2017 Was a Very Good Year for Food Activism

Even if the year itself wasn't too great.

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Dec 18 2017, 7:00pm

If 2017 and its relentless onslaught of dispiriting news showed us anything, it’s that there is a lot to resist. People’s lives and bodies are coming under threat on micro- and macro-levels; fighting is essential.

There’s nothing apolitical about food, though some may insist that it’s merely a source of comfort, escapism, and refuge from all that is wrong with the world. That is false, for one. It also erases the work of activists who are working tirelessly to use food to make us more thoughtful, empathetic humans; to shift policy; to improve their quality of life.

Food can be a dagger as much as it’s a source of comfort. This year may have shattered, once and for all, the naive myth that food and politics don’t intersect. Of course they do—and we’re all better for it. Here are some of the people who’ve used food as a force for good, to better the lives of the people around them. They’re worth celebrating.

A sanctuary, by definition, is a source of refuge; by that same token, a sanctuary restaurant is a place that positions itself as a retreat for those of us who are marginalized. We spoke to a few of these restaurants in January of this year—restaurants that had created spaces that "do not allow any harassment of any individual based on immigrant/refugee status, race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation to occur in their restaurant."

READ: A Look Inside the 'Sanctuary Restaurants' Popping Up Across America

Cookbook author Julia Turshen corralled 20 fellow activists to compile this almost-pocket-sized—but robust—book of literal and figurative recipes that are geared, specifically, towards activism. All proceeds are funneled directly to the ACLU. "My hope is everyone who reads the book will take some of what they read and be inspired to do something,” Turshen notes. We hope so, too.

READ: How to Fuel a Revolution

Michaela Mendelsohn is the CEO of Pollo West Corp.— she owns six different El Pollo Loco locations in Los Angeles. Mendelsohn, who is trans, has also made a concerted effort to hire as many transgender employees as possible, a rarity for so much of the food service industry. A grand total of 40 of her employees are transgender, and 25 percent of them occupy management positions.

READ: Meet the Activist Creating Fast Food Jobs for Trans People

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which decimated much of the Houston metropolitan area in the late summer, a group of bakers in Houston's El Bollilo were stuck inside their premises. What'd they do? They baked: 4,400 pounds of flour, to be exact, to make bread and pan dulce, delivering it to those who were without access to food as a result of the destruction. They received a flurry of international press, so much that they could barely keep up with it—they weren't expecting to be highlighted for their altruism. They were just doing their jobs.

READ: These Houston Bakers Are Too Busy Making Bread to Talk About Being Heroes

Farming isn't easy in Hong Kong, a metropolis stuffed with skyscrapers; just ask Tam Chi-kit, who grows dai ziu ("big bananas") and sells them in markets across the city. Christopher DeWolf spoke to Tam and visited him on his banana farm."

In Hong Kong, farming and democracy have become intertwined," DeWolf notes, charting how farmers like Tam have made their vocation into an act of political resistance as mainland China controls Hong Kong's supply chains, making homegrown, local food more important than ever.

READ: In Hong Kong, Farming Is a Political Statement

Dr. Mahmoud Naheel is a heart surgeon originally from Syria. Today, though, he lives in the German city of Duisburg, an outpost from which he runs Restaurant Lames, a Syrian restaurant. His uncle, Abdulhai Abo-Alhar, sees the restaurant as an attempt to "show the people of Northwest Germany a real taste of Syria," to undo the unfair and noxious stigmas that have characterized him and his people—the idea that they're just terrorists and bigots.

"I'll cook the best food I'll have ever made," Abo-Alhar vows.

READ: This Syrian Restaurant Is Fighting Negative Stereotypes About Refugees

Tess Wilson and Leah Rosenberg are two bakers who lack formal culinary training, but, in the wake of the Trump presidency, they bake as though their lives depend on it. Wilson and Rosenberg run ProtestCakes, an Instagram feed that catalogues cakes they make that have activist slogans on them. Their endgame, Wilson told us in June, is to get to the point where there's nothing left to protest.

READ: These SF Bakers Are Using Cakes to Protest the Trump Presidency

Jesse Mason and Helen Quin run Mason's Creamery, an ice cream shop in Cleveland, Ohio. When we spoke to the couple, Quin told us that running the shop has given her a platform from which she can speak more openly about her life as a Chinese immigrant in America, where it's become increasingly difficult to merely exist in public spaces as immigrants. Their philosophy, we learned, is simple but crucial: They figure the first step to get people to change their minds is simply to start a conversation with them.

READ: This Cleveland Ice Cream Shop Is Taking a Stand Against Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric

Minneapolis-based Appetite for Change is a youth activism group known for some viral, compulsively watchable hip-hop music videos. MUNCHIES Culture Editor Hilary Pollack spoke to members of the group to understand how they’re looking to improve access to healthful eating options for inhabitants of North Minneapolis, one of the worst food deserts in America, a place where there isn't much beyond fast food. They’re fighting, as Pollack notes, so that they can eat better.

READ: Five Conversations with the Crew from Appetite for Change

We spoke to a group of immigrant detainees in Northwest Detention Center, located in Washington state, who began a hunger strike in April—their fourth since 2014—to resist the constant threat of deportation that looms over so many immigrants in America. The group of protestors, this time around, was 400 strong.

“A hunger strike is one of the most effective ways of protesting in our situation,” one of the protesters, Prince Edwards, told us. “We don't believe in using violent means. … This is the only way we can make it known."

READ: Immigrant Detainees Are Staging a Hunger Strike in Washington

South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Clarissa Wei writes, is a place "heavy with history and politics, still haunted by the effects of colonization and corporatism on indigenous land." Wei embeds with members of the Lakota Sioux tribe to understand how they're trying to maintain their food culture in spite of the many outside forces that are slowly eroding it.

READ: Inside the Lakota Sioux's Fight for Food Sovereignty

As wildfires ripped through Northern California, many were left without shelter and food. Guy Fieri, himself temporarily displaced by the fires, valiantly spent hours making non-stop BBQ for residents of Santa Rosa. He shut down claims that this was all one, long publicity stunt—he was doing this out of the goodness of his own heart.

"This isn't a PR stunt. You don't see my banners up. I'm not promoting anything,” he said. “I'm just here cooking. This is feeding people. People need help, and I'm here to help. That's it."

READ: Guy Fieri Spent Yesterday Making Nonstop BBQ for California Fire Victims and First Responders

People who are HIV-positive often suffer from stigmas that prevent them from permeating certain industries, especially the food world. We spoke to a few of the amateur chefs who’d participated in June's Eatery, a two-night pop-up in Toronto staffed exclusively by a team of 14 HIV-positive chefs who hadn't gotten a chance to pursue careers in food—purely because of the world's prejudice against them.

READ: HIV-Positive Chefs Team Up to End Stigma

Hopefully 2018 will bring us less to protest. These activists—along with the many unseen people who didn't get articles dedicated to them—prove that we’re ready for whatever may come our way. Bring it on, 2018.