Feb. 11 webinar on decolonizing veganism prompts questions about diversity, accessibility to healthy food
For Destiny DeJesus, food is political.
That was just one of the messages emphasized at Western Washington University’s Feb. 11 webinar, “Decolonizing Veganism: A Discussion on Hood Politics and Food Sovereignty”.
The webinar, hosted by the Outback Farm and the Environmental Justice Speakers Fund in partnership with the WWU Alumni Association, featured speakers from Veggie Mijas, an organization of BIPOC women and gender-nonconforming individuals dedicated to plant-based eating.
Terri Kempton, farm manager at the Outback, said this webinar fits into a larger speaker series focused on food justice and diversity.
“One of the big priorities that I set for the farm this year was to really take a critical look at our diversity, equity, inclusion and justice issues,” Kempton said. “The farm has a history and an inertia of whiteness, and we want to change that, we want to diversify that.”
At the webinar, Veggie Mijas Founder Amy Quichiz and Veggie Mijas Community Organizer Destiny DeJesus shared a message of intersectionality.
“I feel like everybody on earth can relate to food,” DeJesus said. “We gather around food, whether it’s something if we’re celebrating or we’re mourning, food is always present.”
That shared identity in food, DeJesus said, is part of what makes intersectionality so important, especially when it comes to decolonizing veganism.
“Veganism is not something new,” DeJesus said. “Veganism has been around for centuries. Our ancestors were eating whole food, plant-based diets.”
DeJesus said mainstream vegan culture often “discovers” and popularizes foods without acknowledging the cultures they came from. Trendy new ingredients, like turmeric in golden milk lattes or avocado slices on practically anything, become more expensive and less accessible.
Mars Wall, a third-year environmental studies major, has been a vegan for over five years and runs her own small vegan catering business. Her experience of mainstream veganism has been similar.
“People recognize veganism as this very white, middle-class rich thing that is expensive, and you think of PCC and Whole Foods,” Wall said. In reality, she said, people have been eating plant-based diets for years, and they don’t always fit that image.
Chloe Taylor, a professor at the University of Alberta who studies food and identity, said this stereotype can be harmful.
“The idea of veganism being white in itself prevents people of color from being vegan because it’s seen as being assimilated into some white thing, and being untrue to your culture,” Taylor said.
On the contrary, Taylor said, members of the BIPOC community often have reasons for becoming vegan specific to their communities, like self-care or returning to traditional foods.
Decolonizing veganism is just one piece in a larger picture of food justice. Food accessibility also plays a role.
A “food desert” is an area with limited access to healthy foods. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, in urban areas, it’s a low-income area where a significant number of residents live a mile or more from the nearest supermarket.
Wall said her experience of a food desert where she has been living in the town of Alger has opened her eyes to food accessibility issues.
“There’s not a grocery store that you can walk to or bus to,” Wall said. “People can’t get food like fresh fruit or vegetables or homemade deli items and things like that. There’s only a gas station where you can get fried food and processed food.”
The idea of “food apartheid”, DeJesus said, takes the concept of food deserts one step further, viewing food accessibility through a lens of geography, income and racial and social inequalities.
Sabine O’Hara, a professor at the University of the District of Columbia’s College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability & Environmental Sciences, said food apartheid often occurs because of limited purchasing power. Grocery stores and even some farmer’s markets are reluctant to locate in low-income areas because people can’t afford to spend as much.
Communities of color often disproportionately lack access to healthy food, O’Hara said, leading to higher levels of health problems like diabetes, obesity and heart disease in those communities.
Those disparities have greatly influenced Madeline Taylor, Western alumna and diversity, justice and inclusion specialist at the Outback Farm. She said her experiences have informed her interest in food justice.
“I’ve had [Black] family members die and lose limbs from diabetes, so I think that was a big inspiration to me,” Taylor said.
There are many solutions to issues of food inaccessibility. One approach that Taylor has been involved in is mutual aid efforts.
In the past, Taylor worked at a food bank in the Birchwood neighborhood, a food desert in Bellingham. Now she volunteers with Western’s pop-up food pantries on campus, which offer students free nonperishable foods, including produce from the Outback and other local farms.
Urban farming and community gardening can also help alleviate food inaccessibility and increase food sovereignty, DeJesus said.
O’Hara said when investing in these solutions, it’s important to rely on community members as local experts.
“Diversifying is a hugely important issue,” O’Hara said. “And so relying on that diverse knowledge that comes from our different cultural and physical environmental contexts is hugely important in creating these food systems.”
Taylor has a similar vision of diversity for the Outback.
“I really hope we can see more students of color feel empowered to be on the farm and to either apply or to do the volunteer stuff,” Taylor said. “I hope we can shift our idea of what the typical farmer is.”
Bringing more diversity to the Outback isn’t Taylor’s only hope. She said she also wants to see allies helping to make a safe space for diverse individuals.
“So many people talk about wanting to get people of color in these spaces, but then don‘t know how to create a space that is inclusive,” Taylor said.
Moving forward, Taylor said engaging and educating the community will be crucial.
“Everyone thinks it’s really simple to eat well and to know what to eat, but having that knowledge is kind of a privilege,” Taylor said. “Community is everything.”