Excerpt adapted from Rethinking Food Culture Might Save Us, by Jovida Ross, Shizue Roche Adachi, & Julie Quiroz
“Food changes into blood, blood into cells, cells change into energy
which changes up into life…food is life.”
– Culinary griot Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor
Over the past decade, growing numbers of organizations across issues and sectors have recognized that systems are rooted in culture, and that systems change requires a cultural shift.
To quote Jeff Chang in “A Conversation About Cultural Strategy,” “…culture has two definitions: (1) The prevailing beliefs, values and customs of a group; a group’s way of life. (2) A set of practices (including all forms of storytelling and art-making) that contain, transmit, or express ideas, values, habits and behaviors between individuals and groups.”
When we understand culture as beliefs, values, customs, and practices, we see how our beliefs and practices around food are culture, and how our intentionality around food culture is crucial to creating a sustainable, just, and joyful world.
Understanding food work as cultural work calls many people and communities into the movement to collectively reclaim and transform our relationship to food, at all scales. A food systems analysis invited consumers to ask: Where does your food come from? Food cultural work calls us all into the question: What culture do we feed?
Right now, we are living through escalating crises, both within living ecologies and socially constructed systems. A dominant worldview shaped by settler colonialism and white supremacy has proliferated practices of extraction and exploitation that benefit few at the expense of many. Our commercial food system is an expression of this. Industrialized supply chains abuse people and the planet, feeding exploitation and injustice.
But systems and practices do not exist in a vacuum; they are an expression of the culture that underpins them. As many Black, Indigenous, and diasporic people of color food leaders have long asserted, dominant food narratives—from bootstrapping to “you are what you eat” diet shaming—often explicitly affirm logics of individualism, ignoring structural inequities and oppression and perpetuating support for massive globalized, profit-driven food industries that kill people and destroy ecologies. To transform our food system, address our legacies of harm, and interrupt our reckless relationship to ecosystems, we need to look beyond food supply chains to the culture underpinning how we produce and share food. We need to advance narratives that celebrate interdependency and care. Stated otherwise, we need to transform our food culture.
Food culture consists of the relationships and experiences we engage through food—the way food shapes our experiences of the world and of ourselves and each other. A respectful, reciprocal food culture can help us imagine, build, and sustain possibilities for a more equitable future, in which our world’s natural abundance is shared. Food cultural organizers, predominantly Black, Indigenous, and diasporic people of color, are already inviting us to engage with food as life force, as culture. They remind us that food culture is a powerful organizing force that feeds the body, lives in embodied relationships, and animates the world.
Food is a world-builder and place-maker, and the way many of us find a sense of home and belonging. When we transform food culture, we transform culture as a whole—from how we relate to one another, to our stories of who we are, and our visions for who we can become. In the process, we empower ourselves to transform the systems that govern our world.
Click here to read the full Nonprofit Quarterly article.
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