Bringing Cultural Perspectives to the Table

Dig In! opens up cross-cultural dialogue on food justice

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At the University of California, 19 percent of students encounter “very low” food security, which the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines as experiencing reduced food intake at times due to limited resources. Nearly half of UC students experience food insecurity each month, which is in line with the national average for students.

One answer to this problem is to grow, sell and eat food that is nutritious, affordable, culturally appropriate and sustainable —  this is food justice. Goals of this movement include building strong food systems, environments and communities.

On March 2, attendees and speakers collaborated at the Dig In! Food Justice Conference in the Colleges Nine and Ten Multipurpose Room to conceive a more just food system and imagine how to make food more accessible for those most impacted by structural injustices.

“What we are trying to center are the voices of community folks, of leaders who span the gamut of culture, race, ethnicity and gender, those who have spent time in the academy and those who haven’t,” said provost of Colleges Nine and Ten Flora Lu, who helped coordinate the event. “We are trying to decenter the voices that take up a lot of time and space and energy around food.”

Keynote speakers included Maria Elena de la Garza, Lyla June, Julisa Lopez and Dr. Breeze Harper, all women of color who addressed the cultural significance of food in their respective communities.

June is an acclaimed musician, poet, indigenous Navajo (Diné) woman and co-founder of the Taos Peace and Reconciliation Council in New Mexico. She used the lens of indigeneity and drew on her past to show how bringing cultural meaning back to food can solve disparities in the system.

“Food is the reason you are living right now. Food is not just some dead object,” June said in her speech. “Food is a living being that gave its life for us to have this experience. To put food in your mouth is to take a life, and this is a sacred process.”

Despite many indigenous cultures’ deep connection to food, Native American reservations, which have some of the highest poverty rates in the U.S., are dotted with food deserts. These communities are about 400 percent more likely than other households to have very low food security, largely as a result of isolated locations.

June finished her talk by beatboxing and weaving in powerful spoken word about striving for unity and treating the world right.

“One beautiful people, under one beautiful sun. We must also release all claims to the earth, because she don’t belong to us, we belong to her,” June sang.

The event also had programs where various community members emphasized and empowered historically marginalized voices in the food system. El Pajaro Community Development Corporation carried out an all-Spanish breakout session, having English speakers listen through translation headsets. Lu said these choices were made to give less space to the white male voice, which usually dictate discourse on food justice.

Following, there were workshops on topics such as food access and security of UCSC students, exploring histories and relations to food as well as one on veganism and racial equity.

Dig In! contributors included the USDA, National Institutes of Food and Agriculture, Hispanic Serving Institution Education Grants Program, the four UCSC Ethnic Resource Centers, the Sustainability Office, the People of Color Sustainability Collective, the Blum Center and the Everett Program.

Attendee Candace Addleman, fourth-year environmental studies major, is co-chair of the Food Systems Working Group, a UCSC organization in which members work to improve the campus food system. Addleman said she was pleased with the outcome of the conference and that it was one of the best she’s been to.

“It was refreshing, powerful and beautiful to see these womxn of color share such personal stories about their background and culture,” Addleman said in an email. “The stories they shared and the way they framed them provided an entirely new experience and perspective for me. These are the narratives and experiences that should be at the forefront of the food movement, of our education.”

While the first of its kind, the continuation of Dig In! is uncertain, said Colleges Nine and Ten Provost and organizer Flora Lu. The conference required a great deal of funding and organization, she said, so the students and community members will be the main factor in making Dig In! an annual event.