MLK, Food, and Community Gardens

I just stumbled upon a great post over at Grist.org reflecting on Martin Luther King Jr. in terms of our food culture and food system. In many ways the post reminded me of some of the work I had done a few years ago, exploring the overlaps between Dr. King and conservation and community service for the Student Conservation Association (see those here and here). I agree with Tom Philpot, the author of the post, that a community garden is a great place to celebrate MLK day.

Here is an excerpt from the post:

“[There is an] emerging backlash against industrial food — a movement toward farmers markets, natural-foods supermarkets like Whole Foods, and other sources of fresh, unprocessed fare. But here, too, African Americans were largely marginalized. In cities across the country, “food deserts” persist: areas where almost no fresh food (much less local or organic fare) is available, forcing residents to either travel great distances to supermarkets or rely on overpriced processed fare from corner stores.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that African Americans face significantly higher rates [PDF] of diet-related diseases such as Type II diabetes. And these maladies tend to fall harder on blacks than whites. One recent study found that black children with diabetes are twice as likely to die from the disease as white children. Another study found that the black diabetes rate continues to rise faster than the rate for whites — and that blacks tend to be stricken with the disease at younger ages. 

In our society, there’s a strong focus on individual solutions to the problems I’m laying out here. Commentators focus on personal choice; we are urged to “transform our food system one bite at a time” by exercising our consumer power to buy fresh, local, sustainably raised food. 

But the choices we have are limited by structural forces. Yes, people need to take responsibility for their food choices, but if we’re really going to throw off the dead hand of industrial food, we need to transform the conditions under which people make their food choices. 

In one of his most famous statements, King declared that “no one is free until everyone is free.” Our food system drives home that maxim. For 30 years, a combination of virtuous personal consumption choices and gritty organizing has given rise to a robust sustainable-food movement in the United States. Yet for all the hard work, less than 3 percent of food consumed in the United States is grown under ecologically sustainable conditions, the Kellogg Foundation estimates. 

The dominant trend remains toward environmentally destructive monocultures — and is contributing to catastrophic climate change that will affect virtuous and privileged eaters just as much as junk-food junkies. No one is free from industrial food until everyone is free from industrial food. 

Now, if I argue that an emphasis on personal virtue is inadequate, I can’t claim that creating structural change is easy. The forces I’ve laid out here — wage stagnation, corporate consolidation, farm subsidies, monoculture agriculture — are vast. They’re well designed to make individuals feel impotent. 

And that’s where community gardening comes in. Community gardening is an individual act that puts people into direct contact with their neighbors — inviting people to interact, make decisions by consensus, hash out differences. And by collectively transforming urban land into a resource for growing fresh, healthy food, community gardeners are creating small-scale, on-the-ground solutions to the large-scale and abstract problems I’ve laid out here.

King often rhapsodized about what he called the “beloved community” — a society based on the principles of brotherhood and reconciliation. Community gardening brings that vision from field to plate. Alone it can’t save our food system — or save us from our food system. But I can’t think of a more promising place to start than outside in the field with neighbors.

Support grist.org and go read the rest over there.

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