‘Food Relationships’ and Climate: A Closer Look

“Regardless of if you realize it or not,” Elisa Soto-Danseco began, as she paid for a fresh loaf of sourdough at the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket, “you have a relationship to your food.”  

Amidst fruit sellers, bread bakers, and sausage stands is a surprising number of people. The freezing temperatures of mid-February didn’t seem to deter the crowd, or Elisa, who has a Master of Science in Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management from The New School. After a lengthy discussion on what environmental justice is, I followed Elisa to buy some vegetables, drop off compost with GrowNYC’s compost collection program, and explore what this “food relationship” means. 

“For literally thousands of years, we’ve been basing our societies around agriculture and food, and so much of culture is based on dining practices, customs, dinner tables — it's part of the ritual that makes us human,” Elisa told me as we walked away from the market to sit in Prospect Park. She urged that fostering a relationship between us and our food is more important than ever because  “If we don’t take control and do something that is ultimately very political — which is to choose to consume food in a specific way — if you don’t do it […] someone else will. Someone else has a financial interest to manipulate how you interact with food so that they make more money.” 

In New York City, in one of the worst food deserts in the US, Central Brooklyn residents’ access to affordable, healthy food options, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, is entirely restricted or nonexistent. Mayor Adams has called it a ‘food apartheid’ — highlighting the way in which food access falls along race and class lines, and disproportionately affects communities of color. Though greenmarkets like the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket help bring better grocery options once per week, Elisa finds that it’s only slightly better than relying solely on bodegas.

The U.S. government’s food subsidies have driven down the prices of fast food items, making fresh produce comparatively more expensive and less accessible. Inaccessibility to food can mean a lack of transportation options, difficulty affording fresh options, or an inability to prepare fresh food. The University of Southern California’s Bedrosian Center on Governance and the Public Enterprise wrote, “For the majority, fast food consumption isn’t a triumph of personal freedom, but a reflection of extremely limited options fostered by government action.” 

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These ideas fall into the definition of food justice. Food justice, tangential and sometimes intersecting with environmental justice, is defined by Boston University as ensuring “universal access to nutritious, affordable, and culturally-appropriate food for all, while advocating for the well-being and safety of those involved in the food production process.” 

That’s why, to Elisa, “One of the best things you can do is just practice growing your own food. Practice strengthening the relationship you have. Remember that food is ultimately about relationships.” Those relationships include a relationship to the Earth, the ground, the farmers, the harvesters, the distributors, the vendors, the chefs, and even you, who ultimately eats the food at the end of this long line. 

Organizations like East New York Farms! (ENYF!) are addressing all parts of this relationship web. ENYF! Teaches community members to not only grow food, but to cook it and compost it as well, allowing members to sell their own produce, and encouraging and mentoring the community in starting their own gardens and taking control of their own food-chain production. In the end, much of the ENYF! bounty is sold back to the community at a price that is accessible to families that have a lower income.

Compost is also part of this relationship. BK ROT, a local composter, explained that composting within a community makes a closed-loop cycle of waste, “From hauling and processing local food scraps, to creating high-grade compost that is returned to the local community it came from, to then grow more food and nourish local soil,” every piece remains in the community. Or, in simpler terms, according to BK ROT, the closed-loop cycle makes the relationship between us and our food (and our food waste) visible, tangible, and accessible.

Elsewhere in Brooklyn, community gardening, windowsill planting, and rooftop farms make food production possible. Fostering this relationship puts you back in touch with the source of your nourishment — you’re not just paying for a finished product. 

To unalienate ourselves from food, might also mean we eat more locally and try more fresh foods that are in season

However, these relationships don’t end or begin with you as the consumer — part of food justice, as defined earlier, means safe growing conditions as well. Subsidized farms, especially in the midwest, are prey to government debt, unsafe working conditions, polluted water, and are pushed away from organic practices. These subsidies are the same subsidies that make fast food so cheap. Not to mention the known exploitation of farm workers, specifically teenagers, which keeps food prices low. Many independent family farmers, as reported by WhoWhatWhy, see subsidized agriculture and alienation from local markets “as the first target in their line of attack against problems ranging from nitrogen pollution and greenhouse gas emissions to the siphoning of profits from rural communities.” 

For Elisa, the cycles of food and our relationships to that cycle was a revolutionary thought: “I feel like before, my idea of environmentalism was still one in which I was kind of alienated from the physical planet and not realizing the long change of complicated and really deep relationships that are required for me to just eat. And now that I’m more aware of it, it really paints everything with more meaning.”

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Michaela Keil
Michaela Keil
Michaela Keil is the Editor of Bluedot Living Brooklyn, and the Managing Editor, Special Projects, for the Brooklyn Eagle. When she's not writing, you can either find her outside — in the rain, shine, snow, or cold — or inside baking bread. Find her on twitter @mkeil16.
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  1. Hi, Elisa: Thanks so much for your concern & care for the people, our food & our planet. Part of our family still lives in Brooklyn & do all the things you suggest; growing their own food, composting. My husband & I live in NC where there is a local organic community garden, we compost & offer food to those who don’t have access to healthy choices. It’s unfortunate & sad that there are too many corporations with their hands on the profits instead of their hands in the soil! Again, thanks so much for bringing awareness to the population. PS I have an MS in Health & Nutrition from Brooklyn College. Sincerely, Ann Sorocki


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