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Back in 2006, I heard an absolutely extraordinary story about a woman from Chicago who did amazing things (the story's below the flip). I remembered the story and wanted more info but I had few clues to go on to find the woman it was about.

Fast forward to tonight. LaDonna Redmond was the keynote speaker at this year's Cultivating Food Justice Conference in San Diego. When they announced that she'd be the keynote, I had no idea who she was. Or at least, I THOUGHT I had no idea who she was. But everyone was acting like she was someone important, so I figured I'd find out. And it struck me as odd that I'd somehow missed hearing about a major player in the world of sustainable food and food justice since I've been eating, sleeping, and breathing it for the past 3 years of my life.

So tonight was the big keynote speech. With every detail it sounded more and more like the story I heard in 2006. The pieces all fit together. I had finally found the amazing woman I'd been wondering about - and hoping to get more details on - for the past three years!

More below...

So here's her story, and I hope I am getting it all correct. LaDonna wasn't a food activist way back when, when she had her son. She lived in Chicago and like any other mom she wanted to make a good life for her son. Turns out, her son was born with food allergies. A LOT of food allergies. Dairy, eggs, peanuts, and shellfish, if I remember right. So overnight, LaDonna went from buying her food at the store like any other normal person to intensely researching food because she had no other choice. Back then there weren't allergen labels on foods like there are now.

So as LaDonna went about doing all of this research, she came to begin buying organic food. But her neighborhood didn't sell organic food. Unless you were going to grow it yourself (which she did during the half the year you can grow food in Chicago), you have to drive to get to a Whole Foods or something. So she did that too.

Then one day, she called her sister and her sister's husband answered the phone and said "She ran out to the grocery store, she'll be back in five minutes." And LaDonna thought, "FIVE MINUTES? Why can't I run out to the store and have it take five minutes?" It took her hours to do her food shopping. The drive to the store alone took much more than five minutes.

Her neighborhood sold a variety of things... all kinds of potato chips, a zillion varieties of cigarettes and other tobacco products, any kind of liquor you could ever ask for... yet you couldn't find things like tomatoes. And forget organic tomatoes. Well, I take that back. I haven't eaten in McDonalds for a long time but if their burgers come with tomatoes, then yes, tomatoes were available. I suppose you could get tomatoes in several different menu items at Taco Bell too. But just a tomato? No. And a cup of yogurt? No. You could buy just about anything except for real food.

As LaDonna noted, it wasn't that her neighbors and her lacked money. Perhaps wealth wasn't distributed equally and some people in the area didn't have a lot of money, but there were expensive items like designer clothes sold in the area and there was clearly a market for them. There were enough people around with money to spend to sustain a business. Yet they lacked any businesses that sold them real food. LaDonna terms this "food apartheid" (not "food desert"). A desert has no water because it naturally doesn't rain there. The areas we call food deserts aren't naturally without food. They lack real food due to systematic oppression within our society. Thus the term food apartheid.

So from her beginnings as a mother who just wanted to feed her son food that didn't make him sick, LaDonna became an activist. She began by planting food in her own backyard, but before long she was working with local organizations and got an urban farm going. Pretty soon her neighborhood will have its own grocery store. Instead of getting an outside chain to come in, they are opening their own store (with a hip hop theme) and calling it Graffiti and Grub. I think that's brilliant too. Rather than inviting in the cookie-cutter one-size-fits-all national chain that will give you a store like every other store in the nation, they will now have a store that responds to their own local needs and culture. Not to mention that the money spent in their store will support their local community.

As all of this was happening, LaDonna's son began growing up and she had a daughter too. One day her daughter had a friend over, and when LaDonna began to get dinner ready, she invited the friend to stay for dinner. She was quite surprised when her daughter's friend remarked that his grandmother had run out of food stamps and he had nothing to eat at home. (She didn't say this in her speech, but this - sending a kid over to a friend's house for meals - is a rather common coping method for those who lack the resources to buy sufficient food throughout the month.) The moment was a wake-up call to LaDonna, because the community farm was already a thriving success and yet people in the community were going hungry. So she started giving away the food from the farm to those who needed it.

So this is the story that blew me away back in 2006, and tonight I finally met the fantastic woman who made it all happen. I'm every bit as impressed as I was when I first heard the story. LaDonna not only made her son's life better, she improved the quality of life for her entire community, and she's become an important figure on the national stage, helping other mothers and communities do what she has done.

I think LaDonna's story is important, and not only because she's done tremendous things and she's clearly very effective in what she does. She's important because I think often people think "activists" or "environmentalists" (and now, after the presidential election, "community organizers") sound weird and scary. But a mother who is looking out for her son? We can all identify with that.

I don't know why it is that most people would say they care about the same causes that we do yet far fewer people are willing to identify themselves as "environmentalists" or "feminists" or "activists" or what have you. Perhaps it's because of all of the work those who are against us have done in stigmatizing those labels. But we all understand a mother who loves her son.

I hope that more mothers and fathers will hear how LaDonna came to discover that the vast majority of what we eat - the crap in the middle of the supermarket - isn't good for us, and how she got engaged in food justice and sustainability issues. And I hope that through her, they understand that caring about food justice and about sustainable food is really about caring for the next generation, for our children. It's about trying to give them a world that is as good as or better than the world we inherited. And there's nothing at all that is scary or foreign about that.

Originally posted to Jill Richardson on Fri May 01, 2009 at 09:51 PM PDT.

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