Written by Emma Lietz Bilecky // 

What does it mean to practice justice… through food?

The question is a complicated one. Eating well is often an act entangled in a slew of privilege, requiring in the first place basic access to wholesome and healthy food. The economics of industrial agriculture and commodity markets have shaped food landscapes where processed, packaged and innutritious foods are far cheaper than food more directly sourced from soil. Still, the solutions to these problems are not found in a simple “return to the land,” nor are they without their own ethical quandaries. While urban farmers markets provide important venues for growers building soil, practicing husbandry, and cultivating new forms of community, they can also reinforce the privilege of those who can afford to support such movements. At the same time, “farm to table” restaurants with the capacity to support small, scrappy farmers upholding food’s integrity must charge a premium for slow food and attractive, “Instagrammable” dishes. Building a just food system takes imagination, work, and commitment, but also requires capital and privilege that can further exclude.

How can we pursue sustainable food systems, soil and environmental health in tandem with economic justice? Though soil and people are deeply and fundamentally connected, to seek the good of both at once can be confusing. It is easy to become frustrated by the subtext of healthful food, where questions about access and injustice permeate through the cracks of a system we had grown to trust.

But such questions might also free us from the comfort of easy solutions and the work that lies ahead. If we believe we have already found at the right answers, where will we go? But when we name the imperfections of the food system in which we participate with every bite, stewing on the unresolved questions our food asks of us, we find ourselves located in a place that is not yet perfect, and yet strengthened to do the work, here.

By located, I don’t merely mean local, although I do mean that too. I mean that when we attend to our food more completely, caring to know about its source, the history of the land from which it comes, and the often invisible processes and labor bound up in it, we perceive our place differently, too, and are in turn compelled to work differently in it. Locating food in place allows us to eat better – mindfully – by honestly facing the food which is our life’s source in its context. As we find ourselves asking new questions about our food and our places, we begin participating in the work of reconciliation into which food invites us.

This is where local food and food justice meet. To really eat well, we must know the place we are. Knowing this place, accepting its imperfections, and taking up its challenges, eating becomes a communal act.  I join my work and quite literally, my being to this place by taking and eating what it gives. As such, this place becomes part of me, its wounds mine to dress, its healing my prerogative. Having eaten from this land, I am now responsible to it. Dependent on this place, I am positioned to work for the health of its soils and its people, to cultivate beauty, balance, peace, justice and reconciliation together.

The act of eating reminds us of the many ways we are bound to the place from which our food comes. Could local food, understood not as a marketing tool or a status symbol, but as that which grounds us in a particular struggle, inspire food justice? Would attention to the stories food tells about us imbue us with unique questions and responsibilities? And would this allow us to more fully participate in the reconciling work of God?

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Emma Lietz Bilecky is a graduate student of theology and environmental management at Duke University and a crew member at the Duke Campus Farm. She is interested in how food and environmental justice frameworks can elucidate connections between humans, the earth and economies and works in her own life to cultivate spaces for such connection.

One thought on “Food, Place, and Self: Exploring the Ethics of Eating Local

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