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Resource: Food, Faith & Race – Jennifer Ayres

Reverend Dr. Jennifer Ayres discusses the issues of racial inequity in our food system, and the role of faith communities in addressing healthy living. This talk was part of a Food & Faith Convening event held in November 2018 at Duke University. The event was developed through a partnership between Duke Divinity School and the Rural Church Program Area of The Duke Endowment, the Duke World Food Policy Center (WFPC).  Convening discussions identified several themes that drive the work of faith communities: moving from charity to justice, food sovereignty, and equitable food-oriented development; moving from charity to justice for the land & environment; the need for bridging and relationship building between practitioners, funders, and the academy; and the need for bridging between faith communities and policy. Additionally, several academic themes for future research were identified focused on cross-faith comparative analysis and the broad impact of faith community-based food systems work.

About Reverend Dr. Jennifer Ayres

Jennifer Ayres is Associate Professor of Religious Education at Candler School of Theology and Emory University. She also directs the Doctor of Ministry Program there. Her research seeks to answer this orienting question: “How are people of faith formed through and for the work of tending human relationships, communities, and the earth?” She is the author of Good Food: Grounded Practical Theology (Baylor University Press, 2013). Last year, she was the President’s Humanities Fellow at Emory’s Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry, where she developed her current manuscript proposing an ecological approach to religious education for inhabitance (forthcoming, 2019.) She is also a Presbyterian minister, a marginally-successful gardener, and a child of North Carolina.


My name is Jennifer Ayres and I’m a practical theologian as opposed to impractical, I guess, working at the intersection of theology and education and ethics. I teach religious education at Candler School of Theology where every year, I encounter more students who are passionate and committed to addressing the situation of food justice. They come at it from economic and ecological, political and social lenses. And they’re pushing me constantly to rethink my own work and questions.

So Darriel Harris already sort of addressed the point I wanted to make, which is just one. And that is that it is probably time, and for many of you, long since past time, to retire some language that we’ve been using in the food justice movement. And that is the language of food desert. We can retire it because we can honor its contributions and also now confess its limitations. And I will start with my myself.

So in 2013, I published a book called “Good Food” and, oh, I have a little cartoon of food desert, cartoon is Shirley Cannon. I’m grateful for her very powerful image there. In my book “Good Food,” I had a chapter on moving from food security to food sovereignty and looking at how religious communities were doing this work in so-called food deserts. That term, in 2006, got some traction in the US when Marie Gallagher and her team of researchers started using it. It had some good descriptive power and helped us understand how this access to food was exacerbated by histories of systemic and structural racism. But I like Darriel’s term of food apartheid and I’m grateful for the challenge of that because it helps us to understand that it relies on a history. not just of sort of unfortunate circumstance, but actually exploitation, legal codes, legal codes like redlining that have changed how people access food. I’m grateful for this term that implies the agency there.

But in the book, I still used the term food desert. And I did all kinds of things to try to couch the term. So I would put it in scare quotes or I’d italicize it or I’d have like a footnote that says, “Well, I’m still using this term because it has descriptive power. But here are all the problems with it,” or other phrases or other ways of doing it, tying myself in knots to try to explain why it’s problematic but still was a good shorthand for talking about what we know about food access.

You know the critiques of food desert. One is that a desert, despite the fact that this misrepresents desert ecosystems, is a place where things do not grow. It is a way of focusing on what a community lacks rather than a community’s assets. It often focuses on urban environments to the exclusion of rural environments, which also struggle mightily with access to fresh and healthy food.

So as a white scholar, I recognize that food desert undermines local food sovereignty. Using that language, continuing to use it, has the potential to undermine local food sovereignty. It reinforces racialized and economic modes of paternalism. And here’s why. Even as the language of food desert is starting to slip out of public discourse, in many places it’s not, it’s still pretty powerful, a pretty powerful image. The underlying thought pattern still persists. And it assumes that some objective knowledge using tools like maps or economic data or census data is the best way and most trustworthy way of knowing what’s going on in a particular community. It’s an objectivist epistemology. It’s a way of holding the thing we want to know at such a distance that we think we know all that there is to know about something without actually knowing the community. This sometimes, it ignores local wisdom and it fails to do what Donna Haraway calls “a situated way of knowing” by being inside a community, by understanding the people and building relationships of affection with people. It tends to yield calculated solutions that are sort of one size fits all.

And so we have, even from the highest office in the land, initiatives toward bringing grocery store chains to communities, and that’s not a bad thing, but it can’t be the only response. So these calculated solutions are often imposed from outside, involves corporate grocery chains, so still drawing on consumer capitalism to solve these problems. It also draws on work of non-profit organizations whose leadership sometimes exclude people from the very communities that they profess to be in partnership with. It perpetuates problematic modes of charity, disrupts self-reliance, self-governance, and sovereignty.

So a desert is also a fallacy. And in so many of these communities, people have been working to build local food systems for a long time, since before 2006, since before anybody was talking about a food desert. I love this billboard, “By any greens necessary,” and I think it’s a wonderful model. One of the people I worked with when I was in Chicago was Veronica Kyle at Faith in Place. And she said, “Who told you you live in a food desert? Who decided that? When people tell you you’re lacking something, you might believe it.” And so I had another picture of the Lincoln Memorial Congregational UCC Church community garden, where Veronica Kyle and Yolanda Harris are standing in this verdant, blooming, overflowing garden with a bunch of adolescents and they are the leaders with partners who are supporting their work and leadership, their knowledge and expertise is needed, and when I look around this room, I see people from Chicago and Kenita, Baltimore, who, for a long time have, been doing this work toward food sovereignty.

And so my question or challenge is, is it not time for white people of faith and conscience to get out of the business of diagnosing and prescribing solutions from an objective distance and to get behind and alongside the leaders who are doing this work? What if every white scholar and activist who cares about food justice joins a local food movement toward food sovereignty, following the lead of local, knowledgeable, wise experts. Thank you.