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Liberating our tables: Changing how we eat to change what we eat

Published in the Michigan Citizen
• Sun, Apr 29, 2012

By Gregg Newsom

This is the latest in a series of columns discussing the Environmental Justice Principles drafted and adopted by delegates to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit held Oct. 24-27, 1991.

Last week, our co-columnist Patrick Geans Ali kicked off our discussion of Environmental Justice principle No. 7, which “demands the right to participate as equal partners at every level of decision-making, including needs assessment, planning, implementation, enforcement and evaluation.” Patrick offered up a discussion of participation in relation to the draconian political attack on community power through emergency management and the economic/geographic engineering of the Detroit Works Project. This week, as we shift our focus to this Environmental Justice principle and how it relates to food, like Patrick, I can’t imagine a better time to look at this principle.

While recognizing that I often get distracted by many issues, which is easy to do in Detroit, I try to keep food as my central focus, as many elders have advised. I perceive that food connects us all to each other and to the earth and through deepening our relationship and awareness of the food system, which reflects the entire cycle of life, I believe we can heal, reconnect and rebuild our relationships. What I perceive as large-scale corporate oppression informs my efforts in co-creating smaller, more intimate ways of doing things. While we’ve seen proof of the reconnecting/healing potential of neighborhoods through some community gardens and agricultural efforts, what I look toward is how a certain level of community participation and awareness can support a reawakening of direct democracy, one that shifts power into the hands of people.

Recently, local activists and leaders Ron Scott and Yusef Bunchy Shakur penned “Detroit’s Declaration of Peace, Hope and Love,” which wisely conveys that at “this time in Detroit’s history … Detroit needs a ‘people first’ mentality.” As I perceive it, this declaration serves as a call to not only our humanity, but to come together to support and establish liberated peace zones where communities can build power in the face of emergency management, consent agreement and corporate domination.

While it is vital we gather together in larger numbers, I humbly offer, with food at the center, that we consider the tables and benches where we gather to eat — as a family, with friends or alone — as liberated spaces as well. I’m trying to view and promote our kitchen tables and wherever we gather as spaces to practice relearning how to treat each other with respect and how to participate in community.

Can power really shift through how we eat food? I’m beginning to understand that how we eat is as important as what we eat. My relationship with food is filtered through a number of privileges, so my family and I have choices when it comes to what we eat. I also recognize there is a large population of Detroiters who, like many people around the world, have little or no choice when it comes to what they are eating. I certainly do not want to dismiss access to safe and culturally relevant food as a principle in itself but I suggest we connect more to “how” we eat, whatever it is that finds its way to our table or into our hands.

No matter what we are eating — whether we’ve made it from scratch or picked it up at the corner store — through chewing and swallowing, we are connecting to and participating with something outside of ourselves. That may sound a bit cosmic, but eating is, in reality, a very intimate act, one that many traditionally share with family, close friends and community. There has been a great deal of effort to consumerize how we eat. From the TV dinners of the 1950s to the “grab and go” food sticks peddled through gas stations today, I’ve witnessed what I consider to be a blatant attempt to dilute the power of participation at its root by resetting the family table around the television and inspiring us to consider eating food as something that should be multitasked while on the run.

I want to again lift up the importance of breaking bread together as a means of “resetting” the table and reconnecting with the personal power required for participation in decision-making, needs assessment, planning, implementation, enforcement and evaluation. I don’t want to present this as an easy task, but I’ve taken to heart that, even though we appear to be programmed for pathology though media dependence, there is something instinctual and cross-cultural about getting together to enjoy food and talk. Getting together, cooking, eating and communicating are skills that we, whether privileged or not, have been divested of. In order for us to move closer to a meaningful manifestation of this EJ principal, we need to take back how we eat so we can reestablish power over what we eat.

Gregg Newsom is the communications coordinator for the Detroit Food Justice Task Force. Visit www.detroitfoodjustice.com.

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