Red Chili Peppers and Justice

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I would like to think that the New Roots Garden project is a project that directly works to ensure food justice and support the collective food relations and self-determination of a marginalized people.

Food justice is commonly defined as: “the norm that everyone should have access to safe, healthy, and culturally-appropriate foods no matter one’s national origin, economic statuses, social identities, cultural membership, or disability.” With the added extension that these same rights apply to workers who produce food. When discussing and conceptualizing food justice, most of the common definition appears quite straightforward. However, the term “culturally-appropriate foods” is less straightforward. It is also unique in that it is left out of most governmental or legislative dialogue, including the UN’s definition of the word.

This misinterpretation and disregard for this term could perhaps be due to the assumption that it is synonymous with “preferred foods”. However, for a food to be culturally-appropriate extends far beyond preference. As Whyte describes, the production and consumption of food is an inherently cultural activity and a natural source of community. It is also a source of connection to the intricate ecosystems of the natural world. In many cases, these are not simply the perks of engaging with culturally significant foods, but a genuine source of wholeness and community for people, a source that, if extinguished, would take with it the things that make life worth living.

Whyte’s portrayal of the indigenous Anishinaabek people paralleled much of what I’ve seen among Baltimore area refugees. Like the Anishinaabeks, these refugees have a deep connection to certain foods and the process of growing them. For example, the Bhutanese have a particular connection to hot chili peppers as well as to okra, which they refer to as “vindi.” While working with these refugees last summer, there was to be an exhibition at the Walters Art Gallery for World Refugee Day. The refugee gardeners had taken a photo class earlier that year and were instructed to take a photo of what was most meaningful to them. I had the exciting task of going to the homes of the refugees and interviewing them about why they chose these photos. The interviews would be tailored into captions for the exhibit. One gardener, Lila Rai, took a photo of red chili peppers. When I asked him why it was meaningful he said, “it reminds me of my past life in my country.”

For Lila, I believe that his choice of a picture of peppers over say, his family, was significant and worth analyzing. Perhaps, as wild rice was for the Anishinaabeks, red chilis were a sense of livelihood and identity for Lila, something with intangible value.

The creation of this garden should carefully consider, honor, and cultivate the connections between the refugees and their culturally significant foods. Additionally, it will be important to embody Deblind’s ideas of civic agriculture while creating the space. This summer, I witnessed how some of the New Roots gardens experienced conflict over property rights. Some of the gardens had embodied the caste system of Bhutan and had allowed the elder males to take control over the land. It will be important to intentionally integrate numerous families from numerous ethnic backgrounds in order to avoid this. If land is recognized as a cooperative space for the sharing of growing instead of private delineated spaces, perhaps we will be able to build a culturally powerful space that celebrates interconnected-ness and community.

-Rosa

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