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Food as activism

By Caroline Gordon

Arts & Ideas hosted “Food as Activism,” both live and on Zoom, featuring Jessica B. Harris and Boston’s Eastie Farm Oct. 5.

Harris is a journalist and food historian with an expertise in African diaspora cooking. She has been featured in The New York Times and The New Yorker. Additionally, she has appeared on The Today Show and Good Morning America.

She holds Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Southern Foodways Alliance and the James Beard Foundation.

Eastie Farm is a local urban farm driven to improve climate justice, community resilience and food access.

Harris and the Eastie Farm community share the same goal – using food activism to unite.

Harris began the lecture by asking the audience a question, “What is activism?”

She noted people add the title activist to their names as if it was “some advanced degree.”

“Joe Shmoe – activist. Betty Boop – social activist,” she said.

Harris said while teaching at Queens College, she researched the word activist.

“Activist is defined as a person who campaigns to bring about political or social change. Now, what degree of campaigning is also often left undefined? Are we talking about someone who goes on marches, someone who sets policy, someone who risks life and limb to bring about social change?” she asked.

Harris continued, “These questions are unanswered and often open-ended.”

She discussed the first acts of culinary activism within the Black community. During the transatlantic slave trade, slaves refused food as a way to assert control.

“The power of no gave them control over a situation in which they had no control at all,” Harris said.

Harris added Black people were allowed to work behind the counter in diners. However, they could not be served.

She discussed the instance of Black freshmen from North Carolina Technical College, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair Jr., and David Richmond, seating themselves at a Woolworth’s lunch counter, requesting service. Eventually others, including white students, joined the young men and protested for equality. By the fifth day of the protest, hundreds of other students joined.

“Lunch counters rapidly became a symbol of the south’s inequity,” Harris said.

The protests resulted in the desegregation of the lunch counters in Greensboro, North Carolina, which led to the desegregation of lunch counters nationally.

Furthermore, African Americans advocating for their right to be served, led to the creation of the Civil Rights Act, which banned discrimination in public places.

Then, she discussed the Black Panther Party, an organization created to protect members of the Black community.

Harris said the Black Panther Party developed numerous community-based programs such as free breakfasts for preschool African American children in the inner city.

“The program acknowledged the connection between being well nourished and academic achievement. The breakfast program was the first in the country to recognize and combat food injustice. It garnered community goodwill,” she said.

Roberto Gomez, site manager at Eastie Farm, discussed the development of Eastie Farm noting the idea started with the observations of the then deserted and weed ridden 294 Sumner St.

“Once people started digging and cleaning the area, people started to take notice,” Gomez said.

He said once Eastie Farm partnered with restaurants, they were able to provide 5,000 meals per week.

After they reached 5,000 meals per week, the organization received grants and access to other food sources, which enabled them to help more people.

He said the farm has been “slowly piecing the community together.”

Gomez wrapped up the discussion by touching upon Dr. Harris’ definition of activism.

“You can just be anybody who wants to help, make a change, or make a political statement. That is the beauty of this.”

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