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How Food Activism Is, And Always Has Been, About Radical Love

By Denne Michele Norris, she/they

There’s a common saying that floats among liberal-minded people. It speaks to the idea that when we forget our history, we are bound to repeat it. I’m reminded of Toni Morrison, one of my greatest heroes, and how she gave me the language, in an interview about her novel Love, that helped me understand how time is more than just a linear concept, it functions circuitously as well. We are never just moving forward. What’s in the past isn’t limited to the past. In fact its very existence in the rearview mirror of life proves the possibility of its place in our path forward. Experiences, memories, trauma, and oppression both individual and collective leave their mark, holding reverberations, vibrating through time. 

For this assignment, I’m asked to consider food apartheid in America. It’s a new term for me — I’m more familiar with the concept of the food desert, which refers to neighborhoods where there is very low, if any, access to healthy food options, particularly in grocery stores. Fruits and vegetables cost a pretty penny, if they’re even to be found at all. Transportation is another issue, if you can’t get to the grocery stores that have the unaffordable healthy food, what are you left with? The answer is declining health outcomes for huge numbers in the Black community. 

But there’s an unsaid factor in the conversation around the term “food desert”: that a huge part of the problem is due to systemic racism. The problem isn’t a general scarcity of food, as the term suggests. There’s actually an abundance of food—if not healthy options in grocery stores, than less healthy options in corner stores and bodegas. Every sugary drink you can think of, candy, and snacks! It’s produce that’s the rarity, and there’s no equitable reason for that to be the case. 

As I began to research food apartheid, it took its place in a long line of new terms I continue to learn that reframe the root of so many issues. Simply put, food and race are undoubtedly linked. Grocery store availability is associated with income and race. Fast-food chains aggressively occupy space in neighborhoods with high concentrations of Black folks.

Food apartheid may be a newer term, but this is not a new issue. In learning about Black contemporary food activists, I also learned about how deeply today’s work is rated in the work that came before it. Most food activists are well-educated on the hunger-related work of the Black Panthers—the Free Breakfast for Children program that ran from 1969 into the early ‘70s. It was revolutionary, in the same way that so much of their work was revolutionary, because it was members of the community coming together to solve a problem that was hurting their community. If children could have access to a hearty breakfast, they could focus in school. At a time when the Panthers were largely vilified by American society, the story that was rarely told was the story of their community work, the ways in which the Panthers uplifted their own, acting out of self-determination.. And that included feeding hungry children for free.

This activism was short-lived, however, as the federal government’s hatred of the Black Panthers incurred a fervent conspiracy to destroy them. That effort was largely successful, and one of many recurring consequences is hunger in Black communities nationwide. 

I spoke with LaRayia Gaston, an LA-based food activist currently visiting the Dominican Republic (DR). Gaston is the founder of Lunch on Me (LOM) and LaRayia’s Bodega, located in Los Angeles, California. LaRayia’s Bodega is a shop where you can purchase merchandise and low-cost meals, the proceeds of which go to support Lunch On Me. She sees her work as a continuation of the Black Panthers’ People’s Free Food Program, a community-based initiative that gave free food directly to Black kids. Though Lunch On Me focuses on ending starvation among LA’s homeless community by bringing nutritious and organic meals to folks in need, the direct redistribution of food that would otherwise go to waste, as well as the localized aspect of her activism, is very much in tune with the spirit of the Black Panthers. 

“I thought if they could give free food to kids, so can I. It made sense. It’s a solvable problem: food waste, food redistribution, and having so many resources in America that we just don’t use properly,” says Gaston. 

Much like her work throughout the United States, Gaston was intentional about expanding her work to the DR. She arrived expecting to stay a week, and at this point she’s been there for over a month. Gaston has spent her time there learning about hunger and starvation within the DR, its root causes, the challenges to solving it, and as always, feeding people—often traveling hours each way to bring fruits and vegetables to folks in poor, rural communities, who otherwise wouldn’t have access to it. Although there are larger systemic reasons why the communities in the DR are without food, she sees the solution as something simple: get healthy food—that would otherwise go to waste—into people’s hands. 

“We traveled two hours each way to bring people fruits and vegetables. You see so much abundance and waste at a party or an event, and then you come to a rural community where children don’t have any food, it becomes really interesting how resources are distributed. So we address that distribution,” says Gaston.

It’s the same kind of direct activism that the Black Panthers were doing, and it’s a core principle of the future Gaston wants to construct: one that breaks free of the past and permanently disrupts the cycle of hunger. Her vision is a unified global collaboration of human beings choosing to make sure that everyone’s needs are met. The language around food apartheid makes room for the lack of a substantial reason as to why any person doesn’t have the nutrition they need. There isn’t a global food shortage; there’s simply too much abundance concentrated in specific communities, and kept out of others. And in her experience, it takes a direct, hands-on approach to effectively redistribute to communities in need. 

Eschewing the system, her business approach is unlike that of most non-profits. She’s never written a grant for Lunch On Me, preferring instead to rely upon widespread micro, corporate, and brand donations. Working outside the typical non-profit structure allows Gaston to remain focused on the task at hand: ending hunger, and getting healthy, plant-based food in hands that need it.. 

“When things get so corporate that instead of feeding someone,” Gaston explains, “I have to write a grant to explain why I need to give someone food, that’s when it becomes a problem. There’s more paperwork than there is action. There’s all these rules to helping each other. Like, if you don’t just give someone a sandwich... show up!”

Much like when the Panthers expanded the Free Breakfast Program to other cities, Gaston’s vision, and the larger food justice movement, goes far beyond Los Angeles. The same systemic oppressions that shaped food apartheid in America are prevalent elsewhere, and in many places, more visible. Only this time, there isn’t a government actively trying to dismantle the movement getting in her way.      

“This is a solvable problem. Our whole focus is to expand Lunch On Me. Being able to give everyone access to fresh food, to exposure, to education, to experiences — our whole brand is based on love. Our brand is love. That’s it.” 

Written by Denne Michele Norris for Youth To The People.

For More on LaRayia Gaston, watch her in Beautiful People.