Reconnecting to our food roots

Project Humanities tackles how to make food more accessible, equitable to everyone


People working together in a community garden.

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While there’s a long history of communities growing their own food, there’s been a recent uptick in people finding alternatives to the grocery store.

In fact, there’s a whole generation of influencers using social media to teach people how to grow and find food in their homes, backyards, greenhouses and community gardens.

This is what scholars and community members refer to as food sovereigntyFood sovereignty is a food system in which the people who produce, distribute and consume food also control the mechanisms and policies of food production and distribution. Source: Wikipedia.. It was the subject of a March 1 Project Humanities livestream event called "Food Sovereignty and Farming as Resistance."

“A lot of people think about gardening as a hobby or a way to spend less at the grocery store. But for Indigenous, Black and other people of color, food sovereignty is about decolonial practices and approaches to restoring traditional cultural knowledge, protecting the environment, restoring health and economic independence,” said Alycia de Mesa, associate director of Project Humanities and event facilitator. “Choosing what you eat, where it comes from and how food is grown, preserved and prepared allows individuals, tribal and urban communities to promote and benefit from cultural, health, economic, environmental and social well-being.”

De Mesa facilitated a panel that included Jameela Pugh, a Black Arizona farmer and the owner of EnviroFarm Ranch Market; Jacob Butler, Community Garden coordinator for the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community and chair of Native Seed Search, a Tucson-based seed conservation organization; Twila Cassadore, a member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe and professional caterer and food vendor; George Brooks, founder, president and CEO of NxT Horizon, an ag-tech consulting firm that grows healthy food; and Angela Brooks, a master gardener who is widely known as the “Green Garden Chick” on social media and uses her platform to offer farming/gardening/eco-friendly tips to followers.

The panel discussed a wide variety of topics, such as food justice, health, culture, colonialism, slavery, sustainability and the pandemic.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, food sovereignty has been making a big comeback. Some of the appeals include reduced carbon footprint, self-sufficiency, better health and the opportunity to serve others in the community.

Panel members

Project Humanities Associate Director Alycia de Mesa (top center) moderates an online panel on food sovereignty and farming as resistance on March 1. Panelists include George Brooks (top left), Jacob Butler (top right), Angela Brooks (lower left), Twila Cassadore (lower right) and Jameela Pugh, who joined later in the event.

“The pandemic was an awful circumstance, but it made people reprogram how to live, how to survive,” said Angela Brooks, who owns Millbrook Urban Farms in South Mountain and grows a variety of herbs, fruits, flowers and vegetables. “I saw a great surge in self-sufficiency gardening, and it was wonderful.”

Twila Cassadore said her tribe has a rich history of foraging, and the land informs them of what they can eat.

“Beautiful greens are growing out there in the mountains right now, including three species of lettuce,” said Cassadore, a traditional forager who works on a number of community health issues and cultural preservation projects. “For every season there (is) a different variety of foods. … I let Mother Nature take care of the food she wants to give me.”

Cassadore said Mother Nature got interrupted in the mid-1900s with the mass production of farming, and suddenly growing your own food was frowned upon.

“This economic industry came in and shunned people away from that because they didn’t want to be stereotyped as poor,” Cassadore said. “It changed the mindset of people where if you could not buy from the grocery store, ‘You must be poor.’”

Shoppers have also complained about the high price of organic food and meat, but they don’t know about love and sweat that goes into harvesting the crops or keeping the animals, Pugh said.

“Someone will come into my store and order five chickens and I tell them the price. I tell them and they say, ‘Wow, that’s expensive!’” Pugh said. “But if you go into a big agricultural store where you don’t know where it came from, what it was eating or how it was treated, and you’re just looking at the $2.99 per pound price rather than the quality, it is a big difference. But if they try it and see a huge difference in their health, it’s worth it.”

Right up to the pandemic, people have lost their connection to where their food comes from and how it’s grown, said Jacob Butler. But, he added, they’re starting to get it back.

“We need to develop a better relationship with the environment and the things that grow within it,” said Butler, whose organization frequently visits tribal members and teaches them how to grow a personal or community garden and gives them the seeds to start. “Within two months, you can be eating from your own crops, and that’s an awesome thing.”

George Brooks said now that attitudes toward food sovereignty are starting to turn the corner, many people want to get into farming but can’t because of a variety of roadblocks.

“I have sat in rooms full of people in urban areas who want to get into the business of agriculture,” Brooks said. “Yet they can’t because they don’t have the land or don’t have the money in order to make a profit. This is what they’re told, so they give up at this point.”

Angela Brooks said that people can come by and take a taste of her food, but at some point they’ll have to pick up a hoe or gardening tool and get their hands dirty.

“Yeah, you’re going to work for your food, because I want people to feel it, eat it, taste it, digest it,” said Brooks, who runs a community garden at her home and grows watermelons, onions, bell peppers, tomatoes and edible flowers. “Touching, feeling, smelling and eating what real food tastes like is a game-changer for people.” 

Top image courtesy iStock/Getty Images

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