Setting the Table with Food Justice

Christine Zenel and Jessica Warren

When Nancy Neiman Auerbach was a child, she would sit at the kitchen table with her grandmother, sorting pinto beans and listening to stories of how her relatives, immigrants from Mexico, toiled while picking cotton under a blazing summer sun.

My grandmother instilled in me not only a passion for cooking, but also a deep sense of social justice,” says Auerbach, Scripps professor of international political economy.

Those values have fueled her academic research and provided impetus for the creation of her course, The Political Economy of Food.

With a focus on the environmental justice movement and how access to healthy food is largely based on race and class, Auerbach’s Political Economy of Food students learn to analyze the social, economic, and political power of food and how corporations and governments influence our global food systems. The course has a lab component/internship requirement; students volunteer with food justice programs to experience firsthand the intersections of race, class, and food.

One such internship was established in 2010, when Auerbach began a “food justice” program at Crossroads, Inc., in Claremont for women who have been incarcerated. The program gives students an opportunity to foster relationships with diverse individuals and step outside of their comfort zones. Students prepare and share weekly dinners with the women. They also organize workshops to discuss such topics as community gardening and industrial meat production.

“Students explore justice within the food system and analyze whether the benefits and risks of how food is grown, distributed, and eaten are shared fairly,” Auerbach says. “Food is a good entry point to analyze social justice issues, such as immigration reform and the exploitative conditions migrant farm workers face. Students also examine the lack of fresh, affordable produce in some low-income communities.”

Associated with Crossroads is Fallen Fruit From Rising Women, a social enterprise that uses local, donated backyard fruit. Students produce and sell jams, lemonade, and kombucha tea made from the harvest. The products are sold locally, and the College’s Motley Coffeehouse and Malott Commons dining support the venture by purchasing from the organization regularly. “We’re using fruit that otherwise would go to waste,” Auerbach says.

A third internship option is Plant Justice, a food justice program Auerbach and her students established at San Antonio High School, an alternative school in Claremont. Scripps students work with high school students tending a 4,000-square-foot raised-bed garden, fruit orchard, and native plant garden. In addition, students create compost on-site, using food scraps from the Malott Commons dining hall.

“Students are learning about social justice both in theory and in practice,” Auerbach says.

One former student is putting those skills to good use. Berkeley resident and sociology major Gavin Odabashian ’13 was so motivated by Auerbach’s class, she now works for the San Francisco-based start-up Good Eggs, an online farmer’s market. Good Eggs consumers buy locally grown food staples and baked goods, which are delivered to their home or office.

“Nancy’s classes led me to where I am now — working within a local food network,” says Odabashian. “Nancy’s weaving of theory and practice taught me the social, political, ethical, physical, and environmental importance of supporting local, sustainable, small-scale production — and how it can lead to real changes in people’s lives.

“My Crossroads internship was my most prized learning experience at Scripps,” she adds. “My relationships with the women will stay with me for the rest of my life. They showed me how women can survive — and even thrive — within oppressive, violent, unjust contexts. Those experiences were formative to my Scripps education and life.”

The College supports Auerbach and her students, and has made sustainability and food justice issues a priority on campus. The President’s Advisory Council on Sustainability, co-chaired by Lola Trafecanty, director of grounds, and Claire Davies Bridge ’82, senior associate director in parent and alumnae relations, promotes sustainability initiatives, and has brought several proposals to fruition.

One such enterprise is the olive oil project, which links back to 2008 when students in Auerbach’s Core 2 course designed a map, with help from the grounds department, identifying edible plants found throughout The Claremont Colleges. There was a focus on the 70 olive trees near the Bette Cree Edwards Humanities Building. The students envisioned a project in which members from the Scripps community would harvest the olives to be pressed into olive oil.

Five years later, through the leadership of the sustainability committee, of which Auerbach is a member, the campus came together for its inaugural olive harvest. Proceeds from sales of the award-winning olive oil fund the sustainable entrepreneurship coordinator fellow, a staff position for a recent graduate.

According to Tom Adkins, general manager of dining services at Malott Commons, he spends about 20 percent of the Commons’ budget on locally sourced vegetables, fruit, milk, and beverages to minimize the College’s carbon footprint. Adkins purchases products from Fallen Fruit From Rising Women, such as their popular lemonade blends, now available at weekly Tea.

Adkins also works with the grounds crew to collect approximately 1,000 pounds of vegetable and fruit peelings discarded weekly from the dining hall. Grounds staff mix the peels with soil and transport the blend to San Antonio High School for its student gardens/compost project.

Many of the College’s sustainability efforts in practice today can be traced to Auerbach’s courses and her students’ hard work and determination to bring these issues to light campuswide and throughout the community.

“Nancy has taught all of us the importance of supporting a more humane food production environment from farm-to-table,” says Trafecanty.

Auerbach continues to push boundaries, as she investigates issues involving food politics, as memories of her grandmother’s stories keep her striving for social justice.


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