“More than Just Food” Looks at Role of Community Services Unlimited in Advancing Food Justice

Nina, an intern with Community Services Unlimited, stands in front of the mini-urban farm at Normandie Elementary. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Nina, who interned with Community Services Unlimited in 2012, stands in front of the mini-urban farm at Normandie Elementary. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

“Food is a way in which you can get folks to think critically about their environment,” Lawrence De Freitas, a staff member with South Los Angeles-based Community Services Unlimited, Inc. (CSU), tells researcher and author Garrett Broad in an interview for Broad’s new book, More than Just Food: Food Justice and Community Change. [Broad will be hosting a talk at CSU Saturday, details here.]

“A community that understands how the environment impacts them,” De Freitas continues, “has the ability to think critically to take action.”

It’s a statement that, on the surface, might not sound particularly controversial.

Broadly speaking, food, healthy food access, environmental conditions, urban gardening, and education around healthy choices have been hot topics for several years now.

But the kind of critical thinking and action CSU actively encourages and pursues as a food justice organization, Broad’s work suggests, constitutes a significant break from the typical “magic carrot” approach to programming around food.

The “magic carrot” approach bases programming on the assumption that if kids experience where food comes from and eat the things they grow themselves, it will have an overwhelmingly positive and irreversible domino effect. Namely, the kids will become healthier and they will wish to continue making healthy choices going forward. Consequently, they will engage their families about the need for healthier fare, which will result in their families and, by extension, their communities, all growing healthier together.

It’s a lot to ask of a humble carrot.

And a first grader.

And it’s complete “bullshit,” according to Broad.

Produce is great, but it isn't endowed with quite as many magical properties as some programs assume. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Produce can be super, but it isn’t endowed with quite as many magical properties as some programs assume. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Food itself can’t be disconnected from the larger system that delivers it, he argues. Nor can questions about individual behavior be disconnected from the decades of disenfranchisement, disinvestment, and neglect of lower-income communities of color that has impacted their ability to access it.

A child might be able to grow a carrot at school, but if her family regularly struggles to pay rent, or violence in her community means spending time in a garden is not always advisable, or a history of trauma and/or lack of access to health services impacts her ability or desire to make healthy choices, or the decisions made by those around her are colored by emotional, economic, and/or physical insecurity, or gentrification makes her feel less welcome at a community garden or green space, or she sees no connection between herself and the agricultural practices she is being taught, then growing a carrot at school might mean little more than growing a carrot at school. [See previous articles exploring these issues here, here.]

Going beyond the carrot to understand the origins of these and other environmental constraints shaping a child’s food behaviors and options, Broad suggests, opens up space for questions about the historical policies and practices that created such deep disempowerment. Doing so also creates room for stories of resistance and resilience in the face of discriminatory policies and practices as well as the potential for seeing “low-income communities and communities of color as partners in change rather than problems to be solved.” Actions to resolve problems related to food choices and access, in this context, Broad says, would fall under “a broader agenda for food justice.”

To illustrate what that approach looks like in practice, Broad invites the reader to see what urban food activism looks like from the perspective some of the grassroots, people-of-color-led organizations leading the charge for health, equity, justice, and sustainability.

Much of the book’s focus is on Broad’s experience observing and volunteering with CSU — an organization descended from the Black Panthers’ breakfast program and dedicated to “serving the people, body and soul.”

Their use of food and the community’s stories around food as the gateway through which to “address the inequalities and systemic barriers that make sustainable communities and self-reliant life-styles unattainable” gave Broad the opportunity to explore the networks CSU built to aid and collaborate with them in this work, the narratives used to articulate their vision of change, how they stayed fiscally solvent (and true to themselves) in a funding environment that prefers non-complicated “magic carrot” approaches, and their efforts to leverage local actions into bigger cultural change.

The story of how CSU grew, learned lessons, evolved, and came to influence others working on similar issues in disadvantaged communities is important both for hope it offers folks working on similar issues in their neighborhoods and for the potential it has to make the larger food movement more responsive to justice perspectives.

The case is also instructive for those who care about equity and justice but are not sure where to begin inserting themselves in those conversations or learning about others’ perspectives. Too often, I hear from well-meaning advocates for livability, mobility, or health that trying to learn about equity is “complicated,” “time-consuming,” and “intimidating.” Which it absolutely is, and more. But that is no excuse not to do it.

Broad began his journey as one of the founding members of a community garden in East Hollywood. Despite the garden being situated in a culturally and economically diverse community, he says, those that were showing up at meetings were not reflective of the population. He had to work really hard to make sure the garden was more inclusive, reaching out to neighbors of different ethnicities and circumstances and finding ways to make sure everyone felt welcome.

“Equity,” he observed, “is something you have to actively pursue.”

When he began attending CSU-sponsored events, he says, he found himself further challenged to rethink his assumptions about youth and what drove food-related behavior.

Lower-income youth of color (and those of us looking at them from the outside) have been conditioned by health professionals to believe they have no story, no knowledge, he says. Yet those youth often have personal connections to food and agriculture embedded in their relationship with the older generations in their families. And those connections have power — CSU taps into them to link youth to the earth/nature, to each other, to the history of the systems constraining their options, and to youth like themselves across the country.

But to be able to observe the process by which personal experiences so different from his own were transformed into action, Broad realized he would have to spend a lot of time listening and building trust with the organization and the community first. Sometimes, he found, that meant making mistakes. But the most important thing he could do when some gaffe was made, he says, was to face up to it, attempt to right any wrong, and try to do better the next time around.

Engagement and trust-building are messy and uneven processes. And they can seem never-ending. But there is no way around them if your goal involves a more equitable outcome.

Which brings us back to food and why it is a unique entry point into justice and equity.

While there might not be such a thing as a magical carrot, food does have some metaphorically magical properties. “Because of its centrality and universality” to the human experience, Broad tells me, “it offers an opportunity to open up conversations about issues that matter in ways that are sometimes harder than with other social justice concerns…especially [for] folks that haven’t lived that experience.”

“And,” he adds, “we can sit around and have dinner together and have this conversation.”

Join Garrett Broad and CSU in a dialogue about More than Food this Saturday (10 a.m. – 1 p.m.) at CSU’s “Earth Day Every Day in South LA” celebration at the Paul Robeson Building, 6569 S Vermont Ave, Los Angeles, CA, 90044. Details here. See a trailer for the book (with images from CSU) below. The book itself can be found here.

  • sojourner_7

    “Food Justice” really? You’ve got to be kidding.

  • sahra

    I find trolls so fascinating. Not only do they have an ungodly amount of free time on their hands, but they get such joy out of putting that time to such unproductive and unhappy use. It’s rather sad, really…

  • sojourner_7

    Shame on me. This is the first time I’ve ever heard of the phrase, food justice. Perhaps it’s just me, being late onto this trending “x-Justice” bandwagon. In no way suggesting troll-justice… ;-)

  • It’s an interesting topic. If you do a search in Google Maps for “Whole Foods,” “Trader Joes” or to a lesser extent even “Ralphs” you see this donut pattern with stores along the coast and in other relatively wealthy areas and the hole of the donut in South LA. Do the same search for “El Super” though, and South LA is pretty well served. It’s clear the mainstream stores target neighborhoods with higher incomes when they decide where to locate.

    CSU’s idea of getting organic produce into the hands of people in South LA is cool, but I don’t know how that would be paid for. Organic food is often more expensive and is seen by many as a luxury, even though it has a lot of ecological benefits (e.g. less water pollution). How can you get a grocery store charging “whole paycheck” prices into an area that struggles to attract any grocery stores at all?

    I’ve always been kind of skeptical of urban gardening. A lot of people are into it, and that’s fine, but I don’t see it as being game-changing in terms of getting healthy food into people’s hands. There has to be a way of distributing the food and people have to be able to afford it, and urban land is expensive, hence inefficient for a land-intensive operation like agriculture. There is also a lot of urban land, especially in formerly industrial areas, that has contamination issues and may not be suitable for agriculture.

    Finally, having a crappy diet is not limited to low-income areas (although it may be more pronounced in them). It’s a problem all across America, even in places that aren’t food deserts. Just giving people the option of buying healthy food is no guarantee that they actually will. I have yet to see carrots in the impulse rack at a grocery store checkout counter.

  • Slexie

    Kids should be learning about agriculture and nutrition all the time, growing a garden is a bonus too. I guess “food justice” is a good thing? But I think kids in crappy neighborhoods have more to worry about than if their eating an organic apple or not. Most poor people are just trying to get by.

  • sahra

    I think the question of the pricing is one of the things that is a challenge. Although, for CSU, when you’re factoring the larger array of costs behind what goes into getting a piece of fruit to market, their effort to buy from local farmers, farm without pesticides, use bikes to transport produce, and pay their interns a decent stipend to learn business and life skills, all while building community through events, workshops, and gatherings, they see the dollars as bouncing in the community. And there are folks within South LA that have the disposable income to buy organic but who are finding themselves driving all over the place outside of the community to get it [altho I’ve also seen street vendors stop to pick up a piece of fruit from a CSU stand at the end of the a long day of walking the streets with less healthy fare]. By getting a weekly produce bag from CSU, the folks with more means can help support young people in their community that desperately need jobs and who walk away from their internships as better advocates for health and more conscious of the kinds of constraints their communities exist within. And they provide a much needed counterpoint to narratives of mindfulness in eating…

  • ubrayj02

    It is starting to sound like nothing going on in poor areas is allowed to be judged on its merits unless it also passes the “does this mandate the ideology of victimization” test for participants.

  • sahra

    As with our prior conversation about equity in mobility, you’re asking that folks whose communities have been harmed by discriminatory policies and practices adhere to the standards you demand of them. And you are dismissive and even derisive of those folks (or messengers like myself) for presenting alternative frameworks that are more reflective of those complicated realities. And you clamor for data proving you wrong, all the while ignoring the question of how all those folks who have been excluded from the system for so long are supposed to have amassed a rich data bank and lengthy track record proving the alternative efforts they have struggled to get funded (because those with power, privilege, and funds have not stopped to wonder whether their own assumptions about what needs actually apply/are relevant in lower-income communities of color) are successful. And even if they could show you data, I’m guessing it would not satisfy you because for most community-based orgs. that I track in South Los Angeles, in Boyle Heights, and even globally (I spent almost a decade looking at the international aid industry), the outcomes they seek tend toward long-term, sustainable change rather than how many vegetables they grew outside the program — a measure that might look good on paper but means little in practice.

    Why disenfranchised communities of color (and their messengers) have your ire, I’m not really sure. We all share a goal of a more secure and welcoming public space. That more hurdles must be jumped to make that possible in some communities should not be a surprise to anyone who knows even a minimal amount about how race, class, planning, and opportunity have intersected over time.

    I am quite sure this answer will dissatisfy you. So be it. I really cannot continue this conversation with you…It is too unproductive. I get the livability framework you are operating with and I know how interactions with Cedillo might be coloring some of your concerns…I get all that and I respect that and I genuinely respect the years of work you have put in on behalf of livability outcomes. What I don’t get is the refusal to acknowledge that some folks might have had a different experience with mobility, health, the public space, law enforcement, or really any structure that has had a say over their communities’ ability to thrive and therefore have come to different conclusions about what they need to feel safe and secure. And I cannot respect that your responses generally involve bullying and personal attacks thrown in for good measure. It really doesn’t make sense to me because, again, we are all aiming for stronger, safer, more resilient communities. So, unless something changes, I will have to leave off my conversations with you here.

    All my best,


  • calwatch

    I agree and don’t get the obsession with organic products. It’s better to eat healthier in the first place than spend money you don’t have on organic. In the working class suburb my folks are in, we are lucky to have a wide variety of choices – Cardenas, El Super, Super King, Smart and Final, etc. The two places we don’t go (unless there’s an obvious sale)? Stater Brothers and Walmart Neighborhood Market, the Anglo supermarkets in the area. 99 Cents Only store sells a lot of decent produce, although you have to know what to look for. And, the World Harvest Food Bank gives away tons of food that is near the end of its lifespan, sourced from major supermarkets and farms, every week. http://www.worldharvestfoodbank.org/ – the problem they have seems to be distribution, since they offload 150-200 pounds of food onto the average person that contributes $30 and they have to share their bounty with others in the neighborhood who might need it.

    I don’t see anything wrong with building connections to food through urban gardening. Indeed, much of what we think of as the “ghetto” in South Central Los Angeles, underneath the LAX flight path, is primarily single family homes or duplexes/triplexes on what used to be single family-sized parcels. Many of those backyards could be used for growing food.

  • Sine Metu

    This subject is very near and dear to my heart, both as a gardener and as someone who does volunteer work with these programs. Programs like Little Green Fingers etc. have been successful building urban gardens because they are very aware of the larger problems within these communities and work hard to listen to the stakeholders. Places like West Athens – where we built an amazing garden together. Nobody came in and patronized, pandered and talked down to anyone. Not that I saw at least. I suppose that is anecdotal though.

    The response and engagement from the local communities has been overwhelmingly positive but I admit that I am not a part of every project nor privy to what goes on after I leave.

    The hippy in me simply looks at the faces of the kids as they play in the dirt and the smiles everywhere and thinks “we are doing god’s work”.

    I do realize that I am a bit naive (I have lived in LA for over 20 years but I grew up on a farm) and maybe need to take a harder look at any unintended results of these programs.

  • ubrayj02

    If you can deliver real improvements in the quality of life for people, use whatever rhetoric you like. If what you say and do makes those improvements harder to obtain, expect some very hard push back.

  • sahra

    No. I refuse to “expect very hard pushback.” What I expect is dialogue–that thing adults do when they wish to arrive at a more inclusive understanding of “quality of life” so that all their neighbors feel safe, secure, and welcome in their community. That is not an anti-bike lane stance. It is a “what improvements/interventions/infrastructure/policies are necessary to ensure that everyone’s access to the public space is enhanced and their place in the community is not jeopardized?” That you misread that as an anti-bike lane or NIMBY approach is on you.

  • neroden

    The advantage of organic food is that it’s the only reliable way to avoid very high residues of toxic pesticides.

    If we had any sort of decent food safety standards in the US, organic food wouldn’t even be a thing. But the Toxic Substances Control Act is completely toothless, and as a result, “conventional” farmers are allowed to put known poisons into the food supply.

    Organic is a “not covered in poison” label.


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