The way our food system is structured, as a society we are disconnected from our food. We forget to be mindful of what we eat. It’s easy to just see the food on the plate in front of you. But the reality is our food passes through many hands before it gets on our forks.
When I say “our food passes through many hands,” I mean it in two ways. The first, in the literal sense. I wish I could say our food travels from farmer to grocer to buyer, but most of our food passes through more hands than that. Because there are so many “hands” in play, it’s hard to put a face to who is actually growing, harvesting, transporting, selling and cooking our food; they are all workers in the food system. When you talk about food service workers, you need to talk about working conditions, and eventually you need to address race.
The hour long discussion took the time to dissect certain taboo subjects when talking about race and food. The one thing established early on, in the words of Colleen Vincent, “You can’t separate food and race.” The food industry employs 1 in 10 Americans, 44% of workers are people of color. They’ve become a major part of the workforce, yet the majority is barely making a living wage; some even have to use food stamps. So why talk about it now? Isn’t that just an issue for restaurants? Yes, it is. But the way we make changes is by bringing issues like this to the forefront. If there isn’t a conversation about it, what would push major players to make a change?
As a manager for House Marketing & Reservations for the James Beard Foundation, Colleen Vincent makes it a priority to talk about these issues. Remember that number I threw out earlier about 44% of food service workers being people of color? Well less than ¾ of managers in the food system are not people of color. A strong believer in developing coalitions among people, she sought to provide workers an opportunity to progress in the industry, by offering classes, mentorships, networks to learn, move up and eventually contribute to the system.
Now back to “our food passes through many hands.” I covered the literal meaning, now on to the second, in a historical, cultural context. When I talk about food in this sense, I mean food in general--cuisines, specific diets (i.e. vegan, plant-based), food movements (locally, sustainably, etc). Being mindful of where your food comes from requires unpacking the layers; looking past the trendy, PR- buzzwords of what your eating, to get to the nitty gritty of where it came from.
Food is meant to be a celebration. One of the other panelists, Fany Gerson, Mexican chef and cookbook author of My Sweet Mexico, went looking for books about Mexican desserts, but couldn’t find one-- so she wrote one herself. After spending a year researching in Mexico, she wrote her book to be a voice, not the ultimate authority, on Mexican cuisine. She acknowledged the cultural blend and colonial roots of Mexico’s culinary traditions. Seeking to educate, but not as a historian, but in her way of “storytelling through food.”
This brings me to the “takeaway” message of the Food + Race panel: be mindful and reconnect with your food. When I say “connect with your food,” I don’t just mean through your senses. To really understand where your food comes from means understanding the history, the culture, and the people behind every bite. Just like us, our food has a history--passed through many hands, different cultures, across countries.