By Renina Jarmon
I always want to know where people will go and what will they eat.
Last December I was in Whole Foods on a Friday night, trying to read get through
some really hard material on "the saturated self', I resorted to reading out loud,
so that I could "hear the theory." A man who works for the Environmental Protection
Agency over heard me, as I was astonished when I learned that Robert Moses was
considered a modernist. Knowing what I knew about Robert Moses, and then learning
what a modernist was, I had an out loud aha moment. He asked if I was a city planner
and I said no, I do "Race and the future of the city" and we started talking about his work on sustainable cities.
I asked him the million dollar question. If you are working to make the cities better,
how are you going to deal with a few centuries of United States racism?
He looked at me, and said, well, I don't know, but what I am advocating for makes
sense for all of us, clean energy, efficient transportation and better local food. And
I responded, racism is irrational, and that he was going to have to fight tooth and
nail to impact the quality of lives of Black folks in the city.
My conversation with him got me think about writing a piece about race, class, food,
and the future of the city, rooted in both a global and a local sense.
We need a new system, because the current one does not work. This new
system must be simultaneously global and local. Furthermore, if it is rooted
in the exploitation of the people in the global south it will fail. Systems premised
on exploitation carry in themselves their own demise. The question is just when.
Cheap Food Requires Cheap Labor
In the article, As the Economy Withers, Thoughts on an Inequitable Food
System, Tomm Phillpot writes,
In short, an economy hinged on cheap labor needs cheap food. And that’s the structural problem faced by Slow Food and other would-be reformers of the food system. The challenge of food reformers isn’t just to reform the food system; it’s to reshape the entire economy—to create new economic models that revalue labor along with food, so that people can afford the revalued food.Phillpot goes on to write, quoting Julie Guttman,
Those who complain about the use of food stamps to purchase cheap, junky food ought to set their sights elsewhere. They should consider the myriad policies that allow products laden with high fructose corn syrup, transfats, growth hormones and synthetic processing aids to be sold as food. In my view, the unemployed and poor shouldn’t pay the moral price for our collective failure to curb the excesses of the food industry.Phillpot also mentions Caitlin Donahue's article, "Out of reach: How the
sustainable local food movement neglects poor workers and eaters"
in the Guardian, which essentially argues that the slow food movement has
a class problem. She writes that it is a movement,
that has yet to really confront its class issues. Though organic grocery stores and farmers markets have sprung up on San Francisco’s street corners, it remains to be seen whether our current mania for sustainable, local food will positively affect the lower classes, be they farm workers or poor families.Phillpot goes on to make an incredibly astute observation about class when
Donohue hinges her story on a dismal paradox of the food system: Farm workers are so poorly paid that they can only reasonably afford the lowest-quality food. The same can be said for most of the other people who keep the food-system humming: slaughterhouse workers, dishwashers, line cooks, Wal-Mart clerks. There’s no generating vast quantities of cheap food without vast quantities of cheap labor.I am glad to see that Phillpot is thinking not only about food but labor as well, because they
are most certainly connected. Initially, I thought that local, green, sustainable economies
were the future. But, three things forced me to reconsider this idea.
The first was reading Chandra Mohanty's Feminism Without Borders, the second
was reading, Mike Davis's Planet of Slums, the third was hearing my professor say,
that "a unit for profit, requires exploitation."
Mohanty forced me to see how the quality of life of people in the global north
is subsidized by the quality of life of people in the global south. In Feminism
Without Borders, she qotes Zillah Eisensten who writes, "Women do two thirds
of the worlds work, for one tenth of the income" and that "Women and girls are the
majority of the worlds poor and the majority of the worlds refugees."
It is largely Women and children, working in factories, who make many of the items
that we shop for in our stores. In fact the cheap prices of the items that we buy is
directly correlated to their low wages.
Our lives are connected.
From Elsa Barkely Brown I have learned that our difference is relational. This is important
to keep in mind when talking about who has which job, who has access to which resources.
Mike Davis has both an article and a book titled Planet of Slums. His work has forced
me to rethink how my local, crunchy bougie Black girl sustainability idea was going
to address the 100 million global street kids.
Mike Davis premise #1
"For the first time the urban population of the earth will outnumber the rural. Indeed
given the imprecision of the Third World census, this epochal transition may
have already occurred."
Mike Davis premise number 2
"Cities have absorbed nearly two thirds of the global population explosion since 1950
and are currently growing by a million babies and migrants each week.
As a result, cities will account for all future world population growth, which is
expected to peak at a 10 billion in 2050."
Essentially, globally rural folks are being forcibly removed from rural lands to the cities
to do jobs, that may or may not exist. These lands are extremely mineral rich and
valuable to multinational corporations.
How does these women survive, in an informal economy? According to Davis, by
"selling water, carting nightsoil, recycling trash, delivering propane and so on."
Mike Davis Premise # 3
"The Africa case was particularly paradoxical. How could cities like Cote d'Ivorie,
Tanzania, Gabon and elsewhere, whose economies were contracting by
2 to 5 percent per year still sustain growth of 5 to 8 percent per annum. Part of
the secret was that IMF, and now WTO policies of agricultural deregulation and
de-peasantization were accelerating the exodus of surplus
rural labor to urban slums even as cities cease to be job machines."
Now do you get where I am going with sustainability for whom?
Hence the statement about cheap labor and cheap food was incredibly interesting
to me, becuase I honestly to hear people make that connection often.
I argue that the issue isn't green or local economies, but is far more global in nature.
The City, Black People and American Democracy
The population of Black people in the city, historically, has been relevant to the
ways in which America has been pushed to towards democracy, for Black people
and for all of its residents who weren't legally citizens.
This is not to discount the struggles that occurred in the Montgomery and Little Rock.
In fact given the fact that according to a New York Times article about a new report by
the Southern Education Foundation,
The South has become the first region in the country where more than half of public school students are poor and more than half are members of minorities.Keep this in mind, as I will return to it later.
The city is increasingly becoming a place where only households with a combined
income nearing 100k or more can live and enjoy the amenities,social status,
health care, eduction and benefits of being in the city.
What happens to a city when it's workers can no longer afford to live there?
According to another recent article in th New York Times, Harlem is no longer majority
Black. In seeing the demography shift explained in the article above, I posit that those
low income folks who left Harlem and are now in the south. Shaila Dewan writes in
the New York Times,
The shift was fueled not by white flight from public schools, which spiked during desegregation but has not had much effect on school demographics since the early 1980s. Rather, an influx of Latinos and other ethnic groups, the return of blacks to the South and higher birth rates among black and Latino families have contributed to the change.The first thing I wanted to know was where did the people go who lived there and
what are they going to eat?
What are the political implications of Black and Latino poverty re-clustering in the South?
Back to Harlem. For me, the issue with Harlem, isn't race, but it is class.
If the cities, have historically been, largely, the home of Black resistance, what
happens to our democracy when there aren't any more working class or low
income Black people in the city?
Is this setting the stage for cities to become playgrounds for European
and International elites with euros?
How bad will it have to get for us to decide to create a city that has housing and jobs
for working class folks, middle class and the elite?
Will our ideologies shift so that minimum wage becomes the new middle class?
What happens when the city is comprised of Black folks who have chosen
into the structure rather than change it openly choose to not be apart of it.
Farms, Food and Social Justice
Vandana Shiva has dedicated her life to collecting seeds. Trained as a physicist, she is a philosopher, environmental activist and eco-feminist. Her central argument
is that the seed belongs to all of us, not corporations. She explains how the Structural
Adjustment program and international programs have impacted Indian farmers when
Currently Mostanto, is patenting seeds, and selling them back to farmers.
In 1998, the World Bank's structural adjustment policies forced India to open up its seed sector to global corporations like Cargill, Monsanto and Syngenta. The global corporations changed the input economy overnight. Farm saved seeds were replaced by corporate seeds, which need fertilizers and pesticides and cannot be saved.
Corporations prevent seed savings through patents and by engineering seeds with non-renewable traits. As a result, poor peasants have to buy new seeds for every planting season and what was traditionally a free resource, available by putting aside a small portion of the crop, becomes a commodity. This new expense increases poverty and leads to indebtness.
According to John Barlett in Vanity Fair,
Farmers who buy Monsanto’s patented Roundup Ready seeds are required to sign an agreement promising not to save the seed produced after each harvest for re-planting, or to sell the seed to other farmers. This means that farmers must buy new seed every year. Those increased sales, coupled with ballooning sales of its Roundup weed killer, have been a bonanza for Monsanto.Bartlett goes into the history of the courts and Mosanto when he writes,
in 1980 the U.S. Supreme Court, in a five-to-four decision, turned seeds into widgets, laying the groundwork for a handful of corporations to begin taking control of the world’s food supply. In its decision, the court extended patent law to cover “a live human-made microorganism.” In this case, the organism wasn’t even a seed. Rather, it was a Pseudomonas bacterium developed by a General Electric scientist to clean up oil spills. But the precedent was set, and Monsanto took advantage of it. Since the 1980s, Monsanto has become the world leader in genetic modification of seeds and has won 674 biotechnology patents, more than any other company, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.In India, the farmers are unable to make a living off of farming and one the
devastating consequences of this is that two hundred thousand Indian farmers
have committed suicide in the last twenty years.
To add on to the privatization of seeds, global corporations are buying up international
farm lands for the purposes of outsourcing food production. Andrew Rice writes in
The New York Times,
In a series of meetings, Saudi government officials, bankers and agribusiness executives told an institute delegation led by Zeigler that they intended to spend billions of dollars to establish plantations to produce rice and other staple crops in African nations like Mali, Senegal, Sudan and Ethiopia. “They laid out this incredible plan,” Zeigler recalled. He was flabbergasted, not only by the scale of the projects but also by the audacity of their setting. Africa, the world’s most famished continent, can’t currently feed itself, let alone foreign markets.Given all this, food, race, privatized seeds and lands, the removal of low and middle
income earners from the economy and the city, I am convinced that paradigm shift is
occurring, and the question is, in whose interests and what are we going to do about it?
When are we going to engage it, name it and activlely work to direct it?
If we are able to simultaneously, think, act and plan locally and globally,
I hope that we will be in a better position than we are today.