May 31, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 64°F


Alumnus discusses food justice and gentrification

About 50 students and faculty gathered at 4 p.m. Monday in Center for Natural Sciences 112 to listen to a presentation about social justice by Ajamu Brown ’99. Brown’s presentation was titled “Organizing on the Front Lines for Social/Environmental Justice and Food Sovereignty in Central Brooklyn.”

Currently, Brown is heading an environmental health advocate pilot program with the New York City Housing Authority. The program aims to increase the capacity of public housing residents and improve the environmental quality and safety of their homes.

Brown holds a master’s degree in urban and environmental policy from Tufts University and a bachelor’s in speech communications from Ithaca College.

While pursuing his master’s in Environmental Policy, Brown said he got involved in food justice activism because he was interested in sustainability. Coming back to the college and interacting with students allowed him to understand their opinions about food justice, he said.

“Thinking about how we talk about sustainability in a real way — I thought that food justice was kind of the low hanging fruit to talk about larger issues around energy and sustainability in general…. A lot of people focus on the ecological aspect of it,” Brown said. “The social piece of it is kind of secondary, and you need both of them to work in order to create that sustainability.”

Central Brooklyn is the largest black community in the country and is ethnically, racially and religiously diverse, Brown said. With a mother from Jamaica, and as a first generation American, Brown said he began looking at food inequality issues because of his lived experiences and West Indian heritage.

“Brooklyn has a huge West Indian population,” Brown said. “They also have a lot of social challenges, a lot of poverty, a lot of unemployment. I look at it like this: if you have an issue, you can look at a problem or you could look at the assets and organize to adjust those problems by using what’s already there — and the community’s biggest assets are the people.

He spoke about gentrification — a process where the middle class restores run-down urban areas — in New York City throughout the past 30 years as an obstacle to achieving an ideal, inclusive economy and need for more affordable housing, particularly in Brooklyn.

“There is a lack of affordable housing,” he said. “We talk about the gentrification, and the people who gentrify get gentrified out, and they have to move somewhere else and gentrify that, and it’s just a cycle. Why should I fight to improve my neighborhood when I can’t afford to live there?”

Brown talked about wider food injustice in the United States and the unhealthy food system that is currently in place. He said many rural towns lack healthy food access, even though the majority of the food consumed nationwide is grown in rural areas. Organizing around these issues can help close the divide, Brown said.

Freshman Amanda Little said food justice and inequality could apply to the Ithaca community, and she is a supporter of locally grown food.

“Ithaca has a strong community base with food; they have the Farmer’s Market and I think there are a lot of people here that would be interested in being involved with food justice,” Little said. “I definitely try to buy organic and local because I see the environmental effects and the effects it has on the local economy.”

Brown said food is a human right and the problem of food injustice in poorer areas of the country, like Brooklyn, needs to be rectified. He cited a 2010 New York Times article, “The Obesity-Hunger Paradox,” which said the Bronx’s hunger and obesity problems are not simply related to a lack of fresh food, but exacerbated by poverty. The borough’s 14 percent unemployment rate is the highest in the state, and it’s one of the poorest counties in the nation.

“People are putting all this stuff in their bodies and the weight gain and the attitudes and the hypertension — people are killing themselves,” Brown said. “They don’t see our food as medicine, and that’s what it is. Food is really a human right and not a luxury as it’s treated now, particularly in urban areas.

Freshman Lima Hossain is from Brooklyn and had a year-long internship at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens that opened her eyes to food injustice in her own community.

“I have seen [food injustice] too in the community and my school was on a border — one side was Park Slope, a big white Caucasian community, and the other side was a big African American population,” Hossain said. “The Park Slope area would have more green foods markets or they would have a Farmer’s Market every weekend and then you go to the other side where the black community is and all you see are supermarkets, and you don’t know where the food comes from.”