Real Food Justice: From Black Panther Party Roots to Hip Hop Activism, Foodies with Fists

When his grandmother died from diabetes, Ashel Eldridge, a 32-year-old Oakland-based educator with the Alliance for Climate Education, set out to educate himself about healthy eating. A Green For All fellow, Eldridge has combined his food knowledge with community organizing skills picked up from working with Alli Starr and Van Jones. "I started realizing that juicing was a way to get the Earth to the people," he says.

To reach the community, Eldridge takes his message directly to the streets by teaming up with Phat Beets Produce. "We're on 35th and San Pablo and we're serving juice," he says. "Some people are spitting it out and they're like, 'this is garbage, you need to put more sugar in it,' and so we have a conversation with them." Eldridge says they "tell them what's in it and why we didn’t put sugar in it, and really have an educational moment with the people." Eldridge—who's also the cofounder and health and sustainability coordinator of United Roots, a green-focused youth community center—isn't just giving boring nutritional lectures. "We do it with hip hop, we do it with culture," he says.

What Eldridge is doing is food justice—activism to ensure that food is fairly grown, produced, transported, distributed, accessed, and eaten. A common misconception is that it's a new movement—one started by white hipsters after Whole Foods became mainstream. When it comes to low income communities of color, food justice is often spoken of as something done to or for folks instead of a movement generated on a grassroots level within those communities. The reality is that advocating for food justice has long been part of black and brown activism.

Indeed, the roots of the movement lie in Oakland in the groundbreaking work of the Black Panther Party. Media imagery presents the Panthers as gun-toting communists garbed in slick, leather jackets, but through their Free Breakfast for School Children Program, which began in 1969, they served food to hundreds of low income kids. Through their organizing network, the program spread nationwide, fed thousands, and became a model for the federal government's efforts to feed students.

"By doing this," says Oakland-based journalist and hip hop historian Davey D, the Panthers "made themselves attractive to the community." When you look at the FBI files on the Panthers, he says, the free breakfast program is what made the Panthers a real threat—one that had to be shut down.

Why the resistance to feeding people? "Food does what it's always done," he says. "It becomes a community thing—we cook, we build, we commune together and educate each other." People who are educated begin to mobilize for racial equality and educational, environmental and economic justice. Over 40 years after the Panthers, notes Davey D, "the thing that really got folks attacking Occupy was when they started feeding people." Before you start thinking that poor people of color just make bad nutritional choices, remember that there's no Whole Foods in the hood. "Those so called food deserts?" he adds, "those aren't by accident."

What’s at stake in keeping food deserts going, of course, are the profit margins of agribusiness, GMO manufacturers, and fast food restaurants. Kids know about McDonalds before they even know how to count. With McDonald's sponsoring Black History Month programming, says Davey D, that ensures people associate Big Macs with vignettes on Frederick Douglass. "Black culture, brought to you by McDonalds," he quips. And then that kid becomes a customer for life.

Tapping into those same cultural roots is a key to Eldridge's success. Last January he and his hip hop collective, Earth Amplified, started a monthly urban culture and health series in Oakland, S.O.S—System out of our System—Juice. Like his corner educational efforts, attendees get to try free, fresh organic juice. Talks by everyone from health activists to conscious hip hop artists help educate community members on the benefits of juicing and healthy lifestyles. S.O.S. Juice has reached hundreds of Oakland residents and Eldridge has plans in the works to spend 2013 working with Keith Tucker from Pursuit of a Green Planet using hip hop—how's a "Hip Hop Vegan Green Dinner" sound?—to educate thousands of middle school students nationwide about the benefits of healthy eating.

What makes fighting for food justice in communities of color more difficult, says Davey D, is when ethnic organizations that should be supporting it sell their souls to corporate interests. Over 4,000 groups came out in support of Proposition 37, which would've labeled GMO foods in California, but several high profile ethnic groups—including the California NAACP and the United States Latino American Chamber of Commerce—came out against it. When you're accepting money from Big Ag, you don't rock the boat.

Will the food justice work of Eldridge and others get shut down like the Panthers? "This new generation," says Davey D, "they're motivated. They've seen people in their community die from diabetes and cancer, and they also understand agribusiness and what they're up against." Fast food joints and Monsanto may be Goliath, but, like the Panthers, today's food justice activists aren't afraid of a fight.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user williamshannon

Julian Meehan

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