My Self-Discovery Through Food Justice  

by Julie Rosali Garay-Perez

I was born on Puerto Rico, a small island in the Caribbean. When I was 4 years old my family of 5 came to join my father in the United States. I grew up in New London, Connecticut, a community that was mostly low-income and working class Latinx and Black folks.  When I was 14, I began my food justice journey at FRESH New London and have continued on for 8 years. We do most of our work at an urban farm where we help young people develop themselves in many ways: through hands on work at the farm, presenting and public speaking, and developing a critical lens when it comes to our food systems, our city and our state.

I grew up in this movement. I started at the age of 14 trying to understand how and why food can be an injustice. Mirna, a tall, powerful, Latinx women of color, was my first food justice educator at FRESH, a former middle school teacher of mine, and a longtime family friend  In high school she became my educator in the realm of food, justice, health and solidarity (I had no idea what that meant but she used it a lot, so I associated it with being fancy/smart). I started my adventure in Spring 2011.

The first workshop was in the middle of a 1-acre farm, sun shining on us with a nice breeze and a hint of horse manure reaching our noses. We were a group of 14 Black and Brown youth divided into 2 groups, one group had the word Justice written on a piece of paper and the other had the word Injustice. Mirna, our educator said “Alright, write anything that comes to mind when you hear these words,” And we went to town. Justice had superman, police, power and everything in between. On the Injustice side we wrote breaking the law, hurting others, criminals and the list goes on. So, once we shared, Mirna said, “Ok now think about how these words can relate to food?” and everyone stayed quiet. Now let me explain something to y’all: as young people we are given things to eat by our school, by our parents, grandparents, guardians and other adults so we don’t actually have much of a say about food. To be honest, my immediate thought about food connecting to injustice was when I was at the grocery store and my mom wouldn’t buy me the chips or candy I wanted. Once the conversation got rolling that day in the field, that first activity blew my mind and continues to blow my mind today. The fact that something that is so necessary to our survival is in the same category as “breaking the law” or “criminals.” An example of the injustices of the food system would be today farm workers get paid barely anything to harvest the food we buy at the store and many time they cant afford what they grow, or historically an injustice is that many of us do not know what our native foods are before colonizations, all we know is Spam, white rice, and potato chips etc. My understanding of my own identity and the identity of those around me relates to food continues to fascinate me on a daily basis.

About 5 years into my work with FRESH New London, in a board meeting, we were asked why this work is so important to us.  (Just as a disclaimer if you meet me in person, I have a different answer to this every day, but this day was particularly impactful.) I was in a group with one of the founders of the organization and a board member who was a gender and Women’s Studies professor at a nearby college.  Feeling comfy on the couches sitting next to two of my mentors I chose to open my heart up more than usual. I started off by saying that the work was so important to me because of pain, they were very confused about what I meant and I’m pretty sure you are too, so in the words of the comedian Kevin Hart “Let me explain!” In this land that is not ours there is historical pain, pain of stealing, slaughtering, continuous stealing and murder still to this day but one of the pains that I see weekly—and, for some of us, every day-- is in grocery stores. Grocery stores that are close to low-income communities where you can see families struggling to choose things that a lot of them want but cannot give to their children or families. Because of their price, or because they have too many mouths to feed or maybe even because their food stamps were lowered because they had to pick up a second job to pay the rent and buy school uniforms. Let’s be real: a lot of us had and still have boxes of instant noodles in our cabinets because they last longer and are cheaper than a couple fresh vegetables. Another real moment, instant noodles were the first thing I learned to “cook;” I would come home from school at the age of 7 or 8 and pop a packet right into the microwave and that would become my afterschool snack before my mom got home from work and made dinner. Now do you think my parent knew how harmful that was to me? Probably not, but best believe I told them when I learned about it after my “food awakening.” Someone described food injustice to me as an invisible injustice; police brutality, sexual assault, gun violence are all in our face and very visible, but food injustice can be seen as a “silent killer.”

When I go to grocery stores it is very much visible to me, when I was told I was pre-diabetic at the age of 14 it was visible to me. As I told my fellow board members all this, my eyes were full of tears, as were theirs. I wasn’t tearing up because of sadness but because of anger, that my people grow up like this, that I grew up like, that many of us continue this cycle of pain and misery and disease due to poor food choices and an unfair food system unknowingly. And this is the reason I fight, for those who do not know why they have to walk more than 3 miles to get to a grocery store but can walk a block or two to get some liquor and cigarettes, for my community, my people.

Some of my most valuable learning experiences are  from attending conferences. Traveling out of my little city, meeting people and learning from many presenters that have similar backgrounds to myself, gathering new ideas, new styles and most importantly what can I bring back to my community. One of my best memories of NESAWG was my first time going 2 years ago in Hartford, I had been to many conferences prior to this one but it was especially exciting because this was my first time presenting. Me, my supervisor and one of my youth peers Chloe were going to present about our year-round youth program. In spaces like these my voice always felt like it was heard but I felt like I was not taken seriously because I was young (not to mention a women and person of color) but what I brought to the table that day was something a lot of the adults have not been through before. (At that point I had been part of an empowering youth food justice organization for 5 years, I had been through a public speaking program at the age of 15, I learned how to drive the FRESH box truck 2 weeks after I received my license (that might not be allowed anymore so don’t tell anyone), had been a youth ambassador for Connecticut in the New England Food Summit in Boston at 17. That day at NESAWG I stood in front of a group about 50 youth and 50 adults and talked about our program and my experience that day was that I knew my voice mattered just as much as the next person.

Now in my current role as the Youth Organizer, I build the curriculum for the youth program, so I am always trying to find different facilitator styles, materials and new cool ways that the food justice movement is evolving.  This year when my 2 co-workers and one of the youth in my program and I went Philadelphia, I knew it was another adventure where I’d discover more inspiration and ideas and I got that and more.

The panels of women of color speaking on their experience brought so much love and connection to my heart. The most beautiful moments were when my student who is Dominican got so excited when Vanessa Garcia Polanco talked about the Dominican Republic and how similar it is to Rhode Island. Or how emotional I got when Chef Cristina Martinez spoke in Spanish (yes, might sound silly but hearing my native language spoken in public and to a diverse crowd brings tears to my eyes), she shared how the work we do and how we continue to fight for food/all justices fuels her to keep going and honestly, it fuels me too.

And you motivate me, all of you, those who are putting in the work, time and resources inspire me to keep going. We need to fight and uplift to create the food system we want, and I continue to learn from all of you, so thank you for caring.

I continue to see the importance of popular education within our communities. Young people experience other communities, and learn vocabulary and ways to diagnose the dilemmas and issues within systemic oppressions and how it impacts our access. Then these young people come back to their communities and lead conversations on these topics. Those who are oppressed and having to make their way within a system that was created to make them fail, they are the ones that know the most because they live though it every day. And this is how the food justice movement has blessed me, it has given me vocabulary and a lens to diagnose the issues of my community. The power young people of color have when it comes to these experiences is unmeasurable. We have power as parents, as youth, as leaders or as community members, and one small step can lead to ripples in our history and I am proof of this.

Author Bio: Julie Rosali Garay-Perez is 22 years old, currently a senior at Eastern Connecticut State University getting a Bachelor's degree in Sociology. She holds an Associate's degree in Animal Science from the University of Connecticut and is Youth Organizer at F.R.E.S.H. New London.

Photos are all credited to Julie Rosali Garay-Perez.

Editor's note: NESAWG welcomes reflections from folks whose identities are often marginalized in food movement spaces by dominant social groups. Want to write a reflection about your experience? Email [email protected].