Food Sovereignty: Healing the Injustice to People and Planet

February 15, 2023 | By Shi Woo Ji

man in cornfield holding up a bundle of corn in his left handImage courtesy of Joseph K. Masonda.

The following is Part 2 of a 3-part interview on the topic of food, justice, and ecology with Jocelyn Jackson. For Part 1, click here. For Part 3, click here.

Jocelyn is the founder of JUSTUS Kitchen and co-founder of People’s Kitchen Collective, two California Bay Area organizations that center the lived experiences of Black and Brown communities while bringing healing experiences around food for the purpose of collective liberation. She also serves as the new Chief-in-Residence at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. 

In Part 2 of the interview, Jocelyn speaks about the paramount role that food sovereignty plays in achieving liberation for all. She makes it clear that retaining our connection to the land on which our food is grown is a critical piece of securing self-determination. 

For Jocelyn, food is not only a matter of justice and ecology, but also deeply connected to the sacred. 


Shi woo Ji: I'm really interested in what you've said a number of times, which is how food can give us access to collective liberation. I think for folks who are unfamiliar with this work, that sounds very grand and lofty, but actually you mean something very practical, very real, very concrete, something that can be felt and experienced. Can you explain what that means? How can we achieve collective liberation through food? How can food be a source of healing? 

Jocelyn Jackson: Right now the Union of Farmworkers is marching across California. It was a 24, 25 day march up to Sacramento in order to ensure the right to decide how they are treated, right? Food workers are doing this. It's a tradition that's been in place for so many years, this pilgrimage for freedom. I mention that at the outset because it's right now present in my mind and we'll be supporting that work soon [at] People's Kitchen Collective with our own pilgrimage, with our Earth Seed Project. But what that means to me, that tradition, is that so much of our sovereignty is wound up in how we relate to food. I wrote an article once about food and protest. And one of the references I made was about Fannie Lou Hamer and how she really had a sincere belief of, yes, we have to be in the streets, but also we need to be on the farms and in the soil.

Jocelyn Jackson: Because without food sovereignty, gaining our rights won't mean a thing. The justice piece of it is also in the soil. If we don't have land and we can't grow our own food, it will be for nothing, because there's always going to be a way to infringe on freedom if we don't have personal sovereignty, if we don't have self-determination. And one of the quotes that I love from her is [about how] if you can put up—and by put up, I mean preserve food, pickle food—if you can put up food from the summer to serve you in the winter, that's a kind of liberation and survival that you can't get by someone telling you that you can have the right to vote. It's different. It's a different scale and it's a different approach. Both are needed, but you have to be in the land. You have to have the soil in order to have the deepest version of self-determination that's required for freedom and liberation. 

Jocelyn Jackson: This is knowledge that we're losing generation by generation. How to actually propagate food, how to cultivate, how to harvest, this is information that is slowly seeping out of our collective minds. We have to reclaim that information or all the rights in the world will lead to nothing. We have to have that wisdom. We have to remember it. We have to seek it out. We have to practice it in order to be in this world of rights translating into livelihood. I feel like it's really practical for us to think about food also because universally, there aren't very many universals. There's so much relativism in the world, right? But ideally, we are all seeking out those three meals a day. But we don't have the freedom to do that if we're relying on systems that are here to kill us. They will increase poverty. They will increase houselessness. They will increase drug use.

Jocelyn Jackson: All of this is attached to our access to food. It is direct correlations that we don't often highlight because we're looking at a bigger issue, right? But when we're talking, again, about how we support one another by being beyond disciplines and integrating all of these truths, if we can get to the heart of supporting our universal need for food in our lives to give us the strength to fight for our rights—that's huge. That goes back to the Free Breakfast program. This was a program that was put in place by the Black Panther Party for self defense because they knew that school children being fed each morning gave them the power to learn about themselves, to create that pocket of self determination that was so necessary for young people to have in order to get free.

Jocelyn Jackson: If you take that as a universal, we need that nourishment of knowledge and presence of these food ancestors to be in our lives in order for us to make any steps toward this more liberated world we want to build together, and be able to really slough off the lies of “make it on your own”—that's a fiction. It's an absolute lie. Collectively we have to hold this. We have to make these moves together in order for it to actually be sustainable. Trying to rest on this trope of individuality is also deadly. I look forward to us embracing all of our collective wisdom around food and what it really means for our communities to be free.

Shi woo Ji: I love that. That last bit, as you're talking, this image [comes up] of how every single person on this Earth comes into this world and drinks their mother's breast milk and how our very first act of nourishment comes from someone else. What you said about how “making it on your own,” [and how] that's a myth, that's not how life really is—

Jocelyn Jackson: Exactly. No, I love that you point that out. I actually pointed [to] that in one of my articles. Lindsay Lanford, who does food work in Tuskegee, [said] a Black woman's breast milk was the first soul food. It's real and tangible that we have this reliance. I want it to be beautiful and not a heartache. I want a person's breast to be full with nourishing milk, as opposed to the scarcity that society so often creates for folks that are majority Black and Brown that are facing such insecurity. It really means a lot that you point that out because it is that moment of, we don't need to have this fiction of “I did it all by myself.” It's like, no. Rely. Rely. And the trust that's needed to rely is hard, especially when being broken down in [a] society that does that on purpose. But the reliance on one another is our actual pathway to freedom.

Shi woo Ji: Yes. How can we shift from dependence on systems that were never designed to let us succeed or thrive and replace that with true, authentic interdependence on each other?

Jocelyn Jackson: Exactly. Exactly that. Amen.

Shi woo Ji: You mentioned this, "food as protest." What do you mean by that? What are some examples of people using food as a way to protest?

Jocelyn Jackson: Thank you. It is that example of the Free Breakfast program for school children. It is that example of the land project of Fannie Lou Hamer. It's these examples where we take food into our own hands in order to really create an invitation for everyone to see an alternative to the mainstream food economy and food story. Because quite frankly, our food systems have descended into things that will harm us. We went from, for example, one of the things that we were studying in India was this transition of the most beautiful mangoes—oh my God, the most delicious sweet mangoes—to PepsiCo being a major polluting, cancerous presence in that continent. And how did that happen and what it is to reclaim the sweetness of natural fruit in this dynamic of progression of the capitalist industries of food that are making all this food more harmful, more toxic to our bodies.

Jocelyn Jackson: Whether it be the type of food, whether it be land sovereignty, whether it be supporting people on hunger strikes even, there is always this presence of how food supports this real incline toward independence from these fatal systems. It's important to really point out all the ways that happens because it gives everybody the opportunity to see [that] I don't need to be connected to something that is harming me. I have another alternative. I have another resource. And that form of liberation is so empowering and gets us out of, quite frankly, some obsolescence that's built into present systems of food. And so I really want that for us, I really do. 

Jocelyn Jackson: Because when food is protest, that's our choices. I want to use that word specifically because our world also uses choices against us. Sometimes when we say choice, it's loaded, it's a very loaded word. Because when you're talking about houseless communities, when you're talking about communities that have been vaporized by large conglomerates, what really is a choice in that circumstance, right? What really do you have access to in the corner store or wherever?

Jocelyn Jackson: So I will never shame people for what choice they need to make when it comes to food. I just want to be part of a growing ability to provide more choices where the choices are so often terrible. And I want all of us to take on [that] as our responsibility, because that commitment feels super important for us being able to be just happier, just brighter in our lives, because otherwise it feels [like] so much control. There's one thing I wanted to throw off the shackles of, is that control.

Shi woo Ji: I read your Eater article from last year and I absolutely loved it. I was really struck by what you said in there, which was you described your work as holding space for folks of color to have healing food experiences with cultural and spiritual significance. Can you say a bit more about that spiritual significance part? What about food can heal us on a spiritual level? 

Jocelyn Jackson: Thank you so much for that because I feel like it's such an important topic and something that is present in everything I say, whether it's explicitly said or not. And what I mean by that is, there is really a family created from human and non-human relatives. And for me, when I am cooking, I'm talking to my food, I'm asking permission. I'm thinking about all the stories that my family have reference to a recipe or an ingredient, and I'm acknowledging that whole lineage of preparation and care and stewardship. And when I'm growing food, I'm doing the same with the soil and just giving such gratitude to that process. And for me, one of the hearts of sacredness is attention. It is giving that gratitude. It is taking time and being present to and with. It is the choice to declare what you love, who you love, and then defend your beloved. That is a sacredness to me.

Jocelyn Jackson: And as I said, I have a cosmological view of these things. So often people say we are stardust. I'm so grateful for those new clear photographs of the universe in that respect of just like, oh my God, that's family too, right? We are all made from the same things. And when we get to that molecular reality, it feels so freeing, and it feels so much more possible for all of us to be connected to one another, because we are. It's not a fiction. It's not something that's made up. We're literally made up of the same things. We are each other. And the sacredness for me and the process is acknowledging that and really taking time to pay attention.

Jocelyn Jackson: I love creating food alters, because that's another way for me to bring in the cultural and ecological pieces of this, whether it's attention to the elements and bringing important foods to my family, to that alter, to help me remember the story of it, to help me remember the flavors that got us to this day, to help me remember the thousands of ancestors—again, human and non-human—that let me arrive in this moment today. It's paying attention. Something being sacred is giving it attention. And that requires time, that requires gratitude, and it requires changing our minds about what we love and why. I want people to embrace that as they eat every plate of food, right? It's luxurious. I know that too, to be in this world of paying attention is really a luxurious and privileged place.

Jocelyn Jackson: But I want us to get quiet and still, and listen and pay attention every time we're granted this gift of being able to eat food that is relevant and specific and beautiful for us and delicious. That feels like an opportunity, again, of redirecting the attention and unlearning the fast break of this society and reorienting to cultural tradition and to slowness. When I'm fermenting something, I'm remembering that, right? It's like, the gift of this particular technique, this method and the ingredients that go into it, that is something that is magic to me. It's not only delicious, it's not only something I learned from my grandma or my aunties, it's something that can actually feed the future. How magical is that? And to take the time and slow down to the fact that, oh my God, that's going to take a year to be ready. Do I have a year? Or is this serving my family in the future?

Jocelyn Jackson: That is so intimate and vulnerable and sacred. And so I want people to [be] given the invitation to take it that seriously and that thoughtfully, again, because this is tribal. This is not new. I'm not creating anything. These are the practices of our ancestors that I'm trying to remember and reintegrate into my life in service of my liberation, because fastness is killing us. That's what's created climate change, is fastness, is ease, is believing that resources are unlimited. That's what created our planet dying. I need to slow down in order to go fast into this world of saving ourselves, because it is a marathon and a sprint, but it requires the slowness, the attention, the care and the gratitude.

Shi woo Ji: I really love that. What that brings me to is just how humbled I am when I, for instance, cook Korean food and I realize this is food my ancestors ate, and we have somehow preserved and shared that knowledge—

Jocelyn Jackson: For millennia.

Shi woo Ji: Literally. Through colonization, through imperialism. 

Jocelyn Jackson: And that thing of eating with your hands. That for me is another sacred piece of slowing down, because you have to take so much care in your hands being clean. You're eating together, often from the same dish, but you need to dip into that rice for the sauce to stick, right? You just can't go straight to that, you got to have a vessel, you have to have something that's carrying it to you. I just love those traditions and what they really mean to us being in relationship to one another.

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