I had the opportunity to attend an interview with Tanya Fields, named the Eco-Warrior of the Food System, that dove into her history and how she came to be an activist in the urban farm and food sovereignty movements. The interview was held at the University of Kansas by the campus’ Center for Sustainability as part of its Food Hunger Awareness Month. For those unfamiliar with her groundbreaking projects (literally, she’s breaking ground to start food gardens in historically poor New York City neighborhoods), Fields’ current focus is the BLK ProjeK at Libertad Urban Farm, which empowers women of color by creating economic development opportunities through urban farming and local, fresh food delivery.
Fields is a working mother from the Bronx who feels she was led into her current activism through a series of “aha!” moments. One such moment was when she was on a trip to a grocery store (a trek she had to take outside of her neighborhood because no organic-food grocery stores are located nearby) with two young children in tow. Fields says she realized that the effort she had to go through to get healthy food for her family just wasn’t fair, and she wanted to help create a fair food system not only for her own family but also for her neighbors and friends.
Fields’ refreshing viewpoints challenge many preconceived notions held by food-system advocates. For example, she explained that those working in food-system change have to meet people where they are. Fields gave an example of when she has done community cooking classes in neighborhoods with different ethnic backgrounds, she isn’t able to just go in and show them how to make an arugula, blue cheese and toasted walnut salad. She needed to start with foods that were relevant to their culture and their experience, or the interest in making changes wouldn’t spark.
Fields also explained the physiological and psychological difficulties people face when trying to make dietary changes, which is often left out of the healthy, local foods discussion. “Salt and sugar activate the same places in your brain as cocaine,” she said. “People are truly addicted to salty, sugary foods. Changing that isn’t instantaneous.” Using her own life as an example, Fields delved in to the emotional relationship we all have with food, and stressed once again the importance of respecting individuals’ intimate and cultural connections with their food when we work toward creating positive change in our food supply.
The focus of Fields’ work has been on creating food sovereignty in the neighborhoods she lives and works in. “People should have the power to be a part of the decision-making process about what foods they have to offer their families,” Fields said. By teaching those in the BLK ProjeK to garden, prepare and deliver food in the same neighborhoods where they live — communities that are typically underserved and likely defined as “food deserts” — Fields is impacting a strong, positive change in the food system as well as in the lives of those her organization touches.
Tanya Fields in front of the biofuel bus the BLK ProjeK uses to deliver produce. Photo by BLK ProjeK.
Jennifer Kongs is the Managing Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. When she’s not working at the magazine, she’s likely working in her garden, on the local running trails or in her kitchen instead. You can find Jennifer on Twitter or Google+.