Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

Bobby J. Smith II is a professor of African American Studies at the University of Illinois. His first book, “Food Power Politics: The Food Story of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement” was published in August 2023 by the University of North Carolina Press. This book takes on the politically fraught food history of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, and connects those civil-rights-era conflicts to local youth movements organizing for food justice today.

Enjoy our conversation about food as a weapon, the dual purpose of food stamps, and the gaps left by Mississippi’s historical landmarks, below.

Bobby J. Smith II is assistant professor in the Department of African American Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Photo provided)

You see that the work of food justice has been going on for a very long time, it’s just that now we have language to capture what we’re doing in a more conceptualized way. That was the biggest thing for me early on, was seeing that there was a lot of history there and Black people were at the center of it.

Bobby J. Smith II

Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: I’d love to begin with some context for you and your career. Can you tell me about your work up to this point, and how you got into the historical topic of food politics in the Mississippi Delta?

Bobby J. Smith II: It’s always interesting trying to think about when I started this project. The simple, quick story is that the book was born out of my dissertation research at Cornell University when I was in graduate school. I took a class in the spring of 2016 about community organizing and development. I’m a sociologist by training, and at that time I was also doing my own personal community organizing in Ithaca, New York around the idea of food justice – we called it the idea of food justice at the time, now it’s taken on a life of its own – and also Black Lives Matter in New York. And through that work I decided I wanted to do my dissertation project on something around food justice. And I had been thinking about various moments in history, but it wasn’t until that class in 2016, we read a book by Charles Payne called “I’ve Got the Light of Freedom,” that I got a better sense of what I wanted to research. In that book, Payne recovered the organizing tradition of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement in a place called Greenwood, Mississippi. As I was reading the book, I was trying to think about ways to connect it to my own work around food security and agriculture. And, around chapter five, I learned about one of the first moments we see food take center stage within the Civil Rights Movement nationally but also within the state of Mississippi, in the form of the Greenwood food blockade, which is really the entry point into the book. 

The other side of the story is that I come from a long history of Black farmers, Black sharecroppers, Black people who worked in agriculture and on the land. So agriculture has always been a part of my life. And, broadly, my research interests have always been at the intersection of food, agriculture, and Black life in America. My undergraduate degree is in agricultural economics, I have a Master’s in agricultural economics, and a PhD in development sociology. So for me, this book is a culmination of my own personal and family interests, but also my own academic interest in food, and its relationship to race and inequality and things like that.

DY: In the last chapter of the book, you make the connection between this broader idea of food justice, which is a phrase you’ve mentioned is getting a lot of play right now, and the history of Black community organizing around food in the south. It made me wonder, were there any particular historical realizations that brought a new meaning to your work around food justice in your own life?

BJS: My research really showed me that there was a larger and longer tradition around this idea of food justice within Black communities. When food justice first became a concept or a movement, probably 20 years ago, people weren’t thinking about food justice from a historical standpoint. They were thinking about newer phenomena in particularly urban or urban low-income communities, among low-income white people and people of color. They were thinking about how these urban communities could reclaim urban spaces and grow their own food to address dietary issues, or political concerns around obesity and diuretic illnesses. So food justice initially was seen as a new concept, but in my work, what I learned was that the history of food justice in the United States has deep roots in the history of Black people. And once we started seeing that there was a longer tradition of food justice in Black communities, we started thinking, how can we learn from the past to create new models for food security?

But also what I realized is that Black people were always doing food justice. And I want to make very clear that, when I say they were doing food justice, that’s not what they would call it. The last chapter of my book comes all the way up to the present day with that concept, because that is how those youth in Mississippi are conceptualizing their work, in the form of food justice and local food systems work. That was the connection I was trying to make, from the past to present. You see that the work of food justice has been going on for a very long time, it’s just that now we have language to capture what we’re doing in a more conceptualized way. That was the biggest thing for me early on, was seeing that there was a lot of history there and Black people were at the center of it. And that just wasn’t a common conversation about seven years ago when I started the dissertation project.

DY: So just to contextualize for readers who haven’t been able to look at the book yet, I know that this is a big ask, but can we just quickly go through the four different historical points you’re talking about in the book?

BJS: There’s a larger point to the book, which is showing that there are different ways that food can be used as a weapon, and that’s this idea of the food power politics as a theoretical framework. Food has been used as a weapon against Black communities in America since slavery. But also, in response, Black people have organized their own food programs, food initiatives, as a way to counter weaponize food. So the four chapters of the book are four different examples of ways in which food has been weaponized. For example, chapter one is about the Greenwood Food Blockade, which seemed like an entry point into the conversation around food power politics because it’s the first time we can see food being used as both a weapon against Black communities in the context of civil rights, and also how those communities and communities organized in response with the Food for Freedom program. 

Then chapter two looks at one side of the food power politics conversation but gets more into the mechanics of that process. In chapter one, we look at a federal food program that is dismantled and just taken away. But in chapter two, we see a federal program that is actually being implemented, but that is transformed into a site for food to be used as a weapon. In that chapter the food stamp program becomes a space for white grocery store owners to use food as an economic weapon. In chapter two I wanted to show that, when we think about food stamps, we think about food as being a program solely designed to feed people. And that’s just not the case. In fact, food stamps are embedded in a larger story of trying to ensure that commercial food outlets can also sustain themselves in times where the nation is going through high levels of poverty. 

In chapter three I show how Black communities responded historically. So I show how the North Bolivar County Farm cooperative in many ways is a direct response to the ways in which food was withheld from Black communities. There we see L.C. Dorsey talking about how the cooperative was born out of changing the plantation system, but also ineffective food stamp programs. And I think it’s important to situate it that way and make clear that the activists understood that food stamps and federal food programs were never designed primarily to enhance the food realities of those who were in need or those who we would call food insecure today. Chapter three shows the other side of that struggle, and then chapter four shows how communities today in the same region and even in the same neighborhood are navigating the history of food power politics. In this way the Civil Rights Movement never really ended. The reason why I took up the youth question was because I wanted to show that there’s a new generation of young folks who are going to continue this work around food injustice and agriculture. 

So that’s how I conceptualize the different parts of the book. The broader thing is that I want us to rethink food, and not think about it just as something that we eat, or something that we go to the grocery store to get or something that we order on DoorDash or put on our plate. I want to think deeper about food and how food has been transformed into a weapon.

DY: I want to just hold on this point that I found really fascinating and horrifying in the book, which is that, as far as I understand it, there was a sense in which federal food programs were conceptualized primarily as a way for farmers to sell their excess crops. But in places where Black sharecroppers were really in need of federal food subsidies, white farmers could benefit from the crop programs and then their counties could go ahead and opt out of the food programs. So these struggling agricultural regions could get their excess crops purchased by the federal government, and then turn around and not actually provide that subsidized food back to its sharecropping population as intended. I thought that that was just a really telling example of who those programs were actually for in the beginning. Does that characterization seem right to you? And do you have anything more to say about it?

BJS: Yeah, I think that’s accurate. That connection really drove a number of points home because what was interesting to me was that the food provided to sharecroppers was only meant to keep them alive. The food was not designed to enhance their lives. It was not designed to promote healthy outcomes. It wasn’t nutritious food. It was really food as an element of a larger plantation economy, designed to promote a world agricultural market. When we talk about these programs today, it’s as if these programs are pure, anti-poverty programs designed to feed people who don’t have money, and that’s still just not the case.

Smith’s first monograph, “Food Power Politics” is available now from UNC Press. (Photo via UNC Press)

The Federal Surplus Commodities program was originally designed with farmers in mind in the 1930s. But then also when the federal food stamp program comes in, it’s still about supporting farmers by purchasing surplus food, but then they’re also adding in more assistance for commercial food outlets in the same plantation regions and counties. So that’s also about economic control of food.

DY: You write that the North Bolivar County Farm Cooperative left no physical trace. There’s no memorial anywhere. So I’m just curious about the new generation of food justice advocates working in that area who draw really specifically on the ideas of that older generation and how that historical memory was passed on. How do these young people know about the goals and the accomplishments of that earlier system and in what ways does the legacy live on despite this lack of memorialization?

BJS: Particularly in the American South in a place like Mississippi, there’s a big culture of historical markers. You can drive around the state and see historical markers for all kinds of places and events. But when it comes to the North Bolivar Farm Cooperative, there’s nothing to mark that it ever existed. So the youth are a part of the larger food justice movement, and they only knew that this cooperative existed because they knew some of the people who were a part of it when it was functioning. So memory is what links the youth to the past. Though the original cooperative dissolved in the early 1970s, several iterations of it kept going throughout the early 1990s, so there were people around to make connections between the food justice work of the past and present.

DY: What’s your favorite part of teaching this history and these concepts to students?

BJS: As a nation, we don’t ever take food as seriously as we should. Not on any election ballot, or when people run for president. Access to food is not at the top of the agenda. And I want my students to think more critically about that. My favorite part of teaching this stuff is that by the end of my classes on these topics, students are always amazed that there’s so much language and discourse and conversation around issues of food insecurity that they had never even heard of or considered. It’s really eye opening for them when we start thinking about food insecurity by the numbers, and we look at maps of zip codes and communities that lack access to food and they start saying, “Oh, I live right next door to that community. I never knew they were struggling in that way.” And they often start to ask what they can do to advocate for food justice. Students begin to make connections to the past, and start asking “How do we give people consistent, reliable access to nutritious food?” And that’s the most exciting part about it. Students begin to make connections they’ve never made before, and to think more critically about our food systems.

This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

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