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Virtual ‘Food and Justice in Virginia’ panel fosters discussion about food access, policy and workers’ rights

The featured panelists addressed food disparities on both local to national levels and urged community engagement and activism

<p>In a poll to attendants of the virtual Food and Justice in Virginia panel, 43 percent of respondents knew "almost nothing" about where their food comes from.</p>

In a poll to attendants of the virtual Food and Justice in Virginia panel, 43 percent of respondents knew "almost nothing" about where their food comes from.

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U.Va Lifetime Learning — in partnership with Morven Farm — held the virtual panel Food and Justice in Virginia Wednesday as part of the University’s Community MLK Celebration. The five panelists discussed the influence of systemic racism on food accessibility and farm working conditions and common problems — including food security and worker safety — while urging the public to become more involved in food-related policy, especially in the Charlottesville community. 

The event was hosted as an open dialogue between five food justice experts and was moderated by Assoc. Politics Prof. Paul Freedman. Audience members had the opportunity to chime in with a question-and-answer box and there were real-time polls throughout. 

Tanya Denckla — director of the University’s Institute for Engagement and Negotiation, which fosters collaboration on environmental issues — explained that the cracks in the modern food system are reflective of past inequities in agriculture. For example, Cobb explained that this industry still depends upon enslaved laborers, but modern slavery takes different forms. This is why she emphasized that at its core, food justice is a basic right. 

“Food justice is … the ability to exercise core human rights of self determination about the most important thing, which is our food,” Cobb said.

Dr. Basil Gooden – former Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry – pointed out that the issue of food justice entails more than our daily meals. As state director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rural development in the Commonwealth, he witnessed firsthand the positive impact that agriculture can yield on economic well being, health and quality of life. Conversely, injustices in the food system spawn ripple effects across all of these aspects. 

“[Food justice] encompasses everything from the producing to the end consumer,” Gooden said. “The big problem that we are having is the disparity and the inequities that are rife throughout the entire system.”

Gooden also noted that over time, we have outsourced everything from educating our children to feeding our families, so we have a strained relationship with the food we consume. While historically societies have grown or foraged for food, today we interact with our meals in the context of a supermarket or a fast-food takeout box. This spatial separation between dining plates and farms leads to the dissociation of farms with our dinner plates

“We have become disconnected with how our food is actually produced, and who's actually produced it, and that most important part — under what conditions.” Gooden said.

During the panel discussion, viewers were asked how much they knew about where their food comes from. The most popular response — selected by 43 percent of respondents — was “almost nothing.” Christianne Queiroz, program director of Virginia Farm Workers, said that she was unsurprised by the responses.

“[The poll result] does not surprise me from the point of view of the lack of visibility of farm workers and their lives and conditions,” Queiroz said. “I think that's what actually generates a lot of moral apathy towards the situation of farmworkers in the country.”

In reaction to the poll result, Freedman directed the discussion toward addressing the role of consumers.

“I think we should ask, ‘Why do we have a food system in which we know so little, in which it is so hard to achieve a level of transparency to learn about our food?’” Freedman said.

Freedman argued that while it may be human nature to blame consumers for their decision-making, the public must adopt a holistic perspective by acknowledging that the food system itself is a “moral failure.” As it stands, the system intentionally leaves consumers in the dark, which leads to passive eaters and a disconnection from nature, though the panelists presented several potential solutions to propel food system reform.

One proposed solution involved communicating the importance of reconnecting with the land. Shantell Bingham, program director of Charlottesville Food Justice Network, mentioned that she is the great granddaughter of tobacco sharecroppers and in North Carolina, and she practices gratitude for the native people that were the first stewards of the land.

In a similar vein, Cobb appreciated indigenous agricultural practices by partaking in a feast. She was invited to a meal hosted by the I-Collective, “an autonomous group of Indigenous chefs, activists, herbalists, seed and knowledge keepers.” At the meal, each dish was foraged from local land and prepared utilizing ancestral methods.

“They shared with us over lunch their perspective on food justice … [for them], it is about the connection of us to our food and to the land,” Cobb said. “They made a point of saying that you have likely never tasted food that tastes like this because you've never cooked it this way — with the land that it comes from.”

Cobb suggests that similar events at the University in the future could broaden perspectives and advance these conversations.

Cobb also noted that the public can bring lasting change to the food system through the different financial choices. For instance, the University spends $11 million on the 2 million meals it produces annually. Shifting even a portion of that spending towards Black and brown farmers has the power to shape livelihoods, Cobb said. She also mentioned that University Dining has a goal of 30 percent food expenditure on sustainable foods — which encompasses local produce — by 2030. In 2017, U.Va. Dining’s sustainable food purchases were 8.6 percent of its food expenditures.

Additionally, Queiroz pointed out that immigration reform laws — including federal regulations surrounding work visas — are an integral component of the food justice fight. She recommends that people contact their representatives and make their opinions known on proposed legislation. 

In her closing remarks, Bingham echoed these sentiments and emphasized the importance of both local and national policies. She urged listeners to keep in mind that food justice entails equality for all — a concept that unites Black and Indigenous farmers alike.

Gooden summed up his message with an excerpt from Dr. Vernon Johns, a civil rights activist and pastor. 

“‘If you see a good fight, get in it,’” Gooden quoted. 

He stated that most importantly, the public should seek involvement in this “good fight” for equality in our food system. Gooden challenged listeners to take action and realize the power they hold as individuals to enact change. 

Lastly, Cobbs noted that alumni hold influence over the Board of Visitors and University President Jim Ryan, as they can utilize their voices in an effort to hold the University accountable in becoming a leader in the movement for sustainable and just food.

In Freedman’s parting words, he emphasized that the future of the food system is in our hands.

“We are all eaters, we are all part of the food system, we all get to make decisions and choices,” Freedman said. “Let us think about how those choices affect food justice.” 

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