A tomato grows in a food desert in Clinton?

This is the last weekend before the students arrive, so, to distract myself from the fact that my summer vacation is to all intents and purposes over, I’m puttering in the kitchen … baking bread and braising short ribs for today’s lunch, sterilizing jars and making mental lists of ingredients for tomorrow’s canning … and as I putter, I’m thinking about food justice.

Dough, freshly kneaded and placed in the bowl to rise...

Dough, freshly kneaded and placed in the bowl to rise…

The primary reason being that Marc and I are doing it again. Food justice, I mean.

We’ve been recruited by a dynamic duo of local pastors: leaders of the most important African Methodist Episcopal and Southern Baptist congregations in town… And while these details may convey little to you, just pause to think a moment. We live in the back country of a state where an African American pastor was assassinated along with eight members of his historic church at Bible study just eight weeks ago. That act of violence set off an explosion of grief and remorse that blasted the Confederate flag off the Statehouse grounds. The reaction to these events is unfolding in a county that has been a hotbed of Klan activity since Reconstruction. Clinton’s last recorded lynching occurred in 1937. And lest you think that’s ancient history, the Redneck Shop, selling Klan memorabilia on the town square of our county seat, didn’t close until 2012.

Sunday at 11 a.m. is still the most segregated hour in this county and will be for some time to come, I imagine. So this idea of growing a garden–to bring people on “both sides of the tracks”–together across lines of race and class around food and hospitality is a revolutionary act, and I applaud the men who’ve conceived it. It’s a gesture, in this 150th anniversary year of the end of the Civil War, toward demonstrating that we’ve actually learned from a painful past and want to make sure that it doesn’t repeat itself in the form of “something like Ferguson”–a often heard phrase among the steering committee members–happening here.

Growing food has been demonstrated in city after city, town after town, to grow community… and we are, of course, flattered to have been asked, happy to be included–not to mention breathing a sigh of relief that, for a change, we’re not the ones in charge of running the show.

But I was left bothered by the latest meeting of our group, in which we attempted to hash out vision-mission-objectives language. I’ve puzzled today over what was stuck in my craw–and it wasn’t that teeth-grating half an hour we spent on whether or not referencing “justice” would be too “political” to get local foundations on board. Today, I think I’ve got it figured it out–and the insight came courtesy of Chef Michael Twitty’s “Afroculinaria” blog.

We’d been talking at that meeting about “food deserts” and whether Clinton, in fact, meets the definition. It does, by the way …

The USDA's food security map for Clinton.

The USDA’s food access map for Clinton. The city is located in the largest green blob–the pink blob at the center is the neighborhood that will be served by the garden. .

And amid a vigorous discussion over “action” words–educate? eliminate? empower? all three?–I remember saying something dumb, something that suggested “haves” coming in to do charity work among “have nots.” And that’s the thing that has had me kicking myself. Because while at various times in my life I have been one of the “haves” and have described myself without irony as a “foodie”–I had a very bad recession. I was not the only one. And this is where Michael Twitty comes in.

On Saturday, he re-posted an old blog from 2012: “Pantry of a Modest Foodie: Ideas on How to Provision Your Table With Modest Means.” The topic was supremely practical: what are the must-have items for the pantry of someone who’s serious about food but who needs to be careful about spending money… I loved the list, was inspired to start coming up with my own. But it was as I read his lengthy preamble that all the reasons for my dis-ease came into focus.

Because while the “how-to” advice was great, the real topic of Twitty’s blog is the disconnect between the “foodie” nation and the “food justice” nation. He argues we conduct these conversations from our positions of privilege, as if the only people in need of food justice are “poor kids and single moms” and we are all “upwardly mobile or upper middle class people with leisure at our fingertips.” But of course, this is a very distorted picture.

… All due respect to those who have, [but] many of us who are involved in this culture are not upper middle class nor are we necessarily upwardly mobile. … We are people who sometimes have and sometimes don’t. We are people who make our own way when there is no other way. We are people who hide our relative poverty… [Emphasis added.]

Those words stopped me in my tracks. Because I’ve done that.

When I got involved in my first community garden in fall 2010, what people saw when they invited me was my commitment, yes, but more pertinently, my expertise, my privilege: the assets I had to bring to the table–like my know-how as a master gardener; the home I (and the bank) owned; my leadership on church and community boards and commissions; the credibility that came with many publications and a teaching position at a leading university.

What people didn’t see (I was very careful not to let them) was the precariousness of those low-paid adjunct faculty positions that were all that was available at the height of the recession. What they didn’t know (I could hardly admit it to myself) was how large the specter of hunger loomed in my own life, especially the fall, winter, and spring right after the market crash when I had no real work at all. I’m not talking famine–but I’m not talking figurative either. I mean skipping meals, crying myself to sleep over the paltry dollars I was making doing temp work, waking in the night full of despair that things would ever get better.

I had nowhere to turn, but I had also been raised by people who taught me to do, not dwell on my troubles. So I volunteered to lead my church’s participation in a citywide homeless ministry, and we housed, fed, and provided activities for a group of women for two weeks in winter in our parish hall. I talked my farmer boyfriend into helping me plant one hundred linear feet of spinach, among other stuff, to get folks in the neighborhood between the university and my church through the winter. These were activities undertaken less in the spirit of “there but for the grace of God…” than in the full knowledge that I was “there” myself.

Well, time  has passed–I’ve left Virginia for South Carolina–and things in my life are so much better. I haven’t forgotten the important lessons of the years of privation–how having substantially less than I’d had in 2006 helped to clarify my values, the way I practiced community, not to mention the ways I am willing to participate in corporate consumer culture.

But I’m apparently in danger of forgetting the most important lesson. The lesson of my witness. I was there in 2010. I am there now, just one job interruption or medical emergency away from disaster. I  need to learn how to speak from the truth of my experiences and not let my relative privilege create an illusion of invulnerability.


With sadness, I report that our coalition agreed not to put “food justice” in the mission statement. Bowing to the reality that we are operating in the deepest red corner of a very conservative state, we have agreed to sacrifice the words because the mission and every one of the bullet points under it express food justice objectives.

But here, in the space that belongs to the Goddess of Gumbo, it’s important for me to say, clearly and out loud, that I am working in South Carolina for the right of this community to exercise the right to grow, sell, and eat food that is “fresh, nutritious, affordable, culturally appropriate and locally grown.” [Definition courtesy of Just Food.]

It’s important for me to say, clearly and out loud, that I embrace these values not as some upper-crust college-professor “foodie” preaching to a privileged choir, but as someone who started growing vegetables and herbs because I needed to eat. Not wanted. Needed.

And that I continue these activities not just because I enjoy them, but also because I gradually came to understand how caring for the well-being of the land, workers, animals, and our neighbors is how we grow strong and self-reliant local businesses and communities.

We may never say the words “food justice” in Clinton. But someday a tomato plant is going to bloom in the food desert on Bell Street across from Friendship A.M.E. Church. Someday,  black and white are going to, in the words of that old spiritual, “break bread together on our knees.”




… I’m getting really good at bread.



1 comment for “A tomato grows in a food desert in Clinton?

  1. August 18, 2015 at 12:43 pm

    YES! To all of it.

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