Food, Social, Climate Justice for All

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Tompkins Weekly 1-13-21

By Cathleen and Eric Banford

In a time when life looks more like an emerging dystopia than a healthy society, many of us are motivated to reexamine our part in it all. If we are aware enough to understand what’s really going on outside of this surge of divisiveness, we understand one important truth: social justice and climate justice are intrinsically interconnected, and both are crucial to sustainable living.

In a year that has challenged all of us, especially people of color, we find ourselves asking a lot of questions. Our current systems are not only being questioned; they are being reimagined and reinvigorated.

Food is one of those universal relationships with life that we all must tend to as a community. Food justice encompasses environmental concerns when we look at farming practices, but it also extends to equal access to healthy food for low-income families and the ability of different ethnic groups to access traditional foods.

With that in mind, we’d like to explore the topic of food security. How do we make sure people are cared for? How do we assure that each of us gets a fair share within a system that encourages competition for limited resources? The current pandemic has laid bare the need for a different approach, and locally, some groups have stepped up to these challenges.

Phoebe Brown. Photo by Cathleen and Eric Banford.

Ithaca resident Phoebe Brown has been taking on the responsibility of making sure people have enough food and clothing since long before the pandemic. She tends to one of the many blue pantry cabinets now located around the county, where people can come and get free items donated by community members.

The pantries hold an ever-changing array of food items, but Brown didn’t think that was enough, so she expanded what is available based on what people say they need.

“I’ve been working hard to honor people, so [I] have been able to give away around $250 in gift cards so far,” Brown said. “Coming to the pantry is good, but you have to consider that some people don’t eat a lot of the food there. Gift cards bring more respect to people and allow them to buy what they want.”

Brown did a gift drive during the holidays, which brought in toys and gifts for families, and has also been holding clothing drives all along. In a world where people are having a hard time getting access to necessities, this adds a level of basic humanity that many of our bureaucratic systems lack, which is so desperately needed right now.

Brown also feels it’s important to connect with the people who visit her pantry, so she masks up and sits out to talk with them as they stop by.

“I talk with them about their needs and just have a face of someone that they know,” she said. “I also want to be clear that this work is not based on the pandemic. It should be known that this is a history of people who have been oppressed. This is the way they took care of each other because it was necessary. The history of it goes way back to slavery. This is how communities who have less took care of each other for survival.”

Brown explained further.

“Why do I need to worry about the environment when I can’t even live day to day?” she said. “If we don’t have justice, why do we want environmental justice? What seems to happen many times is when white people grab a hold of something, it pushes us [people of color] again to the side. There is no reason we should still be fighting for equity after 400 years of slavery.”

At the same time, Brown noted that it is usually communities of color that are hit hardest by environmental damage, and climate change could make that reality even worse.

Research shows that individuals are not the driving force of environmental damage. Rather, it is large corporations who could afford to pay to clean up the pollution they cause but choose instead to send profits to shareholders and let the communities around them deal with their pollution.

When asked what else she thinks people need, Brown was clear that better training programs are key for people to better themselves. Whether or not people still have work, visitors have shared with Brown that the work they do does not pay the bills, regardless of the pandemic.

“It’s not like they are in a worse situation — they were already in a worse situation,” Brown said. “Fifteen dollars minimum wage sounds good, but it’s not because people are still working the same type of jobs. Even an education doesn’t do it. I know educated people who are working at McDonald’s. People need more training programs that will put them in a place that they can not only survive but thrive.”

Brown also talked about policy that needs to change, specifically around how hard it is for people to find decent housing.

“People can’t buy houses if they have bad credit, and if you’ve been struggling, then you have bad credit,” she said.

Brown conveyed her personal experience as an example.

“I had been living in Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services (INHS) for 19 years, but when I went to apply for housing with them, I was disqualified because of my credit,” she said. “However, if I’ve been there for 19 years, that means what? I’ve been paying rent for 19 years. So why would you worry if I could pay? We need to change things like that.”

This relates to what some call the “poor tax,” where overdraft fees, high credit card interest rates and stagnant wages occur when the cost of everything is going up; these things make it really expensive to be poor, and once you get into debt, climbing out becomes extremely difficult.

Brown’s vision is the beginning of a more sustainable culture, one that holds all of us. In the face of our current economic and political system, how do we begin to realize such a vision? These are the kind of conversations that we need to have in 2021 and beyond.

“I want to see the day where people are not just surviving but are thriving — that we no longer need the blue boxes,” Brown said.

Indeed, these are the changes we all so desperately need.

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