By Jen Swegan, ’15   

Jen Swegan, who is majoring in English, received a Civic Fellowship from the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) to undertake a summer internship with Shalom Farms while simultaneously researching linguistic approaches to food-access issues under the guidance of Dr. Thomas Bonfiglio, a professor of comparative literature and linguistics. Swegan also participated in the CCE's Food and Nutrition Fellowship, which gave her the opportunity to discuss urban agriculture with a CCE staff member and five other students interning in Richmond-area food-access nonprofits.

When I interviewed with the staff of Shalom Farms in the spring, I distinctly remember telling them I wanted to “get my hands dirty.” An internship with them appealed to me, in part, because it would involve playing in the dirt, sweating in the hot sun, and growing colorful food that tastes good to me. One of many lessons the internship brought my way, though, was the importance of questioning — and shaking off — precisely this kind of attitude.

It didn't take long for me to realize that there’s a lot more to what Shalom does than growing food. The organization focuses on helping low-access neighborhoods improve their food security and self-sufficiency; growing healthy, sustainable produce is hardly even the first step. Even when a farm stand or a food pantry makes healthy food available, the challenge becomes re-educating shoppers on how to cook the food in ways that taste good to them, how to shop health-consciously on a budget, and why it’s important to provide a balanced diet for their kids. In a neighborhood where many residents struggle to pay bills, keep their kids in school, and put any food at all on the table, it’s hard to make the quality of that food a priority. Simply making healthy food available to a community doesn’t arm them with the skills to incorporate that food sustainably into their lifestyle, or to revitalize their community together — so Shalom makes that skill-building a priority.

Where many of us go wrong when it comes to food is that we let our aesthetics, rather than our drive for social justice, motivate us. I spoke with dozens of volunteers at the farm who told me they were there because they love to get dirty, because how often do we get to put on gloves and overalls, because plants are so colorful and therapeutic to be around. When I discussed my internship with friends and family, similar patterns emerged. And in the research I conducted as a Civic Fellow, I found that the discourse of food access advocacy in Richmond is often structured by this aesthetic frame of mind.

That research involved examining the language on the websites of food access advocacy organizations like Shalom as a very narrow case study within a much broader conversation on urban American food equality. I found, among other things, that advocates consistently use the “get your hands dirty” rhetoric to attract volunteers and (theoretically) encourage neighborhood involvement in their projects. But this trope only builds more barriers by positioning agriculture and health as luxuries meant only for the privileged. That we enjoy getting our hands dirty implies that we can choose to keep them clean — that labor is recreational. This makes our work feel divorced from the reality of the communities we’re trying to help. Finding farm work purely fun depends on coming from a cultural history that doesn’t include that kind of work as a necessity — and in our country, those cultural histories have almost always split along racial lines.

It’s one thing for nonprofits to use the “dirty hands” trope to attract volunteers; it’s another thing for someone who considers herself an informed and intentional advocate to realize she has embodied it. Was I really attracted to a summer with Shalom because I was passionate about rectifying injustices and fighting for universal food access? In part, absolutely. But to what extent was I also attracted the exoticism of hard labor, or the trendiness of veggies and farmer’s market culture? No matter what first inspired me to spend my summer with Shalom, my supervisors encouraged me to constantly be evaluating our motivations and our approach.

Both my linguistic and my socio-political understandings of food access advocacy have blossomed this summer, as has my belief in the power of civically engaged action-research to fuel more effective social movements. But I hope part of my own advocacy for food equality can now include challenging my peers to move, as someone once punned, beyond the kale — to think critically about their own motivations for getting involved with food and agriculture, and to get involved in ways that are civically minded, culturally competent, and well-informed about the political, economic, and cultural forces shaping our food system.