By Charlie Spring
I thought I was travelling to America to study foodbanking and innovative ways to counter household food insecurity. Not prisons. But sometimes it takes serendipity and sideways glances to perceive the hidden connections and constellations of power and history that life’s mundanities and bright lights can blind us to.
In finding answers and explanations, it’s often necessary to step into the unknown, or at least the unpredicted. And to put the periphery at the centre: the prison, the sick guy on the street, the foodbank queue; the shadowy underbelly of capitalism’s gloss and growth imperatives.
What follows is a tacking together of a few stories I heard in America that can reveal some of the exclusions required for capitalism to make sense. In this story are prisons, plantations and chains: the metaphorical and very real borderlands and barriers determining people’s capacity to thrive. I met brave people trying to challenge these divisions and smooth the uneven ground upon which we all make our way.
America conjures up so many stereotypes of busting girths and junk food at every corner that it’s hard to think of as a ‘hungry’ place. In 1967, emaciated children were found in Mississippi by a select committee on nutrition, resulting in a CBS news special ‘Hunger in America’ and decades of both policy-making to increase peoples access to food through federal nutrition programs and the eventual explosion of foodbanking as those programmes were eroded under Reaganite policy.
Now, through the machinery of subsidies and mass production, the cheapest foods are often those that provide calories but little nutrition, making poverty collide with obesity. Those expanded waistlines are now far from an indicator of wealth, as they once were. One in eight Americans is considered food insecure in the annual census measurement (such measurement of hunger is being campaigned for here in the UK). One foodbank I visited feeds one in five local residents; residents who lack the financial or physical resources to consistently access a nutritious diet.
It didn’t take long to sense the ways race, gender, hunger and poverty map onto one another in America. But it took a visit to a prison to really get a sense of the continuities between race, slavery, contemporary hunger and capitalist food systems.
I’ve been writing to a former death row inmate of Louisiana State Penitentiary for more than twenty years and this would be my first visit. Unexpectedly, at a geography conference in San Francisco, my first stop, I heard Katie Gillespie describe her first visit to the prison, a former plantation where the largely black male prisoners toil in the fields (under largely white officers on horseback) for 2-20 cents an hour growing crops and raising horses that are later sold into the police and prison system.
The prison is nicknamed Angola after the birthplace of the first slaves on that piece of land. Slavery was never abolished for felons. Katie’s history was chilling. But nothing prepares you for the reality of a visit.
My penfriend, now a lifer, had described in his letters growing veggies at the prison, which reminded him of his childhood, and I imagined him tinkering in some kind of therapeutic garden like a scene from Sister Act. Indeed it’s hard to convey the scale of the place in words. Just to get to the prison there’s a 20-mile track from the nearest trunk road. The 3-hour trip from New Orleans is too costly for many families wanting to visit their loved ones.
At the entrance building you give up your jewellery/camera/phone, get sniffed by a dog in a cramped booth and get your outfit checked (must not be too short/holey/tight/similar to prisoner/guard), and it then takes a rickety bus to cross the miles between prison ‘camps’. Between those miles are fields. Those ‘therapeutic veggie gardens’ I imagined are in fact horizon-busting rows of claggy, flood-dotted plantation.
As Anna Tsing describes in her book The Mushroom at the End of the World, the plantation ‘gives us the subspecies race’: the domestication and purification of crop varieties for the purpose of producitivty, value maximisation, dominion. Slaves worked these fields and work that some may consider slavery continues in the prison system.
Another chilling read further framed my prison visit: Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow explores the racisms of mass incarceration in America. Slavery’s official abolition was followed by Jim Crow segregation laws, but the civil rights’ movement’s achievements were met with anxieties, in part by poorer white communities, that were allayed in part by Reagan’s War on Drugs.
Policies to drive up drug arrests put disproportionate numbers of black and Latino men in prison, disproportionate both in terms of their representation in the population as a whole and in terms of the demographics of actual drug use (similarly skewed racial imbalances apply to the UK prison population). Something of a seamless historical trajectory weaves together the segregations of slavery, Jim Crow and drug-related incarceration.
Food and land, and who controls it, underline this history at every turn: 1968’s ‘Hunger in America’ interviews former slaves now prevented from farming corn on land reappropriated by the government and unable to afford the government-subsidised food stamps available at the time. Today’s food justice movement is based on an explicit critique of the connections between land and race, recognising that organic entrepreneurs growing on land that is nevertheless still owned by the few is not a fair system whatever the label on the strawberries.
For those keen to learn more about worker conditions in the American food system, Seth Holmes’ book Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies follows the suffering of Mexican migrant workers who grow the strawberries gleaming in even ‘ethical’ supermarkets like Whole Foods. For examples of those attempting to counter these entrenched disparities, check out the Detroit Food Justice Task Force.
When men like my friend in Angola are imprisoned, they are ‘disappeared’ from their communities. Mariana Chilton coordinates Witnesses to Hunger, a Philadephia programme that brings families that experience hunger into dialogue with policy makers, often in the form of testimonies to Congress.
Chilton described a photo diary project in which one mother, Shearine, took a picture of a chain, which she said represented the chains of welfare: having to do endless workfare programmes that train you for a job that doesn’t exist, only to have to get a job at a fast food restaurant and risk losing your healthcare and tax credits…so you go back on welfare: “welfare gives you just enough to hang yourself”, she says. And the ‘baby daddies’ are often in prison, unable to support their families. There must be better ways to invest in communities…
I did meet some amazing people advocating for and enacting some better ways to build community through food. DC Central Kitchen train people excluded from the job market (eg for having a criminal record or past substance abuse issues) to become chefs and are often then employed by the program to cook healthy meals for schools, shelters and meal programs, some of which are made from wasted food; they tick a lot of good boxes.
Community ‘Commie Kitsch’ Kitchen Collective in New Orleans, who collect surplus produce from wholesalers to cook it into meals shared with mostly homeless folks in a city centre park (they also take meals back to the workers who donate produce, many of whom work long hours for low pay in giant refrigerators). Their hot sauce, blitzed with avocado and salt with freshly roasted green chillies is a key taste-memory of my trip.
And Put Food in the Budget, an alliance of foodbank users and community activists who organise stunts to raise awareness of low pay, extreme wealth and the inadequacies of foodbanks as a solution to hunger around Ontario, Canada (they work with Freedom 90, a union formed by foodbank volunteers frustrated that they’ve been doling out ‘emergency’ food since the 1970s – and want to stop having to before they’re 90!).
With Trump in the White House, defeatism is not an option – the conditions that lead people to visit foodbanks may well worsen, but one effect of Trump/Brexit discussions is to prompt thinking about the deep-rooted history and cross-border nature of oppression, inequality and frayed solidarity across class and racial lines.
I see America as a warning lesson for the possible consequences of privatizing healthcare and prisons and allowing corporate-backed charities to replace state entitlements in access to food. But it is also full of examples of resistance, many of which can cross borders too. Food Not Bombs is the kind of global network shedding light on the contradictions of excess and scarcity under late capitalism (and feeding people) that can enable the cross-border solidarity required for problems that we can never resolve at a solely national level.