Today, Charlottesville boasts more than 40 farms in its surrounding areas. It’s a hub for local food production with a thriving food economy. However, it is also a center of food insecurity, with a disproportionate prevalence of food insecurity found in low income communities. To ameliorate this issue, community members and the University of Virginia alike, have collaborated presently, and throughout the years, to combat food insecurity and to attain food justice. But what is food justice and why is it necessary? Moreover, how does it connect with racial justice? And ’Hoos/who’s working towards food justice in Charlottesville? What food justice is not is emergency food relief. Emergency food relief supplements the diets of low-income and at risk people by providing them with emergency food assistance at no cost. It does not function as a permanent solution and usually lacks long term solutions that foster a just food system. Instead, it must be followed closely by a long-term plan to ensure that food disparities are addressed through proactive strategy, not continued emergency response. Establishing this grounding, let’s assess food history in Charlottesville and beyond: From oppression to slavery to sovereignty because, “we can’t talk about the current food system without understanding that, number one, we are in essentially a settler colony” — Malik Yakini
Pictured above is the Monacan Indian Nation, an Indigenous people from the greater Piedmont and Blue Ridge Mountains. Some of their earliest settlements date to 1000 A.D. At the time of colonization, the tribe numbered more than 10,000 people. They grew the “Three Sisters” crops, companion planting beans, corn, and squash. Following colonization, the Monacan Indian Nation’s autonomy was reduced to presiding over by Bear Mountain. Slowly, their food customs and other aspects of their culture were diminished as a result of forced assimilation. Today, the Monacans need help saving the remains of their historic capitol, Rassawek, located at the confluence of the Rivanna and James rivers, from development. African food systems are another example of food practices inextricably rooted in collectivist agrarian farming, a practice that carried on to newly emancipated African Americans during the Reconstruction Era. e.g., in 1910, near Georgetown, South Carolina, 160 African American families acquired a former plantation and owned the land in a joint stock company. African agrarian communities commonly used this form of solidarity economics and collective land ownership. African Americans also rejected European standards of individual property rights and inter-generational wealth transfer by reestablishing the model African village in the United States through the creation of collectively owned family land. Despite the collectivist agrarian nature of Indigenous peoples and African Americans, the federal government precipitated the degradation of this collectivism by abandoning the imperative of large-scale land redistribution efforts needed to support Indigenous peoples whose land was stolen, as well as the 4 million newly emancipated Africans whose bodies and agrarian expertise supplied unprecedented wealth to the nation. Instead, the following acts were passed:
Almost a 100 years later, in 1965, the city of Charlottesville undertook an urban renewal project to raze the thriving and predominantly African American neighborhood that was Vinegar Hill, just west of the present-day Downtown Mall. The neighborhood became a focal point of Black life following the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Starting that year, 139 Black family homes, 30 Black-owned businesses and a church were destroyed as part of the “urban renewal project.” A poll tax blocked many of the same residents who would later be displaced from voting on this matter. Although the city was required to provide public housing for those displaced; by 1985, most of that public housing had deteriorated. Additionally, by destroying their homes, businesses and gathering places, the city of Charlottesville left Black families isolated and alienated.
Centuries of racist laws and policies have, and continue to systemically build on racial injustice, and subsequently serve as catalysts for food injustice. Today, supermarkets are leaving many neighborhoods and regions in what’s often called a food vacuum. As grocery stores consolidate, leaving lower-income communities, food desertification increases. It’s not a “natural” phenomenon, but a social and economic one. Hence – apartheid.
Food apartheid, rather than seeing a lack of affordable, fresh food as a geographic problem (desert) uses the word apartheid to point to the social and economic roots of food injustice. Structural causes of food apartheid include: Commercial flight from urban communities and continuing supermarket scarcity in urban communities
A microcosm of the United States, Charlottesville’s history of race and racism is also intertwined with its food insecurity and food apartheid. With urban renewal projects that razed neighborhoods such as Vinegar Hill, predominantly Black neighborhoods and business districts with grocery stores ceased to exist. Today, one-sixth of Charlottesville residents are food insecure, roughly 25% live below the federal poverty line and people with low economic resources and people of color suffer disproportionately higher rates of diet-related diseases and food insecurity. So who’s/’Hoos working towards food justice? At UVA, the UVA Sustainable Food Collaborative and the Civic Engagement Committee have worked in collaboration with local organizations and the UVA community to host various events such as, “Our Evolving Food System, From Slavery to Sovereignty,” highlighting food histories, injustices and necessary steps towards food justice. Moreover, organizations such as Cultivate Charlottesville, Virginia Humanities, Growing for Change, Morven Kitchen Garden and the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank are leaders in the Charlottesville community’s uphill battle towards food justice.
Present in the fight for food justice in Charlottesville and beyond is a continued commitment to learn more and do more. So what can you do after reading this piece?
A food justice reading listArea history
- Jefferson School African American Heritage Center
- Monacan Indian Nation
- Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society
Attend a virtual workshopUprooting Racism in the Food System – 2020 Virtual Workshop by Soul Fire Farm Nov. 19, 1-4 p.m. Hosted by Cultivate Charlottesville
- Piedmont Virginia Community College Community Garden
- Morven Kitchen Garden
- Charlottesville Area Tree Stewards
- Madison House
- International Rescue Committee
- Alternative Spring Break
Community Supported Agriculture
- Radical Roots Community Farm
- Firsthand Farms Cooperative
- Bellair Farm
- Miller Farm Market
- New Branch Farm
Food justice: Communities exercising their right to grow, sell and eat healthy food under a just food system that is not one-size-fits-all.