“Love is willing the good of the other as other.”St. Thomas Aquinas
I live on the border of two of the poorest western Washington counties that voted for Donald Trump. Large parts of these counties are considered food deserts, and, for the most part, I love living here. In 2013 when I moved here from Jamaica to join my Seattleite spouse, many openly wondered why I would choose to live in white, rural, conservative America instead of New York City, for example, where there is a substantial population of ideologically liberal and ethnically diverse Americans. I often have to explain that if Jamaica were a US-state, it would be a thoroughly red one. Now, I cannot definitively say that racism is as pervasive in Jamaica as in the United States but racial dynamics are different in a majority-black country. Still, my homeland has a disturbing colonial legacy that has left the country stratified primarily by skin tone. I grew up in the company of xenophobic bigots, and I love many of them. In rural western Washington, I am posited to make meaningful change through food and farming, and while I might face some resistance because of what I look like, it will not prevent me from leaning forward into the task.
My Most Recent Racist Experience
A few days ago, on my way home from Tractor Supply, I decided to save myself the half-mile walk to the mailbox, and I parked on the private street then crossed the main road to get my mail. A gentleman in an old red Saturn (or Accord) drove past me, then turned around and pulled up alongside me, preventing me from crossing the road to get back to my truck. He asked if I lived around here. I said nothing. I had never seen him before and he does not live on my street but he made himself the guardian of the mailboxes. He asked if that was my mail I was getting. I said nothing. He drove away, and I crossed the road, my heart thumping, and my head spinning at the thought of how many ways that interaction could have gone badly.
I quickly moved from fear to anger when I remembered that my neighbor has been preventing my access to my surface water irrigation system for several months because I am black. I met this neighbor in July because he had only moved in three years ago, and during that time, I was mostly working out of state. I remembered that I harvested and packaged some culinary herbs and Badger Flame beets the morning before my spouse and I introduced ourselves and advised him that we would be traversing the easement to assess the damaged pipes. We did not need his permission, but he said it was okay and warned us that he had a noisy yet harmless dog. As I am wont to do when I visit any friend or neighbor, I gifted him a bag of produce, and we went on our way.
I should have known something wasn’t right when instead of returning the bag directly to me, he placed it in my mailbox. Two weeks later, when we went to photograph the damage, I was threatened and ejected from the easement, and my (white, male) spouse was asked to stay and talk to him. My spouse stayed, compounding the stress of an already exhausting situation, and the following week a Sheriff’s deputy showed up at my door for no reason he was able to disclose. I have since been working with attorneys to resolve his obstruction of my passage. Still, my neighbor claims to be blocking my access because he has bad feelings from our interactions. I am left with the option of pursuing litigation to restore access to an irrigation system that belongs to me. Still and all, I am more concerned with racist institutions than individuals’ racist actions.
Better Nutrition Makes Better Humans
While I have come across many Americans for whom mistreating others is a commitment and am disgusted by their behavior, I refuse to regard them with contempt. I uphold their right to feeding themselves in dignity, for I firmly believe that access to delicious, nutrient-dense food should not be merit-based. When I take my eggs to the food bank, I don’t get to dictate who receives them. When my produce ends up in a market, I have no say in who gets to purchase it, nor do I care to. My goal is to help communities provide for themselves, but sometimes you need to give a hungry man a fish; the lesson can come later.
I have no intractable foes. If given the opportunity, I would feed my racist neighbor again, and I would also feed the stranger who challenged me while I was getting my mail. I have fed the coworker who referred to black people as monkeys. I have fed several men who are angered that I am an intelligent, independent, outspoken woman who refuses to be “put in her place.” I also feed the deer that eat my lilies year after year.
Hunger has long-term physical (chronic illness) and psychological (depression, anxiety) effects on humans. A consistent supply of fresh, local food and active inclusion in food systems should be treated as a human right, not something conditional on an individual’s belief system or behavior. In addition, it might help humans become more happy, compassionate, and easier to be around. So let’s keep feeding everyone and improving the ecosystems to which we all belong. Let us inspire those who are ideologically different by speaking to commonality. We must demonstrate a commitment to basic human decency if we want to have a lasting influence on the way our world eats.