The first in a series by Cultivate Charlottesville

Community Commentary/Opinion
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Mihshe, tabouli, hummus, mujudra, kibbee. When I was a kid, coming together for extended family meals was not only about nourishment. Rooted in our foods was the history of our family heritage, of relatives in old country, my giddi’s backyard garden, my sitti’s hands making pita, and the traditions and stories my Lebanese grandparents brought with them to America. While the experience of food is personal, cultural, familial and communal, the factors affecting how food comes to us is highly systemic, political, economic and unequal.

During the COVID-19 shelter in place, ensuring food security in Charlottesville has become a primary focus with robust community and donor investment in emergency food responses. It has been wonderful to be part of teams packing and delivering restaurant meals to students, coordinating gift cards to be distributed to neighbors and helping to shop for groceries for families who are sheltered in place. We have come together in this beautiful way to say that no neighbor should be hungry. That we believe food is a human right.

Hunger and food insecurity in Charlottesville, however, is woven into the fabric and history of our community. Stitched in with development practices in the 1960s that marginalized communities of color and took away five Black owned grocery stores; reinforced with school segregation that resisted equality and dismissed teachers of color; ironed into the migrant workers who live within and around our city with so few rights. At a national scale, our country’s agriculture and food system was built on racist practices, from the foundations of slavery agriculture that propelled the country’s economy, to documented exclusion of African American farmers from accessing capital loan programs.

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In Charlottesville, 1 in 6 residents face food insecurity (17%). This outpaces Virginia’s average of 11% and does not even account for the families who have lost jobs and income due to COVID-19. Embedded in that striking statistic, residents of color and people with low economic resources are represented disproportionally. Diabetes mortality rates, for example, are four times higher for Black residents than that of their white neighbors. In Charlottesville, there are more than 60 nonprofit organizations working to address hunger and other food system challenges. Yet, the statistics still show a community with persistent and unequal food related challenges that mostly affect our residents along racial lines.  This is not an individual failure — it is a systemic one — that if not addressed will only be exacerbated by COVID-19 pandemic.

Who has agency in our food system is the foundation for significant, systemic food inequity. In this way, any approach to building food equity for our community must equally be committed to racial equity and systems change. What this looks like in everyday practice is complex and challenging. How can our nonprofit, business and institutional policies and practices expand outside of our individual focus areas to impact systems change?

At Cultivate Charlottesville, we are pulling together initiatives launched in response to specific community concerns to try and address this challenge. Working with partners to create a healthy and equitable food system – personally, in community, and across systems and structures. We are doing this through City Schoolyard Garden programs for youth, Urban Agriculture Collective farming and community markets for residents living in public housing and the Food Justice Network advocacy and collaborations.   Underlying each of these initiatives is a focus on practicing racial equity.

We have a lot to learn and a long way to go. And we have a robust group of community members and partners with skills, experiences, and creativity to innovate.  As we face the current COVID-19 food crisis, our need to invest in systemic solutions to food inequity is greater than ever. Centering the voices of individuals affected by inequity in our food system is critical. The risk of coming out of this crisis with even greater disparities and disinvestment in our Black and brown food system leaders and community members seems high.

My hope is that we can simultaneously take a breath to consider new, complex and systems approaches to ending hunger and food insecurity while we also rigorously work to keep all of our neighbors healthy and nourished today. Food is a human right — healthy, affordable, culturally significant food for everyone in our community. Our personal, familial and communal food traditions must be held up by just and fair structures and systems.

To engage in working together to invest in these solutions, join us at Cultivate Charlottesville https://cultivatecharlottesville.org/sign-up/

For references to the statistics and assumptions included in this article, please refer to Cultivate Charlottesville Food Justice Network publication, White Paper on Building a Healthy and Just Local Food System, curated by Shantell Bingham, January 2018.