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You might recognise Mekdela Maskal from our beautiful recent campaign imagery. But modelling is just one part of the wide-ranging work this intelligent and generous-spirited woman does. A trained journalist, she has worked with Open Newsrooms to help local communities understand and participate in the news process more effectively, and is the Engagement Editor for Covering Climate Now, which works to increase and improve climate change journalism. One aspect of her work that drew our particular interest is in the little-understood realm of food justice – or food apartheid, as it’s increasingly being called.


Sans Woman

–– You recently moved back to in Northern California, near where you grew up, after many years in New York. Was food an important part of your childhood in this area?

Both my parents and my aunts and uncles spent a lot of time in the kitchen. Food was central to our lives, and it was the one thing my parents didn’t concede on. We didn’t have Xmas presents, name-brand clothes, or many toys, but our fridge was always stocked with fresh goods. My mom’s family was on food stamps when they first came to the United States and I often think about that cultural, structural and dietary change for them, from Ethiopia to LA. Learning about the US food systems and community-created alternatives are central to my work now.

–– You work and volunteer within the food justice movement – what does that phrase mean, for those who aren't familiar with it?

So, for me, “food justice” means having or creating equal access to fresh food, while pursuing land sovereignty and worker protections. The United States Department of Agriculture often talks about “food deserts”, which is the idea that some places have an abundance of stores or markets where you can get fresh food, and other places don’t. But that really describes the issue as a geographic one related to grocery stores, and the issue goes beyond that. It’s not about stores as much as it is about who’s growing the food, who owns the farms and the land, how the food is grown, how the food gets to people, and who’s harmed in the process. So now a lot of people are using the the words “food apartheid” which describes the systems at play. The other thing is that “food desert” makes it sound like a natural phenomenon, which is obviously not the case. We need to create more equality throughout the food system – not just fresh food in the store.

"I’ve always been really interested in food as a cultural keeper and how community gathers around it, as well as how it connects us to the earth, particularly in an urban environment. Sometimes it can be our only point of connection."

–– How did you become engaged with this issue?

I’d always been really interested in food as a cultural keeper and how community gathers around it, as well as how it connects us to the earth, particularly in an urban environment. Sometimes it can be our only point of connection. Through moving to Bed-Stuy [Bedford-Stuyvesant, a neighbourhood in Brooklyn, NY] after living in Manhattan for two years, I started feeling like I couldn’t access fresh food in my neighbourhood. I was trying to figure out “Why isn’t there food here?” I started learning about food deserts and food insecurity and that sort of terminology. And then in entering grad school, I started getting more formally into it, because I thought I might want to focus on that area for my graduate work in community journalism.

–– If someone hasn’t ever been affected by food insecurity, it can be hard for them to figure out how to get started in learning more or helping address it locally. You can’t just – for example – search ‘food justice New Zealand” online and find groups to join or advice on what to do. How would you recommend people who are interested in helping get started?

It really depends on how a community shares information already. In Red Hook, a neighbourhood in Brooklyn, they rely on analogue methods of information sharing, like community noticeboards. They have one main one in the neighbourhood and an online version. They also pin fliers to telephone poles and things like that. And there is still a digital divide – there are people who aren’t online. But in another neighbourhood, you might not see that. For me, the first step was walking around in the neighbourhoods, talking with folks, seeing fliers and information and coming home and doing a little bit of research. Then going to specific events to meet people. I don’t know if this is the case everywhere, but a lot of times people are wary of folks who want to help because they don’t know how long they’re going to stick around, and if they want to be “charitable” or actually be a part of the work. I found it was more helpful for me to be at places in person, to show support and that I was committed to using my labour.

–– At Sans we love to talk about food through our Sustenance Journal but we are also conscious that the wellness industry often approaches food and health in a way that’s focused around very niche and expensive ingredients. Do you see that as part of the food justice issue?

I’m always interested when I learn about a medicine or plant and I’m like, “That does that? That’s crazy!” I just think the context is really important. A lot of the time I find these new wellness trends have an indigenous history of some kind, so I think we have to make sure we’re contextualising the trends with their histories, because that will always bring up justice issues. A lot of the time these histories are undocumented because the people who carry the information have passed it on through oral traditions or their histories have been removed through education systems. So when we hear about them then we can start to figure out “Oh, what’s happening here… this isn’t just a new trend, this has history.” When I first started to participate in modern wellness spaces I heard a lot of messaging about “staying present”. I can understand that from the perspective of not letting ourselves get triggered into our own harmful memories, or getting anxious about the future. And also, I think modern wellness has this obsession with the perpetual present that pulls us from our roots. I want to stay rooted, and I do that by paying attention to – and sharing – the sources of things.

–– That’s a great way of approaching it. Can we talk a little about your own personal rituals and practices? If you’re feeling stuck, or uninspired, how do go about transforming your thoughts?

I’m not familiar with feeling stuck because of lack of inspiration – inspiration feels constant for me. I do feel stuck sometimes because of self-criticism or because I’m seeking too much outside feedback or validation. I find that the blessing in my practice can also be a hurdle, and why I feel stuck is an example of that. My thoughtfulness and desire for collaboration can block me from executing on my inspiration, but it also means that my projects tend to be driven by the collective rather than the individual and I’m grateful for that. So, instead of trying to change this practice, I remind myself of why I’m doing something. I return to my purpose (or the “why?”) and think about the next small step I can make in getting there. Something that I can actually do in the present moment, and I execute on that.

— How do you overcome feeling anxious or nervous?

It does depend on if I can put my finger on the source of the anxiety. So, if I don’t know what’s making me anxious, I’ll go through a check-list of sorts in my brain. Have I been sleeping well? Have I been eating well? How’s my water intake? Have I worked up a sweat lately? I’ve found that those are the constants that allow me to handle life with ease and flow. After thinking about that, I will re-commit myself to getting whatever one of those is out of whack into balance. Sometimes it’s not one of those things though, and I can’t quite figure it out with my head, so I’m starting to relearn how to feel it in my body, become embodied and let my energy go where it needs to go.

— Do you practice any of your family’s traditions from when you were growing up?

When my mom came home from work, she would immediately take off her clothes from the day and change into something else. I still do this. It feels like a shedding of what happened that day and way of decompressing. Soon after she got home she would also bend over (like in uttanasana), or stretch up and out like a palm tree, and let out a yell with a wiggle in her arms and head. She would call this releasing. It feels so good.

Dad and I would stargaze together at night. I am still so humbled by the stars, and remind myself to look up. I haven’t lived near my dad since being 11 years old, so I also feel very connected to him through the night sky. My brothers and I would make bonfires almost every night during winter and spring when we were together in our mountain home. I love the communal energy of tending to – and sitting around – a fire. It reminds me of the power of the earth.

And my mom would caress her entire body with oil after washing. I’m so grateful she taught me this practice of self-love through touch

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