Seattle area food bank staff recently met with local food activists and experts to discuss culture and equity within our food system, including the need to disrupt dominant narratives.
Four times a year, Solid Ground’s Food Systems Support team organizes a training session for members of the Seattle Food Committee (SFC). This time, attendees explored the challenges of identifying intersections of culture, equity and food within their programs, and then developed ideas together for fostering awareness of and support for them. The panel of four community members was intentionally chosen and composed of people who worked in the food system with communities of color. On the panel, moderated by the University Of Washington Professor Of Geography, Lucy Jarosz, sat chef and food educator Ariel Bangs, community advocate for International Community Health Services (ICHS) Angela Wan, Foodways Project Director Mei Yook Woo, and food access organizer Tanika Thompson.
“Empowering folks to know that their story is worthy” is one way people can take control of their narratives, “making people feel that we need to hear them, not only want to hear them.” ~Mei Yook Woo, Foodways Project Director
Throughout the afternoon, panelists deliberated the need to disrupt dominant narratives surrounding food. Mei Yook Woo sees storytelling as an important way of knowing in order to tackle this need, and believes one’s relationship with food can be a tool for empowerment. Marginalized communities are “forced into a single story that is hinged around pain,” she says.
“Empowering folks to know that their story is worthy” is one way people can take control of their narratives, Mei Yook says, “making people feel that we need to hear them, not only want to hear them.” Though she is trained as a nutritionist, Mei Yook uses a novel approach to supporting people navigating their relationships with food. She asks them, “Tell me your story,” freeing them to both break away from a narrow narrative of healthy eating and to explore their own traditional foodways.
During a breakout session, attendees formed groups to share challenges faced at their own food banks and explore ways to incorporate what they were learning in response to those challenges. The need to normalize the food bank experience was a common theme. The University District Food Bank does this by mimicking the layout of a grocery store so that the food bank experience feels familiar and inviting to the individual or family. As a cultural consideration, Ariel Bangs suggests increasing the numbers of languages present on food labels to create a more inclusive environment, a successful initiative carried out by youth at the Rainier Valley Food Bank.
Impacting more than those who go to the food bank, “It connects youth that are unfamiliar with food banks and their purposes while opening their eyes and hearts to the awareness of what is happening outside their world,” she says.
Attendees also acknowledged the challenges of limited budgets, lack of culturally-significant food availability, and the need to employ people who can bridge language barriers.
SFC “wants useful, applicable information that they can take back to their food banks and use,” says Frank Miranda, Solid Ground’s Food System Support (FSS) Program Manager. FSS collaborates with SFC to ensure that the sessions are best serving the food bank providers’ needs. This training provided stories of and tools for empowerment from community members well equipped with their own experiences and perspectives, and the attendees expressed a commitment to strengthening their culture and equity perspectives and programs.
“I’m so happy that we have this time together to meet one another, talk about our work, and celebrate,” declared Lucy to conclude the training. The attendees are able to return to their respective communities with access to new partnerships and armed with insight from individuals, like themselves, who are working towards an equitable and culturally vibrant food system.