Story One. Nilla Wafers.
Until I entered the second grade, my diet consisted mostly of microwave pancakes, frozen mixed vegetables, and Nilla Wafers. While other children dove into birthday cake and ice cream, I settled myself in the corner with a bowl of those pale, perfect circles, savoring their cardboard sweetness. Did the cookies taste good? Not particularly. What mattered was the comfort, the ritual.
My early memories of food come in flashes of sepia and gold, all centered around ritual. I remember eating digestive biscuits during tea times at my aunt’s house in England. I remember making Annie’s mac and cheese (white cheddar, obviously) and applesauce every Tuesday with our babysitter. I remember Belgian waffles on Sunday mornings, summer blackberries from the ravine behind our house, and the food most steeped in ritual: Christmas cookies.
I loved removing the Pillsbury wrapper from a pasty log of dough, cutting out patterns of snowflakes and stockings, and pressing individual sprinkles onto the gingerbread men. My sister and I would pinch pieces of dough and eat them as we peered into our oven, watching the Santas expand. I don’t remember actually eating the cookies, just a tradition that dusted our kitchen table with flour and sparkles.
Story Two. Frenemies.
As a teenager, I began to view cooking as a creative outlet, a way of expressing my love for family and friends. I grew more interested in the Portland food culture, wandering our local farmers markets and leafing through Bon Appetit magazines. I soon abandoned Nilla Wafers and peas for dark chocolate and dinosaur kale, starting to make sweet potato curry or tortilla española for my family on the weekends.
Beneath my foodie exterior, a storm was brewing. I had always struggled with low self-esteem, and during the crushing stress of junior year, I began to eat much less than my body needed, avoiding Sunday trips to the bakery and brunches with my friends. My growling stomach distracted me in class, I had to wear three sweaters inside the house, and I lacked the energy to hike Portland’s beautiful waterfalls. I was a shadow, a pale imprint of myself.
During the past year, I have fought to learn how to nourish my body all over again, understanding that it’s okay to eat when I feel hungry and to skip a day at the gym. I have a much healthier relationship with food now, but I am forever changed. It is difficult for me to describe the anxiety inspired by chocolate chip cookies, or the despair I feel at the tightness of my old jeans. Sometimes I wish I could undo these past few years and have a “normal” relationship with food, but there is no way for me to go back, so instead I must go forwards.
Story Three. Justice.
As I relearn how to nourish my body, I remember that food justice is not just about what I put in my body. I am fortunate enough to have the resources to cook for myself, buy fresh produce, and even participate in the Foodworks program. I think the alternative food movement offers some valuable tools for enacting food systems change, and I’ve spent my fair share of time at Whole Foods, but I have learned that voting with my fork is just one step on the path towards food justice.
While spaces like Whole Foods do have the power to make change, they can often be coded for a white, upper-middle class clientele. Food justice means working towards affordable, nutritious, culturally appropriate food for everyone. Food justice is about more than the food I put in my body, it’s about the right of every person in our food system to lead a healthy, dignified life. Keeping that in mind, I need to advocate for the rights of other consumers, workers, animals, and our earth, and that means doing more than buying organic beets (although that’s great too). Despite my complex relationship with food, I’ve known for a while that I want to work within the food justice movement, finding community-driven, culturally sensitive solutions to food insecurity. I’m really excited to work in multicultural nutrition advocacy this summer, because I hope to work towards social justice through food.