“Food changes into blood, blood into cells, cells change into energy which changes up into life…food is life.” – Culinary griot Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor

“This work we’re doing in food culture is ultimately healing work. And those foods, and seeds, and the land are the agents of healing: They are the healers, they are the curanderas, they are the medicine people who are increasing our capacity to look at the grief all around us…it’s only the seeds, and the land, and the food, that have the capacity to take that grief, and to metabolize and digest it.” – Mohawk seedkeeper, writer, cultural worker Rowen White

Imagine a future where the ways we grow, cook, and gather around food affirms our relationships to the places we live, to the people who came before us, and to future generations. Imagine a future where we recognize care as the essence of all labor and appreciate all people’s labor, no matter the form it takes. Imagine that we joyfully nourish each other, that we all know we belong, and that we recognize land as kin. What images come to mind? What longing is sparked in us?

Right now, we are living through escalating crises, both within living ecologies and socially constructed systems. A dominant worldview shaped by settler colonialism and white supremacy has proliferated practices of extraction and exploitation that benefit few at the expense of many. Our commercial food system is an expression of this. Industrialized supply chains abuse people and the planet, feeding exploitation and injustice.

But systems and practices do not exist in a vacuum; they are an expression of the culture that underpins them. As many Black, Indigenous, and diasporic people of color food leaders have long asserted, dominant food narratives—from bootstrapping to “you are what you eat” diet shaming—often explicitly affirm logics of individualism, ignoring structural inequities and oppression and perpetuating support for massive globalized, profit-driven food industries that kill people and destroy ecologies. To transform our food system, address our legacies of harm, and interrupt our reckless relationship to ecosystems, we need to look beyond food supply chains to the culture underpinning how we produce and share food. We need to advance narratives that celebrate interdependency and care. Stated otherwise, we need to transform our food culture.

Food culture consists of the relationships and experiences we engage through food—the way food shapes our experiences of the world and of ourselves and each other. A respectful, reciprocal food culture can help us imagine, build, and sustain possibilities for a more equitable future, in which our world’s natural abundance is shared. Food cultural organizers, predominantly Black, Indigenous, and diasporic people of color, are already inviting us to engage with food as life force, as culture. They remind us that food culture is a powerful organizing force that feeds the body, lives in embodied relationships, and animates the world. Food is a world-builder and place-maker, and the way many of us find a sense of home and belonging. As such, when we transform food culture, we transform culture as a whole—from how we relate to one another, to our stories of who we are, and our visions for who we can become. In the process, we empower ourselves to transform the systems that govern our world.

Setting the Table: Food as Teacher, Food as Healer

“People want to put us in boxes all the time,” Mohawk seedkeeper, writer, and activist Rowen White tells a crowd of squares assembled on Zoom. Last November, our organization, Real Food Real Stories, hosted a conversation between Rowen White and Black liberation cook-activist, Jocelyn Jackson, for a virtual Around the Table event on decolonizing food culture. These two visionary food cultural workers lit up the screen and the hearts of those listening with their descriptions of “storied” food cultures that nourish complexity and accountability. “[People] always say, she does food systems work,” White continued, “and I’m like, I don’t do food systems work! I do something way more expansive than that.”

A passionate advocate for Indigenous seed and food sovereignty, White serves as the educational director and lead mentor of Sierra Seeds, a cooperative seed company committed to cultivating a network of seed stewards in Northern California. She is also the founder of the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network. White frames her work as a lifelong “apprenticeship to seeds.” Through seeds, she sees a path of “rehydrating” cultural values of reciprocity, care, and collective nourishment—those “original agreements” that affirm a symbiotic relationship between all beings. In her workshops, speeches, and writings on seeds, culture, and ancestral knowledge, White invites the public into a deeper, reciprocal relationship with the land.

Jocelyn Jackson—the co-founder of the People’s Kitchen Collective, a community dining and political education project based in Oakland, CA—has often experienced the true breadth, impact, and political clarity of her work shoehorned into expected categories. She’s been described as everything from a dietician to a culinary instructor—in fact, Jackson is a cultural worker, who uses recipes, ingredients, and shared meals to dialogue with ancestors, claim collective power, and evoke visions of justice. With a background in law and education, she founded JUSTUS Kitchen to create healing food experiences that inspire folks to reconnect with themselves, the earth, and one another, inviting us to grow together towards collective liberation.

For example, in 2021, Jackson launched an interactive, virtual tablescape, Fixed Price Menu, in partnership with Array and the Law Enforcement Accountability Project (LEAP). Jackson created the conceptual menu and table setting for Philando Castile, the 32-year-old Black man killed by police, and Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who murdered him. At Yanez’s place setting she put some of Castile’s favorite foods—honoring Castile’s humanity. In this way, Jackson asked, “What culture did Yanez feed on that would allow him to take life so swiftly?”

Using food as an art form—as a way to reflect on how Castile’s and Yanez’s story unfolded—Jackson invited audiences to cook the recipes, contemplate the story, and consider our own responsibility and accountability. As Jackson explained in our Around the Table conversation, “That’s ultimately what’s going on every time we eat a meal. We’re talking about a liberation moment. We’re talking about a cultural moment. We’re talking about a sacred moment.” It was fortifying, Jackson told us, to have food recognized as playing an essential role in exploring police brutality, abolition, and accountability.

Both Jackson and White are part of a growing movement around food cultural reclamation and revitalization that is challenging how we think about food systems change. Supply-chain systems analysis reduces food to nutrients, narrowing our understanding of the many ways that food shapes our lives. In contrast, food culture-bearers, organizers, and creatives recognize that food is intersectional—inexorably tied to practices of healing, identity formation, belonging, and placemaking. Food cultural work offers us a praxis with which to affirm our mutuality with each other and the ecologies that feed us as we grow our collective wellbeing. This work has the potential to shift our global trajectory away from escalating social and climate chaos. To borrow the language of visionary author Toni Cade Bambara, food offers us the seeds and rich soil to shift our worldview and cultivate an irresistible future.

Challenging White Supremacist Logic

U.S. food systems are fundamentally shaped by violent land grabs and plantation economies, growing into today’s mega-corporations that produce ecologically destructive and nutritionally empty food for a buck. The same colonial logic that established and upheld these violent systems has shaped how most of us think and talk about food, including the development of a “good food movement” that reinforces systemic inequities and a racial hierarchy that prioritizes whiteness.

Indeed, what is often described as the organic, sustainable, slow, good, or regenerative food movement has celebrated mostly white farmers and chefs who championed fresh, “wholesome” food, often without acknowledging the legacies of institutionalized racism and land theft that facilitated these white farmers’ and food leaders’ access to resources. Nor has the movement adequately acknowledged the Black, Indigenous, and diasporic communities of color whose work and leadership it drew from. For example, the Black origins of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) were eclipsed by white farmers, and Indigenous fights against government-provided commodity foods were marginalized. This has had tangible physical and economic repercussions for entire communities. For example, when public and business decision-makers under-invest in Black or Immigrant neighborhoods and Tribal communities, they create conditions of food apartheid.

One potent example of such selective celebration illustrates the problem. Around the same time that Alice Waters was solidifying her position as the “mother of farm-to-table,” Black culinary griot, anthropologist, and artist Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor published her seminal autobiographical cookbook and memoir, Vibration Cooking: Or, the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl. In this groundbreaking work, Smart-Grosvenor wove together “recipes” evoking instinctual and inherited knowledge, with stories of her upbringing in South Carolina’s Lowcountry and commentaries on cultural dynamics, from culinary appropriation to gentrification.

When the third edition of the book was published in 1992, Smart-Grosvenor described it as a book that “slipped through the cracks for more than two decades and lived.” White critics struggled to categorize the book and were unsure how to describe Smart-Grosvenor. Even in her 2016 New York Times obituarySmart-Grosvenor was described as someone “who liked to call herself a ‘culinary griot’” (emphasis added), implicitly casting doubt on the validity of her work.

The white-dominated narratives of the “food movement” have failed to give essential lineage holders of food culture work, like Smart-Grosvenor, their due. Generations of vital, Black, Indigenous, and diasporic people of color-led food culture work has been under-resourced and overshadowed—with the expertise of food culture workers unfairly questioned and their access to funding and infrastructure support unfairly constrained. As Rowen White reminds us, “colonial culture tries to make what we do smaller or fit it into their paradigm—or their understanding—of what it is.” Crucially, many BIPOC food cultural workers whose work has been diminished or dismissed offer a powerful map towards a food culture that affirms reciprocity and mutual belonging and ensures a livable future.

Food is Culture

Over the past decade, growing numbers of organizations across issues and sectors have recognized that systems are rooted in culture and that systems change requires a cultural shift. To quote Jeff Chang in “A Conversation About Cultural Strategy,”

…culture has two definitions: (1) The prevailing beliefs, values and customs of a group; a group’s way of life. (2) A set of practices (including all forms of storytelling and art-making) that contain, transmit, or express ideas, values, habits and behaviors between individuals and groups.

When we understand culture as beliefs, values, customs, and practices, we see how our beliefs and practices around food are culture, and how our intentionality around food culture is crucial to creating a sustainable, just, and joyful world.

Our current food system is an expression of the core values of dominant food culture. So, to heal our food system, we must heal our shared food culture. At a 2021 Real Food Real Stories storytelling gathering, food scholar, writer, and editor of the seminal anthology Sistah Vegan, A. Breeze Harper put it simply: “Racial justice, decolonization, and a sustainable food system cannot exist in—or on—soil that continues to be ‘purified’ through white supremacy and monocultural belief systems.” When we approach food work as cultural work, we are able to crack open, reimagine, and rewrite the implicit assumptions of fiercely-held narratives, transforming the shared spaces, practices, and norms that make up culture.

Speaking to the centrality of storytelling in her approach to food work, Black food scholar-activist Lindsey Lunsford recently told us that, “The things that come natural are easy to write off as being unimportant or non-substantial.” In the same way that humans couldn’t describe the color blue before we began producing blue pigment––despite the fact that the fundamental elements of air and water are now defined by the hue––food culture work has always been fundamental to our world, even if our colonized languages and worldviews haven’t allowed some of us to “see” it.

Understanding food work as cultural work calls many people and communities into the movement to collectively reclaim and transform our relationship to food, at all scales. A food systems analysis invited consumers to ask: Where does your food come from? Food cultural work calls us all into the question: What culture do we feed?

Bringing Narratives of Wholeness to Life

Food culture work is necessary to alter existing extractive and exploitative power structures. Unlike a “vote-with-your-fork” politic that centers consumption as the space of action, food cultural work affirms our individual and collective power to shape culture beyond consumption.

Indigenous communities and leaders have long offered an understanding of human relationship to food and land as sacred, in ways that are profoundly distinct from the worldviews that dominate food culture in the U.S. “There’s a circle of relationships that happen in our territories that people have forgotten about, about how we live in reciprocity and don’t take more than we need,” Corinna Gould—Lisjan Ohlone leader, community spokeswoman, and co-founder of the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust—told a Real Food Real Stories audience in 2020. Gould and the women of Sogorea Te’ have played a leading role in defining rematriation as a practice that facilitates the return of Indigenous land to Indigenous people and stewardship. Unlike the legal term “repatriate,” which is defined by a transfer of ownership, “rematriate” includes a more profound practice of healing and decolonization. This work offers cultural transformation far beyond the territories of the Lisjan Ohlone people on the eastern shores of the San Francisco Bay; Sogorea Te’s modeling invites us all to inhabit narratives of care and abundance to heal our soils, our communities, and our relationships with all our living relations (human and beyond)—including #LandBack to Indigenous stewardship.

Nikiko Masumoto, a third-generation Japanese-American peach farmer, queer writer, and performance artist, offers another example of a land-based food cultural practitioner cultivating transformational narratives in her work. Both Masumoto’s organic farming practice and her creative work nourish stories of belonging and wholeness alive in the Central Valley of California, which she calls home. As she shared with a Real Food Real Stories audience in 2016, her food work invites others into an understanding of the “cultural landscape that is already embedded, but often erased, in the food that we eat.” The land Masumoto now farms was originally purchased by her grandfather a few years after he, like so many Japanese-Americans, was incarcerated in an internment camp. Prior to WWII, Masumoto’s grandfather had worked as a farmhand; anti-Asian immigration laws had prevented many Asian Americans from owning land, and resentment of the Japanese community’s ownership stake of agricultural land directly fueled the political justification for internment and forcible removal. As Masumoto told a reporter in 2017, she is a descendant of her grandfather’s “resilience to really claim a place of belonging.”

Land-based food cultural workers like Rowen White, Corrina Gould, and Nikiko Masumoto go beyond connecting us to the land; they connect us to the stories and legacies embedded in the soils we cultivate. “What does it look like to weave in the stories of the people, of the land, who feed us?” wondered Pandora Thomas, founder of EarthSEED Permaculture Center and Farm, on a phone call this winter. Founded with a powerful cultural intention, EarthSEED is a 14-acre solar-powered organic farm, orchard, and educational center in Sonoma County, California, stewarded with Afro-Indigenous permaculture principles. “We sing, we celebrate, we mourn,” she continued, “there’s all this cultural beauty that is expressed in bringing food from the ground to our lives.”

This celebration and witnessing of the cultural aspects of food, farming, and land stewardship are clearly something we’re hungering for. The last decade has seen a broader public embrace food cultural figures, from Anishinaabe botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, whose 2013 Braiding Sweetgrass became a national bestseller, to Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm, whose 2018 guide-meets-manifesto, Farming While Black, spoke to the work of reclaiming dignity as Black agriculturalists. Both works resonated with an audience that reached far beyond people working directly in food and farming, demonstrating a broad appetite for culturally-based approaches to land and farming.

This work of renewing and healing relationships with the land is growing along with a wave of people reclaiming and reviving ancestral culinary traditions. Indigenous writers like Devon Abott Mihesuah (Recovering Our Ancestors Gardens, 2005) and Black writers like Jessica Harris (High on the Hog, 2012, which served as the foundation for last year’s hit Netflix series hosted by Stephen Satterfield) and Bryant Terry (starting with Grub in 2006, and most recently, Black Food in 2021) have elevated and centered foodways that have been intentionally suppressed and erased in U.S. history. In 2015, Luz Calvo and Catriona Esquibel took up the call to Decolonize Your Diet with a cookbook reclaiming health-giving MesoAmerican foods. Numerous ancestral food projects have sprung up in the intervening years. Two of the best known are from Sean Sherman and team at The Sioux Chef, and Michael Twitty’s Afroculinaria; there are many more. These cultural food projects are not just about preserving traditional foodways—by resurfacing a relationship to food that celebrates sovereignty and reciprocity, we expand our capacity to dream into decolonized visions of the future.

At a 2019 Real Food Real Stories event, Filipina-American chef, educator, and activist Aileen Suzara asked the audience, “Is it possible to recover the things that you were supposed to forget?” Suzara was called to food work as a means to reckon with the aftershocks of colonization and military occupation she witnessed in her family. In 2017 Suzara founded Sariwa, a project celebrating the healing properties of Filipino food. Like many immigrant families, the pressure to assimilate had forcibly distanced Suzara from her ancestors’ traditional foodways and the experience of belonging embedded within them. Her longing for an ancestral connection with food resonates with many living in diaspora; food has long been weaponized as a tool of oppression, dispossession, and forced assimilation by ruling powers. For Suzara and other BIPOC food culture workers, food is a pathway for people to collectively remember the past, to “chang[e] a painful narrative” shaped by settler colonialism that perpetuates shame, trauma, and erasure—to reclaim power and nourish narratives that honor their communities’ history and agency in authoring their futures.

Shane Bernardo, a Detroit-based cultural and community organizer, echoed Suzara on a call this winter: “When we are able to talk about our stories in a less isolated way, we take our power back…The most powerful thing is that we are able to take our power back and stop being victims.” In his work as co-founder of Food As Healing, Bernardo seeks to reestablish a sacred relationship to land and food, and make explicit the connection between community health and dominant systems of harm. Bernardo, who grew up working in his Philippine family’s grocery store, “came into the knowing of this work” after his father became an ancestor in 2010. “When my father passed on,” said Bernardo, “I saw how the chronic health diseases of a person in the diaspora are connected to the displacement of my people and my ancestors. The work of reclaiming my people’s foodways has my people’s blood on it.” When we reclaim our practices, moving beyond dominant systems and white supremacist logic, we can achieve, in Bernardo’s words, the “ecosystem shift” we need to truly heal.

Renewing a Generous Story of Food

We—the writers of this essay—are women working in food and cultural strategy, one white and two mixed-race. We write from a place of longing, with gratitude for those doing culturally-based food work, and with our own sense of accountability. Two of us, Jovida and Shizue, have had the privilege in our work at Real Food Real Stories to facilitate, amplify, and platform farmers, organizers, healers, foodmakers, chefs, elders, and creatives. Through the personal stories these individuals shared with us, they have made it clear that a framework of “fixing our food system” does not do justice to their sense of purpose or intended impact. In addition, we—Jovida and Shizue—are based in the Bay Area, California, where the farm-to-table narrative was coined, and both of our parents were (at least tangentially) active in the white-centered back-to-the-land farming movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s. We have an intimate understanding of the blindspots and limitations of the food narratives we inherited and were poised to perpetuate. Our co-writer, Julie, weaves in insights from her work growing transformative cultural and economic power, her mixed Ecuadorian-American identity, and her perspective from Michigan, home to vibrant Black and Indigenous-led food movements.

We do food cultural work, not to change how we eat, but to change how we live. We each have struggled to feel connected to our ancestral cultures—a struggle tied to a long history of forced assimilation and imperialism. This is true for Shizue in relationship to her Japanese ancestors and Julie in relationship to her Ecuadorian roots. It’s also true for each of us in connection to the cultural traditions of Celtic, Germanic, and English peoples in our respective family trees, and for Jovida in connection to her Ashkenazi ancestors: the living expression of our families’ cultures were lost to the flattening power of assimilation into whiteness. In those ancestral threads lie the memories of a different relationship to food, land, and belonging. As Rowen White reminds us, the seeds of ancestral wisdom within us are waiting to be rehydrated.

At the Real Food Real Stories roundtable last November, White explained how she dislikes the phrase food system because it “feels sterile, reductionist, and hollow…it was birthed out of the same forces that created the destruction of the beautifully storied cultures that we all descend from.” Instead, she seeks to affirm the powerful, expansive, intersectional role of food in our lives. White encourages us to reclaim a relationship to food that embraces our storied lineages—lineages that affirm a food culture rooted in the belief that care for all people, lands, and waters is possible.

Food cultural workers have been guiding our way; to get there, we all need to be part of shaping it. Food culture work is dynamic and evolving, its impacts as far-reaching and diverse as its practitioners. Embracing food culture as an orientation to food transformation requires a shift in how we think about and relate to food at an elemental level, not simply in our terminology. The first step in this process is to witness and recognize food culture work being done around us—and to center the leadership of people revitalizing and revisioning culturally-based food and land practices.

Food culture work offers a dynamic and intersectional approach to address the most critical issues of our time––from climate justice and global health, to policing and gun violence, to land rematriation and food sovereignty, and far beyond. In the words of Black food scholar, culture worker, and visionary thought leader, Psyche A. Williams-Forson, “demanding what sustains us culturally…in ways that will allow us to thrive and be whole, comforted, satiated and alive is not a fight from which we should shrink.”

To transform how we live, and ensure a healthy future on this planet, we need to shift power away from the cultures that support exploitation and destruction towards cultures that instead nourish our collective healing, liberation, and joy. For those wondering how to begin, we offer a few suggestions below.

Listen: Give generous attention, while being open to learning something unexpected.

  • For people who identify as Black, Indigenous, and diasporic people of color: Remember that everyone has the power to embrace multiple ways of knowing and listen to their intuition and wisdom. White supremacist culture has taught us not to do that, but that’s exactly what we need to do. As Rowen White reminds us, there are many ways into cultural rehydration, re-enlivening the “deep intelligences inside our bodies” to nourish our healing, joy, and visions for the future.
  • For people who identify as white: Remember that white people have also experienced disconnection from ancestral roots. Everyone can listen to and learn from the echoes of our ancestors. Embracing pleasure and joy as we revive and remix our own culinary traditions is essential to rehydrating the wisdom embedded in our cells. White folks who do this inner listening might also discover grief over cultural loss or feel called to take stock of the painful, violent histories that their ancestors may have directly contributed to—or, at the very least, benefited from. At the same time, it is vital that everyone listen to, witness, and appreciate the power and leadership of BIPOC food cultural workers, without fetishizing, tokenizing, or appropriating their cultural stories or lineages.

Engage: Considerations as we connect with food cultural work. 

  • For everyone: Ask the question: How might we (re)claim our power to truly nourish ourselves and our communities, to shape our everyday lives, systems, and governance around mutual nourishment and care, around solidarity and celebration? When we orient towards what we want to create in the world, we can better identify opportunities to move towards our vision.
  • For people working on food systems change: Follow the wisdom and leadership of BIPOC food culture keepers. Invest in cultural power—alongside economic and political power—as key to effective strategy. Practice naming the cultural context and power dynamics we work within. How are we shifting power and resources to address structural harms? How are we aligning our organizational resources with values that support mutual flourishing?

Activate: Move with awareness and purpose.

  • For everyone: Strengthen the muscles of reclaiming and reimagining food culture with creativity, joy, and connection. Be open to playfully exploring the way we grow, cook, and gather around food. Rowen White suggests: “Whether it’s seeds, or food, or in the kitchen, or art, or poetry, or whatever is your passion: you had ancestors that did that too… Whatever it is that your passion is, it’s the way that you stitch yourself back into that culture. And we need all of us!” These inner signals can guide us in reweaving life-affirming relationships with land, water, food, and community.
  • For people who identify as white: Deepen and grow your understanding of how U.S. food systems are rooted in and shaped by a history of land theft, genocide, slavery, and imperialism. We must take active steps to rebalance power and repair past and ongoing violence and extraction. Ask questions like: How are we explicitly acting on our commitments to Black, Indigenous, and diasporic communities of color? Commit to a personal practice of accountability, reparations, and rematriation that could include paying a voluntary land-tax, channeling resources to BIPOC-led food culture projects, and finding ways to follow and support BIPOC leadership without adding demands for time and attention.
  • For people working in nonprofit organizations: Now is the time for coalition building across issues and sectors. Join a network that embraces deep narrative and cultural strategies or collaborate across food, arts, culture, climate, and social justice spaces (just to name a few) to deepen relationships, cross-pollinate, and forward intersectional solutions that promise long-term transformation rather than short-term wins. Embrace innovative models of community wealth and economic self-determination, and resist the idea that grants are the best and only way to resource the work. As HEAL Food Alliance states clearly: “No single organization, alliance, or sector can transform the system working alone or in isolation; We need our diverse skills, resources, and bases.”
  • For people working in philanthropy: Recognize and invest in cultural power— alongside economic and political power—as key to effective strategy. Invest in authentic partnerships with BIPOC food culture workers and bearers who are leading, and have historically led, the work to reclaim and reimagine our relationship with food in service of our collective flourishing. (Re)Read the HEAL-led coalition open letter and follow up, and consider the questions posed there: How are you cultivating authentic partnership with BIPOC communities, ending inequitable grantmaking strategies, redirecting multi-year, unrestricted funding from white-led groups to BIPOC-led organizations, and examining your own endowment investments and funding trends?

There is a cultural reawakening happening all around us. We can choose to be a part of it—to nourish it in ourselves, support it in others, and honor and resource those leading the way. We all shape and create food culture. Once we recognize this, we can all work to cultivate a food culture rooted in celebration and solidarity, reorienting our collective trajectory towards a future of mutual flourishing.