Maverick Citizen

Food Justice


Seeds of change – the politics of food gardens, from the Bronx to Mzansi

Seeds of change – the politics of food gardens, from the Bronx to Mzansi
US food justice activist and farmer Karen Washington tours a community food garden at Mamelodi’s Motheo Primary School. (Photo: Laura Lopez Gonzalez)

Karen Washington is a food justice activist and community organiser best known for helping to start food gardens in New York City’s Bronx neighbourhood. She coined the term ‘food apartheid’ to describe neighbourhoods – like many in South Africa – without access to healthy food to reveal the intersections of food, race, demographics and socioeconomics. Washington recently spoke to community gardeners in Mamelodi northeast of Pretoria. This is an edited excerpt from her speech, as told to Laura Lopez Gonzalez.

Many people believe the food system is broken and needs to be fixed. I used to believe that too.

I got my start in New York City in the 1980s. The city had practically no money and at one time – if you can believe it – it had more than 50,000 vacant lots, mostly in low-income neighbourhoods or areas people left because of “white flight” – white people leaving the city for the suburbs.

Those who remained were people who had no access to resources. 

Now, I didn’t have a white picket fence then but I did move into a brand-new housing development. But right across the street from my brand-new house was an empty lot full of garbage. 

And you know what? 

If you live near an empty lot full of garbage, people think you’re garbage.

As a person of colour, living next to an empty lot full of garbage, I was being told I was garbage.

So, without any resources, people got together to take these empty lots – that the city itself did not care for – and turned them into parks and food gardens. 

People who were told they were nothing took something full of despair and turned it into something beautiful – something that you would want to live near and that provided a safe haven for seniors and children.

In the very beginning, those gardens weren’t about food, they were about survival. 

Food gardens are about more than food

But after a while, I was in those gardens, working on food, and I realised: Wait a second, I just can’t work on food alone.

Because while I was in that garden, tending to it and making it so beautiful, I realised that within my community there were so many social issues: Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, childhood obesity, cancer, heart disease…

People had asthma because of environmental issues like living near incinerators, or people were without jobs or didn’t have a roof over their heads.

I had to think about food in a way that intersected economics, health, housing and the environment. 

I learnt that if we’re going to really work for hunger and poverty, we needed to work along three pillars: food justice, food sovereignty and food apartheid. 

‘If you don’t know about food justice, you’re not really talking about food’

A 2016 study found that Gauteng was home to more than twice as many fast food outlets as grocery stores in 2016. Black and low-income neighbourhoods were generally less likely to report having grocery stores. (Graphic: Health Systems Trust)

Let’s start with food justice because if you don’t know about food justice, then you’re not really talking about food. 

My definition of food justice is the transformation of the food system to eliminate the disparities that are most often seen in low-income neighbourhoods.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Through honest toil and kindness in Bo-Kaap, Souper gardeners plant seeds of hope that transform lives

When I use the phrase “food justice” and talk about the transformation of a system, it is an active movement. We’re talking about justice along with eradicating food insecurity. We have to actively dismantle the social injustices that we see around race, gender, access to land, trauma, power, leadership…

Next is food sovereignty – that’s the ability to control your own food, to govern what you eat and how you live. 

And the third pillar is food apartheid

Many communities in Gauteng are food deserts’. Should we be talking about food apartheid in South Africa? 

I coined the term “food apartheid” because I was told by other people that people who looked like me lived in a “food desert”.

I said, wait a second, I don’t see no desert. I don’t see no sand. 

Outsiders were telling us that we lived in a place that did not have food or that it was too far to walk for food.

But we had food. We had junk food, fast food, processed food – but we didn’t have healthy food.

And so many times within communities of colour and low-income neighbourhoods, that is the food that you will see in our neighbourhoods. Many times the food that we eat has empty calories. 

But when I said “food apartheid”, ears started wagging. People asked, what do you mean?

I meant we needed to start having a hard conversation about a food system around race, demographics, and economics because your food system is based on the colour of your skin, how much money you make, and where you live. 

And if we’re talking about a food system that’s supposed to be fair, and just and equitable for all then we need to have those hard conversations. 

And when you grow your own food, it gives you power because you understand you grew that food and that food is nourishing to your body. 

‘Land gives us power because land has the essence of culture and tradition’

Everyone wants access to land: we don’t want to be beholden to some sort of entity where we don’t have the knowledge or wherewithal to grow our own food because growing our own food gives us power. 

To own land is a capitalistic way of thinking of land – land for extraction and exploitation. Sometimes it’s the government who thinks along this capitalistic system. We’ll say we want land because we want to care for it, to grow fruits and vegetables and medicine on it to make us whole as human beings. 

Government will say we have a crisis of hunger and poverty.

But when people want to grow food on land, they say no. What is it in the capitalistic way of thinking that you don’t want people to grow food to feed themselves? 

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Because it’s all about the power dynamic: government, for example, has this land and that land is power. And if I give it to you, they think, you’re gonna take away that power.

But we’re not talking about power. We’re talking about feeding our communities and so our children can learn from that.

We want land because we want to take care of that land. 

As an African American, I know that the DNA in my body is that of an agrarian people. I look at the colour of our skin and the colour of our skin is soil. I put my hands in the soil and I feel that connection of belonging.

Read in Daily Maverick: “A strong food justice coalition is needed to fight effectively for the health of all South Africans

In the United States we’re trying to understand our ancestral roots. We want to know about growing sorghum, millet, calabashes, okra, watermelon… those seeds of Africa headed down from generation to generation and that our ancestors braided in their hair before being brought to the shores of this the United States as slaves.

And now I understand why there are so many people that don’t want us to go back to the land – because access to land gives us power, because land has the essence of culture and tradition.

Land is power, but you don’t always have to own it

But it’s not about owning land. I’ve sort of taken that word “owning” out of my thinking as I’ve gotten older.

I’m 68 years of age. I am not going to live long enough to own anything, no one is. So I’ve changed my perspective: how about me being a caretaker? How about me being a steward of the land?

To own land is a capitalistic way of thinking of land – land for extraction and exploitation. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Nic Bothma)

So, when I go to the powers that be, especially when I go to the government, I say, keep your ownership, give me that land so I can be the steward of the land. 

Because by being a caretaker of the land, I know that land will be in the hands of generation after generation.

Understanding our relationship to land is so important – and why we want land.

The food system doesn’t need to be fixed – it needs to change

Many people believe that the food system is broken and needs to be fixed.

But they are wrong. The food system doesn’t need to be fixed, it needs to be changed – and that change comes with putting the power back in the hands of a community.

We’re starting to understand that. So the essence is how do we work in community to change the economic system to think about not only growing food but also economic development, social capital and communal wealth.

Think farmers’ markets, food boxes, online businesses, hot sauce, dipping sauces, cheese – anything they can do to bring an added-value product to generate income.

Because in my community, nobody comes in and says, let me tell you how to save money or let me tell you how I can help you own a business.

They’ll come into my neighbourhood, say, soup kitchen, food pantry and welfare.

That’s the change – we understand that connection to food is not only about growing food, but there is an entrepreneurship mechanism. People want to be self-sufficient and self-reliant.

Changing the food system will take marches, rallies, hard work

In November, Karen Washington visited community gardens all over South Africa, including outside Pretoria where she delivered a longer version of this presentation.

People want a job, they want a business, they want to be able to feed their families, have a roof over their heads, eat healthy food and drink clean water – they want to just be human. 

There are people out there fighting for just that. And it takes marching. it takes conferences. It takes rallies for people to be heard

And there is a symbiotic relationship between community and government, they need to work together. We can have this way of thinking that it’s us and then it’s the government. You put them in power so they can work for you. 

Make them accountable. 

Ask questions. 

The work is hard. I’ve been told “no” so many times until the government got tired of seeing my face. But how can you deny me time and time again, when all I want is a piece of land to feed my family?

When all I want is three things: opportunity, capital and support? DM/MC

Read more about Karen Washington here and here.


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