BT: I don't necessarily think we need more hip farmers, but we do need more young people going into farming. I think the last time I read the statistic the average age of farmers was 55? So we do need more young farmers. And we need more immigrant farmers, more woman farmers, more farmers of colors, and we need more support so people can actually see it as a viable career option.
MJ: What one fact about food injustice do you think would most shock Americans?
BT: The thing that I think about most often is the loss of biodiversity. We talk about these food issues so often with concern to historically excluded communities, but I'm concerned with everyone having access to healthy foods. Consumers across the board are being robbed of biodiversity. I think it's an injustice that most consumers going to the supermarket have so few options for fruit and vegetables to feed their families. There might be the appearance of abundance, but it's an illusion.
MJ: What's the Southern Organic Kitchen Project?
BT: I'm currently a [Kellogg Foundation] food and society policy fellow and the project that I developed as a part of the fellowship in the first year was what I called the Southern Organic Kitchen Project. Nine out of the ten states with the highest rates of obesity are in the Southern region of the United States. Given that I'm from the South, I wanted to do something to address that. I have been focusing more energy and resources on addressing those issues.
MJ: You talk about the South but you live in San Francisco. What's unique or interesting about the Bay Area that keeps you here?
BT: Well, within an hour I can be at the ocean, the forest, the mountains...But really, I fell in love with the city the first time I came out here in 2003. In addition to the natural beauty, this is ground zero for the food justice movement. I trace my entrée into this work back to the Black Panthers and the work they were doing in Oakland in late 1960s at the intersection of poverty, malnutrition, food insecurity, and institutional racism, with their free breakfast program and their grocery giveaway and their projects in which they fed young people three times a day in schools in Oakland. I'm here because of the energy, the ideas, and the fact that this is a great place for me to land. When I'm traveling and working nationally, I love coming back here.
MJ: How can faith-based organizations or places of worship tie faith and food together?
BT: In terms of addressing some of the most impacted communities and historically excluded communities—often of color, often low income—there is this adage in specifically African American communities that on every corner in low income neighborhoods you'll find a liquor store. I would add to that that across the street you'll find a church. Because we're becoming such an urban nation, we're going to need to be producing so much more food in cities. These institutions have members, obviously. They have the resources to start projects like urban farms and gardens, teaching tools, and the ability to educate their members so that they can then go home and start their own urban gardens. I just really think that faith-based institutions can take the lead in creating community-based food systems, and I'd really like to see that happen.
MJ: The Fair Food Foundation was forced to close because of Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme—how will this affect your work?
BT: It's one thing to hear about these things in the media as abstract, far-off things, but I got a call one morning from Oran Hesterman, who was the president of the Fair Food Foundation, saying that the Fair Food Foundation was shutting down effectively as of that day, because they'd been caught up in the Madoff scandal. It affected me because the fellowship that I had was actually funded in part by the Fair Food Foundation. That meant that my fellowship was pretty much null and void. Thankfully the Kellogg Foundation picked up the funding for the second year of the fellowship.
Oran Hesterman is a brilliant philanthropist. He had so many progressive ideas about shifting the way that money is given out. He wanted to focus on the creation of healthy, community-based food systems in historically excluded communities and now an advocate, an ally, and obviously lots of capital won't be able to go into these communities now.
MJ: Are there other groups ready to step in and provide funding for food activism?
BT: I think more and more foundations are putting resources into food activism. But I think that given the state of the economy, foundations won't be giving as much in general. For me it's about working with these existing institutions in communities that people already go to, that people trust, that they know, and determining how best they can play a role in the creation of local food systems and address the ills that are right around them in the community.
Video produced by Alexandra Bezdikian.