Food as “Home”, and the Importance of Building Food Justice in KW

Guest Blog by Vanessa Ong - Littlefoot Community Projects

When I think deeply of my childhood, I remember that food is a sort of medicine - a symbol of nourishment and togetherness, an invaluable product of cultural memory and a tether to my ancestors.

As a queer, Teochew-Vietnamese-Canadian woman and second generation immigrant, I felt naturally drawn to community food work early on in my university career. I found deep purpose in advocating for systemic changes within food systems and communities, while also exploring personal questions related to my cultural identity through food. Food is intimately tied to my concept of “home” - I grew up in a multi-generational household, where food served as a centrepiece for intergenerational learning, celebration, prayer and remembrance, and gathering. 

At the same time, I struggled to navigate the negative perceptions of farming and agriculture held within my family. My family carries long-held stigmas around farm work, owing to normalized views of farming as the work of the poor, forceful land reform enforced by the communist government in Vietnam, and experiences of racial injustice when serving as farm workers as new immigrants in Canada. As an added layer, I faced internal conflicts with my Asian identity and also experienced food shame on a number of occasions growing up in white-suburban Burlington. While this history complicated my entry into this field, it also continually drives me to re-imagine and re-story my relationships to land, agriculture, and cultural foods.  

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Reflecting on this history and our passions, my partner and I decided to create Littlefoot Community Projects to support food security in Kitchener-Waterloo (KW). The idea for Littlefoot emerged from a simple intention to grow food ecologically and support communities in need. However, through my research on food gentrification(1), our work began to solidify around amplifying lived experiences with food insecurity and addressing its root causes in our community. Littlefoot’s work naturally ebbs and flows as we work in solidarity with people and organizations across diverse sectors. We also work to stay politically engaged in social justice and anti-racist movements, which is so foundational to resolving food insecurity.

 

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All of this is to say that a foundational purpose for us is to bring intersectionality to the forefront of food security work in KW. Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw first coined the term in a legal context(2) over 30 years ago, and it was borne out of her huge body of work on race and civil rights. She describes intersectionality as “a prism to bring to light dynamics within discrimination law that weren’t being appreciated by the courts”, and more broadly, as a way to analyze how multiple inequalities operate together and exacerbate one another (3). With deep gratitude to Crenshaw, we approach our food security work at Littlefoot acknowledging that the symptom of food insecurity amongst our community is layered and complex. It is no coincidence, or accident, that food insecurity disproportionately affects black households, racialized immigrants, and indigenous peoples (4). Within even the small amount of race-based data in my personal research, I found that racialized low-income, food-insecure people faced unique food experiences such as_ making sacrifices to obtain increasingly expensive culturally appropriate foods in KW, using creative methods to prepare traditional foods, experiencing racism within higher-end grocers, and feelings of place attachment to places abroad (especially through the mechanism of food).

 

Consequently, we think a lot about concepts of wealth and resource redistribution, mutual aid, and environmental justice in our work (5). For example, the idea for our Common Goods project emerged from my experience as a supportive housing worker, where we brought in healthy food from KW Community Fridge and material resources shared by our neighbours. Given our privilege in having access to (shared) land, we are also growing food using regenerative agricultural practices, and sharing with the downtown Kitchener community through a pay-what-you-choose model. Working with churches, social services, housing groups, and other community organizations, we have built a number of unique connections to get healthy food to a wide range of people in KW. Funding received through campaigns and grants is funneled directly into these activities.

 

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In the short term, my goal with Littlefoot is to engage more deeply with the local immigrant and refugee population here in Kitchener, to explore how food might foster intergenerational and cultural strength and healing. In the longer term, I also hope to eventually find the capacity and funding to have a brick and mortar location for affordable food access, which would also serve as a hub for community building and mutual aid. All the while, we are listening to people in our community and finding transformative ways to challenge the systems that lock people into poverty and food insecurity. We must recognize the role that food plays in supporting health, cultural resilience, and community, and realize that a new way forward is both possible and necessary.

 


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Vanessa Ong

 

Littlefoot Community Projects

www.littlefootprojects.org

IG: @littlefootprojects


Resources

  1. Ong, V. (2020). “Feeling out of place suddenly and you haven’t even moved”: Food gentrification, alternative foods, and sociospatial justice in Kitchener, Ontario (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from UWSpace.

  2. Crenshaw, K. (n.d.). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex_ A Black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989(1), 139-167.

  3. Coaston, J. (2019, May 28). The intersectionality wars. Vox.
    https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/5/20/18542843/intersectionality-conservatism-law-race-gender-discrimination

  4. Dhunna, S., & Tarasuk, V. (2019). Fact sheet_ Race and food insecurity. https://foodshare.net/custom/uploads/2019/11/PROOF_factsheet_press_FINAL.6.pdf

  5. Roman-Alcalá, A. (2020, June 26). Op-ed: We can build a better food system through mutual aid. Civil Eats. https://civileats.com/2020/06/26/op-ed-we-can-build-a-better-food-system-through-mutual-aid/

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