“Before it was even called urban gardening, my parents kept a garden in the backyard ever since I was a kid,” said Shane Bernardo, a life-long Detroit resident and a consultant, facilitator and speaker actively involved in food justice. “So I learned at a very early age how strongly my family identified with our cultural roots and our traditional foods, and that informed how we identify as people in the diaspora.
As food justice activism and urban farming make strides in metro-Detroit, Asian Americans add complexity to the food justice movement and interesting connections to larger issues. Asian Americans are often mistakenly stereotyped as the model minority and assumed to not have issues resulting in food insecurity and subsequently left out of the analysis, however there is a wide diversity among the Asian American community in metro-Detroit and a wide range of ways in which Asian Americans face food justice issues.
Asian Americans face challenges in sourcing culturally relevant foods, chronic health issues exacerbated by poor diet, and cultural appropriation. Asian Americans are also doing innovative work with food and creating solutions in gardens.
The food justice movement is often understood to include issues surrounding food insecurity, food sovereignty, and ethical growing, but a particularly important challenge for Asian Americans as well as other diasporic communities in the metro-Detroit area is the challenge of sourcing culturally relevant food.
Bernardo told MIAsian and Detroit Journalism Cooperative about the geographical challenges he faced recently when making kare-kare, a traditional peanut oxtail stew from the Philippines with eggplants, long beans, and bok choi. After going to several different retailers, grocery stores, and the farmers market, he was unable to find all the ingredients that he needed to make this one dish. He finally had to drive outside of the city in order to go to an Asian supermarket before he could make a dish that was so central to his family’s culture.
“We need these foods to maintain our sense of self and to preserve our sense of culture and tradition,” said Bernardo. “Because they feed us in ways that ordinary food can’t. There’s an aspect around being nourished by one’s own cultural traditions and foodways.”
Bernardo came to understand the importance of being able to access culturally relevant foods and how those foods can connect across lines of ethnicity while working and growing up in his family’s grocery store on the west side of Detroit.
“We sold a lot of culturally relevant food that generally was not available in grocery stores around us,” said Bernardo. “We catered to the Philippine diasporic community that worked at Grace Hospital over on Six Mile as doctors and nurses. In the over 13 years we stayed open, I came to find out a lot of staples we held closely as cultural traditions and foodways were also shared by other people in that particular part of Northwest Detroit. So I started seeing connections with the African-Caribbean community and West African community also in that area.”
Once communities begin to make connections with other communities, food justice issues begin connecting with other issues as well.
“Once you start looking at food as a justice issue, then you start to see the interconnections between food and other systemic issues regulating immigration policy, regarding the overpolicing of communities of color, meaning environmental justice issues like pollution and water shut offs, [and] access to health care. There are so many ways that food intersects with other issues. Climate change is another huge one.”