At a conference last weekend, I spoke at length about the daily realities families face in my community when presented with little to no healthy food options. I spoke about the difficulties of getting my children to chose a banana over Cheetos and water over soda—-during a conference that had a table full of soda on full display. In fairness, that most likely was the fault of craft services and not the conference organizers, but there it was no less. And when my children had a meltdown at lunchtime because they wanted said soda, I thought I was being a good mom by offering a small amount of ginger ale instead of Pepsi. A few folks disagreed, gossiping about me and calling me a hypocrite.

This experience was triggering and familiar, but the accusatory language and assumptions are things that I can never get used to. Mainstream rhetoric continues to place the blame on mothers and individuals rather than having honest and critical dialogue around the systemic forces that leave many communities very few choices in regards to encouraging positive eating habits. This was supposed to be a safe space and yet here was the ironic and ugly truth.

Why was I singled out? How was I more obvious than any of the other adults sucking back Arizona iced teas and Sierra Mist? Second, where were the other alternatives? Third, why was I indicted and not the hotel for putting it out or the conference conveners for not asking them to take it away when it became apparent it was being served? This wasn’t merely gossip, this pattern was also indicative of a broader message mothers like me hear, see and read everyday: “You’re a bad mom who makes bad decisions and THAT’S why your kids are sick or overweight.”

And here is the irony of the work I do.

I live in one of the poorest congressional districts in the country—a resilient, vibrant community that continues to flourish even though we face extreme obstacles. The South Bronx still seems to bring imagery of poverty, violence and pollution to many. Our community is one that hosts the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center, the largest food distribution center in the world, but little of that food makes it’s way into our bodegas, grocery stores and markets. We have very few options in way of healthy and nutritious value-added and prepared food. Half a gallon of organic milk—when it's even available—is $6.29 at my local grocery store. 

The meltdown my children had at the conference is one I encounter daily when I suggest a banana over Cheetos and water over soda. They are bombarded with images of crap food disguised as a child’s rite of passage and yet I am the mother who cooks mosts meals, talks about what goes into their food and offers healthy snacks as much as my meager food budget allows me. I travel to other neighborhoods in my rickety car to make it happen.

But the rhetoric in the mainstream media and amongst people who live outside of our community often entirely blames the parents and guardians for our food problems. Very little commentary is given to how easy, cheap and widely available processed, GMO laden food is in my community. There is little to no mainstream conversation around the intersections over the feminization of poverty, class, race and food hardship. Instead I show up to conferences where folks should know better and still fail to see the irony in blaming the individual versus questioning the SYSTEM that creates a stacked deck. And in many cases when it is acknowledged, it is in the context of community members as recipients and not as empowered stakeholders who have the ability to help construct a better alternative in their communities (that’s another post).

The New York Times recently published an article that was surprising to no one in my hood about the addictive nature of junk food. In my hood, it’s pushed as heavily as Molly, heroin and crack. Yet, here we are still blaming the individuals instead of demanding the dismantling of an unjust, inequitable and all around unhealthy food system. One that manifests itself even at well meaning and thought out food conferences.

Time to wake up folks. Each individual can try harder but it’s time for a sick food system to take it’s foot up off our necks.

Tanya Fields is a food justice activist, public speaker, educator, food enthusiast, sometimes blogger, fierce mama bear of four precocious children and the founder and executive director of the BLK Projek. In her spare time she updates a food blog called Mama’s Kitchen From Scratch and does a cooking demo workshop called Fab Food on a Food Stamp Budget. You can find her on Twitter and Facebook.