Sandeep [00:01:07] In our last episode, we talked about the people who prepare and serve our food. People you might see everyday as part of your routine. The server at your favorite restaurant. That barista that knows your order. And we talked about the ways in which sexism and the legacy of slavery impacts how restaurant workers are paid and how many of them struggle to get by. That struggle extends far beyond restaurants into the rest of our food system.
Sandeep [00:01:34] Today, we're talking about how decades of intentional policies have perpetuated inequity in our food system. Inequity that was created, systemically, by people in power and experienced mostly by black, indigenous and other people of color. This inequity is exacerbated by climate change and capitalism.
Ricardo [00:01:59] The modern food system is not a philanthropy. You don't just give away what you produce. You need to at least cover costs. You need to make a profit.
Sandeep [00:02:07] That's Dr. Ricardo Salvador, Director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. We met him way back in our first episode. He points out that the modern food system is a capitalist enterprise. Now, capitalism can do good things, extend opportunity, grow individual wealth, incentivize innovation through competition. But capitalism has a power problem, and that problem has deep roots in our food system.
Ricardo [00:02:39] So in agriculture, the way that looks is that you pay as little as possible for all of the inputs and the people that work in the system, the owners of capital, because they see workers as inputs and they pay as little as possible. They work hard to make it so they don't have to pay a penny more than they actually do.
Sandeep [00:02:58] When labor in the food system is just a cost a line item. Workers are treated inhumanely. This inhumane treatment goes all the way back to the founding of America. When African-Americans were emancipated in the eighteen fifties, they were intentionally excluded from owning and operating their own farms, even though they held the nation's expertize in farming.
Ricardo [00:03:24] Even after emancipation, these folks were explicitly excluded from participating in the economy that their labor helped to create as the civil war was coming to an end.
Sandeep [00:03:36] A deal was struck in Georgia to take acres of Confederate land and Army mules and give them to the formerly enslaved. But after the war ended, the promise of 40 acres and a mule was broken. The Confederate owners got their land back, and most of the freed people were forced to become sharecroppers working for their former owners.
Ricardo [00:03:56] So they had skills that if they had been able to access land and if they'd been provided access to scientific knowledge and loans and support programs that the white farmers received, that exactly that same period of history to create the modern food system would have created a food system that we have now or better. But instead of that, they were excluded from participating.
Sandeep [00:04:19] As we discussed in our previous episode, this meant that Black people ended up migrating away from farms in search of better lives. Many ended up working in the restaurant system where labor has been intentionally kept cheap since emancipation.
Ricardo [00:04:35] We have been creating people that are affluent and at the same time we've been creating people that are poor. And so all of that is a direct consequence of the way that the agricultural system in the United States was born. That system of slavery did not completely disappear. It has been transformed. It has evolved in a very sophisticated way.
Sandeep [00:04:57] Today, many of the people who perform the labor in our food system from harvest to distribution are foreign born or undocumented. And they're underpaid, denied overtime and health care, live in unsafe, overcrowded housing and forced to continue to work in close quarters during a pandemic without masks or protection. And the crazy thing is our food system depends on it.
Ricardo [00:05:24] We still have people performing brutal labor under conditions that most of us would find unacceptable.
Sandeep [00:05:31] Brutal conditions like harvesting lettuce as smoke and ash from California fires blanket the fields. And here we see a connection to climate change because unpredictable weather produces more risk for farmworkers. Ricardo says that marginalized people will not be able to shield themselves from climate change. They will feel the impacts first and worst.
Ricardo [00:05:53] We've already been through the history of how we create immiserated people by having a food system that is owned, designed and created for some of us exploiting the rest of us.
Sandeep [00:06:07] A system that's not for all of us, just for some of us. Millions of Americans experienced this truth every day when they go to buy nutritious food for themselves or their families. And the only options they have are far outside their neighborhoods or are way more expensive than what they can afford.
Hanna [00:06:29] So that means that these stores will tend to locate in places where people have higher incomes.
Sandeep [00:06:36] This is Dr. Hanna Garth, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, San Diego. Hanna studies failures of the food system and the places where it creates inequality and food access. These inequalities often break down along racial and income lines. For years when people talked about areas bereft of quality grocery stores, they called them "food deserts." That word - "desert" - conjures up images of places that are barren and devoid of life. What it fails to communicate is that the systemic inequities that communities face are not the product of chance, but of intentional choices designed this way. Language matters, and that's why another phrase was coined instead: "Food apartheid." it was made popular by the renowned farmer and community activist Karen Washington. "Food apartheid" gives you a sense that the choices that made the system what it is were intentional and deliberate. Here's Hanna again;
Hanna [00:07:39] If we start thinking of it as "food apartheid" and we stop thinking of it as a "food desert", then what apartheid is is essentially a system of separate and unequal. So we see certain kinds of markets and certain forms of food access available only to basically wealthy populations. And then we see a completely different set of foods that are available to lower income populations from the outside.
Sandeep [00:08:12] It may seem like these communities don't have "high quality food." That's how "food desert" sounds like there's nothing growing there, but it doesn't recognize our value. The incredible vibrancy and life that thrives in these communities, food desert is a kind of paternalistic phrasing, and it carries another association that it might take outsiders, well-meaning white outsiders to save such communities. That's white savior syndrome. People make great efforts to get the right food for their lives. Hannah has surveyed residents of South Los Angeles about the lengths that they need to go to in order to find nutritious food for their families.
Hanna [00:08:52] They're constantly having to think about, you know, when am I going to be in the area where the good markets are? When am I going to be able to access the food that I need to feed my family healthy food. If I don't hit Trader Joe's on Friday on the way home from work, I'm not going to want to drive way out to this community on the weekend while I'm at my home in South Los Angeles.
Sandeep [00:09:18] Hanna told us about one woman who improvises how she gets food for her family. She commutes to a higher income part of L.A. by taking the metro and two bus lines. Getting higher quality produce from the nicer markets near her work is nearly impossible because she would have to carry it all home on public transportation. So she's found alternatives.
Hanna [00:09:42] She is a very involved member of her church and many of the women in her church prepare foods and sell them to families. They'll prepare enough food for a family of four for three days, and they they sell them to each other.
Sandeep [00:10:03] She also eats high quality, fresh food through 'fruteros'. The people who sell cut food on street corners, fruit like mango and watermelon. That's delicious, healthy and affordable.
Hanna [00:10:15] And she consumes these fruits on a daily basis, usually on her commute. And so that's another area where she is consistently eating healthy food. But it's not purchased at a market.
Sandeep [00:10:27] The people who study food habits and analyzed purchase data will miss consumption like this. There are many groups of people creating food systems that are trying to separate from the industrial capitalistic one that is failing them. One antidote to food apartheid is food sovereignty. A person's right to healthy and culturally appropriate food. Ideally, people will have control over that means of food production at the same time. But in order to do all that, you need land a farm maybe.
Larisa [00:11:01] Soul Fire is a Black and Indigenous centered community farm. And we are committed to uprooting racism and ceding sovereignty in the food systems are not very small goals.
Sandeep [00:11:17] Larisa Jacobson is co-director at Soul Fire Farm in upstate New York. We met her in our third episode about the indigenous roots of regenerative agriculture. Earlier in her life, she worked with immigrants in Brooklyn. She became aware of how not having access to culturally relevant, nourishing food can impact someone's well-being.
Larisa [00:11:37] I saw that food was this kind of nexus, this knot where all of these issues come together.
Sandeep [00:11:45] Soul Fire is rethinking how farming works while helping secure land access, land tenure, and land grants for Black, Indigenous and other farmers of color.
Larisa [00:11:56] We're focusing on economic incentives for farmers to enact soil friendly practices and care for the land and care for the soil carbon and also for research and learning to be happening at many of these small farms where people are uplifting these ancestral practices.
Sandeep [00:12:19] Before COVID, they led in-person training for black and brown aspiring farmers. Their food sovereignty programs reach over 10,000 people a year. The training begins by stripping away the narrative of land ownership and subjugation. And the history of being separated from this important source of identity and power.
Larisa [00:12:39] And we work in ways to reclaim our collective right to belong to the land. To have agency in the food system. And to heal this relationship with growing our own food and medicine.
Sandeep [00:12:54] Agency is critical to everything Soul Fire Farm does. That idea anchors the food system they're creating, and it's one that inspires me. Here's a few of the things they're working on and advocating for.
Larisa [00:13:06] We focus on reparations to people whose land and labor was stolen to create the current food system. We have food justice workshops. We distribute some of our harvest for people living under what we call food apartheid.
Sandeep [00:13:23] Just like Ricardo and Hanna, Larisa thinks the way to address inequalities in food access is to design a system that exists outside of the current for profit structure. Capitalism doesn't have to be terrible. There's no rule in the capitalist handbook that says people must be exploited and marginalized. But capitalism in the food system has failed people for generations, especially communities of color. So Soul Fire thinks a way forward is to design a system that doesn't have capitalism at its center. They support people living under food apartheid in their local community with no cost deliveries of vegetables, fruits, medicine and eggs.
Larisa [00:14:04] And that's different from what we see from agribusinesses or industrial farming in this day and age where we see individuals or corporations uniquely profiting off of what the earth is yielding in terms of its bounty.
Sandeep [00:14:20] They build on a long legacy of Afro-Indigenous farming and economic systems that prioritize people and the earth over profit.
Larisa [00:14:29] And part of reclaiming that regenerative agriculture, reclaiming the land. Reindigenizing the soil is calling the life and the carbon back in, through what is now known as regenerative agriculture.
Sandeep [00:14:44] Soul Fire Farm also offers a climate resilient workshop where aspiring farmers are invited to talk about the very real effects of climate change they see in their communities and how that is affecting their families. This workshop focuses on ways to help them cope with the current challenges they may face, whether that's floods, fires or heat waves.
Larisa [00:15:04] Our relationship to climate change is one of both ensuring that that our communities, that black and brown communities have the very real and concrete tools to be climate resilience, to face the challenges ahead, and that there is systemic change that is addressing the ways that climate change disproportionately impacts communities of color in this country and all over the world.
Sandeep [00:15:39] Climate change has become a threat multiplier for these communities. Our last guest for the series knows this better than most. And she sees a grim future if we don't act now.
Shaz [00:15:51] The other thing that we haven't talked about much today at all is imagine that we don't decarbonize.
Sandeep [00:15:58] That's Dr. Shahzeen Attari, also known as Shaz.
Shaz [00:16:02] What does the future look like when we need deep adaptation and we need to adapt to a world that's warmed by three degrees or four degrees?
Sandeep [00:16:10] Shaz is an associate professor at Indiana University, Bloomington, where she studies climate change and human behavior. Shaz understands that the inequities in our food system and the pending climate crisis will make things even worse for those most marginalized.
Shaz [00:16:25] And I think that's a important problem. Like what do our food systems look like and how do we make sure the weakest in our society is still protected?
Sandeep [00:16:36] Shaz's research points to a logic gap. Her study participants say that climate change is the most important problem in the world right now. And yet those same participants said it isn't the most important problem in the U.S.. They say it will be at some point in the future.
Shaz [00:16:57] But the problem with that is that the future never happens now. So how do you make the future happen today so that people can understand that it's a problem that we need to start solving today?
Sandeep [00:17:09] Think about everything that's going on in people's lives. Maybe in your life, unemployment or stagnating wages, the rising costs of childcare, education and health care, the crushing realities of systemic racism. It kind of makes sense that climate change wouldn't be on the top of somebodies mind. But climate change is making all of those things so much worse.
Shaz [00:17:32] To think about a metaphor ... Do you want to treat the cancer or the bullet wound? And so it's almost always going to be the bullet wound. And so people are really focused on the present and they don't view climate change as sort of a bullet wound to the environment.
Sandeep [00:17:47] We have to see things as they are. See climate change as it is. And do something about it. One small piece of hope from Shaz's research. Most Americans want less carbon in their energy. And that's across the board. Conservatives and liberals.
Sandeep [00:18:05] I live in Oakland, California. And it is a beautiful place. But on Wednesday, September 9th, 2020, the sun didn't come out. You probably saw the memes. It looked like a scene out of "Blade Runner" because it was dark all day and the sky was orange. The wildfires in California blanketed the entire West Coast with so much smoke that the sun literally could not shine through, five of the six worst California wildfires on record happened in the last few months. I think we're going to break that record again really soon when once in a lifetime, events start to happen annually, something is really wrong.
Sandeep [00:18:42] It was hard to do this series and not feel fatalistic about everything. Because just 100 fossil fuel companies worldwide are responsible for 71 percent of our emissions. Many people don't realize that the term "carbon footprint" was created by oil companies and their ad agencies as a PR move to shift climate responsibility to you as an individual, or that even with the massive one time reduction in emissions related to COVID, we're still projected to be facing a climate disaster. I try to be optimistic, even though it's hard. These feelings of grief for our planet came up for me and our guests in every conversation. But seeing how they're designing equitable and nourishing food systems that are positive for our climate, that's incredibly inspiring. And it gets me excited about the work that we need to do.
Sandeep [00:19:46] But where do we start? What should we do first? Do we put our efforts into regenerative agriculture and raising cattle differently? Find ways to get more out of less? Should we try to make kelp mainstream or nudge people to make better decisions? Or do we fight for equity in restaurants and in the rest of our food system? The truth is and if you take nothing else away from this whole series, we need to do everything. We need to try at all. We need to build on the amazing ideas and new to the world food systems that people are designing, all the ideas you've encountered here - they need more attention, more funding, more support, and they need your ingenuity. And especially in countries like the U.S., they need your vote. Just about everyone I talked to underline that voting is the one thing that you - yes you - can do to make change.
Shaz [00:20:47] So people need to vote. Everyone, including me, the first thing I did as a citizen was register to vote.
Sandeep [00:20:53] We need to hold leaders and corporations and systems accountable. A better food system is always on the ballot.
Sandeep [00:21:09] So here's the design opportunity from the series, and it's a really small one. How might we build a climate positive food system that favors the many instead of the few?
Sandeep [00:21:22] If this gets your wheels turning and makes you excited to share ideas, thoughts or maybe even better questions. Visit IDEO.com/food and help us keep working to create better food systems for everyone. If you want more narrative podcasts from IDEO, please send this to a friend and leave us a perfect rating and a review. You know the algorithms love that. I'm Sandeep Pahuja. This is Food by design. The show was created by Sarah Codraro and me. Today's episode is produced by Evan Roberts and edited by Julia Scott. Mark Henry Phillips composed our original music. Chris Hoff is our engineer. Special thanks to Dr Liz Carlisle and Dr Ashante Reese.
[00:22:02] Thank you for going on a journey with us. We would love to stay in touch with you, so please visit our website and drop us a note. This series would not have been possible without support and guidance from so many amazing people.
[00:22:16] First, our incredible production team is Tina Antolini, Julia Scott, and Evan Roberts. We have so many people at IDEO to thank: Tian Dou, Mani Nilchiani, Melanie Bloom, English Taylor, Nadia Walker, Debbe Stern, Alice Huang, Holly Bybee, Rachel Maloney, Annie Svigals, Erin McCluskey, Stacey Fenton, Meija Jacobs, Judy Hsu, Rebecca Chesney, and Geoff Schwarten. Extra special thanks to Alex Gallafent, Stuart Getty, Alex Pabian, Katie Clark, Devin Peek, Saige Perry, Jayme Brown, Sarah Rich, Madison Mount, Ilya Prokopoff, Margaret Kessler, Lynda Deakin, Vivian Barad, and the rest of the amazing IDEO Food team.
And to Ben and Ali for having to podcast babies with us during production. And of course, Sarah Cordaro, the best thought partner. And without you, this wouldn't have been possible, especially because of those amazing Excel spreadsheets that kept us all on task. This has been Food by Design, an IDEO podcast.