New agricultures, cultural diversity and foodways.

Two agriculture related stories caught my attention recently. One, on National Public Radio’s ‘All Things Considered’ entitled ‘Some US Farms Trade Tobacco for a Taste of Africa’ reported on George Bowling’s 60 acre farm in southern Maryland which has started growing African crops for the region’s 120,000 strong African population. The other, a piece in the New York Times, ‘When the Uprooted Put Down Roots’, highlighted the growth across the US in ‘refugee agriculture‘ among for example Somalis, Cambodians, Liberians, Congolese, Bhutanese and Burundians.

Together, these stories gave me pause to think about some research my students and I did last year on the potential in new agricultures to help us re-imagine what constitutes ‘local foods.’ Is it for example, what our increasingly diverse populations want to buy locally as culturally appropriate foods, or is it what should be grown locally according to the predominantly ecologically-focused local food movement?

Consider the following from the NYT article:

“New Roots [San Diego], with 85 growers from 12 countries, is one of more than 50 community farms dedicated to refugee agriculture, an entrepreneurial movement spreading across the country. American agriculture has historically been forged by newcomers, like the Scandinavians who helped settle the Great Plains; today’s growers are more likely to be rural subsistence farmers from Africa and Asia, resettled in and around cities from New York, Burlington, Vt., and Lowell, Mass., to Minneapolis, Phoenix and San Diego”.

Absent however in much of the popular discourse surrounding the local food movement and local food systems, has been an explicit recognition of the social justice and cultural concerns involving the ability of refugee, minority, economically marginalized and ‘new’ populations to produce, access and consume healthy and culturally appropriate foods. The local food movement has used ecological arguments in the main to tell us what should be grown, and has tended to focus on growing native food plants, especially plants local to a given (bio)region. It has also catered to mostly middle and upper income populations, with its food earning the moniker “Yuppie Chow,” due to the niche market status of organic and local foods, and the common focus on providing ecological sustainability, and sustainable incomes for small scale farmers rather than affordable healthy food and culturally appropriate foods for low income, ‘new’ and refugee populations.

In its most physically and spatially extreme form these low income, ‘new’ and refugee populations live in areas called food deserts (Wrigley, 2002). These ‘food deserts’ are the result of a history of disinvestment in and neglect of mostly low income urban (and rural) areas which have not been recognized as profitable sites for supermarket and grocery store location and have therefore been left with limited and often less healthy options for food access, such as corner stores and fast food establishments. The residents of these neighborhoods, such as City Heights, San Diego, where New Roots Community Farm is located, are more vulnerable to food insecurity and have less ability to determine their access to healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food as a result. As the NYT article notes: “In City Heights, where half the residents live at or below the federal poverty line, the three-year-old farmer’s market was the city’s first in a low-income neighborhood, a collaboration between the nonprofit International Rescue Committee and the San Diego County Farm Bureau.”

But food is far more than a product which merely sustains life. In our book ‘Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class and Sustainability‘, Alison Alkon and I note that:

“Winson (1993) refers to food as an “intimate commodity” that is literally taken inside the body and imbued with heightened significance. Not only is it a physiological necessity, but food practices—what scholars often call foodways —are manifestations and symbols of cultural histories and proclivities. As individuals participate in culturally defined proper ways of eating, they perform their own identities and memberships in particular groups (Douglass 1996). Food informs individuals’ identities, including their racial identities, in ways that other environmental justice and sustainability issues—energy, water, garbage and so on—do not”.

Food, food production, food access…. these are not the solely ecological concerns foregrounded by the dominant narrative, reducible to questions of environmental sustainability, vitally important though this is. Food and foodways are fundamental to peoples’ individual and collective identities, and these are even more to the fore in ‘new’ populations and other marginalized populations who are invisiblized by, and in the dominant culture.  As we move towards a more intercultural America, the local food movement(s) should recognize, embrace and celebrate cultural diversity as much as it currently celebrates biodiversity. As an ecology student in the 1970s, what was it our professors kept telling us about ecosystems? Oh yes, in ecosystems ‘diversity equals stability‘. I think this maxim works as well for social movements, like the local food movement, as it does for ecosystems………


Douglass, M. (1996) Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Purity and Taboo. New York: Taylor.

Winson, A. (1993) The Intimate Commodity. Toronto, Canada: Garamond Press.

Wrigley, N. (2002) “‘Food deserts’ in British cities: Policy context and research priorities’, Urban Studies, vol. 39, no. 11, pp. 2029-2040.


  1. Susan Youmans on November 12, 2011 at 1:16 pm

    I saw Alison at the CFSC meeting a few days ago and she said you and she were speaking in Boston in the next few days. I may have the date wrong and don’t know the place. If you see this in time, I’d love to kno!

Leave a Comment