Food as a weapon: Welcome to a ‘new age of food justice’

By Charles Hallman

Staff Writer

Kwasi Nate Russell has studied the corridor on Minneapolis’ North Side from West Broadway Avenue, starting at Washington Avenue and east toward Girard Avenue, and discovered nearly 20 “major and minor fast-food/ junk-food establishments.”

LaDonna Redmond
Photo by Charles Hallman

LaDonna Redmond, a senior program associate at the Minneapolis- based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, recalled that there were more fast-food places than fresh-food places “within 10 minutes” of her home when she lived in Chicago. “I could get a semiautomatic [weapon]… We can get anything in the ’hood, but I could not get an organic tomato,” she said jokingly.

Both Redmond and Russell, a local natural food diet entrepreneur, discussed at the Black Environmental Thought II conference at the University of Minnesota in September how “food politics” have adversely affected Blacks and low-income people.

“The industrial food system was created in part by the exploitation of Native Americans and Africans, because it was the exploitation of land and labor that created the food system that we stand on today,” explained Redmond. “Food always has been used as a weapon. It is being used as a weapon today.”

She also pointed out that media messages are “trying to manipulate people into purchasing [food] that may or may not be in their best interest.”

“The major fast-food chains enjoy community-wide support while the [area’s only major] supermarket has organic and non-organic fresh produce not finding its way into the homes of African [American] families,” Russell said.

Kwasi Nate Russell

Once he weighed 220 pounds because of unhealthy eating; he said he now weighs 165 pounds, and his diet today mostly consists of organic food. “Once I learned how to eat differently, I buy [organic] food twice a week.”

Redmond said the birth of her son, who is now a teenager, made her more food conscious. “I’m college-educated, and my husband is college-educated, but we were without the knowledge of how to feed our child,” she admitted.

“My son developed food allergies at a very early age. He is allergic to all dairy products, shellfish, peanuts and eggs. What I learned about the food system startled me,” she continued.

“I learned that food had been modified. So for me it was really important that I try my very best to provide the absolute best food for him, and for me, that had to be organic.”

As a community organizer, Redmond started a community grocery store in Chicago before moving to Minneapolis. “We have been brainwashed out of our own food and told that somebody else’s food is better than ours,” she believes.

“In the early 1900s, we had the great migration [of Blacks] moving to the North from the South and bringing their food with them. It was our African cuisine. [Today], generally, when you say ‘soul food’ to a dietitian, they say don’t eat that — it’s bad for you. The American Heart Association said in 1970 that African Americans should not eat ‘traditional soul food.’ What other culture of food is held to that level of health? None.

“Around 1970 we were told that soul food was bad,” continued Redmond. “[That] also was the time that soda pop was introduced to the food system to replace sugar, [and there] was the proliferation of Black ownership of fast food franchises…in the neighborhood.”

There are “these subliminal suggestions” sent through the media “that cause you to salivate and cause you to walk out your house to go eat at one of these 24-hour drive-through,” added Russell. “Our people, who are watching too many hours of television, are being programmed to go buy [fast food].”

He strongly urged the Black community to move from “a macro approach…to a micro approach” in developing healthy eating habits. “We have to do something pro-active in regards to these health disparities that we are living with —most of it is about what you put in your mouth,” surmised Russell.

“Our food system is built on injustice,” concluded Redmond. “I think this new age of food justice is just an opportunity to continue the discussion around civil rights. For me the civil rights issue of the 21st Century will be food access, land and water.”


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