Opposing the Carceral State
Food-Based Prisoner Reentry Activism
The H-Unit in San Quentin State Prison consists of five prefabricated warehouse units housing two hundred prisoners each. The men serving time in this medium-security division of the prison were convicted of lower-level crimes such as assault, burglary, and drug possession. A ten-foot-high chain-link fence topped with two more feet of spiraling razor wire surrounds the prison yard enclosing the prisoners, and three twenty-foot-high guard towers interspersed strategically around the yard monitor their every move. In the middle of these warehouses is a dirt field with a patch of grass struggling to survive these harsh conditions. Elsewhere is gray concrete, a basketball and volleyball court, and workout bars and benches.
Yet life bursts forth in two small segments of the yard. The hues of green and punctuated flashes of fuchsia, orange, purple, red, and yellow come from gardens run by the Insight Garden Program. This prison-based horticultural therapy program built the older of the two gardens in 2003 to help prisoners draw connections between nurturing plants, cooperation, and healing from the trauma of incarceration. The prisoners reflect the diversity of the flowers, herbs, and bushes in this 1,200-square-foot garden. California prisons are extremely racially segregated, so in this garden, as it is one of the only nonsegregated spaces in San Quentin, prisoners learn to relate across social boundaries. Complementing this time among the bees and in the soil are therapeutic sessions where prisoners collectively share their life experiences, struggles, and hopes for reentering their communities. In 2014, Planting Justice, a food justice organization based in Oakland, built another garden with the Insight Garden Program and the help of prisoners. After a five-year partnership with the Insight Garden Program, Planting Justice received permission to build four raised vegetable beds in a small corner of the yard. Although prisoners cannot eat the food grown in this garden, they gain vocational gardening and landscaping training that some of them use once they leave prison; Planting Justice has hired and paid living wages to eighteen of these men to build edible landscapes and community gardens all over the San Francisco Bay Area. None of the men have returned to prison. By reimagining the restorative possibilities within the prison, this partnership revalues a discarded population upon reentry.
For decades, social reformers, health professionals, political organizers, and social justice activists have devised horticultural strategies to ease the pain of prison and support formerly incarcerated people in reentering their communities. On one end of the spectrum, this has included a social control focus. Keep prisoners busy with growing food to prevent them from engaging in misconduct, and in the name of job training maximize profit by exploiting their labor for little to no pay. For these reasons, prison abolitionists and opponents to mass incarceration question the value of agricultural practices associated with carceral restrictions on freedom. Indeed, even when social reformers claim the rehabilitative curative of gardening or the opportunity for skill development, the question is, where are prisoners heading toward? The same communities deprived of social investment and criminalized to manage the resulting poverty?
On the other end of the spectrum is a long history of gardens that have served as liberatory zones of freedom within prisons and offered horticultural opportunities that intervene to reduce recidivism and foster community organizing around racial and economic justice. While imprisoned for his revolutionary work against apartheid in South Africa, Nelson Mandela found solace in his garden. Reflecting on that time, he wrote in his autobiography, “A garden was one of the few things in prison that one could control. To plant a seed, watch it grow, to tend it and then harvest it, offered a simple but enduring satisfaction. The sense of being the custodian of this small patch of earth offered a small taste of freedom.” Combined with concrete economic opportunities and social support networks that link food production to successful reentry into free society, the bucolic ameliorative of a garden can become a liberatory social force.
To consider the meaning of food justice in relation to carceral conjunctures requires recognizing the reach of mass incarceration into the same urban communities where food justice activism predominates. These intersections present an opportunity to connect the production of racialized harms with creative solutions. As Ruth Gilmore reasons in her groundbreaking study of California’s prison boom, “Prisons and other locally unwanted land uses accelerate the mortality of modestly educated working people of all kinds . . . and show how economic and environmental justice are central to antiracism.” Similarly, food justice is essential for advancing an anti-racist agenda. Practices such as urban agriculture can tackle racialized economic and political inequities associated with mass incarceration. If we only critique the fact that most urban agriculture initiatives fail to provide living-wage jobs or that not all prisoners want to work in the food system, we would miss the forms of mutual aid and healing that inspire social change.
Around the United States, food justice activism is deepening the connection between food and carceral politics. In 2015, after the eighth annual Growing Food and Justice for All Gathering, a Prisons and Food Working Group formed to develop a shared analysis and campaign agenda. In their position paper, they wrote,
We call on those of us in the food movement to recognize the intersections between the exploitation of communities via the prison industrial complex and our food system; this recognition is essential to achieve our ultimate liberation. It is critical that we understand that the patterns of domination and exploitation that drive our prison and policing systems are inherently connected with the patterns of domination and exploitation that drive the inequities within our food system. We who believe in food justice, we who believe in food sovereignty must recognize the need for an abolition of all enslavement and exploitation in order to achieve real justice.
This urgency is shared broadly within food justice networks. As the violence of mass incarceration and police brutality continued to target black and Latinx communities only to fuel widespread urban rebellion and the Black Lives Matter movement, the crisis reached a tipping point at which other realms of social life, such as food, became related. In 2016, the blog Civil Eats published commentary from sixteen food justice leaders, which represented how their food politics have absorbed the carceral conjuncture. Comments included reflections on the history of slavery and agriculture, the related forms of institutional racism perpetuating exploitation in prisons and throughout the food system, and the importance of a justice analysis and political action to end white supremacy and achieve liberation. What does acting at the intersection of food and carceral politics look like?
This chapter focuses on the politics of restorative food justice. I define this as a commitment to economic, racial, and restorative justice and permaculture, with mutual aid strategies that support formerly incarcerated people and their communities to heal from the trauma of mass incarceration and that advance policies to improve the reentry process. Engaging the carceral logic of confinement and social control opens the possibility for imagining a liberatory food politics. Central to making headway is an organizing commitment to inclusivity, leadership diversity, and organizational flexibility. In particular, Planting Justice prioritizes the experiences of those who have lived in heavily surveilled and policed spaces before, during, and after prison. Mass incarceration devastates working-class communities and communities of color by locking up and then exploiting the acquired bodies. This exacerbates poverty and segregation, disrupts families, quashes innovation, and pathologizes certain social groups. It also creates inequitable relationships to food by deepening food insecurity for families left behind and by poorly paying people to work in food-related prison industries. But Planting Justice organizers, especially those who were formerly incarcerated, respond to these carceral conjunctures with actions, critiques, and hopes that dialectically develop food justice and advance broader social justice goals shared by many social movements.
The Costs of Mass Incarceration and Police Power
The pervasive system of mass incarceration in the United States criminalizes and regulates the same working-class communities and communities of color disproportionately experiencing food inequities and other traumas. This racialized system politicizes crime and exacerbates barriers to education, employment, food, housing, and political participation. As a mode of social and spatial control, mass incarceration also intensifies preexisting class and ethnoracial inequities by targeting subordinated groups at each point in the prison pipeline: in criminalized neighborhoods, in prison, and upon reentry into the same neighborhoods. Moreover, when citizens express outrage with mass demonstration and protest, law enforcement agencies and officers exact their monopoly on violence to quell popular democratic participation. Combined, this potent mixture of state-sanctioned social control strategically incapacitates entire communities and social movements to maintain power.
Ethnoracial hierarchies in cities such as Oakland grew worse after California’s prison boom, which accelerated in the 1980s with the War on Drugs, deindustrialization, and neoliberal counterrevolution. As jobs disappeared and whites fled to the suburbs, the political class developed punitive methods to absorb the surplus labor pool. We now have a criminal justice system whose growth is predicated on targeting black and Latinx individuals. For example, they are disproportionately stopped, searched, and arrested and overly represented in Alameda County’s prison population. Although violent crime has fallen and property crime predominates, criminalizing poverty remains a preferred solution. Politicians see fixing schools by adding teachers and restructuring curriculums to meet the needs of students, encouraging new business sectors to enter these communities, or rewriting laws to prevent discrimination in housing as less important. Nowhere is this more apparent than in spending priorities. Following longer-term trends, the adopted budget for 2013–2015 spent 42 percent of general funds, $194 million, on the Oakland Police Department, the largest single expenditure in the city’s budget. Despite accounting for a little less than 20 percent of the city’s employees, the department receives one quarter of spent payroll dollars.
Distrust of police and the criminal justice system in Oakland is widespread, yet it is racially stratified. A survey found that black residents reported being half as likely as whites to have a positive interaction with police, and twice as likely to have an interaction initiated by police. The same survey discovered that only 11 percent of those who had a negative experience with police reported it to the Citizens’ Police Review Board or the Oakland Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division. Residents are also dissatisfied with public safety expenditures and question whether spending extra tax dollars on law enforcement is the best use of that money. After all, nine out of ten police officers are not Oakland residents, which pulls over $186 million a year in wages and retirement benefits out of the city. Rank-and-file police officers also express concerns. Most think elected and department officials withhold adequate support, such as police equipment, and the residents of Oakland undervalue their work.
Racialized power dynamics with the state not only frame citizens’ overall interaction with law enforcement but also focus the attention of blacks and Latinx who bear the brunt of institutional racism and the resulting forms of bigotry and prejudice. The NAACP exposed that in Oakland there were forty-five police shootings between 2004 and 2008 and that thirty-seven blacks and no whites were victims. In 40 percent of the cases, police found no weapons. No police officers were ever charged. Oakland police officers operate in a culture of impunity, which reinforces poor behavior. For example, the police officers receiving the Oakland Police Department’s top awards have been involved in more shootings and cases of brutality and misconduct than officers receiving lesser awards have. Moreover, despite mechanisms to give civilians oversight of police officers, the city of Oakland has paid exorbitantly to settle police abuse cases. Between 1990 and 2014, Oakland and its private insurance carriers spent $74 million in settlements on 417 lawsuits accusing police of brutality, misconduct, and other civil rights violations. Between 2001 and 2011 alone, the city paid out over $57 million in police abuse settlement claims and ran a $58 million deficit in 2011. Three years later, the city was still running a $28 million deficit. Instead of taking disciplinary action against police to halt organizationally sanctioned behavior, the state, and by extension the taxpaying citizen, pay for abusive behaviors.
Protesters have also experienced police abuse since the heyday of the Black Panther Party. More recently, images of riot police marching on Occupy Oakland protesters; firing rubber bullets, bean bags, and tear gas canisters; and destroying the encampment are still fresh in the mind of Oakland’s left-wing movements. A confluence of social movements, including prison abolition, criminal justice reform, and racial justice for Oscar Grant, the young black man killed by a white Bay Area Rapid Transit officer, joined for marches and teach-ins during Occupy Oakland. They manifested in the streets what a former Planting Justice board member believes is important for the success of social movements. “The surest way to get poor communication is to begin by talking about a specific strategy,” Blaze argued. “Once there’s a connection around your shared values and shared needs then it becomes a lot easier to sort of feel a sense of togetherness around choosing a specific strategy to learn how to move forward together.” Occupy Oakland was a microcosm of the city’s social movements, and the affinity group organization of Occupy allowed people with shared beliefs and needs to come together. A spirit of cooperation led to decisions to march in protest of public grievances, chief among them economic inequality and institutional racism in the criminal justice system. Speaking to these themes, Occupy Oakland renamed the site of its occupation across from Oakland City Hall, Oscar Grant Plaza. In response to the movement, the state met the protesters with violence. As a result, the city of Oakland has been embroiled in several federal civil rights–related lawsuits and has paid out over $7 million in settlement fees.
The costs of an abusive police department stand in stark contrast to some recent cuts in public services. In 2012, Oakland cut $28 million from its general fund, which required job layoffs and a reduced service capacity for many departments. Although threats to eliminate some public libraries never materialized, public school closures have proceeded apace, while the opening of charter schools has increased. Coupled with reductions in state funding and a drop in enrollment partially attributed to gentrification, investment in keeping small neighborhood schools open has diminished. The economic outcomes are ethnically and racially disparate and apply downward pressure on formerly incarcerated people and black, Latinx, and working-class communities already suffering from high poverty, unemployment, and low wages.
While neoliberal economic reforms and institutionalized discrimination drive the harassment, abuse, roundup, and imprisonment of poor people and people of color, going to prison also generates inequality. Removing people from their communities disrupts local labor markets and possibilities for economic mobility, aggravates already-existing health problems due to stress and unreliable access to health care, ruptures family structures, furthers household disadvantage, and marginalizes former felons from civic life. Moreover, when prisoners reenter their communities, they are subject to state surveillance. Most people currently under correctional control in the United States are not in prison, but are on probation and parole. In 2013, there were 6.89 million people under correctional control, 67 percent of whom were on probation and parole. Furthermore, they experience social exclusion and stigma in terms of benefits, employment, and housing, and higher-than-average rates of post-traumatic stress disorder. Even people who go through rehabilitative programs in prison or work with organizations and companies that support the reentry process still experience discriminatory laws and policies on the outside. The resulting challenges include learning to survive economically when faced with the requirement to disclose a criminal history, which can be grounds to reject an application. This complicates the emotional and social travails of reconnecting with family, especially for parents. Navigating the rules and regulations to overcome these challenges within the institutions responsible for perpetuating the stigma of incarceration is difficult for formerly incarcerated people and their allies. Because of the institutional momentum to incarcerate, law enforcement agencies lobbying for more tax dollars, widespread police abuse, and the shutting down of popular protest movements, finding strategies to intervene against these structural inequalities is no small feat.
Strategic Inclusivity, Leadership Diversity, and Organizational Flexibility
For the cofounders of Planting Justice, Gavin Raders and Haleh Zandi, previous social movement participation in the early 2000s informed the organizational structure and operation. Activism in the antiwar movement while in college taught them about global struggles against American imperialism, and their travels to places such as India taught them firsthand how people resisted corporate power. While canvassing for a nonprofit called Peace Action, they knocked on doors, made phone calls, and traveled to other states to fundraise and stir up support to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Burnout, however, was common because the organization lacked fair labor practices, such as adequate pay and democratic decision-making. Both Gavin and Haleh were frustrated that people who worked for organizations committed to social justice could not pay their bills and sustain this important work.
These experiences inspired a unique amalgamation of causes, strategies, and tactics. Of unique significance was canvassing hundreds of neighborhoods. Gavin recalled that “the regularity of the scene was sort of imprinting on me [because] . . . of space that wasn’t being used to meet people’s needs.” He therefore concluded, “We need to do more organizing locally to have people working together and building community and creating tangible change in their communities.” This epiphany solidified after Gavin spent time in a part of Kerala, India, where a community was contesting a Coca-Cola water-bottling plant that was stealing local water and offering low-wage jobs. In response, the community used traditional rainwater catchment systems and deepened public education during large protests and marches. “People just met their own needs and that was actually the most effective form of resistance,” Gavin acknowledged.
After experiencing a model of organizing that paid people poorly as well as a social movement that combined both confrontational tactics and practices that fostered self-determination, Gavin was inspired to decipher how communities could reskill themselves to meet their own needs. So he undertook a permaculture design course for seven months. The founder of permaculture, Bill Mollison, defines this as “the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way. . . . Permaculture design is a system of assembling conceptual, material, and strategic components in a pattern which functions to benefit all forms of life.” Gavin grew critical of how permaculture knowledge was privatized and widely inaccessible. While permaculture is a powerful concept and set of principles, the cost of a permaculture design course and its tendency to consist largely of white people reproduce some of the privileged attributes that underlie ecologically focused food politics. Gavin’s goal became to increase the access to and the relevance of permaculture for the socioeconomically diverse city of Oakland where he and Haleh lived.
Predating Planting Justice, they started a company called the Backyard Food Project that built edible landscapes. This tapped into the popularity of local food and gardening throughout the Bay Area. But while there was a demand for landscape designs based on permaculture principles, Gavin and Haleh kept receiving correspondence by interested people who could not afford their services. Although Gavin and Haleh were improving their edible landscaping skills and still finding clients who could pay full cost, they felt compelled to come up with a better structure and started a nonprofit. They settled on a combination of community organizing and canvassing with a fee-for-service permaculture edible landscaping program that funded the work itself, created living-wage jobs and surplus money to invest in free or subsidized gardens. In the summer of 2008, they began Planting Justice.
Planting Justice’s employment pool consists largely of people who grew up in working-class black and Latinx communities in the East Bay and/or spent time in prison. “I don’t even think you can call it food justice without . . . creating economic opportunities within the food system for people who live in these urban communities that are most directly affected by food injustices,” insisted Haleh. Given the economic disinvestment and criminalization of poor communities of color, there is a need for alternatives that empower people to care for themselves and their families, foster relationships and trust, and create more communal autonomy. These strategic priorities also deepen political commitments. Haleh offered an anecdote that speaks to how this can manifest while building edible landscapes: “One of our youth, his mom’s been in prison because she wasn’t documented and then he works alongside people who have been in prison because they’re racially targeted in the streets. And so the kinds of alliances that kind of form . . . it’s just really powerful and it’s unique in terms of what can take place after that. Because they come from, you know, two different backgrounds, live in the same city, but now that they’re aligned and working towards common goals, there’s so much more that we can shift in our community by doing that.” Further reflecting strategic commitments to break down social barriers and find commonalities around which to mobilize for food justice, Planting Justice has prioritized democratic organizational procedures. Haleh shared that in her experience nonprofits erected firewalls between board members and staff. “From the beginning, we really wanted to create an organization where that kind of hierarchy didn’t exist and so we wanted to have anyone who wanted to be on staff, also be on the board of directors,” reasoned Haleh. In practice, about 50 percent of the board has consisted of staff members, including members of the constituencies they work with, such as high school graduates who went through Planting Justice programs, former San Quentin prisoners, and people working as community organizers on related issues. After asserting the need to reject the expectations imposed by the “non-profit industrial complex,” Gabriel, a Latino former staff and board member, avowed, “We can give ourselves permission to challenge what we think is the most effective way of organizing.” Pointedly, the organization avoids clear demarcations of where food justice begins and ends. Gabriel elaborated: “People call it a movement of movements. . . . So, for me it is as much about alliances and coalition building as it is about honoring the lineage that your movements and social struggles have politicized you to get involved with the food justice movement. There is always coalition building within that.” With different committees and programmatic branches that allow board members and staff experimental freedom and a consensus-based decision-making process, people can pursue projects that reflect their activist histories. This structure allows for mobility throughout the organization and autonomy for each program. An open organizational structure that channels a diverse set of life experiences into collective action also creates the flexibility to link up with a range of social struggles.
Critical Interrogations of the Prison Pipeline
Planting Justice has worked with the Insight Garden Program since 2009 after seeing the founder, Beth Waitkus, give a conference talk in which she articulated a desire to start a vegetable garden inside the prison. Gavin recounted learning about this opportunity: “While we were volunteering at San Quentin State Prison [teaching food justice, permaculture, and urban farming,] we heard from all of the men how important this garden was for their emotional and spiritual well-being. However, we also heard that they weren’t sure how they were going to incorporate this into their lives when they got out of prison and returned to their communities.” Biographical and organizational characteristics availed Planting Justice to respond. While the organization’s leaders valued the focus on horticultural therapy, they realized the unique prospect of offering skill development training that could tie into a reentry program. Most of the prisoners they worked with were people of color, and more than 90 percent of the formerly incarcerated staff members at Planting Justice have been black. Their experiences have shaped how the organization connects ethnoracial and economic inequities to reentry-related solutions. While the social context of a racialized system of mass incarceration shapes how the organization develops interventions, the experiences of formerly incarcerated staff at Planting Justice provide a tangible lived reality. Many staff reside in and reenter spaces where they are criminalized and racialized by the current carceral regime, spaces riddled with problems such as poverty and food inequities. The following sections outline the chief concerns, critiques, and analyses that inform the practices that emerge to resist oppression upon reentry.
More important than the relationship between personal responsibility and crime are the racial and economic inequities embedded in criminalized neighborhoods. Like many others, Barry, a middle-aged black man who suffered from drug addiction, had few opportunities where he grew up. He first told me about how his drug addiction resulted in incarceration: “Once you use drugs then you do a lot of procrastinating I’d say. Because you are on the substance you’ll say, ‘I wanna do this, I wanna change my ways.’ You notice that it never pans out. You always find another reason to go back into the hole.” He went on to note, however, that drug programs overlook how poverty perpetuates drug use: “If you don’t have a place to stay, and you don’t have a stable income, you are not going to be clean and sober on the streets.” This leaves people with few options to escape, a reality that stems from the carceral power of politicians and law enforcement committed to confinement strategies in working-class black neighborhoods. Barry suggested, “Some people don’t mind being incarcerated . . . because they have no money, no transportation, they don’t have no food and they don’t have no house.” He concluded his recollection with an affirmative Black Lives Matter movement frame that rejects the dehumanizing outcomes of racialized carceral strategies: “It is not just black lives that matter, it’s brown lives, everybody that’s being oppressed, actually.”
Linda, who is Latina and a former probation officer and correctional case manager, recognized many of the same challenges identified by Barry: “The system is rigged against them. It is designed for them to fail. . . . It is really stressful out there.” She arrived at these conclusions by recalling the stories of formerly incarcerated people: “‘Don’t feel sorry for me; give me a job so I can feed my kids.’ They don’t need your sympathy. They don’t need food stamps. Another thing I hear too is that people want a job they are proud of. . . . People want to make more money than they can hustling on the street.” This anecdote suggests that pathologizing people for living in poverty ignores disinvestment in neighborhoods with large numbers of poor people and people of color. Linda contended, “It’s really not so much about morality and bad people. . . . No, people need to survive.”
In addition to economic disparity and criminalization, many of the formerly incarcerated men I interviewed spoke of the historical legacy of slavery that is reanimated through the mass incarceration of black people. Reflecting on the nature of this institutional racism, a middle-aged black man named Saul asserted, “I still don’t believe that we have a fair shake. . . . I’m being punished for something I had nothing to do with, bruh. I wasn’t around, whatever was happening in history four hundred years ago. That ain’t have anything to do with me. . . . So for me to be penalized . . . not just me but all of us in general, as a whole, for us to be held back, held down, treated the way we have been treated, all these years, bruh? . . . We did nothing wrong to deserve the stigma, the treatment, and everything that we’ve been getting all these years.” Committing crimes does not take place in a vacuum. The policing of black people is a continuation of the historical trauma of the plantation economy, made worse by the fact that neighborhoods with high arrest rates often lack public investment that would help people avoid entering prison to begin with. The experiences and stories related by people like Saul, Linda, and Barry challenge ascribing immorality into decisions to break the law. The prison pipeline begins in places that prevent people from being law-abiding because the state deems these places and the impoverished people who occupy them more worthy of punishment than of protection.
The confinement of prison is only the formalized outcome of a larger system of mass incarceration. The men I spoke with all spent time in one of two places in San Quentin: H-Unit or the North Block. In both sections of San Quentin the conditions are difficult, not least because of overcrowding and the danger it poses for prisoners’ health and safety. San Quentin was built for three thousand prisoners, but at the time housed over five thousand prisoners. This reflects a broader trend in California. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in 2006 because of the pressures associated with an all-time-high prisoner population. By 2011, conditions were still dire. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation budget was at a record high of $9.6 billion, which translated to about $50,000 per inmate. This set in motion events that culminated in a 2011 class action lawsuit that went all the way to the Supreme Court, where the overcrowding was deemed in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.” Such rulings, however, remain a minor palliative.
Once incarcerated, prisoners experience further marginalization and sociospatial control. Strict prison rules and physical layout tightly regulate behavior, such as mealtimes, mandatory work shifts, breaks, whom one associates with, and whether one receives adequate or even any health-care treatment. On top of these conditions, California prisons offer few rehabilitation or mental health programs, and over 65 percent of prisoners return within three years. Jamal, a young black man who was in San Quentin for robbery, surmised that these conditions perpetuate feelings of restriction and dispossession: “Well when you go to prison, it’s a sensory deprivation camp . . . for however long that you’re in there. So when you get out, you’re back in the concrete jungle. . . . You still got that mentality of . . . ‘I have to survive and I have to get this money, get this job.’”
A leading grievance about imprisonment is that prisons exploit prisoner labor. As stated in the Thirteenth Amendment, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction” (emphasis added). Abolishing labor exploitation in prison is nearly impossible because the constitutional protection provided by this amendment makes it sacrosanct. Saul was particularly incisive about this state of affairs:
Take prison . . . we call that modern-day slavery. And I say “we” because I just left there, and . . . they paid us crow. Some of the jobs that we do, they should get paid contractors, big money to do that shit. They paid us peanuts. We had to do electrical jobs that you should be paying somebody at least thirteen, seventeen, twenty-seven dollars an hour. . . . You paying me seventy-five cents. Come on bruh! And then I’m working eight hours. Come on bruh! And that’s just one job. . . . We make all the clothes, all the furniture, all the food. . . . They give us crumbs. . . . It’s insulting. . . . Now when I say I don’t want to do it you gonna write me up, and give me some more time in prison because I don’t wanna work, basically, for nothing. . . . That’s injustice inside the prison system!
This moral outrage is targeted at the institutional racism of mandated labor à la the plantation economy through which white supremacy solidified and upon which the United States built its global capitalist advantage. Said plainly, this labor exploitation is seen as racist.
These conditions of confinement also create opportunities for political engagement. Maurice Bell, a formerly incarcerated black man who works with Planting Justice, told the story of how he participated in a prison sit-down strike in 1996 to oppose California rescinding family-visitation rights for prisoners with life sentences. In an article written online, he recalled, “As a prisoner who was not a lifer and was getting family visits, I knew how important it was to receive family visits. . . . I felt compelled to participate in that sit-down as an act of solidarity. Even though the lifers did not get their family visits back, we still took a stand and said all in one voice, ‘NO MORE!’” These fleeting moments of empowerment respond to an oppressive prison system with acts of human agency and resilience that formerly incarcerated people can draw on upon reentry. Nevertheless, life after prison is inherently difficult.
Key to the practice of restorative food justice is the response to the fact that most people currently under correctional control are on probation and parole. Formerly incarcerated people often reenter the same criminalized communities, what the critical race scholar and human geographer Rashad Shabazz refers to as a “prison-like environment.” They face the same policing, surveillance, and poverty that put them in prison to begin with, only this time with the added pressure of a criminal record.
Underlying the institutional marginalization of formerly incarcerated people is a culture of stigma. The ignominy of imprisonment is persistent. As Simone, a white community organizer, urban gardener, and reentry home provider, lamented, “They’re lepers of our culture. . . . We scapegoat and they are the easiest targets.” Maurice identifies how this stigma is racialized: “As long as I see people clutching their purse when they see me, or crossing the street to avoid me, I know that I’m looked at as a criminal because I’m black.” This ideological reflex that formerly incarcerated black men are “criminals” with no opportunity for restoration stems from decades of tough-on-crime rhetoric from politicians and police and a media echo chamber championing the imprisonment of working-class communities of color. These narratives are reinforced by laws that sanction discrimination against formerly incarcerated people, which only intensifies stereotypes that justify the stigma.
I heard repeatedly of the constant threat or experience of poverty and alienation. Jamal told me, “The hardest thing is coming home. . . . We being shut out of jobs . . . or voting or housing or . . . food stamps or any of the myriad things that we shut out of by having a criminal offense.” The daily drudgery of these economic struggles coupled with problems like post-traumatic stress disorder take their toll. “Folks are coming back mentally disabled,” explained Jamal. “It takes some time to trust people, it takes some time to get relationships with people. . . . Like on some real healing, you know, it takes time and a lot of the times folks don’t got time because they trying to get their housing, they’ve got all of the other stuff that society tells us that we need and that’s a necessity.”
In the process of conducting some interviews, I witnessed how economic support from the state can be undermined by criminalizing people on parole, which perpetuates the subordination of people deemed “immoral” for committing a crime. During a phone interview with Gene, a middle-aged black man, he was taking the bus to Contra Costa County Housing Authority to find a landlord who would not discriminate against someone with a criminal record. He had to hang up and call me back while he dealt with this. Once back on the bus, he informed, “I’ve been searching almost six months now for an apartment with a Section 8 voucher that will pay a landlord $1,200 a month for a one bedroom. That’s the sort of thing to me that is broken.” Gene went on to share, “I have a nine-year-old daughter, but I have a court order to see her a couple days in the week. I don’t have a place to bring her; I don’t have a lot of money. . . . I’m working just to pay child support, man.” In true Kafkaesque fashion, the formerly incarcerated navigate a state that offers support that can be undermined with discriminatory practices or other state mandates.
Constant surveillance of parolees can also thwart the desire to participate in publicly visible activism to reform the reentry process. To reject the carceral logic superimposed on black communities, a logic that relies on a steady supply of black bodies to send to prison, can be risky. Referring to the conflict between being on parole and engaging in advocacy with Planting Justice, Saul detailed, “It’s really actually hard for me to get out there and protest and get involved with a lot of things that they’re doing out in the community. . . . Say I’m publicly speaking, I run into a policeman or woman who’s gonna grab me up . . . they can send me to jail. . . . I don’t have time for that, man.” Moreover, employers might closely monitor the performance of someone convicted of a felony. Gene used to advocate for more community-based services money for reentry work, but he felt once he had a job, he had to limit this advocacy: “I’m in my probation period [at work], so I can’t be running back and forth between this and that like I was.” Therefore, the healing and mutual aid network described in the following section become vital during reentry.
Critical Connections and Food-Based Interventions
On a sunny afternoon in Oakland, I sat down on the stoop of a house Gabriel was renting with friends. In the middle of an answer to a question I asked about what he sees as the relationship between land and labor in Planting Justice’s work, he made the following nuanced observation that speaks to how restorative food justice resists oppression:
I think that relationship is important to make in terms of how interconnected, interlocking oppressions actually are. The land is a place, a space where we can see where that all plays out. It is a really interconnected, interlocking place to resist. . . . It means that taking care of the land and building a relationship with the land is a very beautiful humanizing experience [and] is a way of resisting. . . . We try to teach about labor that is humanizing and that is based on reciprocity. . . . Again that is the way that PJ [Planting Justice] is doing that [their work] . . . based on what Grace Lee Boggs calls not so much critical mass, but critical connections.
The strategy to foster “critical connections” begins with creating living-wage work and equitable relationships to land, which are some of the hallmarks of radical food justice practice.
Planting Justice developed an economically sustainable base on which to put its commitments to work. Two mutually constitutive programs produce income streams that account for 80 percent of the budget, while 20 percent of the budget comes from grants. First, Transform Your Yard is a fee-for-service permaculture-landscaping program. Upon reentry, some of those who completed the Insight Garden Program inside San Quentin end up working for Planting Justice on teams installing and designing landscapes. Clients, mainly homeowners, pay in full for about three-quarters of these edible landscapes, while the organization subsidizes or gives away free the other quarter to working-class people or community-based organizations. As of April 2016, Planting Justice had built 380 gardens, 25 percent of which were free. This program shuffles capital from middle- and upper-class homeowners to create jobs starting at $17.50 an hour. Although it took four years, all staff members eventually became full-time salaried workers with health insurance. Second, the canvassing program, which provides the same wages and benefits, also organizes and fundraises throughout the Bay Area to support such well-remunerated work, including finding and channeling clients who want edible landscapes. It raises over $150,000 a year for Planting Justice’s operating budget through small local donors. Equally as important is the public education. As their website states, “Sparking conversations about the prison system, corporate food control, backyard gardening and green job creation — the canvass team spoke to over 51,750 people on the streets about food justice issues since its inception in 2012.”
While there is no single remedy for dealing with the violence and marginalization experienced at each stage of the prison pipeline, jobs, along with other restorative practices, help intervene at the point of reentry. Regarding the postincarceration experience, the civil rights lawyer, legal expert, and prison reform advocate Michelle Alexander is less than sanguine: “They enter a separate society, a world hidden from public view, governed by a set of oppressive and discriminatory rules and laws that do not apply to everyone else . . . and are permanently relegated to an inferior status.” But such a conclusion forecloses on a dialectical process. There are strategies to illuminate the challenge of reentry that generate solidarity to navigate a criminal justice system intent on reincarceration.
Antecedents of Restorative Food Justice
Restorative justice promotes healing. Although practices vary, it focuses on the needs of victims, reintegrates offenders, and works with the local community to rehabilitate victims and offenders. It therefore rejects the carceral logic of exclusion and segregation inherent to mass incarceration. The roots of these practices lie in some forms of indigenous community-based restorative justice. In sentencing circles, the community engages deliberatively, often with the victim, to address a crime and restore peace. In healing circles, prisoners or the formerly incarcerated create a space to undertake individually and collectively their victimization and crimes. In restorative conferences, communities of care intervene with youth before any court proceedings to try to solve the problem. These restorative justice practices are powerful not because they can supplant a retributive criminal justice system, but because of the strong social bonds that emerge through voluntary association. These bonds are the basis for transforming selves, communities, and the criminal justice system. Moreover, formerly incarcerated people are more self-confident and capable of giving to those around them and develop tools and new networks that reduce the chance of returning to prison.
Recent practices around the world indicate that the articulation of food justice by Planting Justice and its allies in Oakland is part of a wider movement to develop methods for increasing social equity at the point of reentry. Restorative justice is merging with “greening justice” initiatives. Successful practices with formerly incarcerated adults in Australia, England, and Norway and Native American youth in the United States nurture a connection to nature through food and gardening, develop green jobs skills and certifications, and facilitate ties to local social movements. These initiatives create a foundation for psychosocial healing, empowerment, and community reintegration. People experience greater levels of contentedness, space for reflection, deeper levels of communication with others, and an opportunity to practice caring through communion with nature. Politically, the shared tactile experience helps reduce social distance between people and generates greater trust, which generates the visceral capacity to mobilize bodies into a social movement.
In response to the U.S. Supreme Court order for California to reduce its prison population, the California legislature passed Assembly Bill 109, the Public Safety Realignment initiative. While this reduced the state’s prison population, it shuffled the prisoners to county jails, where the state has allowed discretion in how counties spend funds for “rehabilitation.” More money for reentry programs became available, but because county jails are also overcrowded, the debate between advocates for jail expansion and recidivism reduction was intensified. In March 2016, a white organizer with Planting Justice named Nicole Deane wrote a blog post for the organization taking advantage of the political opportunity provided by Assembly Bill 109 to call for more state resources for reentry initiatives:
We know that incarcerated people are perfectly capable of successfully returning to their families and communities and becoming valuable assets to those communities because we see it every single day at Planting Justice. All seventeen men who have come through our re-entry program have not only stayed out of prison and beat California’s sky-high recidivism rate; they are becoming leaders in their communities, building community gardens, mentoring high school students, and supporting others who are making the transition out of California’s brutal prison system. Our entire organizational budget is approximately 0.002% of the budget the BSCC [Board of State and Community Corrections] just approved for jail expansion — and we have a 100% success rate against recidivism. . . . Justifying half a billion dollars in jail construction spending in anticipation of maintaining these high rates of recidivism does a profound disservice to the communities most impacted by mass incarceration. We need to start investing in formerly incarcerated people — not more incarceration.
Strategic interventions to support formerly incarcerated people vary, but the marginality that comes with imprisonment means that any resistance to California’s notoriously high recidivism rates almost necessarily emerges from interstitial spaces not completely colonized by the state, capitalism, and institutional racism. These interstitial spaces offer the freedom for resistance to grow to problems like mass incarceration. This is the essence of what organizers at Planting Justice mean by “compost the empire.” They create spaces, such as gardens; cooking demonstrations; healing circles; and communally run houses to support the reentry process with a focus on healing and reintegration. First, having a job helps instill a sense of self-worth that reduces the likelihood of reoffending. Second, when formerly incarcerated people become “wounded healers” who mentor those who have been to prison, there is empowerment for both the giver and the receiver. So while reducing recidivism is desirable, there are other benefits. The practice of restorative food justice in Oakland acknowledges the challenges identified by formerly incarcerated people and creates spaces to undo social and psychological forms of confinement.
As the Public Safety Realignment initiative started to roll out, many counties expanded their jails, but some came under public pressure to provide funds for reentry programs. One of these counties was Alameda County. The county gave money in 2013 to a two-year pilot program called Pathways to Resilience, which several nonprofits and companies cosponsored. Planting Justice was one of the anchor sponsors. Together they asked, “Could an integrated program of culturally relevant, experiential permaculture design education; meaningful, values-aligned, and entrepreneurial work; and wrap around services reduce recidivism by healing and restoring participants’ connections to the community and the environment?” In addition to an eighteen-month program in San Quentin that served 250 participants, Pathways to Resilience offered a reentry program that focused on psychosocial healing and graduated twenty-one permaculture designers, many successfully attaining living-wage work or starting businesses.
Like many social movements responding to the carceral conjuncture of mass incarceration, Pathways to Resilience found intersectional ways to respond. The initiative received the wise leadership of Pandora Thomas, a black organizer and permaculture expert who cofounded the Black Permaculture Network. Along with Starhawk, an author, activist, and permaculture designer, Thomas coauthored a solidarity statement under the banner of the network, in which they wrote:
We, the members of the undersigned permaculture groups and organizations, wish to publicly state our support for the BlackLivesMatter movement and the ongoing fight to end all police violence against communities of color. Permaculture is a system of regenerative ecological design rooted in indigenous knowledge and wisdom. Its three core ethics, care for the earth, care for the people, care for the future lead us to call for accountability for police who currently target, harass and murder people in communities of color, and especially the black community, with impunity. . . .
At this time of grave environmental crisis, we recognize that the divisive impact of all forms of discrimination and prejudice hamper every effort to shift the path of our society off of the road to ruin and onto the path of regeneration. Our economic, political and social systems can only find ecological balance when they are founded upon justice. One of the core permaculture principles is that diversity creates resilience. We are committed to envision, design and create a world in which we affirm and celebrate human diversity, where we can learn from one another’s perspectives and support one another’s struggles.
This attention to what environmental sociologist David Pellow refers to as socioecological inequality looks to challenge intersecting inequalities and hierarchies beyond social and ecological divides in order to build more inclusive and cross-cutting social movements. Therefore, training primarily black formerly incarcerated people in permaculture through Pathways to Resilience has expanded the network of black permaculturalists, thereby deepening the integration between food justice and restorative justice.
The restorative practices that stem from these ideological commitments include several rituals. Each helps counteract the stigma of incarceration because it is symbolic and emotive, is repeated as necessary, involves community, focuses on achievement, and involves “wiping the slate clean.” Of primary importance, healing circles anchored the Pathways to Resilience program. In a circle, everyone can see everyone else, which rejects the spatial logic of segregation and incarceration. This fosters the freedom to address the trauma of prison and create solidarity and trust with others going through the reentry transition. Both inside and outside of prison, the people I interviewed discussed the importance of having safe spaces to address their own victimization, the crimes they committed, and their vision of the future. Speaking to the power of healing circles, Gene offered, “I felt safe and secure. . . . It’s like a platform that I could use to either dump some stuff in people’s lap I was dealing with from the week or what I had been through. . . . It was a time to be able to get things out so I could grow and move on.” Joan, a white woman who worked with Pathways to Resilience and is an expert on the restorative justice process, said, “There’s a sort of collective wisdom that comes out of that circle process [that is] . . . giving people a sense of community.” With this communal foundation in place, other rituals built on the practice of healing circles.
The programmatic culmination for each cohort of Pathways to Resilience participants was the rites of passage ceremony. As one graduate noted, “We opened the day in circle, with the sound of drums, as one community member led us in a ritual of calling in the four directions as well as the earth and sky to set the space as sacred. Another member encouraged us to speak aloud the names of our family, ancestors, and important figures that have shaped our lives and whose shoulders we stand on. Each of us also had a chance to put our own voices in the circle . . . each expressing the gifts and offerings we bring to the circle.” The graduates then individually approached a golden bowl full of fire and incense, dropped in a paper identifying something that they wanted to release from their past, and then announced this to the attendees. Afterward they walked through an archway of the entangled arms and bodies of family and friends and received a crystal from one of the Pathways to Resilience educators.
The rites-of-passage ceremony symbolically crystallized one stage of healing and set the foundation for entering food justice activism. The internal and interpersonal work required by Pathways to Resilience empowered formerly incarcerated people to participate in prefigurative urban agriculture projects that dialectically reimagine food justice. Restorative justice deepens food justice by calling attention to the trauma of mass incarceration and offering ways to meet the immediate needs of people inside prison and upon reentry. Although food justice activists are committed to social justice, their typical methods and skills are insufficient to work with formerly incarcerated people, which necessitates fusing restorative practices. Reciprocally, organizers at Planting Justice used their extensive understanding of agriculture and creating viable economic paths to deepen healing and provide the necessary resources for economic mobility.
Maintaining a good job and developing skills are vital upon reentry, as they help foster a sense of self-worth. In other words, the value of restorative food justice, like beautifying a client’s yard or using new skills to build one’s own garden or urban farm, is empowerment. As Maurice exclaimed, “I think having a meaningful job makes a big difference, as far as staying out of prison. Because you’ll do anything it takes to keep that job, if you care about it. You’re not just trying to change your life, you’re changing everybody’s life.” Speaking about the empowerment that came with completing the Pathways to Resilience program, Jamal said, “They gave me the ability to believe in myself. . . . So that was real big for me, man . . . because I don’t have to be the angry black man and just talk to you about it. I now have the skills and knowledge and understanding to go do it myself. So that’s pretty invaluable.”
Permaculture design and food production become innovative tools in the restorative process when they link working with plants to healing individuals and strengthening community bonds. As one of the cofounders of Planting Justice once told me,
The work that you’re doing is actually healing you from the inside out and it’s enabling you to recognize your own power because you’re transforming physical space into something beautiful. So much of our cities have been . . . completely destroyed to the point where, you know, people are being born and dying on asphalt. . . . Being able to just take whatever kind of spaces back to life . . . is very healing on the inside. Because I feel like a lot of us, whether we know it or not, have been really harmed by the destruction of our ecology in so many ways that we can’t even see, and so being able to very tangibly transform a space has the ability to hit us on some inner levels. And so to have a job that enables you to do that, and at the same time enables you to connect with your community and help provide basic needs for people in your community, is something that we really need.
Many of those who completed the Pathways to Resilience permaculture design course or work for Planting Justice feel transformed and regularly confirmed this healing experience. “It’s just something magical, man; something spiritual happens when you are able to . . . grow your own food and sustain yourself,” beamed Jamal. He continued, “Especially coming out of prison, we’ve been deprived of certain human rights. . . . There’s nothing better getting out of prison than to build a relationship with the earth to really go down and become grounded in that.”
In terms of some of their public engagement, I witnessed palpable enjoyment when Planting Justice provided free gardens to community-based organizations and working-class families. Indeed, formerly incarcerated people build private edible landscapes that serve nonmarket functions and free gardens in public spaces or for nonprofits that increase cross-cultural collaboration and civic participation. For example, Planting Justice collaborated with the thirty-five-year-old Canal Alliance, which works with undocumented Latinx communities. The Canal Alliance contacted Planting Justice in 2011 because it wanted to create new food production spaces to improve the well-being of its community. Therefore, Planting Justice taught a permaculture course in Spanish to eighteen youth in the summer of 2011 and started six different community gardens in the Canal District with these youth. To build these gardens, the organization convinced the owners of apartment complexes to use the land, essentially communalizing private space. Growing food expressed communal empowerment.
The process of beautifying yards, working as teams across social boundaries, and receiving positive feedback ruptured social and internalized stereotypes and created new opportunities to strengthen community. Mateo, a Latino high school graduate who completed a food justice culinary arts program run by Planting Justice and became a permaculture landscaper, shared, “Having people come up to me and be like, ‘Thank you for coming out to my house and building this garden,’ that fills that part in your heart that lets you know that you’re actually doing something for your community. You are the change you want to see.” Reflecting on how people would tell him during free garden builds that local government fails their communities, a formerly incarcerated black man named Lawrence shared the significance of supporting disinvested communities: “We prepped the land, we planted trees, and plants. We tried to upgrade that type of community. . . . And while we’re doing it, the people that live in that area would stop by and thank us.” Working collaboratively to overcome the institutionalized disposability of racialized people and places brings communities together.
Another way that Planting Justice built communal bonds was through educational outreach. The Food Justice Education Program engages in what it refers to as “education for liberation” by offering workshops for students, prisoners, affordable-housing residents, and the public. The program links practical skills such as companion planting, cover cropping, and integrated pest management to lessons about farmworker rights, the Black Panther Party’s Ten Point Program, and a historical timeline of racial and economic justice struggles that inspire the food justice movement. To reinforce this liberatory education, Planting Justice worked with the Community Rejuvenation Project to paint two murals. At Fremont High School in Oakland, which is 98 percent students of color and majority Latinx, there is a large mural alongside a row of fruit trees, raised vegetable beds, and compost bins that proclaims, “Planting Justice,” and celebrates campesinos and indigenous varieties of corn. At McClymonds High School, which is 99 percent students of color and majority black, there is a prominent mural across from a large enclosure containing over ten raised vegetable beds in the middle of what is otherwise a concrete desert, which states, “Compost the Empire”; and creatively displays a large face and a compost heap out of which grows marigolds, poppies, and milkweed that attract pollinators.
In each high school, formerly incarcerated men educated students about permaculture, set up smoothie stands with fruits and vegetables from the garden, and testified to their experiences motivating a commitment to restorative food justice. As people who grew up targeted by law enforcement because of their race, they empathized with high school students facing similar social contexts. Mac, a young black man who came through the Insight Garden Program and Planting Justice, always wanted to support his school and community for all he was given. “I was kind of a bad kid, so to speak, got suspended . . . so in summertime I went to summer programs. . . . I appreciated those programs and it was able to give me my first job.” Mac reflected, “I always wanted to give back. . . . We work at schools now and so this is a way for me to do some mentoring.” Given his criminal history, he reached youth in a way relevant to their neighborhood experiences. Mac divulged, “I got a wound on my head and it was from a bullet graze. I’ve been asked about it. . . . I have a story and good advice and mentor the kids that need it.” He would tell youth to stay in school and then give students statistics about the high number of homicides in Oakland, which regularly tops out at over one hundred a year. Although he tailored his advice based on the situation of the student he was speaking with, he made sure to be clear about “the importance of the people who you are with, you know and you’re guilty by association, so watch who you’re with, don’t just be with anybody,” and always encouraged youth to be “respectful to yourself.”
As a political arm of Planting Justice, the canvassing program furthered liberatory education and organizing. More than raising money, it was a food justice strategy that helped people “learn democracy,” which is important given laws that politically disenfranchise ex-felons by preventing them from voting. Confirming research that suggests civic reintegration helps develop a positive self-identity postincarceration, formerly incarcerated staff members felt empowered through public engagement. Through the canvassing program, they would often teach the public about the human toll of the prison pipeline and challenge the criminalization of working-class communities of color by leveraging their supporters to back relevant campaigns and policy initiatives. For former prisoners such as Jerry, the civic skills are empowering. In an interview, he told me, “Canvassing really helps you to communicate more and better with people on the street. If you’re not a public speaker, you will be.” These skills are politically important, especially when tied to other public communication tools. Upon a year after his release from prison, Maurice became the first media apprentice at Planting Justice. In this position, he used the platform of Planting Justice’s blog to educate the public on the slave-like conditions of prisons and call on people to act in solidarity. In one post he explained the importance of supporting the 2016 nationally coordinated prison strike against prison slavery, which took place on the forty-fifth anniversary of the Attica Prison uprising. In reference to his experience with the family visitation strike in 1996, he wrote,
Today we are still taking that stand and we are still saying in one voice, “NO MORE!” We are now only adding demands:
- NO MORE mass incarceration!
- NO MORE putting our kids away for life!
- NO MORE slave labor!
- NO MORE 3 strikes!
- NO MORE death penalty!
- NO MORE mental, physical or sexual abuse!
- NO MORE forced sterilization!
- NO MORE inhumane treatment of prisoners, men and women alike!
- NO MORE unhealthy food!
- NO MORE deplorable living conditions!
- NO MORE inadequate medical treatment! . . .
All I ask is for you to also stand up and support these brothers and sisters, men and women, whichever you prefer, in their time of need. It is never too late to be a part of something big.
By organizing the public, Planting Justice devised a strategy to mobilize skills common in the food justice movement, such as building gardens, and tied them to reentry-related political campaigns. For example, the organization fought to make the most of the political opportunity afforded by the Public Safety Realignment initiative and pushed for money to be spent at a county level on reentry services instead of incarceration. In Alameda County, which is home to Planting Justice’s work, 62 to 77 percent of realignment money was spent on running the Santa Rita Jail. A formerly incarcerated man named Tyan Bowens, who graduated from Pathways to Resilience, fought for a different funding split alongside a broad coalition of grassroots organizations called the Alameda County Coalition for Criminal Justice Reform (now the Justice Reinvestment Coalition). He avowed, “These programs work, they just need more funding. . . . A lot of people would probably turn back to what they used to do if they didn’t have a program like this.” With the testimony of people like Tyan Bowens, activists pushed Alameda County to spend 50 percent of their realignment money on community-based reentry programs.
Food Justice, Creativity, and Reading the Social Context
Most food justice activism in the United States aims to eliminate inequities related to access to healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food. The main strategies are urban farming, integrating more produce into local markets, creating community-run markets and grocery stores, and elevating the issues of race and racism in the food system and food movement. With the rise of the influential Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements, left-wing activists have focused more on addressing conjunctures stemming from capitalism and institutional racism. For food justice activism, this backdrop informs the simmering tension between strategies to meet immediate needs and strategies to take on the social forces producing problems to begin with. Food production strategies are often based on the assumption that because food is lacking, people need to work with those groups experiencing food insecurity and fill the void. This is a temporary, often patronizing, and ultimately insufficient approach. But instead of just forgoing strategies to meet people’s immediate needs, they can be combined with mutual-aid strategies to dismantle the social relations and practices that perpetuate the underlying inequity.
Creative extensions of food justice emerge when activists dialectically reinterpret histories of structural inequality, pressing inequities, and previous and ongoing social movement resistance through food. The activism at the core of social movement networks that link food and carceral politics, exemplified in this chapter by Planting Justice and Pathways to Resilience, reveals that radical imagination work is a prerequisite to practice food justice differently. Instead of seeing food as an end, food becomes a means for social change. Nowhere is this clearer than in the practice of restorative food justice. By beginning with carceral conjunctures that disproportionately impact working-class communities and communities of color, the same communities struggling against inequities in the food system, the strategic response changes.
There is then the practical question social movement organizations always ask: How do we mobilize enough resources to maintain a presence capable of making economic, political, and social changes? Answers to this question will vary by context. As an organization that longs for radical changes but must deal with the choices available to nonprofits, Planting Justice developed programs to create enough economic independence to respond to problems as it sees fit. By witnessing firsthand the devastating effects of incarceration on the lives of black men in Oakland and listening to these men’s plight, the organization developed restorative reentry programs. This prefigurative strategy generated income through edible landscaping while the canvass program both made money and built political support to reform discriminatory laws targeting formerly incarcerated people. There is interdependency between food justice programmatic work and cross-movement alliance building. Together these efforts weave structural critiques, ideas and tactics from other social movements, and strategies that create economic mobility and reform local policy into interventions into the institutional racism that maintains mass incarceration.