Maya Wiley, the director of the Center for Social Inclusion, based in New York, sees her work in the food system as a part of a much larger social justice conversation—structural racism and dismantling it.
“In New York, as an example, how do you categorize a bodega?” she asks about the stores that have been declared the enemy by some food and health advocates. “Some are actually greengrocers and others are convenience and liquor stores.”
Wiley says the issues of access and affordability in communities of color are so complex that she has no real one size fit all solution. “It’s going to take a lot of things, including support for building organizations,” she says. And she cautions that food is not a single issue to be tackled alone without looking at the total environment. According to Wiley, looking at the issues in just one way makes finding solutions even more complicated. “The food system is deeply fragmented,” she said.
In April, 2008, Wiley was a speaker at the Food and Society networking meeting, in Arizona. She talked about being the mother of a school aged child living in Brooklyn. She raised eyebrows when talking about what it really takes to get a healthy lunch at school for her child. “Sometimes the choice is between getting a science lab and getting good food,” she says. At this point, Wiley says she does not let her child eat school lunches, but she is aware of the privilege of having options.
She also cited the issue of obesity in communities of color as another complex topic. “Some people, who look at this issue with a single focus, would say that it is about the food. It is about the food, and having the physical safety to be able to run around and play,” she says. “It is much
“The structural racism that prevents people from having access to food is not accidental,” Wiley says. In analysis of the food system, she says that the question is not just about access to good food, but there is also the question of affording the food when you can get to it. While many food and nutrition advocates call for healthy eating campaigns in vulnerable communities as the fix, Wiley says public education campaigns only help people who have choices and options. “Food is just one of many things that people are dealing with,” she says.
As a part of the work of the Center for Social Inclusion’s work in dismantling racism, Wiley and her team have been working with a group of black farmers in South Carolina. They are providing technical assistance the county planning process, research and other obstacles and opportunities around creating economic stability from farming, such as opening farmer’s markets “We are working there, because if we can figure it out in South Carolina, we can figure it out anywhere,” she says. Another reason, she says is that the South still has some black owned farm land. She hopes that some of the lessons learned can connect with the work happening in urban areas. Wiley says the work has been slow, due to a lack of funding and support, yet she still remains hopeful.
Interview with Andrea King Collier