Graduate student leaders reflect on the 2022 Food Institute Graduate Council conference
July 19, 2022
By Rosario Torres, Nani Conklin, and Jesús I’x Nazario
In early April, the Food Institute Graduate Council (FIGC) at UC Berkeley organized its second annual food systems conference, entitled “Food Relatives: Decolonizing and Indigenizing the Global Food System.” Over the two-day online and in-person event — held both on Zoom and at the Native Community Center at Anthony Hall on UC Berkeley campus — the Food Relatives conference brought together people who study, practice, and embody different kinds of relationships with food, land, and the environment.
Below, the lead organizers offer both learning reflections and hopes gathered as a result of the Food Relatives conference.
After attending the Food Relatives conference, I came away with a more nuanced understanding of our food systems locally and globally, namely what is really at stake if we don’t address the most salient challenges facing our food systems today. Many presentations spoke on how globalization and neoliberal policies pose a significant challenge to our global food system. These policies have created an enormous disruption of localized food systems that undermine people’s food sovereignty while impacting our environment and human and nonhuman communities, exacerbating climate change.
However, I believe that this year’s conference primarily showcased the great work of those interested in improving our food systems. Many of the presenters made it clear that they are exploring a myriad of policy-oriented solutions to build more localized and culturally informed sustainable food systems rooted in humane and localized food production. The conference prompted me to start thinking creatively about ways to address the challenges posed to our food systems.
I particularly connected with the keynote speech by Peter Nelson, a tribal citizen of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria and an assistant professor in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management and Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley. In his presentation, Nelson spoke about his personal experiences gathering and harvesting foods from his traditional tribal territory, emphasizing how important it is for him to take actions that align with his traditional values. I also gathered inspiration from North Fork Mono Tribal Chairman Ron Goode’s keynote presentation, in which he spoke about his community grassroots organizing around Indigenous stewardship, particularly the use of cultural burning to support environmental sustainability and tribal food sovereignty. As someone who considers herself part of the solution in reimagining our food systems and who seeks to honor and respect human and nonhuman life, namely that of all peoples, plants, and animals, I found an immense sense of validation and hope for our collective future at this year’s conference.
Calling Food Relatives a “conference” does not do justice to the sense of community and vitality I felt upon entering the Native Community Center on that sunny spring day. While there were structured panel discussions and polished slide decks, it was clear from the first moments of the event that we were among practitioners, activists, educators, and people taking action to create food systems change.
We heard from Tabitha Robin, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems at the University of British Columbia, who encouraged us to crowd out the siloing narrative that food is separate from gender and sovereignty and replace it with an understanding of food as a healer, helper, and form of self-determination. Educator, chef, and good food advocate Aileen Suzara confronted characterizations of Filipinx food as unhealthy by sharing her work cooking traditional, life-giving dishes and declaring that “our culture isn’t the thing killing us.” Noa Kekuewa Lincoln, an assistant professor of Indigenous crops and cropping systems at the University of Hawai’i – Mānoa, complicated the distinction between traditional and contemporary Hawaiian culture, positioning Indigenous knowledge and values as a critical solution to modern issues in food, agriculture, and health.
In between panels, I overheard participants giving each other directions to a local seed swap, intently discussing questions raised by the panelists, and raving about the food at the conference. We felt strongly that our meals should reflect the conference themes and were fortunate to be able to cater incredible dishes from Souley Vegan, a Black woman-owned vegan soul food restaurant, and Cafe Ohlone, an Indigenous-owned restaurant that celebrates Ohlone culture. After two years of virtual meetings and events, I was reminded of what it looks, sounds, and feels like to be in community — and what it means to truly relate to one another.
When FIGC first discussed themes for the 2022 conference, we knew that we wanted to center the voices, work, and world views of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). The concepts of relationships and relatives quickly emerged as organizing concepts, both as reflections of traditional foodways and stewardship practices and as strategies for creating a more equitable food system. Indigenizing and decolonizing the food system encourages us to reimagine the ways we relate to food, the environment, and each other — and to live into that vision. Many of our BIPOC speakers, artists, and filmmakers reiterated that there is no separation between their work and their identities. Their emphasis on taking action, cultivating holistic perspectives, and challenging ideas of authenticity as we bring traditional practices into contemporary settings, are some of my most cherished experiences of the Food Relatives conference.
I return to the questions I asked at the beginning of the conference: How do we chart a way forward that seeks to right historical wrongs, while reckoning with the current realities of a deeply unjust food system? How do we address climate change, health disparities, global poverty, and sustainable food production? We, the conference organizers, believe Indigenous sovereignty is an essential and necessary condition of a just and healthy food system — not just for Indigenous peoples, but for all people. There is no achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals or adherence to the Paris Agreement or basic human flourishing without decolonizing and indigenizing what we know as our food system. As Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang write, decolonization is not a metaphor. As important as it is to decenter settler colonial mindsets, there are real, material actions that must also be taken to ho‘ola ‘āina (nurture and heal our relationships and food systems). They include restoring Indigenous practices, securing Indigenous land tenure and stewardship, investing in Indigenous communities and programs, and removing legal and financial barriers to Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination.
The Food Relatives conference sought to celebrate the work that Indigenous peoples and their allies are doing in these and other important areas. As we holomua (progress and move forward), we encourage all actors in the food system to take on an anti-colonial mindset, approach food from a place of cultural humility, and commit to centering Indigenous knowledge, leaders, and practices. We invite you to join us in living into the question: What would it look like to restore relationships in the food system and reconnect with our food relatives?
Jesús I’x Nazario:
The Food Relatives conference is a natural continuation of the Biomigrations conference — the first Food Systems conference organized by FIGC. As the intellectual architect of both conferences, it has been my goal to recruit graduate students who are also interested in inviting academic and more-than academic work that can further our understanding of the food system and its existing troubles. One thing is clear: Mainstream conversations on food systems must shift to consider the historically marginalized — and that includes our more-than-human relatives, many of whom are presently seen as valuable only as commodities. Holding atypical food conferences can be a start towards changing normalized discourses around the food system and the web of relations embedded in it.
The multi-scalar presentations at the Food Relatives conference emphasized the various points of entry one can make into real food systems transformation. The Ants and the Grasshopper, a documentary by Raj Patel and Zak Piper, focuses on Malawi farmers who are actively changing their perceptions of gendered food preparation while underscoring how Global South farmers can be critical to changing perceptions of food in the Global North. Anthropological bioarcheologist Keitlyn Alcantara’s Food as Resistance documentary gave an ethnographic focus to how farmers in Tlaxcala, Mexico are revitalizing their foodways through education, regenerative agriculture, and community health, despite the rise of industrial agriculture in this region over the last 30 years. UC Berkeley PhD student Sierra Hampton’s presentation likewise stressed the contemporary revitalization efforts occurring in the Chickasaw Nation as the tribe takes up the challenge of reclaiming food sovereignty.
Decolonial and anticolonial methods are critical in our current moment. Decolonization is part of this necessary new life equation where a doctrine of rediscovery will require explicit acts of material return. At the same time, anti-colonial research is a necessary manifestation that all scholars can partake in. It can begin with scientists discontinuing what Red River Métis/Michif scholar Max Liboiron reminds us in their book Pollution is Colonialism as “entitled access to land and knowledge.” We must recognize our guest status in the Indigenous homelands and act in accordance with anticolonial politics to respect the intimate relations that have been disrupted because of settler colonialism.
It is up to everyone, especially those who have worked towards creating equitable and respectful research, to help shape the future of research. As a rising Indigenous (Nahua) scholar, this is a responsibility I am committed to taking up as best as I can through organized action and nuanced research. This is my journey towards building a more just food system — what will yours be?
Rosario Torres (she/her) is a PhD student and trained archaeobotanist studying Indigenous landscape stewardship practices in the department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at the University of California, Berkeley. She is pursuing a designated emphasis in the division of society and environment and is committed to collaborative and Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) as well as food and environmental justice. She served as FIGC’s Secretary and formed part of the FIGC Conference committee in 2021-2022 and will be one of its co-chairs in 2022-2023.
Kamanani Conklin (she/her/‘o ia) is an MPH student at the School of Public Health, concentrating in nutrition. She is especially interested in social epidemiology, food systems policy, and the power of traditional Native Hawaiian diets and cultural practices in supporting public health. She served as FIGC’s Conference Coordinator in 2021-2022 and will be one of its co-chairs in 2022-2023.
Jesús I’x Nazario (jehj/jei) is a PhD student in Ethnic Studies, focused on the intersection of food and Indigenous sovereignty, as well as the incorporation of memory and archival methods. Jesús is BFI’s Graduate Student Fellow and serves as the graduate student representative on BFI’s Executive Committee. Jesús is involved on campus through leadership positions in FIGC and the American Indian Graduate Student Association (AIGSA) as their graduate student liaison, and is an incoming Community and Diversity Fellow for the Office of Graduate Diversity during the 2022-23 academic year.