This article was originally published in the 3rd Issue of Bluestockings Magazine.
The Brown Market Shares Program (BMSP) is a student-run, campus-based food distribution program that connects the Brown community with regional producers through affordable weekly shares of fresh, local, and sustainable produce, dairy, eggs, bread, and meat. As an organization, we are committed to regional farm security, equitable access to sustainably produced food, and campus activism and engagement. We have a financial structure that allows us to offer lower-cost shares through a subsidized program. This part of the program strives to cut across financial and language barriers and make the program accessible to a wider range of individuals within the Brown community, including staff, faculty, graduate students, and all of their families. From the Fall of 2011 to the Fall of 2013 the Brown Market Shares Program packed 22,000 bags of groceries; 6,600 of those bags were offered at a discounted price. To make that possible, shareholders invested $532,000 in us and we invested 91% of that, $486,000, directly into the local food economy.
Farming as a profession is overlooked, undervalued, and held by less than 1% of the US population. This decline is due not only to complex interactions of political, legal, and economic influences, but also to cultural stigmas. The image of a middle-aged white man in overalls has come to embody “farmer” in our cultural lexicon. It has rendered American agriculture as the domain of white men. A homogenized population feeding the world with monocultures. This homogenization is problematic for two seemingly contradictory reasons. On the one hand, it renders many actors of our food system invisible, ignoring the fact that most agricultural workers are not white. But on the other hand, the whitewashed image of farmer calls another issue to our attention. The majority of farm operators and farm owners are in fact white, middle-aged men. What does it mean when the ownership of farms and food businesses is concentrated in a group of people who do not represent food production on the whole?
We see addressing this gap as crucial to the mission of Brown Market Shares. At Market Shares, positions on the leadership team have always been open to all Brown students. However, the majority of the past coordinators have been female and the current coordinating team is entirely female. Given the gendered context of the food system, it is important to us that we are a group of women running a business that moves capital, food, and awareness through the local food system.
As a team, we have often discussed why female leaders remain unheard in the dominant discourse around food production. What does it mean for us to be women doing food systems work? Even within the alternative modern food movement, upper middle-class, white male voices are generally privileged. They advocate for a new age of conscious consumers; oft-repeated is the mantra “know your farmer, know your food.” Figures like Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and Jamie Oliver urge citizens to, “Vote with your Fork!” but ignore the systematic disenfranchisement that prevents many people from exercising this agency.
Though we have come to this work for different reasons, we are bonded by our marginalized position as women in the food movement. We are concerned with hearing voices that have traditionally been silenced and underrepresented: women, people of color, LGBTQ+ communities, small organic farmers, food service workers, and food insecure individuals.
Market Shares challenges dominant agro-food industries, in which you need not know your farmer, you need not know why he farms, and you need not know his politics. At Market Shares we constantly evaluate our transparency so our shareholders have resources to know our farmers, know how and why they farm, and understand our political engagement: we believe access to healthy, fresh, and affordable food is a right and should not be determined by class or geographic location.
Our opinions and conversations about these issues are the result of our personal experiences. Through farm work, food service, family cooking, academic engagement, and Market Shares, we have each dug up our own food narrative.
As a kid, I rolled my eyes and feigned annoyance when my family packed our hiking gear into our minivan and drove into the West Texas landscape. But in truth, I loved the dirtiness and physical exhaustion I felt after these weekend backpacking trips. Later, as I began to discover my passion for food studies and agricultural work, I again found myself returning home covered in dirt and sweat. In the July heat of a New England summer, as I harvested snap peas, I found another way to physically engage with the landscape. Gender stereotypes typically equate agricultural labor with a masculinity that is supposedly at odds with my identity as a woman. But for me this involvement with the land is what makes me feel most alive. As such, it is a crucial piece of all of my identities.
I can say with full confidence—and pride—that everything I know and love about food I learned from my mom. Many have described her to me as “the most active, engaged person I know”. She was the first person to teach me
to fight for causes I believe in. Causes she is passionate about nutrition, local and sustainable food, fracking, farm security will all come up in any “How was your day?” dinner conversation at my house. All throughout my teens, in my futile effort to differentiate myself from my parents, I resisted my mom’s food activism, as well as any attempt she made to teach me how to cook. Now I realize that I picked it up despite my efforts, and find that I, too, enjoy making food taste good. So here I am at Brown, living Market Shares and thinking of home.
I was scared of the rototiller. “Can’t he do it?” On a farm in my Long Island hometown, men seemed very comfortable operating machinery. I was not. I saw my mechanical illiteracy as a function of my gender. As a woman, I felt this skill was expected to be foreign to me. And it was. However, slowly, I learned the basics. This is where the gas goes. This is a choke. This is what a choke does. After halting attempts, I got the engine started and earned the nickname Tilly. Learning to operate a rototiller by no means got rid of my aversion to machinery—an aversion nurtured from stereotypical gender norms. I realized that operating a farm, even a small scale organic one, requires a mechanical skill set that I am not expected to know. Nonetheless the women in agriculture I know and have learned from continue to show me that it is possible to transcend these gendered expectations.
Growing up, my family portrait pictured me sitting between my mother and my grandmother. In my house, women did the cooking and women paid the bills. They were hardworking, generous, patient; they raised me to celebrate myself, to be both forgiving and strong-willed. For a while I worried I had turned out too soft, too accommodating, too emotional. It was through my work with this team that I dared to revisit the question: what kind of woman am I? Today, I see the qualities that I respect in my mother and grandmother manifested in my work. The women of Market Shares operate in ways that constantly remind me of my roots. I am grateful for my mother and grandmother for shaping me, and I am grateful to the women of Market Shares for valuing a work ethic based in community.
It’s a Sunday October morning in Enoosaen, Kenya
A day for picking pumpkins with Michelli
Overflowing from our uji breakfast, we run into her grandmother’s field
She quickly spots the biggest gourd
I mimic trying to pick it up and
She laughs like jumping jacks
Banana trees fan our dewed toes and vined ankles
Whistling at contented calves
We hoist our golden pumpkin to the house
She is two and I’m nineteen
Sitting side by side on the grass
we begin to carve our midday feast
Do you think rainbow chard is queer?
I think a lot about consumer psychology when I shop at farmers markets. I wonder how often people purchase food based on what produce looks the best or who looks the best selling it. By this I mean—are you more likely to buy food from a farmer who looks like you? What are the intersections of perceptions of beauty and value judgments regarding who grows the tastiest food? I will one day be a farmer, maybe in rural America or maybe a city. But will my short haircut, double nose piercing, and butch presentation prevent someone from buying produce from me? What does it mean for me, as a queer female farmer, to find solace in a profession that traditionally has excluded my identity?
My inner feminist had become a little concerned with my growing domesticity. I was spending a lot of time in the kitchen. I was reading food blogs when I should have been studying. Sometimes, I would even cook dinner for my boyfriend. But then again, I also liked to dig in the dirt. I’d been known to wield a hoe, lug irrigation pipes, and cart buckets of carrots. I’d found satisfaction in growing food, fulfillment in facilitating its distribution, and joy in ensuring its consumption. I’d found a place in the kitchen, but I’d also found one in the field. And on Thursdays, I’d found a place in Hillel with the Market Shares team. There, alongside my fellow lady coordinators, my inner feminist had finally begun to breathe a little easier.
Our narratives are but seven in a vast array of stories from people who do not fit neatly into the dominant construction of American agricultural and food systems work. We ask that you dig deeper and look into these voices that are not as easy to hear. Watch Jonah Mossberg’s film documentary project, “Out Here: A Queer Farmer Film Project” to hear the stories of both urban and rural queer farmers and how their identities influence the work they do; review history with the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast Program; discover Soul Fire Farm’s mission to “dismantle oppressive structures that misguide our food system,” and their internship programs to empower and create space for people of color within the food system; research Annie’s Project- an educational program committed to strengthening women’s role in the modern farm enterprise; and look into FarmHer, a photo documentary that captures women in agriculture across the country.
We say thank you to all of the beautiful women food leaders who inspire the work we do. Thank you to our mothers and grandmothers for showing us the taste of family history. We appreciate your courage, commitment, and ability to lift 50 lb. bags of potatoes with grace.
By The Brown Market Shares Team