For the last year and a half I have been BMC’s food sovereignty organizer, and for over a year this has meant working with residents to open the Central Brooklyn Food Co-op. During this time, I have been making the hour and a half trek from NJ to Bed-Stuy on a consistent basis. So recently, I decided it was time to actively move into the neighborhood that has become my home.
Roommate Seeker: What do you do?
Me: I work as a food sovereignty organizer with Brooklyn Movement Center. We are organizing community folks around building a food cooperative in Central Brooklyn.
Roommate Seeker: Oh like bringing healthy food. I recently called Trader Joe’s and asked if they could move into this neighborhood. I mean I guess because of the demographics they don’t want to locate here but Trader Joe’s is cheap and good.
Let’s break this misguided and oppressive statement down.
While searching for a place, my defensive nature kicks into gear as I read through the various descriptions on craigslist of Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights being labeled as “up-and-coming” or “calm and quiet and very safe.” These descriptions and comments, bring into focus for me how powerful corporate forces feel a sense of entitlement to enter our neighborhoods without a historical and cultural understanding of the folks who live there and work to shape their own communities. This is why institutionalizing the phrase “food sovereignty” instead of “food security” into my vocabulary has become increasingly significant to me.
Whereas food security “has a built-in democratic deficit”, food sovereignty is a “call for a democratic debate and action around food, and about redistributing power more equitably in the food system.” This is why calling Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods to have a location in our neighborhood is not the answer, as it does not provide a solution to truly building sustainable economic power within our food systems and our communities.
It took me awhile to recognize how the struggle for food sovereignty has long been ingrained within my own DNA. I grew up in India until I was 8-years-old, specifically in the State of Punjab, where I saw my family working the land, growing their own food and buying from the market only things they could not grow from their land. My family’s ancestral roots originate from the Jat people who have traditionally been involved with farming and herding in Northern India. However, as capitalism has parasitically become a part of India’s economy, a number of my family members have been forced to sell their land as farming has become a difficult profession to maintain for a small farmer in India.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, a movement had swept across India called the Green Revolution. Without the farmers input, outside forces made up of “a loose network of politicians, scientists and philanthropists in the U.S. and other nations” were convinced if farmers in India switched from traditional methods of farming to using pesticides, fertilizers and high-yield seeds, India could have increased food availability. Ultimately, India was able to produce more food, but today hunger continues to be a persistent problem in the country, while the Green Revolution has created a public health crisis.
The use of pesticides has triggered elevated cancer rates found in some farming areas and a farmers’ suicide crisis. In Punjab there is a train that has ominously been dubbed “the cancer train” which carries cancer patients on an overnight trip to “the town of Bikaner for treatment at the government’s regional cancer center.” Where once farmers in Punjab and across India were able to live off of the land with their ancestral pulse to the ground, most of them now have their pulse shackled to a capitalist system introduced into their communities without their input and have been left to deal with its destructive ripple effects.
How does the struggles of farmers in India connect to Central Brooklyn? Recently, I read Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard’s book, “Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice,” which broke down how the development of cooperatives have long been a vehicle for self-determination and economic development within African American communities. Our communities have long known how to build and nourish our communities from our ancestral pulses. We do not need outside forces dictating what should be in our communities based on their own self-interests, which only further shackle us to the capitalist system and destroy our ancestral knowledge base.
Future roommate seeker: What do you do?
Me: I work as a food sovereignty organizer with Brooklyn Movement Center. Instead of looking to Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods to feed Central Brooklyn, we are using knowledge that has long existed in our communities to build a food cooperative that is collectively owned and run by our community folks.