Coming to Table: The Black in Design Food Justice, Race and Design Panel

Can "healthy" food taste good?
Food is the "social capital" of a community.
Build an ecosystem where everything has meaning.
We’re at war with Tony the Tiger.
When something doesn’t taste good, it’s like "Who was in the kitchen?!"

The midday session of Black in Design’s 2015 Conference convened a panel of food activists and social entrepreneurs working across disciplines from art and cultural history to economics and community-based development. It was moderated by artist Seitu Jones (LF '02), whose half mile long, 2014 public artwork/performance “The Community Meal” brought 2,000 residents of St. Paul, Minneapolis, literally to table – a feast not only of community and food, but of culinary tradition. “Food gives us our culture,” observed panelist Frederick Douglass Opie, historian, author, Babson College professor and contributor to national radio’s “The Splendid Table.”

The panel included current Loeb Euneika Rogers-Sipp and local food entrepreneur Cassandria Campbell, founder and co-owner of Fresh Food Generation, the farm-to-plate food truck and catering business. Jones opened the discussion asking about the “changes in or breaks from” culinary tradition that impoverish contemporary African American communities. Opie identified 4 factors that interrupt food cultures: 1) migration, both forced and by displacement from political conflict and oppression (one culinary legacy of slavery, red-beans-and-rice cuisine, can be traced throughout port communities that docked slave ships); 2) religious conversion; 3) marriage and creation of new family traditions and 4) economic dislocation, since changes in family finances directly impact food choices.

Rogers-Sipp highlighted the powerful social cohesion of food culture in America’s southern Black Belt, reprising the theme of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “beloved community” introduced by Jones in the earlier BiD session about Neighborhood. “If the family is eating,” she said, “everybody is eating, even in a community where you didn’t know anybody.” Can this be said now of contemporary society? The panel’s rhetorical question gave measure to our collective sense of loss.

“We are at war with Tony the Tiger,” reported Campbell from the frontlines of Fresh Food Generation’s campaign to bring healthy, affordable food to low-income communities. The charge on the ground opposes not just multinational corporations blatantly pushing junk food on the poor, but also takes on the insidious Trojan horses of fast food purveyors like Popeye’s, whose bright promises of community-based jobs and investment conceal the extortionate cost to residents’ health by means of easily accessible, inexpensive, nutritionally deficient food. “We want the next generation to eat our food, not MacDonalds,” stated Campbell about her mission. “This is a business. The project is to serve healthy food sourced from local farms.”

In her abiding 20-year project “to end cyclical poverty” in the American south, Rogers-Sipp also stakes an entrepreneurial position. Her mission is to “build the economics in communities,” creating markets that scale to long-term, sustainable businesses. “Connecting people back to the land,” she observed, seconding Campbell, “you get food into the community. You have to grow it.”

Opie affirmed the long tradition of food-based entrepreneurialism in African American culture, citing examples of authors Maya Angelou and Zora Neale Hurston. The pot pie stall of Angelou’s Grandma Baxter (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1969), strategically positioned between two African American workplaces, was a farm-to-table venture, with ingredients sourced from Grandma’s garden. Proceeds from the food stall were reinvested to build the general store Baxter owned and operated. Zora Neale Hurston, subject of Opie’s 2015 book Zora Neale Hurston on Florida Food: Recipes, Remedies & Simple Pleasures, supplemented her income as a young writer by being a niche caterer specializing in chicken, “soup to nuts serving up chicken.”

One of the projects Rogers-Sipp initiated through Sustainable Rural Regenerative Enterprises for Families, her second non-profit, is a solar powered water system for Black Belt farmers. Introducing people who are typically “left out of technologies that matter to the land itself” expands her mission beyond community-based farming to include environmental literacy education. “We have a lot of work to do to create the infrastructure.”

The panel considered urban contexts as well. “I’m all about the urban-rural continuum,” offered Rogers-Sipp, “The rural can be wherever you want to grow.” Urban gardens “are a great way to eat good food in the urban setting. Consider where you work now,” Opie prompted us, “Why not garden there?” Drawing inspiration from the Victory Gardens that sustained families and communities with locally grown food during the Second World War, Opie observed, “You can make a rural space in your urban space if you’re creative.”

Campbell underscored the critical factor of coordinating with local farmers to achieve “the bigger project of serving healthy food sourced from local farms.” An added value of food “grown well,” panelists heartily agreed, is it “already tastes so good, it doesn’t even need seasoning.” “We pride ourselves on taste,” Sipps-Rodgers boasted, “being the most flavorful. When something doesn’t taste good, it’s like, ‘Who–who was in the kitchen?!’”

The panel adjourned and we repaired to dining stations sited throughout Gund Hall’s five floors. Didi and Co., a Boston-based “social enterprise fostering equality” served a delicious boxed lunch of locally sourced, locally prepared, culturally rich cooked foods. GSD student hosts guided meal-time conversation along topics of personal food traditions and challenges to healthy food practices and solicited suggestions for improving diets and eating habits.

GSD MArch student and fellow diner Enoch Wong offered that West Coast first-tier tech firms increasingly see healthy workplace dining options as a critical component of being a great place to work in their competitive pursuit of top talent in the global marketplace. Implementing its own Sustainability Plan, underway since 2008, Harvard recognizes that the core values quality of life and social mission contribute to making the university a prized campus of teaching, learning, and research as well as a “living lab” for best practices on site and beyond campus precincts.

Our table also discussed sustaining dining rituals in heritage cultures of Africa, Europe and East Asia, where meals are served on plates, not in bags, eaten at table, not on the run. As chef and author Dan Barber distinguishes in his 2014 book, The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, “the French ‘dine,’ Americans ‘eat.’” Recovery of old-school customs such as proper midday meals is not, on reflection, a retreat. Setting the stage for the informal exchange of ideas credited with fostering creativity, much-prized by today’s innovation-hungry corporate sectors, could be a well-dressed table in the company cafeteria, serving locally sourced, locally prepared, healthy and delicious meals.

Resonating with Seitu Jones’s reference to Reverend King’s “beloved community,” we might ask ourselves, as King famously posed to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967, “Where do we go from here?”

At the GSD, our international community commits years to Gund Hall in training, research, scholarship, administration, management and maintenance. Imagine a community-wide “coming to table” studio, whereby “practicing what we preach,” we become an even stronger community, an even greater place to be.

Beer ‘n Dogs is the school’s wildly popular student-run, weekend-launching “cocktail hour.” What if once a month we regularly convened a student-faculty-staff-wide “GSD-to-table” spanning the breadth of Gund lobby?

“Where do we go from here,” beloved community? We come to table.

— One modest proposal for a legacy tribute to the inspiring community-building of the 2015 Black in Design Conference. Your suggestions welcome!

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One Response to Coming to Table: The Black in Design Food Justice, Race and Design Panel

  1. Vaughn Horn says:

    Excellent piece, Jane. One thing I gleaned from my particular table discussion during the B.i.D. lunch was the hurtful effects of food shaming. In this case, a young lady, let’s call her “Annabelle,” described herself as a latch-key kid, growing up with a single working mom, and oftentimes her choice of food was a matter of survival. Annabelle became emotional at the mere sight of quinoa and other locally sourced food items in our lunch boxes. The amount of teasing she was subjected to has deeply affected her perception of food, and the design of neighborhoods (urban and suburban) has exacerbated this phenomenon. My heart broke for her, and you’re right, a GSD-to-table event is necessary. Perhaps we can build that into the annual Thanksgiving celebration.

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