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As 2021 comes to an end, we take stock of another momentous year that marked massive upheavals in the food system and across society. To lead us into 2022, we asked some of the leading thinkers and doers working on the frontlines of food, justice, and climate to share their thoughts with us about the most pressing issues, what they’ll be working toward in the new year, and what propels them to keep going.

Today, we hear from Jessica B. Harris, Navina Khanna and Ashanté Reese about systemic racism, justice for Black farmers, and how we move toward a food system for all.

Jessica B. Harris, journalist, professor emerita at Queens College, author of High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America

Jessica Harris headshot

What are the biggest challenges for the food system you’ve seen this last year?

I think that this last year, these last two years basically, have kind of blown the lid off much of what we had previously lived with as the food system. From food insecurity to service issues to just the gamut . . . have all kind of been upended, exposed, and hopefully it’s all being reshuffled. It has just been an incredible time to live through and it has called into question so much.

As you look ahead to 2022 and beyond, do you see potential solutions that we might work toward or things that give you hope?

When I received the James Beard lifetime achievement award, in the acceptance speech I said, “It’s as though Mother Nature has given us a cosmic time out and said, ‘Go to your room and think about it.’” And in our thinking about it, I do hope that we will begin to come up with new suggestions and thoughts, and alternate ways of being and doing.

And lot of those things are already in the works. We’ve seen seismic shifts over the last 18 months—shifts that have upended systems that have been around for certainly decades and possibly centuries. Just in that brief space, so much has been called into question and brought into scrutiny. And I think what we’re getting out of it is change in what I hope is a real way and not just lip service.

“High on the Hog,” the Netflix series based on your book, was recently renewed for a second season. Do you think there is a new space being made for the Black experience in food, including in food media?

I think that is happening. There are so many new outlets and new possibilities, new ways of looking at things. There are new people looking at things, and when there are new people, there are new eyes, and when there are new eyes, there are new points of view. Hopefully it’s not a blip on the screen. And, while I certainly know that they are not fast enough for some people, changes are seemingly occurring. Now, the question becomes: Is it a fad or is it permanent? And I don’t know. Nothing will tell us that but time.

Navina Khanna, Executive Director, HEAL Food Alliance

Looking back on 2021, what do you see as significant challenges that need to be addressed in 2022?

Navina Khanna headshot

The challenges we’re facing in 2022 are, at their root, the same that we’ve faced since the founding of the U.S. food system: 1. the mentality that puts profits over people and the planet, and 2. white supremacy and the historical and current legacy of racism.

As climate chaos continues to accelerate, we’ll see more false solutions put forward by big corporations that are trying to maintain their power and profit: market solutions like alt-meat, which are themselves doing nothing to end the greenhouse gas pollution caused by CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) and that maintain a corporate stranglehold over the industry, and policies like carbon offsets that allow corporations to continue business as usual.

People are overwhelmed and tired, and when that happens, it’s easy for them to get complacent. COVID-19 and the 2020 uprising brought some of the ways that our food system exploits working people and people of color into sharp focus. In 2022, more than ever, we’ll need sustained effort to make real changes in the fight for safe and dignified working conditions and for decentralized food systems that enable Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color to thrive.

There’s also a big and important election in 2022, and many parts of the country will see a resurgence of blatant white supremacy and corporate control. If you were paying attention in 2021, you know that Stephen Miller and his cronies have been using the courts—which they’ve stacked over the last few decades—to stop BIPOC farmers from receiving the debt relief they were promised by all levels of the current federal government. They’ll be using this election cycle to further erode any hope of a liberated future, and we’ll need to go all out to ensure that policymakers who are truly accountable to people can take office.

What solutions, policies, or practices have you seen implemented or proposed that could make a positive difference?

Investment in these grassroots power-building efforts will make the difference—making sure that frontline folks have the resources to lead the solutions needed for their own communities. When people are able to create these solutions, it offers pathways for policy solutions like a few that we’ve seen drafted this last year. The Justice for Black Farmers Act and the Protecting America’s Meatworkers Act are just two examples of new legislation that lay a framework for the kinds of changes we seek. Getting frontline folks into positions where they can hold power, write policies, and ensure that institutions are working for them—whether that’s the USDA’s new equity commission or local, city-level commissions, or into conversations with key staff at congressional offices—can make a huge difference.

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