Palatability is the Enemy of Justice

Everyone loves food.

Food brings us together. It’s the keeper of our memories. Its aromas remind us of the moments we hold most dear. Its flavors bring us back to the warmth we experienced around the dinner table as we spent time with families, both chosen and unchosen.

Breaking bread is not simply breaking bread. It’s an act of love, of witnessing another’s humanity, of taking relationships to new depths.

We hold food with the highest honor. Yet so often we avoid confronting the legacy of that food, that land, and those flavors. We avoid confronting the least palatable part of our food: our role in an unjust food system.

To think about food alone is to embrace with family on thanksgiving day and rejoice in the harvest. To think about our food system is to recognize the genocide that this so-called holiday glosses over.

We care about soil. We celebrate the beauty of its biodiversity and the nourishment it holds. But what about the bodies and tears that fertilized that soil? Do we consider whose ancestors were killed defending it, and whose ancestors were left standing? These stories remain unheard.

We embrace our spiritual connection to place — our sacred bond with the earth. But when we consider land beyond our ownership, we are confronted with the history of enslavement. We are faced with someone else’s ancestors, severed from their lands and forced to work in faraway places. We are faced with the truth that their plates were bare as ours were bountiful.

We love to talk about nutrition and health. The unique flavors of heirloom tomatoes and ancient grains. But do we acknowledge how local seed savers the world over are being criminalized? Are we moved by the fact that our vital crop varieties suffer the same fate as those unspoken ancestors, gone without a trace?

We love exploring the recipes of other cultures. Yet as we develop new flavors with spices from across the globe, do we ask how those spices were grown? Who grew them, and whose lands were taken in the process? We love how these ingredients cross territories and borders on the long journey to our plates. But we don’t want to think about the fact that those same borders are now closed to the ones who grew them.

Food alone is a source of deep nourishment.

Our food system is colonization. It’s exploitation. The transatlantic slave trade. The East India Company. Capital extraction and the Banana Republic.

Food is alive with color.

Our food system is white supremacy.

Food alone is a warm embrace. But our food system is an unwanted mirror.

When we do talk about the injustice in the food system, we tend to center individual villains. We center Bill Gates. We center Monsanto. We center Nestle. We center Coca-Cola. But we fail to center the hard truth: that the problems — and the solutions — to our unjust food system involve all of us.

We must ask ourselves: Is there space to hold the love of food with the same gravity as its history?

If we insist on telling a story about food that erases its history; if we only accept stories that absolve us of our collective responsibility; if we insist on centering only the beautiful parts of food; if we depoliticize food — the solutions we generate will be apolitical too. And so we will fail to arrive.

Palatability is the enemy of justice.

Let’s all pause and notice what the solutions that receive the most attention, praise, and funding — regenerative agriculture, vertical farming, climate-smart agriculture — have in common. They give us the feeling of progress without addressing the underlying causes of our food system’s problems — power imbalance, inequality, and legacies of exploitation.

Food may be an act of love, but our food system is built upon the many acts of oppression that have plagued us since the very first seeds were sown.

We cannot wish away the food system’s history. We can’t erase it with beautiful images, romantic stories, and strategic omissions. If we want to heal, we must first acknowledge our deep wounds. Otherwise, they will do nothing but fester as we frantically place bandage after bandage on top of them.

The goal is not to erase the beauty of food; the joy and unity that it brings. Nor is it to erase the spiritual connection to land that is all of our birthright. The goal is to be able to hold these truths in tension with one another — the beauty with the pain, the connection with the marginalization, the growth with the uprooting.

We must learn to embrace context over comfort. We must hold all of these truths in plain view, even when they are contradictory. We must be brave enough to be honest about the food system. We must acknowledge the complexity, rather than shy away from it. We must be willing to look at ourselves, at our complicity, at the systems that dehumanize us all.

This is how we move forward. This is the only way to move forward.

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Confronting Unjust Power in the Food System

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