RACHEL BEGLIN COLUMN: What is food sovereignty?

In a world of impending climate change, political unease and a global pandemic, it’s time to consider strengthening our communities and figuring out how to feed ourselves.

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There seems to be an anomaly in our society -- a glitch in the matrix if you will. It’s one you won’t notice if you never get the chance to look at the North American food system from a more objective distance because it seems so normal.

We are socialized to perceive it as normal, from the commercials on television to the bright colors of supermarkets. Yet here it is: Earth provides us food for free, and yet we all go to the supermarket and exchange hard-earned money for produce, meat, and frozen pizza. Continuously, all our lives. Cradle to grave.

I didn’t realize how odd this was until I lived in a mostly subsistence agricultural community in rural Panama, where flourishing mango trees, tall bananas, mighty coconuts, and all other kinds of fruits, roots and leaves fed the people. If they take care of their yards and fields, they are fed year-round, minus a few necessary purchases of salt, sugar, that sort of thing.

Of course, the explanation for buying our food in the United States is that we’ve moved from the agrarian economy that Thomas Jefferson so revered to an industrial economy in the 20th century to now a primarily service-based economy, which means we want to be restaurant managers and car salesman and electricians and lawyers and mechanics before we want to grow our own food.

Even the farmers in the area primarily grow feed corn, which goes to feed animals in factory farms instead of human beings. And there’s a real sacrifice made when all of our food is grown by someone else. The shutdowns of major meat-processing plants in the last year and the fluctuation of both gas and produce prices have illustrated that.


Eating is something sacred, as we trust foods to nourish our bodies and sustain life. Yet in the supermarket, we pick up items and cannot even fathom their animal or plant origins. A Twinkie is unrecognizable, except maybe that it looks like the top of a cattail. High-fructose corn syrup, xanthan gum, gluten-free, keto, organic, grass-fed, cage-free, GMO -- we hardly recognize what we are putting into our bodies or our children’s bodies, no matter how much we try or research.

Not only does buying all our food enable the ongoing disconnect between people and land, but it also leaves us at the mercy of said price fluctuations, threatening our stability. Perhaps reliant is the word I am looking for. In a world of impending climate change, political unease and a global pandemic, it’s time to consider strengthening our communities and figuring out how to feed ourselves.

In response to precisely this anomaly, a budding food sovereignty movement has emerged, most obvious perhaps in the gardening and sourdough boom caused by the pandemic. Food sovereignty is about the ability to feed oneself and one’s community.

It’s self-reliance. It has been especially powerful in indigenous communities, including Bemidji’s own Ojibwe neighbors, where food deserts and a lack of healthy and culturally relevant food have manifested in public health disparities exacerbated by COVID-19. In Red Lake, for example, the tribal council is supporting efforts to bring back the buffalo, till over 400 home gardens annually, and provide local produce via an ice-fishing-trailer-turned-mobile-farmers-market.

I’ve also seen edible parks designed by Michigan State in Detroit where children’s playgrounds are surrounded by fruit-bearing, rather than ornamental, trees and shrubs. Food sovereignty can look like mutual aid, turning your lawn into an edible food space, shopping at farmers markets, getting a community garden plot, saving your own seeds instead of buying them in a packet, joining a CSA, supporting local restaurants, hunting, and even foraging in the woods for wild raspberries and other goodies.

Don’t misunderstand me -- I too shop in grocery stores in town and rely on farmers, factories and frontline workers to feed myself. Some days that feels inevitable. But the food sovereignty initiative gives me hope that the people can reclaim some power and independence from Tyson chicken and Kellogg’s cereal and restore ownership, joy, and justice in what often feels like a broken food system.

With the democratic nature of social media, YouTube tutorials and Zoom webinars, anyone can learn how to grow tomatoes, knead bread, ferment sauerkraut or raise backyard chickens. The benefits of reclaiming our food sovereignty range from mental and physical health to lowering our carbon footprint, and with spring on the horizon, now is a great time to examine and reimagine our dinner plates and outdoor spaces.

Originally from Phoenix, Ariz., Rachel Beglin now resides in Bemidji. She is a former Peace Corps Volunteer, sustainability advocate, gardener, writer and coffee enthusiast.

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