Part of my academic life is translating the research I do into activities that are hopefully impactful. One of my challenges has been to make links between my work in Hong Kong, which I have described in my personal Blog, GeoFoodie, to work that has impact in the place where I now live, Sheffield. To that end over the past several months I have attempted to engage a community of people around the notion of Food Justice in the UK. Some of the activities that I have participated in in order to facilitate this have felt quite ambitious, while others have effectively brought me into contact with a number of like minded people or have enabled me to learn ever more about the issues that are embedded in a concern for Food Justice. In this post I define what I think of as food justice and how I’ve tried to shift them from being merely academic efforts to a more engaged form of scholarship.
Food Justice, for me is not just access to healthy and affordable food, but also to food that is culturally appropriate and which is produced in a manner that does not transfer the burden of injustice onto someone else (e.g. the farmer or the worker who produces the food or the person who sells it to me). There is an excellent TEDx video of LaDonna Redmond, where she discusses Food Justice from a US perspective in a similar way. It is worth a watch.
Food justice is also, for me, the opportunity to grow ones own food if that is what is wanted. Though my tomatoes never seem to ripen and my lettuces often are eaten by slugs, the fact that I can and do eat produce from my garden and at the same time don’t have to depend upon my garden to feed myself is a something that should be a right, but which so often is cast as a privilege–a privilege of knowledge, wealth, and access to space and time. I was able to participate recently as an attendee at two events this year’s Sheffield Festival of the Mind. The first was an event where Ron Finlay spoke in Sheffield Cathedral about the food gardening he does in urban public spaces. Ron spoke to a packed house passionately about the need to just get out there and do it. Later in the week he was on a panel discussion with Guerilla Gardeners, Richard Reynolds and Venessa Harden, and landscape gardener John Little, that was organised by Nigel Dunnett and colleagues in Sheffield’s Landscape Architecture Department. What was inspiring about the events is the possibility of community that emerges when food is planted in public spaces. Certainly this is also what those who drive forward Edible Todmorton have discovered as well. With all of these gardeners, food is planted not for personal consumption, but instead for community consumption and it is done so in spaces that are public space thereby reclaiming this space back from the consumerism that shapes so much of our modern urban food systems. I am once again inspired to think about how to turn more public space into public food spaces as a result of my listening to these speakers, but also to lobby government to reconsider what it understands as being a suitable use of public space and to do research on what limits our abilities to be urban gardeners.
I also increasingly realise, from these speakers, but also from various other events I have participated in such as the Third Sector Cafe Food event I was part of in the spring of 2014 and even from the time I spend in Hong Kong, that while can work on ones own to push forward a food justice agenda, if one works with people it is rather more fun. Community is a key aspect of food justice. For that matter, community is a key element that makes eating and cooking more enjoyable. The drive to individualise foodways through such institutions as supermarketization or the elimination of eating and cooking from common spaces via planning regulations not only isolates people but it also contributes to their hunger. As a result, I have proposed and with colleges at the University of Sheffield will deliver a masters degree in Food Security and Food Justice that will run for the first time next year. Our aim is to develop an international community of food scholars who are concerned with helping local citizens achieve food communities of their own that are both just and secure.
Finally, as I talk and listen to people the more the realization is enforced that there are a lot of questions about Food Justice that need to be asked. As part of a research community I can offer my skills toward facilitating an effort at providing a suitable evidence base, provided I understand what the right questions are that need to be addressed. I know that a lot of the landscape of knowledge about food security is dominated by global, scientific discourse, while a lot of the food justice knowledge remains within the domain of activists. These two areas, food security and food justice, are not really talking to each other with the exception of a few key case studies (Via Compesina being one). But how do we facilitate that discussion? I think the answer is first by bringing together the range of different interests to work out what the most pressing questions might be and finding the connections between them. In a recent presentation at a Department of Geography seminar, Graham Riches argued that there is no right to food without first there being something to claim. For me, this simple statement demands the engagement of urban authorities and the public as well as those larger scale institutional actors in the discussion about what are the pressing issues to do with food justice at local scales–because at the end of the day, we all eat where we live.
To explore the potentialities within community generated research question development, my next project–with a community of participants from a range of places– is an event in Yorkshire called Decent Helpings. The event, part of the Festival of Social Science and sponsored by the South Yorkshire Local Authority and University Network, will take place on 7 November 2014 and involves a great team of people organising and facilitating, but will also include the mix of people identified above in the creation of understanding. The outcomes of the day will be a ranked list of research areas with questions that can be taken forward as either research funded by the university, or which can be done as partnership placements for the masters students who will be joining us in the next year, or via more formal research funding avenues. The hope also is to build networks between local authority actors and a range of constituents in order to reshape how food justice is enabled or dis-enabled in this region. Ultimately to build sustainable communities within which people can eat food that is culturally appropriate, healthy, safe, and non-exploitative of others.
The Decent Helpings event is free an open to the public. Please register here if you would like to attend as there is limited capacity.