“M”: a Memo on Integrated Food Education from my Multicultural Perch

Filling a recent form, I was presented the option to identify as BIMPOC (Black/Indigenous/Multiracial/Person of Color), followed by the prompt: As someone who potentially shares the lived experience of many of our community members, how can you see yourself applying that experience in your service?

As someone who embraces their roots, I often feel too loosely tethered to them. This, I’m sure, has not gone unaffected by missing out on getting to know grandparents or being seen as more ‘ambiguous’ than say, Chinese. I’m sure growing up (and let’s be honest, into adulthood) I made a stink about it, finding every opportunity to drop the fact that I was Asian. For that I deserve at least a few retroactive slaps upside the head. Over the years I’ve realized that most of my anecdotes stemmed from two branches: the way I was raised (respect, work ethic) and the foods that I ate. It took time to fully appreciate having been raised with foods that both classmates and later, somewhat alarmingly, colleagues would pinch their noses at.

I try to recall food memories as often as possible with my mother, because I am grateful for that early integration. In hindsight, it feels like almost a mishap that I was introduced to these flavors, as she no doubt faced pressures of assimilation in single-handedly raising these three American kids in predominantly white suburbia. Therefore, there was no shortage of Lunchables and PB&J to balance things out. I am especially touched to recall matzo-and-cream cheese sandwiches during Pesach/Passover (never emerging from the lunchbag intact), as my mom made a point to recognize our Jewish traditions as well.

That said, in today’s social climate I am at a crossroads when it comes to cultural identity. Many people of color may categorize me as white, or at least immune to prejudice, while white people don’t know how to place me. There’s an exoticism of mixed-race people that disturbs me, especially when people fawn over the possibilities of multiracial babies (there are Pinterest boards of them). It’s true that I certainly don’t face hardships, racism or systemic injustices based on my name or appearance, and cannot claim to share in that experience. It is also true that I have the right to claim cultural heritage that is linked to my bloodline, and not choose a side or exist in a grey area. As I read and listen to discussions among Native/First Nations individuals addressing blood quantum and indigeneity, I see correlations and feel these are all conversations to delve into further, more frequently and among a wider audience.

The form I was filling was for a role in incorporating healthy foods into school systems. This was my response, and the above reflection was my afterthought:

To both document my transition into this field and share resources with others along the way, I built a website (botheredearth.com) that would serve as a hub for all things agricultural and environmental, with a focus on farmer resilience and food sovereignty. Part of highlighting stories of resilience is to shift the narrative away from pure doom and gloom, but in large part it is to shed light on the efforts and successes of overlooked and underrepresented BIMPOC farmers and agricultural/food systems workers who are often the ones paving the way through innovation, advocacy and inclusivity.

As a woman of mixed race, I do not claim to have personally experienced strong prejudices. As the daughter of a Chinese mother who immigrated from Thailand, I witness it more aptly through her experiences, and have a heightened awareness toward mis- and underrepresentation of minorities. In educating our students and communities about healthier food options, I believe we also have an important and exciting opportunity to address the connections between foodways and culture.

Having had the privilege of an early exposure to different cultures, I have always believed in early introductions to anything that can enrich education or widen perspectives. Embracing healthy, fortifying foods among our communities’ youth can be a powerful catalyst for ensuring they lead more well-rounded lives moving forward. Considering accepted norms, lack of affordable healthy options, and overabundance of snack-filled corner stores and fast food chains in many lower-income communities and communities of color, I do believe schools are often our best shot at getting through to students when it comes to better eating.

In addition to educating our youths about the importance of healthy foods, I would add the effort of introducing individuals of different ethnic backgrounds from both past and present who have made, or are making waves, on the matter of better eating, so that students have role models they can both look up to and relate to. I would encourage them to share food traditions of their families, or to engage with family and community elders in learning about more deeply rooted connections to foods.

The long and the short of this is that I thank those who curated the form for including that “M” - giving me the opportunity to explore this, and find a meaningful context where I can put it to use. Here’s hoping it leads to convincing kids to eat their veggies and also be down with snacking on some stinky fish.

Homespun character. Repurposed material. Stopped motion. @restlessleg on Instagram

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