Our call is on a Friday morning. Dee has had a busy week and turned down an appointment before our interview because she needs some rest. How she describes the hours and days ahead doesn’t sound like rest, but her voice is strong and I’m convinced she’s going to make it.
Dee is a black food sovereignty activist in a Londoner district, which she describes as being underserved, having experienced deprivation for over a 100 of years. The black food sovereignty movement puts a focus on the most food-deprived groups in the UK – namely African and Asian women. “Farming in the UK is probably the whitest profession”, which pinpoints that access to food sovereignty is also a matter of skin colour.
Her heritage is Trinidadian – and this is actually what brought her into cooking and caring for the food in the community.
Just generally as part of Trinidadian culture, you know, we celebrate, everything is about food, everything is a celebration and everything’s about food. So we were always cooking and I can’t cook for less than ten people. Yeah, that’s a big, big family. Door’s always open, you know, always lots of big pots of food.
She opened a community kitchen and is cooking recipes from all over the world to include everyone in her neighbourhood. She is also an urban-agroecologists and creates “pocket farms”, which means that tiny plots in the district are used by her and her community to grow different crops – one household even has bees on their rooftop.
While Dee talks about upcoming food shortages in the UK, due to Brexit and Covid-19, she is confident that her community “will not go hungry”. The efforts her community has made in the past years resulted in resilience to such shocks!
When it comes to politics she says that policymaking is slow. Too slow to just wait for the right policies to get pushed through – nevertheless policies need to be changed so that they support the local fights. While advocating for these policies at the local, national and international level, projects on the ground need to already work towards better food systems.
Honestly, I think I’m a policy maker, but the new type of policy maker who’s grounded in the grassroots and in the community.
Dee believes that women feed the world. They do it, but they are not seen. There is a lot of work ahead for women. First they have to gather and write down what they need and then they have to build the policies that will support their work. Women’s activities on a farm go beyond planting and harvesting, but include a lot of care work and knowledge transfer, which needs to be reflected in policies around female food producers.
But we feed the world. (…) I always say: we are knowledge keepers, we’re seed keepers. You know, we bring so much more than just picking stuff in fields or planting or dairy farming or whatever it is, we hold so much and we give so much to our communities and to the world. (…) And in terms of equity, we need to work on our rights as well. It is about building that equity in food system, where we are recognized, acknowledged and truly, I would say, honoured for what we do in the world.
Full Transcript of the Interview
I’m so proud to be part of that special family of women who feed the world.
Naomi: On Instagram, you’re called Osunschild. Does it have any special meaning?
Dee: Yes, it’s pronounced o-SH-un, it’s Yoruba. And Oshun is the goddess or deity of love and creation and joy and I am an initiated priestess of Oshun, so that’s why I’m Osunschild. I wouldn’t call it a religion. It’s an earth based way of life, of connecting to the elements. So the deities are really elements. So Oshun is water; fresh water.
Naomi: Is it similar to the philosophy of ecofeminism or is it distinct?
Dee: I would say some of the elements of ecofeminism have come out from that. If you look up Ifá or Orisha on the Internet, there’s a World Heritage Site dedicated to Oshun. That’s, you know, this amazing grotto of art and carvings. And there’s a big annual festival every year. I’ve never been, want to go. But, you know, it’s practiced in other parts of the world, wherever Yoruba people ended up because of the slave trade. So Brazil, Cuba, Trinidad, where my heritage is from. So, yeah, if you look up Oshun, most likely spelled O O S H U N, I spelled it the Yoruba spelling.
Naomi: What is your background? How did you end up in this food sovereignty fight?
Dee: So, born in London to parents from Trinidad and Tobago. And my dad, my family, moved back when I was eight years old. My dad’s a farmer, still is farming at 81 and just grew up around food, so I grew up with producing food, having that knowledge sort of being passed on of growing food, breeding animals or being around animals, being around orchards and, you know, just food growing, as well as people who cook. So people who were professional caterers and bakers, just generally as part of Trinidadian culture, you know, we celebrate, everything is about food, everything is a celebration and everything’s about food. So we were always cooking and I can’t cook for less than ten people. Yeah, that’s a big, big family. Door’s always open, you know, always lots of big pots of food.
Naomi: You also got an award from the BBC as a Cook of the Year. The presenter, Sheila Dillon, said, “as always, we were looking for great food that’s transforming society”. So how is your cooking activity, transforming society or your community?
Dee: So the project that I co-founded and sort of co-run, “Granville Community Kitchen”, is located in, what I call, an underserved area. It has for over 100 years experienced multiple deprivation. And the kitchen was set up in response to people experiencing hunger and using food, using cooking as a way to bring people together. And so I’d always use the word empower, but to empower people to, you know, give people agency and to know that you belong somewhere and that we’re community here and as a community, we can work together to change things. So basically doing that part of work, but also doing some political campaigning and lobbying alongside it. But always, a lot of times, me representing that voice or, you know, encouraging people to use their own voice. So, I would take people to parliamentary events, I was invited to or we’d exchange with different communities and visit other communities and, you know, just build the confidence of people to know that your voice matters, your view matters. So and always our own food, always cooking, always eaten and sharing.
Naomi: So you’re mostly cooking Trinidadian food?
Dee: No, I cook food from all around the world. So we are a little triangle in London. A three and a half thousand people and almost 400 languages are spoken. So it is a very diverse area. And I’ve always wanted my cooking to reflect the diversity of that area. So food from Tonga and Fiji, right through to the Caribbean and America and Africa and India, you name it. So for me, it’s a learning experience as well, because I’m learning from people from those communities as well.
Naomi: You said that it’s an underserved area, is it also underserved in fresh fruits and vegetables?
Dee: Yes, it is. So I use the terminology that Karen Washington uses, which is food apartheid rather than food desert and food swamps, because to me desert implies something natural, as part of a natural eco system when it isn’t natural. Someone’s made a policy decision about that. So that’s what my project tries to address. We grow some foods, we’re in process of looking for more land so that we can become a fully fledged farm. But we also work with farmers and other growers in London and with farmers in West Africa right now, to provide what we call “a good food box”. Which is a solidarity veg-box scheme aimed at low-income people and with culturally appropriate foods in it.
Naomi: Talking about those policies: how is the situation in England and what would you call whitewashed food policies to go back to the food apartheid?
Dee: So, England has not had any sort of national food policy since World War Two.
Naomi: Well, that’s quite some time ago!
Dee: Yeah quite some time ago. We have agricultural policy. We have health policy. We have various other policies, but we don’t have any national food policy. So food in itself hasn’t really been high up on the political agenda until a couple of years ago, when they started a national food strategy process. So the second part of that strategy should be published soon. Very soon, I understand. And that’s supposed to set like a road map for food for the next 30 years. What there has been is food policy at the local level. But because there is no statutory food legislation, we have to fight to make sure that it is taken up. So I am on the London Food Board, it advises the mayor of London, our own sort of policies and actions, our own food in London. And a large aspect of that has been our own food growing. We’re bumping that up now to farming. We work with the Environment Committee to try to open up lines around farming for London. Yeah, it is really, really difficult to get things in terms of food into any sort of policy. If it’s our own children, yes. This is our own child health. You know, certain things. We’re able to get it in, but…
Naomi: How do you think inclusive and anti-food-apartheid policies would look like?
Dee: I think the London Food Board has really, really tried to do that. Thing is, can we send it upstream? So that includes the national food policy. And I’ve been critiquing it so far because to me it isn’t really very inclusive. They haven’t really consulted with the, what, 14 or 15, I think we’re about 16 or 17 percent of the population, which is quite diverse; from Asian to African to Caribbean. With Brexit, yeah, that’s the other thing. It’s like we don’t know what’s happening with our food. With the pandemic, borders are being shut. Lots of issues are on accessing culturally appropriate foods, either because it’s too expensive or because it literally isn’t coming into the country. So there are a lot of other things that impact on food, but all we can do is lobby and try and work on policy proposals. So one thing I worked on a few years ago as well was a people’s food policy, which is a crowd sourced national food strategy for England, because Scotland, they are way ahead. They have their food bill. Wales have their food bill on whatever, I think it’s called “One planet’s strategy”. But it’s England who’s behind. Yeah. So we worked on something that included participatory governance, equity, finances, you name it. We looked at different aspects. Personally I think it probably needs updating for the current times and situation, but it is a really good, strong proposal for food that came from people.
Naomi: Did you see a surge in awareness about food during the pandemic and because of Brexit? That people realized that a lot of food is imported?
Dee: Oh, yeah, people are waking up to that. So even though in terms of like, a lot in food education and events we’ve done and all the other networks I’m involved with. You know, we’ve been saying, “well, we need to produce more food at home”. “We need to change our relationships with, what they call, third countries and make that fairer and more equitable”. For the first few weeks of this pandemic so many people couldn’t access food. And, you know, because I’m involved in La Via Campesina, the ECVC and generally just know farmers and networks, we know what is coming and I’ve been saying to people, “we are going to have food shortages”. That is now official. Right? That is now official. People know food prices are going to go up by at least 30 percent and that we will have food shortages in the new year and partially down to farmers not being able to plant crops. They don’t have the migrant workers to help them. They haven’t been able to reap crops either. A lot of crops were turned in very early on as well in Europe. I think 98 percent of our fruit comes from the EU in the UK. We had two years, right? We should have been planting orchards ten years ago. We had two years where we could have started making some progress towards strengthening the food sovereignty of the UK. And I would include food security within it. But it is about us having a really resilient food system that’s inclusive of everyone’s needs and we’re not ready for that.
Naomi: But maybe it’s a good momentum right now. When people wake up?
Dee: It’s a good momentum. A lot of people are tired. Right. But, you know, we’re planning, we have to keep planning and we have to keep thinking of especially those communities who have no access to food right now other than food aid. Food aid is not sustainable because it’s built mainly on surplus food coming from the industrial food system. Most of the organizations I know, including us, we’re not going beyond April. We cannot afford to go beyond April. We know that food surplus will not be there because we have no hospitality industry anymore. It literally has died. There will be no supermarket surplus because, you know, they’ll probably just be enough or just about enough for consumers, or for eaters rather. Big supermarkets have said there will be food shortages. So this is where a lot of work I’ve been doing and other people around, are sort of building community resilience through food is important. I mean, I know our community will not go hungry, because of our work with farmers, because we’re training people. We’re creating like, what we call a “pocket farm” within the area. So it’s like we’re growing on small plots of land. Someone has bees on a rooftop. We’re looking at all the spaces where we could possibly produce food.
Naomi: OK, so you have little patches of land where you produce different crops?
Dee: Yeah and there’s a giant park, Queens Park, that has animal housing, but no animals in it right now. So we’re thinking of doing a micro diary. So, you know, we’re constantly thinking, experimenting and responding. Yeah.
Naomi: But if there will be food shortage in the U.K. and you’re saying that your community will not go hungry, it shows that the effort you have put in it for the last decades…
Dee: Yeah, and not just me, we’re community efforts, lots of people. We all have different skills and strengths and qualities. Everyone brings something.
Naomi: You’re raising your voice for black food sovereignty. Could you explain what it means and is all your community work dedicated to black food sovereignty?
Dee: I wouldn’t say all of it. For me I always talk about good food for all. And within the UK food movement or food sovereignty movement, it isn’t really inclusive. Call on one hand the number of people of color involved in the movement. And it’s one reason why I got involved, because it was that lack of diversity. The food sovereignty movement in the US is completely different. There’s a long history of farming and of activism around food. You know, with Karen Washington, who I know, being like one of my sheroes, in terms of the work she’s done in urban areas. But, you know, and it’s because the focus: these are black communities who are not getting food. That’s what needs to be done here as well, because a large majority of the people who are going without food, particularly in cities like London, are black people, mainly African and Asian women. So we can’t wait for policy. I know how long policy takes. So policies take time. Yes, it’s still good to work on policies, so make sure that they’re there, because then it supports the work you’re doing. But, you know, we have to do that work in the interim. So for me, black food sovereignty, always say, isn’t separatists. Yeah, because it works in benefit of everyone. It just sort of highlights the communities that really need efforts and not really special attention, but who need to work on their food access, their food ways, food production. So farming in the UK is probably the whitest profession. Right? And we have a world of people who have skills, who have knowledge, or people who want, you know, generations of people grown up here who are disconnected from land and who want to produce food but don’t know how to get involved. So, yeah, for me, food sovereignty generally, but particularly black food sovereignty is about abolition and liberation and breaking down and dismantling those structures of oppression so that everyone can have the right to food and live in dignity.
Naomi: How do you see the role of female food producers or farmers or community growers in the future?
Dee: I think we always dominate, but we’re not seen. Right? Women are the ones who are feeding the world. I would say that: women are the ones feeding the world, but we’re not seen. And I love the project that the Gaia Foundation did with “We Feed the World”, which is now a book, which I have to get. Which highlighted amazing female farmers from around the world, many who I know. And it is that we need to raise our visibility, but we also need to be more involved in going upstream and the policy making. Honestly, I think I’m a policy maker, but the new type of policy maker who’s grounded in the grassroots and in the community. So we need to come together as women to basically put down on paper what we need to support us as women, as women who are producing food, as women who probably have caring responsibilities as well, both for children and for elders and in the wider context of our communities. And we need more support, I would say, to do that. But we feed the world. And I’m so proud to be part of that special family of women who feed the world. I always say: we are knowledge keepers, we’re seed keepers. You know, we bring so much more than just picking stuff in fields or planting or dairy farming or whatever it is, we hold so much and we give so much to our communities and to the world. So we’ll always feature, machines could never replace us. And in terms of equity, we need to work on our rights as well. It is about building that equity in the food system, where we are recognized, acknowledged and truly, I would say, honored for what we do in the world.