What Is Really Making Us Sick?

Written by Navina Khanna

November 3, 2014

The following is the text of the speech given by Movement Strategy Center Innovation Fellow Navina Khanna, recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s 2014 Community Leadership Award, at the foundation’s conference, “Health & Food: Is Better Food the Prescription for a Healthier America?” held in October in New York City.

When we talk about disease and disparity related to food, we often talk about obesity and diabetes. Those things are real and are prevalent in many communities. I see them in my own family and I’ve walked the streets of my hometown of Oakland, talking to hundreds of residents about how these illnesses affect them and their families.

Sometimes when we talk about disease and disparity related to food we talk about food chain workers – the 20 million people who work from field to table – and the repetitive motion injuries, pesticide poisonings, and other stressors that they face. These things are real too. I’ve worked with, organized with, marched with and fasted beside farmworkers, and I’ve talked to workers in processing plants and food retail about the long term effects of these jobs, including the low wages and working conditions.

Occasionally, when we talk about disease and disparity related to food, we talk about cancers, reproductive issues, skyrocketing asthma rates and contaminated drinking water. These things are real too. I see them in rural communities in California’s Central Valley and in my parents’ homeland of Punjab, where the 1960’s Green Revolution took hold.

The question posed to us here is, “What’s really making us sick?”

Before we talk about what’s really making us sick, I think it’s important for us to talk about what it means to be healthy:

Imagine vacant lots becoming vibrant gardens.

Imagine family farms and food traditions thriving.

Imagine a social culture that reflects our agriculture, where diversity is strength, where young and old work together, where both interdependence and self-reliance are valued.

What would it mean for us to live in a society where we were actually able to care for ourselves, each other, and the land? For us to be truly nourished by community, not fed by competition? For everyone to have the right and the means to thrive materially and culturally, free from exploitation of themselves or any other living beings?

What we often don’t talk about when we’re talking about disease and disparity is the system that’s designed this outcome: a system that values profit and power more than people or the planet, a system of patriarchy, exclusion, and exploitation of resources.

The system is sick, so we are sick.

It’s a system that devalues the lives of Black men, women, and children – to the point that our tax-subsidized police force is killing them.

It’s a system that devalues the lives of Mexican men, women, and children to the point that we’d rather invest billions of taxpayer dollars in militarizing a border than keeping families together.

It’s a system that devalues children so much that our school food directors are fighting for pennies to keep our babies’ mouths full.

These are signs of a sick society and it’s no accident. Profit and power are the most sacred things in this system that feeds our brokenness, our broken relationships – to our sense of self, to the land, to our cultures, to our communities, to each other.

The US food system is built on exploitation. It was founded on “free land,” on the forced migration of people from Africa. It now thrives on economically driven cross-border migration. It exploits human and natural resources: we are literally exploiting ourselves to extinction.

As the system becomes more consolidated, and as we tie food speculation to our financial systems and political systems, we’re pushing farmers off the land, forcing urban and cross-border migration. We’re depleting soil, polluting air, and creating a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. We’re eating products that clog our arteries and kill our kids.

All of us are hurt by this broken system. But some are hurt more than others.

Fifty million people in the US are food insecure, meaning that they don’t have the means to procure their next meal. So we absolutely must talk about access to food and to land when we talk about disease and disparity.

And we absolutely must talk about how much money people have. We must talk about wages when we talk about disease and disparity – including the wages and working conditions of the people who work in our food system, a system that boasts five of the eight worst paying jobs in the US.

But we can’t just talk about reforms in an economy that was never designed for life to thrive. We have to rethink our economy.   We need a revolution.

Revolution (noun): “a dramatic and wide-reaching change in the way something works or is organized or in people’s ideas about it.” — New Oxford American Dictionary

So here’s an idea.

What if –

  • Everybody had the right and the means to produce or procure their own food? Had the right and the means to prepare, and to share and to eat it?
  • What if everyone had the right and the means to do this in a way that didn’t hurt them, or any other people, or exploit other living beings along the way?

Life is sacred. What if we treated it that way?

Whoever controls our land, our water, our air, our seeds, and our food, controls our lives. But what if we loved ourselves enough to reclaim ownership of our lives and of our relationships?

We can approach food systems change, disease and disparity in many different ways. Let’s compare two examples:

  • The Berkeley Soda Tax: People are already being taxed twice – for the production of the product and for the public health impacts. The proposed Berkeley Soda Tax doesn’t change the profit-driven, exploitative model. It doesn’t lead to life affirming, real solutions.
  • Next door to Berkeley in Richmond there is Urban Tilth run by a third generation Richmond resident who hires other Black and Brown residents who live within three blocks of their program sites and pays a living wage for their work. They are reclaiming their labor, reclaiming their cultures, reclaiming vacant land. And even when their members can’t pay rent or medical bills, they know that they can still feed themselves and feed each other. They know their community, their land, their governance.

Not all of us are from a community like Richmond but all of us have a role to play in seeing, supporting, and sustaining real solutions that are created by real communities — solutions that affirm life and help us all reclaim control of our own lives.

Feature photo: Navina Khanna speaks at the James Beard Foundation Award Ceremony. (Photo: Ken Goodman)

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