My suburban street is a picture of American diversity. Nine ethnicities from around the world inhabit this residential area: blacks, whites, Hispanics, Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos, Koreans, and Vietnamese. Despite living side by side for 25 years, we barely interact with each other at all. Although in many ways America is a melting pot, I believe the analogy of the salad bowl tends to be more accurate for describing race relations here. In the salad bowl, the different components of the salad are next to each other, but they remain separate pieces.
At the heart of the reason why our multicultural society remains segmented is our lack of familiarity with each other. For example, the different ethnic groups in my neighborhood share very little in common as far as cuisine or native language. Naturally, they are unfamiliar with each other's cultures. Each family tends to associate with others from their same ethnic group. The lack of familiarity among different groups leads to separateness, which can lead to stereotyping. In comparison, communities where members are more familiar with each other tend to have more of the mingling and interaction that makes neighborhoods vibrant and wonderful.
To my own amazement, I have observed how the growth of the local food movement is helping to change race relations for the better. As awareness about the dangerous chemical methods used to farm conventionally grown food spreads, demand for local organic food is spreading across color lines. The simple act of eating differently is radically changing race relations as diverse communities interact in newly forming local food economies. Here are four ways that local food is affecting race in America:
1. Urban gardening is increasing sharing and trade among racial groups. As more people become local producers through activities like planting gardens, beekeeping, or bread baking, the result is a growing bounty of diverse local food. The produce can be given away, traded for something else, or become a part of a new food business -- in each case, local economic transactions are being generated that weren't happening before.
New and deep conversations focused on lifestyle and food are happening among racial groups that otherwise silently waited in line next to each other at the supermarket. In my own community, we've formed a relationship with some of our Hispanic neighbors through trading sapote -- a sweet custard fruit that is traditionally grown in Latin America. Our community fruit trade is part of a growing trend of food cultivation and exchange that is taking place across America.
2. A return to organic farming methods is fostering respect for traditional cultures. The rejection of chemical farming methods has resulted in a revival of traditional techniques, which are still widely used in other countries and are often still practiced by minority ethnic groups in America. As M.K. Anderson points out in his book, Tending the Wild, modern farmers and restorationists are finding that traditional Native American agricultural methods are proving to be the most effective and efficient ways to manage crops.
The revival of organic agriculture is stimulating a wholesome respect for the traditional cultural knowledge of minority groups and Europeans alike. Respect for other cultures is an important step towards interaction and cooperation.
3. Community gardens are facilitating cooperation towards common goals. Community gardens are popping up in every city. These are centrally-located plots of land where communities come together to produce food. They are often structured so that individuals are given small garden plots, or sometimes run collectively. In either case, these gardens serve as meeting places for people from all walks of life -- young, old, black, brown, or white -- to share knowledge, swap seeds, work together, and create something beautiful.
In an article in the Journal of Agriculture and Human Values, scholars Tanaka and Krasny conducted a study of 20 Latino community gardens in New York City. They found the gardens to be unique "participatory landscapes" where neighbors from the entire spectrum of Latin America, including Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Mexicans, and Salvadorians, gather and work cooperatively. The proliferation of these community gardens across the country is strengthening inter-ethnic ties.
4. The local food movement is putting a renewed focus on our common humanity. The global demand for clean food comes from a firm belief that chemically-treated food is not good for humans or the planet. The culture of this growing movement emphasizes that access to nutritious organic food is something that all human beings have the right to enjoy. This movement is cultivating better racial relations because it calls attention to our interconnectedness as humans living together on one planet.
In a country like the United States, with its history of slavery and waves of immigration, race remains one of the primary issues that shape our society. Our racial differences often divide us. At the same time, our unprecedented diversity is part of what makes America innovative and dynamic. As a nation of immigrants, it is part of our nature to be passionate and ambitious. And maybe this is why we plunge so deeply into things that we believe in, like the local food movement.
The seeds of better race relations are already being planted across the country in home gardens, community farms, and farmer's markets. As we build local food systems together, the different parts of the American Salad Bowl are going to mingle and connect more than they ever have before. I look forward to tasting the bold new creations that will emerge.
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