BELL: Social justice is not make-believe

At Yale, it’s easy to take food for granted. Despite the allure of Magic Bars, I always can find healthy meal options — if not in Berkeley, then in one of the other 13 dining halls. (Seriously, the density of dining halls per square mile at Yale puts Dunkin’ Donuts’s downtown ubiquity to shame.) I don’t even have to shoot my own turkey or till the soil that produced my mixed greens. (Have you seen the price of arugula lately?) At least now, some dining halls make us help them with the dishes.

I don’t want to crush Yalies with guilt every time they swipe in for a meal or go back for seconds. Rather, I want to point out how lucky we are to have such an easy and healthy relationship with our food. Our privileged lifestyle at Yale allows us to avoid some horrific aspects of our nation’s food system that boil down to issues of social justice.

Before I wade further into the cutthroat waters of the News’ opinion section, I’d like to assure Harry Graver ’14 (“The duty of intellectual cogency,” Oct. 7) and everyone reading that I am not an “unbathed, partially clothed 20-something” shouting in a park. Beyond having good hygiene and being fully clothed at appropriate times, I agree with a part of Graver’s thesis about the Occupy Wall Street movement: Ultimately, substantive reform requires more specific demands.

However, I do not think that “social justice” is a make-believe concept or that using words such as “fairness,” “justice” and “equality” to conceptualize reform is just mental masturbation. If these words are toothless, then the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and other pieces of legislation from that era owe zero thanks to Martin Luther King Jr.’s rhetorical vision for an “invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.”

The fact that “discussion” and “dialogue” are starting points for a process does not make such goals shortsighted. Demonstrations of civil discontent have provided the momentum for major changes throughout history, and the lack of precise demands from the outset of a social movement does not mean that some won’t develop.

Specific action items are hard to formulate when the issues at hand are symptoms of interrelated systemic failures that need further research. For instance, it is no small wonder that the Advisory Board of Food Day, a national food advocacy day modeled after Earth Day, was able to agree on these six tenets: Reduce diet-related disease by promoting safe, healthy foods; support sustainable farms and limit subsidies to big agribusiness; expand access to food and alleviate hunger; protect the environment and animals by reforming factory farms; promote health by curbing junk-food marketing to kids; and support fair conditions for food and farm workers.

All of you foodies will know that some of these goals, such as cutting agribusiness subsidies and curbing junk-food marketing are highly contentious, both in terms of their political feasibility and efficacy. Others, such as “reduce diet-related disease” and “alleviate hunger” are as lofty and vague as “decreasing the wealth gap” or fighting “corporate greed.”

However, discussing these issues is productive because it uncovers the underlying mechanisms that string together the various symptoms of a broken system.

Whether you’re pissed off about corn subsidies or credit default swaps, policy makers cannot possibly know where or how (or have an incentive) to start an effort at reform unless people show how they are affected by all the moving parts at play. The people occupying Wall Street are trying to earn an invitation to the discussion table, and as it becomes harder to ignore their shouts, I think it’s quite possible that policy makers will ask for a meeting with spokespeople to discuss concrete proposals.

Discussing issues of social justice does not amount to “specious forays back into a perpetuated cerebral arena.” It is real work aimed at changing the status quo. Food Day New Haven, our local installment of national Food Day, includes a number of events in the city and on campus: grocery shopping lessons, cooking lessons, farmers’ market tours, documentary screenings and lunch panels, to name a few. Nobody expects one individual to have solutions for all the maladies of our food system; the goal is to shed light on these issues to inspire creative answers.

I realize that I’ve run the risk of fitting into Graver’s characterization as a self-righteous liberal who guilt trips others to assert his awesomeness. That does sound terrible, but it’s not an accurate evaluation of most cases in which people speak up for those who are suffering. Rather, I think that we often need a little bit of reminding to avoid an all too common mistake described by the father of “social medicine,” Rudolph Virchow: “It is the curse of humanity that it learns to tolerate even the most horrible situations by habituation.”

Connor Bell is a junior in Berkeley College and a co-coordinator of Food Day New Haven. Contact him at connor.bell@yale.edu .

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    *Board of Food Day, a national food advocacy day modeled after Earth Day, was able to agree on these six tenets:*

    What about WATER? Build wells worldwide. Fund The Carter Center’s simple pump and filter.

    You can’t water crops with out water or with polluted water.

    • bulldog13

      Although it’s not an official principle of Food Day, “Wishing Well,” a water student group on campus, will be joining Food Day New Haven for its events on Old Campus.
      For more info about Food Day or Food Day New Haven, visit
      foodday.org
      fooddaynh.org

  • Catherine08

    Horrific aspects of our nation’s food system? Let’s see, would that be something similar to the current famine in Somalia? Or maybe the endless malnutrition and starvation in North Korea? Yes, our obese kids and oppressed farm workers are truly a horrific sight. That’s the word for it.

    • bulldog13

      What about the filthy, overcrowded conditions at factory farms, requiring liberal doses of antibiotics to the animals and fostering antibiotic resistant bacteria that can make us sick? All the waste produced by farms also contaminates fresh water sources–another major public health issue.

      Also consider that US food policy has global effects. For instance, the majority of the corn and soybeans produced here goes to feed cattle, pigs and chickens, not the 925 million citizens of the world who are hungry or starving. So, I don’t think you can justify the state of affairs of the US food system with more acute examples from other places, and pitting issues against one another is not constructive for either cause because they are related to each other in many ways.

  • arielp

    Thanks for the good points and positive tone of this column. Acknowledging the modest (but important) goals and limitations of movements like Occupy Wall Street goes a long way towards earning them broader support with middle-of-the-road people. Starting a dialog is worth so much. Great column!

  • Catherine08

    In reply to bulldog13. Interesting that you use the word “acute” to describe starvation in North Korea or Somalia, while “horrific” is fine for overuse of antibiotics and overcrowding of chickens.

    • bulldog13

      They’re both “horrific.” We’re supporting the same issues. Get over the semantics.

  • River_Tam

    > For instance, it is no small wonder that the Advisory Board of Food Day, a national food advocacy day modeled after Earth Day, was able to agree on these six tenets

    Oh good. What would we do without *tenets*? Maybe they should write a strongly-worded letter too.

  • Yale12

    Maybe you should get a life, RiverTam.

  • River_Tam

    Maybe you should stop stalking my comments around the YDN board like some kind of spurned lover.