My mother had a heart attack when I was 16. I remember my father telling me that if she died, I would become caregiver for him, my two brothers and my nephew – cooking, cleaning the house, and everything in between. Luckily, my mother came home from the hospital with a warning from the doctor – she had to change her eating habits to survive.
In my house, everything was made with spoonsful of Armour Manteca (lard). It came in a little green box and we used it for eggs, meats, beans and even for baking. We ate menudo (soup with beef stomach) and tripe. These foods evolved using the parts that the butcher would throw away or sell very cheap since it was considered trash. Growing up I believed that the food we ate was just a part of our culture, but looking back but as an adult I realized it was the cheapest, but unhealthiest food we could get. I started having conversations with others that grew up eating similar foods and I saw the patterns – diabetes, heart disease and other diseases directly related to the food we ate.
By chance, in my college economics class there was a guest speaker one day from the Southwest Workers Union. They were announcing a major march or immigration issues in 2006. They also announced they would be having a summer program if anyone would like to apply. I was shy and didn’t speak up, but I did end up joining the summer program one week late. My friend Diana would call me to be part of the meetings.
After Interning for the summer I was hired on as a youth organizer. We were fighting environmental racism in San Antonio. After the city voted to put two more fuel storage tanks on the East Side we brainstormed how can we get something good there for a change, and out came the Roots of Change community garden.
When SWU started the Roots of Change Garden in 2007, I realized how beautiful it was to grow your own naturally organic food. I was a youth organizer getting youth involved and facilitating the process of how to start home gardens, while just learning a week before. The trial and error process of turning a vacant lot that had been used for drug dealing to a beautiful acre of produce inspired me to grow my own food at home. I started with my favorite items that I use a lot in my cooking, cilantro, garlic, and all sorts of peppers.
I realized that our traditional diet and our traditional way of eating is actually healthy – filled with fruits, vegetables and herbs. Yet because we don’t have access to land to grow food or the resources to purchase high quality food, or even the education of better alternatives my family and so many others grew accustomed to cheap and readily available highly processed food products.
More and more young people are waking up to the connection between the health of our families and communities and access to land, resources and education. I am privileged to be the youth coordinator with the Southwest Workers Union – Youth Leadership Organization. Our youth leaders wrote “Thinking Green” a sustainability plan that included five areas: Food, Energy, Waste, Transportation and Awareness. Here’s an excerpt from the plan regarding school food:
We created a garden at Edison high school that got its own compost pile and green house. This is now a pilot for the entire San Antonio Independent school District. We are developing a Farm to School pilot program that sets a percentage goal for the amount of locally grown produce used in meals, establishing more healthy, fresh menu options in schools across the district, and establishing a Junk Free Food Zone that eliminates unhealthy vending machines and snack options in schools.
I saw firsthand the changes that eating healthy made in my mom’s life. I’m inspired every day to be able to work with young people who are fighting for fresh, healthy, and whole food in our schools and communities so that this generation and the ones to come can live long, healthy and fulfilling lives.
Ăn quả nhớ kẻ trồng cây
cuando comes fruta, recuerda quien planto el árbol
when eating fruit, remember who planted the tree.
This is a Vietnamese proverb that we all say together to start every food justice collective meeting.
Before I was born, my grandparents lived in the home my parents reside in now. While they lived in California, my grandpa grew all kinds of fruits and vegetables: peaches, grapes, nectarines, green onions, bonsai trees, and a plethora of other edible things. I can’t remember eating all those yummy things but what I do recall is my parents slowly cutting down vines, trees, flowers, and bushes weekend by weekend because it was getting to be too overgrown and too many bees were swarming around all the young people my mom babysat for afterschool. I think it was also because our backyard didn’t fit in with the rest of my suburban neighborhood’s decor. Although my father continues to grow some things like Japanese eggplant and green onions for their miso soups, it will never be the kind luscious forest that my grandpa dedicated so much time and effort into. I never realized the importance of this small bit of my own history until I started to engage more with food justice and food sovereignty work.
It wasn’t until college that I became more aware about the importance of knowing where and how the food I ate came from. Before then, I always just tried to rush through school lunch so that I could avoid as much as possible all the comments and stares about the onigiris (Japanese rice balls) my mom packed me for the day. I started becoming involved in Berkeley’s Student Food Collective- a student run store on campus that sold local produce and alternatives to junk food. At the same I was also engaged in a students of color political coalition known as CalSERVE where I developed much of my analysis on race, class, and gender. It was the intersection of those two spheres that really catalyzed my interest in food racism and the food industrial complex and led me to write my senior thesis titled: The People’s Department vs. Last Plantation: an analysis of USDA’s discriminatory lending practices against minority farmers and its impact on the US food system. I never thought that particular year-long project would result in the organizing I do today with young people through the Food Justice Collective.
I moved to New Orleans 2 years ago to continue and extend the volunteer work I was doing while in school with Mack McClendon, a community leader and organizer in the Lower 9th Ward. He and I dedicated a lot of thought and effort into building solutions around the lack of food security in the neighborhood. Out of the 10 businesses that exist in the Lower 9th Ward, 7 of them are corner stores that do not supply any produce. I helped him to build gardens and start up a community market with local farmers and other prepared foods vendors. While Mack is not with us here any longer, he taught me a great deal in relationship building and community led and driven solutions.
Today I coordinate the Food Justice Collective, a collaborative pilot program between Rethink Kids New Orleans and VEGGI Farmer’s Cooperative where young leaders use food as a way to uncover and reveal the real issues of white supremacy and racism that are at the root of why our people don’t have access to food nor the ability to own and control our own food systems. Our group is multi-racial (Black, Latin@, and Vietnamese) and multi-lingual (Vietnamese, Spanish, and English) and spans an age range of 13-23 years old. We focus on intersecting histories of oppression in relationship to land and ownership of food systems. We are aiming to build bridges of understanding of past experiences (i.e. intersecting the narrative of Black sharecroppers to migrant farm workers from the Bracero program to the narrative of Vietnamese refugees who retained their agricultural wisdom to build their own modes of survival) that influence our present situation in relation to food. In addition to uncovering untold histories through reflective dialogue and intergenerational dialogue with different elders and youth, the Food Justice Collective voted to operate as a farmers’ cooperative where they invested ½ of their stipend into the farm to purchase their own seeds and equipment to plant, grow, harvest, and distribute to local restaurants, cooperatives, and farmers’ markets through VEGGI’s networks.
The Food Justice Collective has helped me connect back to my own roots and history and really appreciate the agricultural knowledge embedded in my ancestry and to my grandpa who was growing his own food, but also inspired my continued organizing efforts to build alternative systems and combat the food system we face today that is killing people of color- particularly youth of color in New Orleans. Here is our platform on food justice:
Racism and corporate greed coming from big agriculture (ie Monsanto) and junk food companies are shortening the lives of young people especially youth of color. As a result of malnourishing school meals, food deserts, and lack of access to own our food systems, we don’t see culturally competent food, real food, nor fresh or healthy food in our diets.
- we want access to fresh, healthy, culturally reflective food in every community.
- we want gardens in every school and community run by community members that grows food that reflects the cultures we come from.