E105: Culinary Historian Adrian Miller on Food Justice

Monday, January 11, 2021
Related to: Advocacy & Food | Chefs & Food Writers | Equity, Race & Food Justice | Movies & Food |

Food justice is a term heard more and more. Captured in that term is a view of how historical factors have shaped inequity in food systems, and powerful ideas for addressing issues such as food security, obesity, and the welfare of farmers. Listen in to a discussion with well-known author Adrian Miller, a very thoughtful voice on these issues.


Interview Summary

Could you begin by describing what you see as the major aspects of food justice activism, especially among African-Americans?

So I think a lot of it is about autonomy and having power to not only grow your own food but have access to healthy food and to really address kind of the dislocations we have in our food system. It’s just really crazy that we grow so much food and so many people are not getting that food, and we throw away so much food. So I think people want to have more control over the food choices they have, and to be able to live healthier lives. And you’re seeing a lot of activism in veganism right now, and some of it is connected back to an African diet. So you’re seeing a lot of ideological and interesting kind of discussions in that way, but you’re seeing questions about workers’ rights and making sure that people in the food system are being paid a living wage, animal welfare issues. So I think it’s an exciting time for food justice, but I think especially one of the most exciting things that I’ve seen is urban farming. Because a lot of African-Americans are in urban settings now. So how, in an urban setting, can you grow your own food and get access to food?

So this may be a nuance it’s not worth making but one could look at the term food justice and think of having a food system that’s more just, but you could also turn it around and say that a better food system can create justice overall. Would you agree with that?

Oh yes, I agree with the latter. Yes, absolutely. I mean I’m thinking of justice in a broad sense. We have a fair and inclusive society, and I think having access to healthy food, to good food, leading a healthy life, I think is really key to that. Because if you’re distracted with other kind of survival issues, it may affect your ability to participate in other aspects of society. And so much of the work that I’ve done over time in terms of a policy sense is, how can we get people to just have those basic needs met so that they can be active participants in the economy, our democracy, all of these other things?

I imagine I can anticipate your answer to this but do you see access to healthy food at a reasonable cost to be a basic human right?

Oh absolutely. And it just hurts me that we’re not even close to that place yet.

That’s for sure. So what institutions are playing an active role in this, do you believe?

Well in the African-American community, I think one of the most viable institutions is the black church. You’re starting to see more African-American pastors say, well, caring for the souls of my congregants is not just a spiritual dimension, it’s actually a physical dimension as well. And so they’re starting to preach about these things. They’re starting to get active in food justice issues. And I think one of the exciting things is, churches for a long time have been very strong on the charity model, right? They have food banks, they have meal programs, other things, but now people are starting to say, okay, so why are so many hungry people showing up at our church? Maybe we need to do something about changing the system so that we can meet the immediate needs, but long-term, we can help these people be in a place where they might not even have to come to a food bank. And African-American pastors are one of the most respected and trusted leaders in our community. So that the fact that they are awakening to these issues and showing leadership, I think portends an exciting future.

So our country has typically defaulted, hasn’t it, to charity-based models that, when people are hungry, you get them food, or you try to get them enough money sort of thing and buy the food, but you’re saying that we need to go much deeper than that, that we need to ask the fundamental question, as you said about why communities can’t feed themselves, and then go in and help solve those problems. What do you think are some of the most exciting things you’ve said? You talked about urban gardens and programs like that. You also talked about the importance of the black churches. Are there other things that you’ve seen that you think are exciting?

Yes, and just to add on to that, the way that churches are, I think, are addressing this is, what do churches often have especially in an urban setting? A ton of land. And so we’re seeing a lot of churches actually turned to gardening, and not only to supply their own food programs, whatever kind of meal program they have, but also to give this food to people in the community. So there’s actually a church in Denver that is actually working the garden. And then when it comes time to harvest, they actually just give away the food for free. So I think that’s pretty exciting.

There’s a pastor in northern Mississippi, not too far from Memphis, who is taking the question of healthy eating so seriously that he no longer allows his church to have fried chicken for their meals after service. So this is a black pastor that has effectively banned fried chicken. Now he’s still alive, nothing’s happened to him. But that’s the kind of leadership that we need to see. I think another thing that’s happening, especially in communities like Detroit, is you’re starting to see a lot of collaboration with different aspects of the community. So for instance, you have botanical gardens and societies now realizing that they can connect with urban farming, and they’re reaching out to African-American community groups to figure out what are the ways that we can connect.

So, you know, when you think about a botanical garden, you’re thinking about kind of upper echelons of white society, right? But they’re now looking for ways to collaborate. You have a lot of young people that are also interested in urban farming and growing food, but also reconnecting to nature. So it’s not just happening in the urban context, but they’re trying to figure out how can we reconnect with farmers outside of our urban setting and maybe even create our own mini food system? You know, we talked about the fact that I’m writing a barbecue book.

Later this weekend, I’m going to spend some time with Ed Mitchell, a long time African-American barbecuer in this area. And he is actually looking into raising heritage animals to get back to the way barbecue was a hundred years ago. So to get away from this kind of factory farm model, and he’s looking to create a network of African-American farmers to supply those heritage animals. So we’ve got just like all kinds of interesting things happening.

So you’re really talking in some ways about whether a community has autonomy over its own food supply and its own food system. And that there’s lack of autonomy the way things are now. Has it always been that way?

Oh I don’t think so. So even if you go back to the Antebellum South, there have been periods where we’ve had, and especially after emancipation, we’ve had all-black communities, and really they were agricultural towns that got started. And the whole idea was to, you know, to use a term from the past, pull themselves up from the bootstraps, but often did it through food. And some of these communities thrived for a long time. And it was really external conditions that led to their demise, the Dust Bowl, or other things, even despite active white racism that tried to thwart their progress. These towns really thrived. And then even in the context of slavery, there was semi-autonomy.

One of the untold stories, I believe, from the antebellum period is to the extent that the enslaved were allowed to grow their own food. And they were given a plot of land, they were also given animals to raise. And so even in that horrible context, you do see some enslaved Africans trying to, in a sense, recreate home. If they were in a similar climate from their homeland, they tried to grow those plants, like okra, sorghum, millet, other foods. So we see not only this attempt for autonomy but really an attempt to assert their humanity, even under extremely difficult circumstances. And a lot of times food was a way to facilitate that.

So how do you see people responding to the absence of fresh food?

I see a mixed response. So I think part of it is, people just don’t know. They’re in an environment where most of the food choices they have are poor. Fast food, convenience food, you know, all these things. And so, without even knowing that there’s other food available, that’s just kind of the world as presented. I mean, one of the most heartbreaking things that I’ve seen recently is there was a documentary and the person who was filming it was holding up basically fruits and vegetables to kids. And they had no idea what that was. I remember, like one guy held up a potato and the kid had no idea what that was, and did not know that that’s what led to potato chips. So I think it’s going to take some education. And I think in the schools, also the edible gardening movement that’s starting with schools. I think it’s going to take a lot to just reconnect kids to that food story because it got disrupted for whatever reason.

So what do you think of calling such areas food deserts?

I think it’s inaccurate for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s kind of a slap in the face to indigenous people who have been living in deserts and managed to survive for thousands of years. And this is, you know, I’m going to do the same thing with this term, but I like the idea of food swamps. The idea that, it’s not that there’s no food available, it’s just that there’s a lot of unhealthy food that’s available and it’s overwhelming. And you know, I’m sympathetic to parents. You know, if you’re a single parent, you’ve got a few kids, you’ve been working all day, you have got to come home and feed your kids. Instead of making a dinner, I can understand why you might go to a place that is going to offer you really cheap food. If you can feed your family for 10 to 15 bucks, I could see why people make those decisions. So we have to present people with the option that you can feed your family healthy food for a very similar cost, if you do these things.

Another important aspect of this is the kind of highly processed foods that you’re talking about. Act on the brain in the ways that create addictive-like properties. And so there, you get a really tough picture, if you get these products being heavily advertised. They may be the only things that are available to people who live in certain areas, and they’re hijacking the brain, and that’s a pretty bad combination of factors. So how do you see labor issues playing into this picture?

So one of the things that we are going to have to come to grips with, I think, eventually if we’re going to be serious about food justice is paying for the true cost of food. And that’s going to make some things very expensive. But, again, we’re seeing like how this is not playing out very well because we have more and more people who are not making enough money to make their ends meet. And a lot of them are in the food industries. And at some point, we’re going to have to figure out how can we pay people in a way that they can be self-sufficient and have a healthy food system, and make food affordable? I don’t know if that all works out but I think people of means are at some point may have to just say, you know what, I’m not paying a lot of money for this thing that’s being made out of season. Why is that? So I think it’s going to be a consciousness among people of means to say, you know what, for the greater good for everyone, and I know that’s kind of a tough sell these days, maybe I should pay more for these foods so that the money can flow all throughout the food system.

So if people were to pay the real cost of food, you mentioned the things out of season would go up in price, so there are other things that would probably go up in price?

I think almost all food is probably going to go up. I remember an interview by David Chang, who’s a well-known chef in New York City, a very popular chef, and he was talking about within his own restaurant, how much food prices would go up if you actually were to start paying staff a fair wage, a living wage, and really, you know, pass on the cost for the food to consumers. I think he subsidizes some of this stuff in order to be competitive with other people in the market. So I don’t think it’s just produce and those things, I think everything’s going to go up.

So if the price of things going up, go up, as you said, do you think we should have an exemption for barbecue?

I’m all about it.

So I’ve heard you use the term culinary justice. Can you explain that?

Yes, so one of the vibrant discussions in at least African-American food circles and southern food circles is, how do we account for the people of color who are doing their thing and that’s celebrated in food media and other circles? I think southern food is the perfect context for this, because southern food is a shared cuisine. It’s the intermingling of West Africa, Western Europe, and the Americas. And what I talk about in my “Soul Food” book is I explain why there’s a rupture. So in the 1960s, soul food emerges as this very popular term and it forces a divorce within southern food. So soul becomes black, southern becomes white. And part of that was the efforts of black power, black community, activists, trying to figure out how do we connect disparate African-American communities across the country? And culture is a strong tie. So they really emphasize that narrative. And so southern food became white.

So now, 50 years later, the whites are the ones celebrated for southern food, which has a resurgence Renaissance and the African-Americans are left out, it’s kind of a function of that rupture that happens in the 1960s. So I think a lot of the culinary justice term, discussions now, are really trying to figure out how do we reintegrate the context for southern food so that it celebrates the African-American contributions as well as the contributions of all these others.

Adrian Miller has a very long history in social justice and food. He served as a Special Assistant to President William Clinton and to the Deputy Director of the President’s Initiative for One America, an effort to examine and focus on closing the opportunity gaps that exist for minorities in the United States. He later served as Deputy Legislative Director and as Senior Policy Analyst for Colorado Governor, Bill Ritter. He’s the author of a number of fascinating books including a book called “Soul Food: the surprising story of an American Cuisine, one plate at a time,” and a book entitled “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet,” the story of African-Americans who have fed our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas.


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