The All-American Colonization of Food

How decolonizing the American diet is important for the environment too

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Mainstream U.S. culture is disconnected from food: where it comes from, how it was grown, and by whom. This disconnect reinforces a food system ripe with injustice and a legacy of colonization.

To decolonize our diets, we need to think about how food is built into traditions, from the everyday habit to celebrations to mourning rituals. Our memories are often centered through food-related experiences. We welcome new people to our neighborhoods with food. Some of us feast for holidays (holy days) while others fast. When we go out to eat, or stay in, when we visit others or play host in our homes, we’re performing small traditions.

We go through the motions of these food traditions, but we rarely question why. We eat popcorn in movie theaters and hot dogs in stadiums but peanuts on planes. We expect cotton candy, corn dogs and churros at county fairs, but not at an office party. Some gobble turkey, cranberries and green beans in the fall, without challenging why we’ve normalized gorging this way.

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Why are there contests to see who can eat the most hot dogs or pie? Why do people in the U.S. eat four times the global average in beef — which we didn’t always do — even though overconsuming beef is one of the worst choices for the planet and our bodies? Why do we demand access to food, even out of season, and when it brings environmental harms? Why does white food culture co-opt Indigenous foods and call it “new” while co-opting farming practices too? We don’t ask these questions because we don’t know and might not like some of the answers. But these are part of American “traditions.”

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Trying to change food traditions is met with fierce resistance. Anyone who has tried to take turkey off the Thanksgiving table, or question the colonial tradition of Thanksgiving, has heard excuses like “it’s just the way things are done.” These unquestioned traditions are influenced by the contours of the food system. And in the U.S., food is a colonizing force that maintains systems of oppression, pollution and destruction. We must decolonize our food.

One of the ways humans colonize others is by attacking food access, from the historic killing of bison on the plains to starve Native Americans, to the damming of rivers and outlawing access to food sources for tribal communities. From the ongoing starvation of people around the world, to hunger in the U.S., where more than one in five children suffer food insecurity, even though we produce more than enough to feed everyone.

Colonizers replace traditional foods with foods that are harmful to people, animals and the environment. Supermarkets with healthy food are placed in affluent white neighborhoods while liquor stores and fast-food joints are placed in others. The U.S. food tradition of cheap, quick and unhealthy food, or the agricultural models that focus on short-term efficiency without long-term environmental sustainability, are not worth maintaining.

The last 50 years in the U.S. has seen animal products skyrocket with intensified factory farming. This model is an outdated relic of a polluting past. Meanwhile, land is fiscally valued for its capacity to be exploited, whether through crop agriculture, or for animals to eat the landscape so humans can eat them. Humans are exploited as labor forces, and all of this is consumed as capital before it’s consumed as food.

The communities most impacted by the colonization of the U.S. food systems are often those for whom food is more than just a craving or sustenance — it’s a mindful medicine, ceremony, spirit, and a way of life rooted in biodiversity and a just world. Historically, it is these communities who prioritize the ecosystems, native wildlife, healthy waterways, vital soils, and clean air as a part of producing food. It’s the opposite of exploitative systems that destroy the land, water and biodiversity needed to nourish communities.

Market forces shape consumption practices and normalize them into traditions. Most people don’t want to participate in exploitative food systems. But corporations take advantage of us, creating labeling confusion over “natural,” “local,” “dolphin-safe,” “free-range,” “cage-free,” “grass-fed” (though none takes the misleading cake so as much as “sustainable”).

As individuals, we can make efforts to shop locally and eat food in season and demand systemic changes that hold food corporations accountable for how they treat workers and the environment. But we also need to dig deeper and think about what we want our foodways to be. We need to reimagine our relationship to food, individually, as a community and as a whole.

Meat is an ingrained food tradition in the U.S., but one of the most significant things people can do for the planet is to eat less meat. Studies have shown eating less meat has far greater environmental benefits than eating an all-local diet and shifts support away from the exploitation of the meat industry.

Food is power. To make food traditions more just we must pass policies that protect workers from harm. We must also challenge why people whose labor brings crops from the fields to tables, farm to fork, still have limited access to that same food in their homes. We must bridge the gulf between the rights of workers and those that own farms and factories.

Access to land is a key issue for food justice. Movements to restore land to those from whom it was stolen, “landback movements,” and funding Black, Indigenous and farmers of color, are fundamental to an equitable society and sustainable agriculture. Food sovereignty, which requires land rights, was taken away in the past, and must be restored.

Migrant Farmworkers. Photo: USDA-ERS.

Not all of our traditions are worth hanging onto. So when we sit down to an “all-American meal” or celebrate summer by grilling a burger, or argue about what food is patriotic or isn’t, we should cut away the misinformation one bite at a time, and support the food system everyone deserves.

For the sake of our planet and those impacted by our unjust food system, we need to re-evaluate what it means to eat like an American. Let’s root ourselves in food traditions based on justice and support a healthy, thriving planet.

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