In discussions of food deserts, food sovereignty, and food insecurity the focus tends to heavily revolve around the issues of limited access to enough food and to healthy foods. Access means that there are barriers to an adequate amount of healthy foods due to distance and obstacles relating to distance, like inadequate transportation or time, and also high prices. But in these discussions another element that isn’t as deeply explored are culturally relevant foods and peoples access to them. The U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance defines Food Sovereignty as the “…right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems” (Food Sovereignty 2007). So what does “culturally appropriate food” mean and why are they important in this discussion?
Culture and Food
Food holds deep ties to our culture. The kinds of foods we eat and show preference for play a role in our identity. Certain dishes, ingredients, and preparation practices are unique to individual cultures and can carry distinct meanings to a group of people and individuals. Food can be tied to traditions, play roles in holidays, and much more. Within the U.S., depending on the location, culturally important foods to certain groups of people can be very limited and hard to access. The U.S. hosts a diverse number of cultures that are tied to unique foods and food related practices and within the immigrant population this can hold a great significance in creating a sense of place.
“Sense of Place” & The Role of Urban Farms
The term “Sense of Place” is a concept within urban design in which place is defined as a location in which people hold a connection between themselves and that location. This connection is defined by the “physical settings, individual and group activities, and meanings” (Najafi & Shariff 2011). “Sense of Place” can be described as the “…overarching impression encompassing the general ways in which people feel about places, senses it, and assign concepts and values to it” (Najafi & Shariff 2011).
People who have immigrated to the U.S. can often lose all “sense of place” as they lack a connection or bond to their new home. Immigrants within the U.S. face many issues dealing with anxieties and fears relating to deportation and also feeling of isolation from their new communities and a loss of family connections (Kanstroom 2010). In California around 26.7% of the population is foreign-born (Census profile 2019).
Urban farms can become a solution to immigrant communities’ lack of a sense of place. Culturally significant plants can evoke memories of “home” as they mimic the ecology of a person’s country of origin. Urban farms can be sites where immigrant communities can gather together and share common experiences. Shared activities like holiday celebrations, music, singing, talking, cooking, teaching, and play can help to foster a sense of place (Hondagneu-Sotelo 2015). Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, Professor of Sociology at the University of Southern California, studied two community gardens that had a high level of immigrant participation within Los Angeles, “Franklin” and “Dolores Huerta” community gardens. She discovered that these participants felt that the look of these gardens evoked memories of their home counties and had become places where they can share and perform traditional practices involving plants and food (Hondagneu-Sotelo 2015). Many went as far as to describe the relationships they had formed at the gardens as “family-like” (Hondagneu-Sotelo 2015). In addition to creating a sense of place for this population, urban farms can also improve access to culturally appropriate foods that are farmed following cultural traditions and practices.
An Example of Immigrant Place-Making: South Central Farm
We can look to the South Central Farm (SCF) as an example of how immigrants can create their own sense of place. South Central Farm was an urban farm in South Central, Los Angeles that operated from 1992-2006. Many of the farmers at SCF were immigrants largely from Latin America, many from Mexico. SCF’s features were based on many unique cultural practices found across Mexico. For example many of the types of plants grown at the farm were of Mesoamerican origin. Some of these plants included maize (Zea may), beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), squash (Cucurbita pepo), avocado (Persea americana), banana (Musa sapientum), and many others (Peña 2006). The planting of the individual plots mimicked those that many of the farmers experienced in Mexico and which they had called huerto familiar (hometown kitchen gardens) (Peña 2006). In 2006, Devon G. Peña, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington, studied the South Central Farm and interviewed many farmers about their experience of the farm. One such interviewee, a Zapotec woman, described her garden plot at SCF as “a little space like home. I grow the same plants that I had back in my garden in Oaxaca. We can eat like we ate at home and this makes us feel like ourselves. It allows us to keep a part of who we are after coming to the United States” (Peña 2006).
Census profile: Los Angeles County (South Central)–LA City (South Central/Watts) PUMA, CA. (2019). Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://censusreporter.org/profiles/79500US0603751-los-angeles-county-south-central-la-city-south-centralwatts-puma-ca/
Food Sovereignty. (2007). Retrieved November 12, 2020, from http://usfoodsovereigntyalliance.org/what-is-food-sovereignty/
Hondagneu-Sotelo, P. (2015). At home in inner-city immigrant community gardens. Journal of Housing and the Built Environment, 32(1), 13-28. doi:10.1007/s10901-015-9491-0
Kanstroom, D. (2010). Deportation nation: Outsiders in American history. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Najafi, M., & Shariff, M. (2011, August). The concept of place and sense of place in architectural studies. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/288118788_The_concept_of_place_and_sense_of_place_in_architectural_studies
Peña, Devon G. (2006, March 4). Farmers Feeding Families: Agroecology in South Central Los Angeles. National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies Washington State University, Pullman, WA.