Spoken Word Project: Jay McMillin – Transcript

The Spoken Word Project is a partnership of WhyHunger, GFJI and local food justice advocates to explore the impact of power, privilege and racism in the food system. Listen to stories and inspirations directly from grassroots leaders creating change.

Jay McMillin on Race and Gender

Jay McMillin is a native Californian who studied Ethnic Studies at U.C. Berkeley. While working in the industrial food system through college, she first became aware of the inequalities surrounding food access. Currently Jay is interested in finding a way to funnel the current popular Local, Organic, Real Food movements into the disenfranchised communities who are still largely unexposed. She is currently helping in the developing stages of a Non profit Teaching Farm and Environmental Education Camp serving the greater Richmond Area. Jay is a cook in an Artisan Soup Kitchen in Berkeley’s famed Gourmet Ghetto, and an Epicurean Concierge – guiding food tours in the Bay Area,CA.

General questions:

1. What does it mean to you and your community to dismantle racism through the food system?

This is something I’ve actually been thinking a lot about recently because I studied Ethnic Studies at Berkley and am now a chef, so it’s kind of interesting to try to bridge these two things. I found, in the community that I live in, which is Berkeley, we have a lot of great programs – non-profits out there – that are trying to educate people about food. Nowadays, with all the industrial food, it’s really important to know about what’s going on. Unfortunately, it tends to help mainly communities that are already affluent and have access to this information in the first place. I find that when you go into communities such as Richmond or Fremont, or even parts of Morin County, you just don’t really find that. They do, but on a much smaller level and they’re not funded as much by private investment as they would be in a more affluent neighborhood. So I just feel like that’s really important to look at. How do we actually get the money and the resources into the communities that need it, instead of funneling it into areas where people are already well aware of these things?

Beyond that, when you look at even just the layout of lower-income communities. Like in Berkley, people have access to these great markets, like Andronicos and Berkeley Bowl, where they can have all this organic produce and fresh stuff to make all of the time. And then in a neighborhood like Richmond, they don’t even have a grocery store. There’s like not a single grocery store in Richmond. People have to do their shopping at the Walmart, or else at small liquor stores, where you do not really access to fresh, seasonal produce, and even raw ingredients to cook your own foods. You’re mainly looking at pre-packaged things. So it’s really clear to me that there’s a lack of access things to these things and the first step primarily is giving people in lower-income communities and minority communities access to the information, and also access to the goods, because if they know it, but they if they still can’t get a hold of it, it doesn’t really make that much of a difference.

2. What would the world look like without an imbalance of power and privilege?

That’s a really funny question. I feel like, it’s that ideal socialized concept that we’re all dreaming of. I don’t know what it would look like in real life because don’t know if it’s ever been done. I think ultimately, we’re pushing for this idea of bringing money from the top down to the lower levels, but I don’t really know if that’s something that’s ever going to happen in our lifetime. Unfortunately, the people that have the power and the money aren’t really willing to let go of it for the sake of the people below them. So yeah, I think it would be an ideal world, but unfortunately, a utopian ideal. It seems like it would be not a realistic scenario, more of a utopian ideal.


Theme: Race and Gender

Description: Race and gender, as systems of oppression, intersect in a myriad of ways. These intersections, take together with food justice, produce a wealth of stories of survival, power building, spirituality, pain, culture, family, and growth.

1. What are some historical ways in which women of color are sexualized within food systems? In what ways does this continue today?

When you talk about women and how they’ve been sexualized within the food systems, I think specifically we have to look at some of the things that people have always considered to be women’s jobs. I feel like women’s work is generally sexualized. They’re supposed to be caretakers of household, supposed to actually being the ones cooking and doing the buying of the groceries. So I think that they’ve already sexualized that as a part of our norm, what we’re supposed to do every day. So that already makes it difficult for women to have careers and other activities and interests because they’ve got all of these other things on their plate, right from the beginning. But historically, this really plays out really differently. From the beginning of industrial agriculture, minority women, mostly of color, have been a real driving force, all the way from the fields to the farm house. They’ve been involved in every stage of production, from cultivation, to preparation, to serving, to feeding, even transporting. Regardless of their roles and their experiences, women historically though have always been paid less in this industry. I was reading some statistics from the National Agricultural Workers Survey. It’s released by the DOL – the Department of Labor. They said that the median income for female farm workers is nearly half of what male farm workers are making to this day. And they’re only making like $5,000-5,500 (????) annual salary. So for women, we’re looking at like $2,500 annually that they’re trying to survive on.

Beyond that explicit gender hierarchy that the wages illustrate though, there’s a much worse sexual oppression. And that is forming from the beginning of time. Specifically, we’ll talk about slavery in this instance. Women historically have been raped and pillaged on just all over the globe, mainly used as breeding in slave times. That kind of conjures up the image to me of like a cow or a horse or some kind of an animal where a women is just actually being used for the sake of breeding her and using her children as workers as well. And not only that, but having to enlist her with the care of these children that were raped, she was given birth under really horrid circumstances in the first place. It’s basically telling them that they don’t have a right to anything in this world. They don’t own anything, including their bodies. That’s like the lowest low.

I don’t really think that it’s something just from the past though. Even though slavery is totally over, I think it’s given way to a modern-day equivalent, which is the industrial food sector, talking about packing houses, maquiadores (???). All of these things, it’s just a modern-day version of exactly the same thing. These women come from low-income communities, where they don’t really have any education, they don’t have any choice, and they have to go into these factory-like situations where they’re forced into these confined working quarters that are really bad for their health, they’re having to work with toxic things, things that are really bad for their bodies, things that are bad for their reproductive organs. And they’re still being controlled primarily by men in this environment. Management is still primarily male. It doesn’t matter, across the industry, what sector, males still dominate this industry. And in some situations, their dominance is not just on an employee and manager level, there’s also still that level of sexualization. And in many cases, women are made to actually defend themselves even when they call out against somebody who’s done something wrong to them. It seems as if for the most part, people don’t take the side of the women. She’s always in the need to defend herself in this situation.

I think women are also still really confined to these boxes where they’re considered a weaker, less-capable, less-intelligent being. And they’re constantly having to be on the guard for their own health. I think about all of the women from Flores who’ve been disappeared over the years, from these Machiadores (????). They aren’t even necessarily involved in any kind of explicit activity, it’s just that they’re seen as completely expendable by the people who run these factories, and they can just take a whole busload of women and disappear them into the desert basically. And there’s not going to be enough of an upheaval or up-cry about it that there’s lots of motivation to do something like that. As long as nobody’s trying to solve the problem, then people will just keep doing it.

2. How are women of color in particular affected by the current, unjust food system?

I found some pretty interested statistics about women in the workplace, in particular, looking at women in the food industry, because I think that food production is such a large part of it. There’s still a huge divide between management, for both Latino industry managers and white industry managers, 66% are men and 35% are women. So there’s still a really huge divide. And that’s regardless of race. And women actually earn nearly half the annual wages of white men in the exact same position as them, looking specifically again at the food industry. I think that this is terrible obviously. This has been going on from the beginning of time. And I’m looking at the US here. If we’re talking about places like Ethiopia or China where women’s rights are still an issue, I think that you’ll find that the wages are even significantly less than that.

Ok, so I was thinking about specifically a place like Ethiopia again, for example, where there’s a limited water supply. Women are usually enlisted in the daily gathering of the potable water. So, often times they’re just spending time walking back and forth gathering water for their family and that’s just something that’s considered a task that they have to do. When women have children, those children automatically join them on this walk every day to go and get water. This makes it impossible for them to attend any kind of school or anything like that, because they have other things that their family considers important for them. So mainly it’s the men there being able to get educated and to break out of this cycle, while the women will completely spend the rest of their lives gathering water for their family. This is unjust because these people don’t have access to the water. I’m sure easily some wealthy millionaire can fund some kind of water well for them if he wanted to, but obviously there’s other things that matter to these people. So it’s just to think about the lives of an entire community of women could be changed by something simple as providing them with clean water so that they could instead go to school rather than walking, you know, twenty miles a day for water.

But beyond that very explicit example, we could talk about things that are a little bit less explicit, not as obvious. Like, they’re doing some things that are supposedly out there to help women of color that I find kind of questionable. Let’s talk about a food bank for example. I recently was working with this non-profit where I taught healthy cooking classes to adults that were coming out of a long-term mental health facility. So I had to source ingredients periodically from a food bank. And I was really appalled by the kinds of things that we’re feeding to our economically disadvantaged. There’s high fructose corn syrup in pretty much every canned vegetable that I picked up from one of those shelves, and that’s not even talking about things that come out of the boxes, not to mention all the questionably carcinogenic preservatives and additives that come in all of this cheap processed food. These are the things that we are feeding literally to our poor.

If we talk about what the poor is comprised of, the National Center for Law and Economic Justice says that in 2009, nearly five million more than women than men lived in poverty in the United States. And that gap again rises significantly in places where we see more poverty than we do in the United States. This is still a huge point of contention. Who is receiving all of this food, all of this food that nobody else wants to eat? It’s primarily the economically disadvantaged women and children. That leads to complications down the line for health concerns. We’re finding all of, like, this issue with obesity, which is mainly affecting lower-income communities, and people that are having problems with heart disease, which largely affects the African American and Latin American communities. These are specifically affecting minority communities because of their access to good food. It all stems from this really. And primarily, people that need most help are the people that we are not helping. Giving them these things isn’t really the blessing that we think that it is. In particular, it’s complicating things more with health concerns. It’s kind of just, it’s a terrible system. So yeah, I see that, a lot of people would view something as a food bank as being helpful. And in some places it is, and in some places they’re really striving to bring more fresh produce into these communities and stuff. But until there’s more of a push to actually work with the farmers to be getting this fresh produce into these places, then really they’re going to be confined to the same horrible eating that’s been going on before. And if they’re unhealthy, they’re less able to work. And they’re less able to raise productive members of society, and their children are less able to concentrate in school. It’s all just this trickle down effect that leads to a lifetime of disadvantaged, unfortunately.

3. How is violence in the food system (like animal cruelty and unsafe working conditions) related to domestic violence, war, and rape?

Well, this kind of comes back to the discussion I was having earlier about breeding. When you conjure up the image of woman as something to be bred, then you’re putting her in line with other breeding animals, such as cattle, such as horses, such as swine. That’s problematic when you consider on an industrial scale how we actually treat these animals. We raise them for mass-slaughter. We don’t slaughter them in a very intentionally nice way either. You know, there’s definitely a lot of violence. A packing room floor, slaughterhouse floor is probably one of the most violent places in American society. When you put those images together and you consider that a woman is the same kind of object in industrial society, you really see that it problematizes the way people view women. I think also that manager and employee relations and the treatment of women in the workplace, these are ideas that get carried home beyond the workplace as well. They’re really engrained in the philosophy of our society. When a man, a male employee sees a woman as a subordinate throughout the entire day, he’s going to go home and carry that concept with him to the women that he comes in contact with in his daily life. These tasks that we just consider necessary that a woman is supposed to complete, like, traditionally a woman’s supposed to cook and clean and do the dishes and clean the house or whatever. We have this concept and then we pass that down to our children and our children also raise their kids with this concept. We’re perpetuating this concept. And I really think in the workplace, that’s one of the worst places, because it’s like, basically, we’re just condoning this inferiority. I mean, the income alone, right? That says it all. We’re saying that it’s totally acceptable to pay women half of what we pay men, for no reason other than the fact that they’re a woman. But we’re not really giving any better reasons, constructively, why women should get paid less other than that. So, it’s really difficult that this is what we’re teaching to our kids, even in an implicit way. Like, explicit definitely, but just even implicitly, we’re just showing them these things just on a regular basis.