October 23, 2013

LaDonna Redmond began questioning her local food system when she gave birth 15 years ago to a son who was allergic to shellfish, dairy, peanuts and eggs.The mom faced many challenges with her child’s allergies.

People gave her advice to just avoid those foods, but she also realized she didn’t know how to shop for his specialized diet. She also didn’t have access to healthy, unprocessed foods in her urban Chicago neighborhood.

“That’s when I realized that there was something going on with the food system that I was just not that aware of,” Redmond said. “I figured that when I went to the supermarket, I got healthy food. I figured that there was someone who was protecting my interests, my community’s interests when I started to talk about food.”

Redmond, founder of the Chicago-based The Campaign for Food Justice Now, spoke about how to improve access to healthy foods and food justice when she gave the keynote address at Multnomah County’s annual Food Justice Summit on Oct. 18 at the Oregon Convention Center. The daylong summit focused on the themes of food justice in schools, neighborhood approaches to food justice, food as healing and connecting to food.

Redmond told the crowd of more than 350 people -- primarily advocates and representatives from nonprofits and food-based organizations -- that in order to address food justice, organizations need to address historical trauma rooted in racism and oppression. And she urged her audience members to reframe the messages they spread about food. Oftentimes the messages about healthy eating are condescending, she said.

“The piece of the food that spoke to me as an individual, as an African-American woman in an urban community was really missing and blank,” Redmond said. “And trying to fill it in with somebody else’s idea of what I should be eating was not speaking to me, and it didn’t speak to my nextdoor neighbor either.”

She contrasted the availability of items in her neighborhood.

“It was easier to get a semiautomatic weapon in my community than it was to get an organic tomato,” Redmond said.

That disturbing conclusion reflects a public health dilemma that extends beyond food to other aspects of health and wellbeing, she said.

“The systems are connected in some way,” Redmond said. “And so what we have to do is figure out those interconnections. Maybe if we can deal with chronic diet-related diseases, we might be able to deal with issues around domestic violence, we might be able to start to deal with issues of gun violence in our community.”

Another major component of achieving food justice is understanding historical trauma and how large groups of people were stripped of their dignity and set on a trajectory based on the trauma they experienced, Redmond said.

Part of the narrative is “grounded in the removal of Native Americans from their homeland, the importation of African slaves and the combination that those two incidents created to building the United States of America,” she said. “That is foundational to the historical health disparities that we see today in those communities.”

“For me, that’s the foundation of food justice,” she said.

“You can’t just be talking about farmer’s markets and EBT access,” Redmond said, referring to electronic benefit transfers of public assistance. “You’ve got to be talking about this too.”

Addressing food justice means examining multiple factors, she said.

“For me food justice is introducing the elements or lens of race, class and gender into a conversation that uses food as a tool to organize people to achieve justice,” Redmond said. “In my book, the goal is not just to get the food, the goal is to get the freedom.”

For more information:

Learn more about the Food Justice Summit on the Multnomah Food Initiative website. Stay tuned to what’s happening in Multnomah County’s Office of Sustainability by following it on Twitter and Facebook.

See more coverage of the food summit:

Portland Tribune: “Food justice on menu for county summit” (Oct. 17, 2013)