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Food Justice, Racial Justice, and Covid-19: What Are Vermont’s White-Led Food Movements Doing?

Members of the ShiftMeals team. Photo: Jennifer Sensenich

By Kate Sadoff


Vermont has an evolving agricultural industry. While it is mainly known for its dairy farms and maple syrup production, many food justice initiatives are popping up and reexamining their work as Vermont hits a 24% food insecurity rate due to the pandemic. I had the opportunity to interview Jean Hamilton and Jaya Touma-Shoatz from ShiftMeals, and Conor Floyd from Food Connects, two Vermont white-led food justice organizations on their roles within the global pandemic and the national uprising in response to systemic racism.

ShiftMeals was born out of the pandemic. The closure of the Skinny Pancake restaurant franchise led many people to face unemployment and furlough, subsequently threatening food security for many people. The Skinny Pancake still had all of its restaurant resources, such as food, certified kitchens, and talented staff, inspiring the creation of ShiftMeals. The initial mission was to provide free meals for folks experiencing food insecurity, inspired by the free shift meals restaurant workers get and enjoy with coworkers.

Jean Hamilton became Project Manager at ShiftMeals once the Skinny Pancake got adequate funding from philanthropic partners to set the vision in motion. Hamilton then helped create GrowTeams, a collective gardening project, meant to empower people to grow their own food. In the wake of 20% unemployment rates, she saw the opportunity to teach Vermonters a skill that they would otherwise not have time for. She is especially passionate about this work as it both engages her intellectually and spiritually, as she has spent 20 years working on building food systems and engaging her spirit through gardening.

“I know so many people don't have access to gardening because it's not a skill they grew up with [which can make it] a really intimidating labor. In the case of Black and brown Americans, it's often associated with deep trauma. Working with the earth to provide for myself has been something so fundamentally human for me. In the face of 20% unemployment, there’s a once in a generation opportunity for people to learn this skill, this joy, and this ancestral connection of working with the earth to produce food for themselves.”

Locally sourced food is a cornerstone of the Skinny Pancake, and now ShiftMeals. Hamilton shares how the pandemic presented an opportunity to consider Vermont’s capacity to  produce more food as a state. The pandemic threatened to halt production in states which are heavily relied on in globalized food chains, such as California and Arizona. Further supply chain disruptions, made evident by empty grocery store shelves, emphasized the value of providing for the community and supporting those that do. It feeds people in the community and forms relationships, but supports the local economy as well– in a time when that is desperately needed. Local legislature was excited about this project and thus the state took on a similar project, using coronavirus relief funds to create what is widely known within Vermont as Everyone Eats.

In June, following the murder of George Floyd, like many other companies, the Skinny Pancake sent a letter stating that they were late to the movement and needed to do better. Hamilton recounts reading and discussing Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” with the rest of the staff, asking foundational questions of what it means to be white and what it means to live in a white supremacist culture.

Around the same time, Jaya Touma-Shoatz and Zymora Cleopatra Davinchi, who had been working on a GrowTeam, wrote a letter to the Skinny Pancake demanding reparative pay for their farmwork and forcing the Skinny Pancake to see that their mission statement regarding food sovereignty would not be legitimate without taking action against racial justice. Touma-Shoatz explains this in further detail.

“We can't talk about [food sovereignty] without acknowledging that BIPOC folks experience food depravity food apartheid in extremes, in extreme measures, in extreme everything. We can't express or have food sovereignty or claim any of these things if we don't first acknowledge that all of it is tied to and through BIPOC folks. The main goal of oppression is that a certain group has to be on the bottom,” said Touma-Shoatz.

Of course these extremes they describe are highlighted by the pandemic, as BIPOC folks are being disproportionately affected. They are more likely to face unemployment and are 4x more likely to be food insecure.

The Skinny Pancake gave Touma-Shoatz and Cleopatra Davinchi reparative pay and hired them onto the team to start a BIPOC Food Sovereignty Program. Touma-Shoatz focuses on internal operations at the Skinny Pancake while Cleopatra Davinchi works on the BIPOC Food Sovereignty Webinar series, highlighting womxn and femmes, which has become the third leg of ShiftMeals.

Touma-Shoatz talks about their own experience farming as an African American in Vermont on a farm close to ShiftMeals, where they learned about food sovereignty and became quickly passionate.

“I was super anti-farming just because of the trauma connected to African American folks and farming so I was not about it at all. It was Zymora who convinced me, ultimately by talking about how important land sovereignty is for African American liberation, BIPOC liberation, to open myself up to that opportunity.”

Hamilton and Touma-Shoatz openly share gratitude for each other and the ways in which they have stepped into new roles. Hamilton feels strongly that we cannot wait for government reparations or to have the perfectly developed language to engage in these issues, because this is an urgent matter. She proposes that “we can stop harm while we're still learning collectively as a society.” Hamilton is quick to name the awkwardness she feels when expressing gratitude for Touma-Shoatz’s presence in her life, and again when she shares that she has come to believe that those excluded from the system hold the greatest truths about how to fix the system. “When we take care of the least empowered members of our society, we build a society that is more caring for everybody.” By naming these things, she is practicing her belief in bypassing fear of saying the wrong thing in order to say what needs to be said. Touma-Shoatz shares a similar sentiment about tandem liberation.

“Once BIPOC queer women femmes and gender non-conforming folks have access to true food sovereignty, food liberation, land sovereignty, and land stewardship, automatically everyone else also has access to those things. You can't funnel everything to the bottom and have it not go to the top. It's like the opposite of trickle down economics.”

It is important to also note that in an ideal world, they envision BIPOC food sovereignty to encompass access to food, land, and proper healthcare, as it is all interconnected.

Hamilton shares that she has become increasingly aware that the food systems movement is not as white as she believed it to be, it is just segregated. From the perspective of someone that has been in the white space she remarks, “it's been a very white space but in another world there has been a whole world of indigenous organizing and black organizing.”

Hamilton hopes to put in the work to grow reciprocal and trusting relationships with BIPOC, as long-standing relationships in food systems have been critical to her experience working in Vermont’s food systems. “My personal commitment is to use what power I have to make space and dismantle systems that have unjustly funneled power into me.” Touma-Shoatz shares that the job of BIPOC allies is to use privilege to uplift BIPOC folks, “in every space and every context always.”

Both Hamilton and Touma-Shoatz see the need for work outside of ShiftMeals within the external landscape of Vermont and will follow their work as it leads them.

Food Connects

Food Connects started in Brattleboro, Vermont, out of a different organization called Post Oil Solutions over 10 years ago, starting with the farm to school program. Currently Food Connects has three programs. The food hub works with over 100 local farmers and sells to about 100 wholesale retailers, increasing access to local produce and providing farmers with market access they otherwise wouldn’t have. The farm to school program works closely with 15 schools. The program focuses on working with educators and food service members to serve nutritious local meals in the cafeteria and to integrate food, farm, and nutrition education into curricula. The third program is called Catalyst and is much less clearly defined. It has taken a front seat through Covid-19 and partially works with Everyone Eats, the second incarnation of ShiftMeals, to provide food to those who are in need throughout the pandemic.

Similar to ShiftMeals, Food Connects is centered around a mission of supporting locals. Conor Floyd, the Farm to School Program Manager shares that supporting local businesses and farmers has been increasingly important through the pandemic, due to the supply chain shortages, as Hamilton mentioned. The Food Hub’s local sourcing supports farmers, the local economy, and consumers, by providing farmers with opportunities to sell produce, market the opportunity to sell great products at a price of their choosing, and give people the opportunity to buy nutritious foods at a reasonable price.

Floyd also speaks of the trust needed in order to form the relationships with farmers in the beginning.

“Farms don’t have a lot of flexibility. They can’t bail or invest into something that doesn’t work. It took a lot of convincing and trust building between the farmers and the food Hub folks to assure them that it was a beneficial program and would eventually help them.”

This need for trust lends itself to perpetuating the segregation in the food system Hamilton describes. Food Connects has been asking the internal questions about their place as a white-led organization. How can they attract BIPOC folks so they can be represented? Why are their regional hunger council coalitions all white? What are the structures they’ve set to discuss hunger and how can they engage in conversations in a way that BIPOC folks will feel comfortable? Floyd also shares that since there are great organizations led by BIPOC  community members, such as Migrant Justice and the Susu Health Collective, Food Connects wants to be cognizant of the space they take up in the movement, while still working to support local leaders.

The 2019 US Census shows that Vermont is 94.2% white. This is reflected in the racial hierarchy of its agriculture industry, as predominantly white people assume positions as farm owners, while migrant workers assume positions as laborers. The food justice work that is largely seen and appreciated in the state is typically white-led, as the dominant population is looking from a white perspective. It is important to hold white-led organizations accountable when doing anti-racist work as it is so fundamentally intertwined with food justice, and white voices have the capital to broadcast these messages. These laborious efforts should fall on the shoulders of white people, who must also use their inherent privilege to uplift the work of BIPOC folks. The disparities within the food system that the pandemic has highlighted is nothing new. Neither is the systemic racism that garnered national attention after George Floyd was murdered. These events, however, are standing at the edge of a system that was built to oppress some to ensure prosperity for others. As Hamilton says, we can’t wait for widespread change and we can’t wait until we are comfortable. “We can stop harm while we're still learning collectively as a society.”

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