Pursuing Sustainable Eating Via Heritage and Food Justice

Although food and nutrition are some of the most basic needs of the human body, we rarely consider these needs outside of illness, disaster, or other unusual circumstances that force us to focus on food.

In September 2019, two islands in the Bahamas were devastated by Hurricane Dorian. This Category 5 storm flooded homes, destroyed roofs, closed businesses, and stole lives.

Thousands of people were displaced from their home islands, dependent on either family members and friends who took them in or shelters providing temporary relief. At the top of the list for those waiting in long lines was food to feed their families.

As globe-altering events happen more frequently and last longer, we’re forced to think about sustainable eating that honors people’s food cultures and nutritional needs. Beyond mitigation and adaptation, we are charged with imagining the future of food.

If you live in the West and have access to supermarkets, you may not need to think much about food availability. You go to the store, pick the items you want, and prepare meals however suits your fancy. Choices ahead.

However, this isn’t the way it works in the aftermath of disaster. Most of the time, relief agencies provide only canned foods, alongside staples like rice and pasta. These items are purchased wholesale because they’re nonperishable, low cost, and relatively easy to prepare.

There isn’t much attention paid to nutritional value or the preferences of the people who will collect, cook, and eat these foods.

Climate events and other disasters, such as pandemics, change our world. When any part of the supply chain is affected, so are we — and the farther we are from our food sources, the more difficult it is to adapt.

In a world of rapidly advancing technology, our first instinct may be to turn to machines for the answer.

How can we use high tech efficiencies to decrease hunger? Do we need to think about ways to preserve food for long periods? Maybe we need a system for growing all kinds of food year-round, or a way to produce synthetic food.

Nadine Ramphal, a Jamaican living in the Bahamas, strongly disagrees with these suggestions.

Ramphal and her husband decided to try a vegan diet, just to see what it would feel like, and were so impressed with the positive changes in their bodies that they decided to stick with it.

She now runs a Facebook page to share recipes, products, methods, and restaurants that may interest and inspire her followers.

She says that the future of food must be centered on people — not factories or machines — and she is optimistic that consumers will steer the market by making healthier choices.

“I visualize a future where food reverts to being low tech, but better, thanks to the knowledge we now have,” she says. “Our desire for cheap food has led us down the wrong path and compromised our health in so many ways.

“When we begin to look at food quality again and educate ourselves, which I see happening, we start to dictate new choices for our farmers and manufacturers,” she adds.

Why consumer demand matters

Because our shopping choices affect what’s put on store shelves, as we make better choices, we send a message to the supply chain.

It begins with us and our knowledge about our bodies’ nutritional needs.

We can start to shift supply by demanding more fresh produce, as well as by purchasing as much as possible from local farmers. We can practice eating seasonally, which not only supports the local economy but also provides us with fruits and veggies that taste their best.

Local, seasonal food is less likely to expose us to herbicides and pesticides — and we’re more likely to be able to grow our own produce from the seeds. Notably, food security (for both individuals and communities) depends on our ability to grow food.

“I cannot imagine a world without food,” says Jamaican chef Vanessa Anglin. “Food is one of the truest expressions of culture.”

In much of the Caribbean, plantains and mangoes are emblematic of local food culture. Yet, the effects of climate change pose unique challenges for the continued viability of these crops.

“Climatic conditions not only determine the viability of the food supply chain but also quality of life. We have to be cognizant of where our lives are heading, based on the effects of climate change on food in general,” Anglin says.

She raised concerns about the consumption of food increasing, even as the food supply becomes less stable as a result of drought, hurricanes, flooding, warming seas, and overfishing.

Anglin notes that science-based solutions for food security may be necessary, but she warns, “We must not forget the ancestral and indigenous practices of ensuring food security.”

From her perspective, this includes methods to farm, harvest, consume, and trade food.

“I remember how community women would get together to use produce for agroprocessing, making traditional items like local fruit wines.” Yet, today, she says, “many traditions have been swapped for unhealthy ‘convenient’ mass-produced items.”

In this way, the future of food may depend on us returning to the practices of our ancestors.

Other food lovers, ecofeminists, and climate activists echo Anglin’s concerns about food trade. Many are calling for a return to more traditional practices and to valuing what we can grow at home, within communities, and at the national level.

As Georgia-based Bahamian Aisha Bailey says, “In the future, people have to grow food, period.”

She noted that contemporary consumer culture is highly unsustainable and that we need to take a more community-centered approach to how we grow, harvest, acquire, and eat food.

“No one can grow everything,” she points out. “Our grandparents knew this, and we grew up watching them share and trade.”

Though it often seems as if there are only two options for getting fresh produce — buying it at the supermarket or growing all your own food — it’s possible to strike a balance. It’s perfectly reasonable to try the following techniques:

  • Buy the foods that you can’t grow or source from local farmers.
  • Work with neighbors, friends, or family to grow food locally, such as in a community garden.

These strategies mean no one has to know everything or do all the work on their own, and everyone can make the best use of their yard space, time, and abilities.

Bailey says her grandparents in the Bahamas grew bananas and would often trade a few bunches with neighbors for tomatoes or corn. In some regions, people continue this practice, and some have scaled it into loose cooperative networks or community orgs.

“I appreciate community gardening initiatives. There is a piece of land that someone manages, volunteers help to tend, and anyone in need can get food free of charge,” she says, referring to gardens that operate with a food justice, social equity model.

“Home gardeners bring organic waste for the community compost, and everyone benefits.”

Along these lines, one easy way to get started is to compost food scraps at home and then donate this compost to a local garden.

It’s clear that no conversation about food security can happen without considering people in vulnerable situations, the histories that created these conditions, and the need for justice.

Food security requires several components, including:

  • knowledge sharing from one generation to another
  • careful consideration and use of technology
  • redistribution of wealth — which must include land

“For us to actually have a future, we must engage in some serious abolition and reparations — which entails a cessation of the harms — around the current food system,” says Dara Cooper, co-founder of the National Black Food and Justice Alliance.

“We know abolition entails the elimination of the destructive industry — in this case, [the] corporate-controlled agricultural system — and implementation of a radically different, safer, life-affirming, sustainable, nourishing food system,” she adds.

Such a system must be “designed from an economy rooted in care for all beings and the planet.”

Food production today is largely focused on increasing the wealth of a small number of people. It is rooted in capitalism.

This is especially absurd since food is a vital resource for all people. As we think of the future of food, it is important that we give ourselves permission to imagine something completely different.

The solution to the issues in the current food system cannot be found in the same system, now focused on profit. How can we create a system that centers care?

It may be helpful to think about the components of any food system, which include cropland, production, transportation, preparation, and distribution. We’ll also have to continually ask ourselves these questions:

  • Where does our food come from, and how?
  • Who are the people who grow it, harvest it, process it, package it, move it, cook it, and sell or share it? How do they do it, and why?
  • The people in positions of power, receiving the profit, have different motivations than the workers involved in the process. What if the motivation were shared by all parties involved?

It is on us to envision and design a food system that serves us all and ensures that no one goes without.

As Cooper says, “This abolitionist food future is beautiful and nourishing and thriving and caring and abundant and absolutely … delicious.”


Alicia A. Wallace is a queer Black feminist, women’s human rights defender, and writer. She’s passionate about social justice and community building. She enjoys cooking, baking, gardening, traveling, and talking to everyone and no one at the same time on Twitter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.