As Americans ponder how to contribute to a more racially equitable society, it’s important to look at the systems that have historically upheld privilege — systems like education, housing, health care, criminal justice, travel and also food.

Warren Chalklen, a Dallas-based Ph.D. who trains doctors and nurses in anti-racist health practices, says that when it comes to racism, “There is no such thing as neutrality.”

“When people say, ‘Racism has nothing to do with me,’ or ‘I’m a good person. I have Black friends,’ the system maintains itself,” he says. To be anti-racist, one must “take action to dismantle and challenge the systems.”

Anti-racism reentered public discourse in the summer of 2020, when multiple books on the topic registered on best-seller lists. In addition to Ibram X. Kendi’s work, How to be an Antiracist, books on race remain on the New York Times’ nonfiction best-sellers today, a year after the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd sparked a national reckoning.

The movement toward racial equity impacts all aspects of society, and food plays a layered, complex role, from farming and land ownership to healthy food access and the restaurant tipping system. But as the widely-used phrase goes: “The system is not broken. It was was built this way.”

“The human, environmental and economic cost [of food] is often borne by people who are affected by racism,” Dr. Chalklen says.

To go beyond words, we’ve asked local leaders for actionable recommendations for those in the food community, both workers and consumers, who want to do the work of anti-racism.

Don Myers poses for a photograph at Oddfellows in Dallas, TX, on Sep. 1, 2020. (Jason Janik/Special Contributor)
Deah Berry Mitchell, vendor organizer, and Jeziel Jones, head organizer for the Potluck Protest, pose at the vendor tables during the Potluck Protest to support Black-owned restaurants, Saturday, June 13, 2020 at Reverchon Park in Dallas.
Deah Berry Mitchell, vendor organizer, and Jeziel Jones, head organizer for the Potluck Protest, pose at the vendor tables during the Potluck Protest to support Black-owned restaurants, Saturday, June 13, 2020 at Reverchon Park in Dallas.(Ben Torres / Special Contributor)

How to be an anti-racist diner

Deah Berry Mitchell, a Dallas Black food historian who founded Soul of DFW bus tours and co-founded The Potluck Protest, urges diners to look at areas in the city they avoid visiting, and to ask themselves why they’re not investing in restaurants based solely on location.

“Crime is throughout the city,” Mitchell says. “If you’re looking for crime, you’ll find it no matter where you are.”

Also, when diners decide to visit a restaurant from another culture for the first time, don’t assume a lower pricing structure. “Just because there’s no tablecloths doesn’t mean that technique, hard work and prep didn’t go into the food,” Mitchell says.

Jurrita Williams Louie, a Dallas-based consultant who specializes in racial truth and transformation, also encourages diners to ask themselves: “Are we crossing I-35? Not to gawk, not to save — but just to enjoy food from a different community?”

When dining in any establishment, Louie additionally urges white people to speak up when they observe discrimination. “White skin has different consequences for speaking up than brown skin,” she says. “So use the privilege of your voice. Let the manager know you’re going to write a letter to the corporate. Let them know, ‘I’m going to @ you.’”

Deah Berry Mitchell, vendor organizer, and Jeziel Jones, head organizer for the Potluck Protest, welcomed a crowd supporting black-owned restaurants during the event at Dallas' Reverchon Park.

How to become a more equitable restaurant

Restaurants and food providers can help shoulder the burden of equity in the food system. They can adjust the way they describe food from other cultures, make a public commitment to diversity, and pay employees fair wages.

Mitchell says that if restaurants have dishes on the menu from other cultural heritages, owners need to train their staff on how to describe them to diners. She recalls a time she went to a Southern restaurant and a server described hoe cakes as being just like pancakes. She was so frustrated by the experience that it motivated her to write a cookbook, Cornbread & Collard Greens: How West African Cuisine and Slavery Influenced Soul Food, in which she shares recipes from her childhood along with the origins of Southern cooking.

In an age of websites and social media, food suppliers and restaurants can easily make their commitment to racial equality clear to the public. Karyn Medders, former co-owner of Chubby Dog Farm, a heritage pork supplier to some of Dallas’ best chefs, says she had always considered herself to be “woke” until she started reading books on racism last year.

Along with reading, she started voicing support for the Black Lives Matter movement on social media, and she decided to include a statement on Chubby Dog’s website stating that “racial injustices, systemic racism and all forms of oppression are as relevant today as they have been for decades.”

Medders reports losing followers over her posts, and that at first, it hurt. “But then,” she says, “if that’s how they believe — then, bye. I can’t be scared of losing followers, or family and friends I’ve known for years. Nothing has changed for Black people in this country. It’s the same fight every day for people of color.”

Dr. Chalklen says you don’t need to hire a diversity and inclusion consultant to do the most important thing to change the system — pay fair wages. He says historically, restaurants have been structured to present comfort to customers while people of color work in the back at the lowest possible wages.

“Are restaurant owners lucky that diners are asking, ‘Is this dish vegan?’ rather than ‘How much are you paying the back of house workers?’” Dr. Chalklen asks. “Is it really OK to pay servers $2.13 an hour plus tips? Could I live like that? Why do I expect other people to live like that?”

New York-based Clarence Kwan, known on Instagram as The God of Cookery, is the author of Chinese Protest Recipes, a cooking zine that raises awareness about systemic racism in food.

Kwan’s Instagram story highlights, named “White Food,” are a rich collection of microaggressions regularly committed by media outlets, and he says the food system is no different than any other sector with a history of racism.

“We have to ask — who’s on top and who’s on bottom?” he says. “When you think of a superstar Michelin-starred chef, who do you think of? Then, in that very same restaurant, who is working doubles without benefits and making the actual food? It’s almost always people of color.”

Neyssa Shockley stands on her family's land in Dolphin Heights. “You won’t meet a person around here who doesn’t recognize my father’s name,” said Shockley, 31. Her father was James “Skip” Shockley, an activist and member of the Dallas Black Panther Party. “Community meant everything to him.” His final request before he died last May was to turn the family land into a community garden.
Daron Babcock, executive director of Bonton Farms, harvests vegetables on April 20, 2020 in Dallas.
Daron Babcock, executive director of Bonton Farms, harvests vegetables on April 20, 2020 in Dallas. (Juan Figueroa / Staff Photographer)

How to create a more inclusive food system

Land ownership — and who grows the food — has also always been a big part of systemic inequities. Decades of discriminatory practices have led to loss of land and livelihood for many Black farmers. In North Texas, few Black-owned farms remain, but restaurants can do more to source from farms like Berkshire Farms in Wilmer, as well as other local farms in the Black community, like the Seedling Farm in South Dallas. Restaurants and grocery stores can also partner with local food rescue organizations like Harvest Project Food Rescue and the Oak Cliff Veggie Project to reduce food waste and feed those in need.

Daron Babcock, founder of Bonton Farms, has been doing the work of anti-racism for years, even though he says he hadn’t heard of the term until recently. The South Dallas area of Bonton was historically a Freedmen’s community, an area for Black people displaced by the city. Today, Babcock has planted an urban farm that employs 45 people in the middle of a low-income food desert.

“Everything about Bonton Farms is anti-racist,” Babcock says. “We are using food to disrupt the system.” By moving the community from scarcity to breaking bread together, “you would not believe the amazing things that start happening.”

But it isn’t just about food access, it’s about jobs and opportunity. Bonton Farms has invested $1.2 million in wages to employees from the area, he says. As Babcock says, “We’re an economic disrupter, as well.”

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