramento’s mainstream farm-to-fork movement, the Food Literacy Center hosts an annual Food Film Festival as a fundraiser for the nonprofit and as part of its public facing work.
In the lead up to the screening some “student chefs” who were participants in the Food Literacy Center’s school-based program were invited onstage. There were three of them: 13-year-old Matthew (White or Latino), 8-year-old Olivia (maybe Latina), and 7-year-old Jackie (Black). However, their participation felt scripted and manipulative. I was dismayed with the use of the little brown kids as “demonstrations” of the effectiveness of the Food Literacy Center and as representatives of the “problem” made right.
The “truth discourses” embedded in the Sacramento Farm-to-Fork Campaign about the benefits of eating locally, seasonally, and with intention permeate the language of the Food Literacy Center. Those “truth discourses” say nothing about the inequalities within school, work, and in communities grappling with the impacts of historical disinvestment and contemporary gentrification. Moreover, until recently, they did not address cultural relevant foods or historically different foodways.
Conclusions: Where do we go from here? Our farm, our fork, our community
It is clear that in terms of the Sacramento Farm-to-Fork Capital campaign images needed greater context to make them visible to the broader public. Efforts to contextualize HOW their work engages farm-to-fork from a different perspective would allow people not likely to frequent the high end restaurants, Tower Bridge Dinner, or even the Farm-to-Fork Festival to get a glimpse into the issues which undergird experiences of food insecurity, lack of good employment options within urban communities, make connections between the consumption of processed foods and poor health, all within the context of radical self-care.
Food Literacy Center Newsletter
A “Weekly Update” was the first newsletter I received from the Food Literacy Center on March 24, 2021 that explicitly discussed race, equity and inclusion issues in relation to their mission with this level of depth. What I have come to see is the hard work of recognizing and undoing white privilege is an ongoing, complicated endeavor that needs everyone to engage — especially those who benefit most from the system of inequities. Perhaps the Food Literacy Center and the mainstream farm, restaurant, food, and beverage industries they engage with are ready to do that work.
Kimberly D. Nettles-Barcelón is an associate professor in African American and African Studies at UC Davis. She also serves as a book review editor for Food and Foodways and is the founding faculty director of the Center for the Advancement of Multicultural Perspectives in the Social Sciences, Arts & Humanities within the office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at UC Davis.