One Organizer’s Guide To Using Food To Give Back

Shane Bernardo on how best to provide support to four different communities
give back food
Preparing meals for caregivers is just one way to give back through food. // Photo:IStock

Raised among accomplished food entrepreneurs, food justice organizer Shane Bernardo says he first recognized food as a powerful bridge between communities while growing up in his family’s grocery store on Detroit’s west side. “People may be from different backgrounds, but they might share similar ingredients and traditions around celebrating food,” he says. 

Through extensive work at local nonprofit organizations, such as Earthworks Urban Farm — an arm of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen on Detroit’s east side — Bernardo developed an intimate understanding of the ways in which a flawed food system has created disparities of power to the detriment of marginalized communities. Diet-related illnesses associated with systemic issues within the food industry have hit even closer to home for Bernardo, whose father died of chronic heart disease in 2010. “Food justice issues cross over into a lot of different intersecting issues,” he says. “We address things like food but also systems of poverty.” 

Today, Bernardo is the regional organizing manager for the Midwest at WhyHunger, a New York-based nonprofit, where he works with emergency food providers to help address the causes of chronic hunger, poverty, and structural racism. He also works with the Detroit Food Policy Council to address food insecurity among seniors in southeast Michigan.

Bernardo is also the visionary behind Food as Healing, a social movement with a focus on mending systemic problems within the food system, and the individuals most affected by them. 

Here, he shares four communities especially deserving of your support this giving season and beyond — and how best to provide it. 

Caregivers

Over the past year, some have taken on the often-thankless role as the caregiver of a loved one. Whether overseeing a child taking classes from home or sheltering in place with an elderly parent, caring for others is a demanding responsibility that Bernardo says is severely overlooked. “Caregiving can be very emotionally isolating,” he says. “When you’re spread so thin, sometimes your emotional well runs dry, and it’s really hard to give from an empty cup.” 

Bernardo recommends preparing meals for the caregivers — and their loved ones — to help restore their capacity to provide the care their loved ones need. “It could be especially healing if it’s a culturally relevant meal as opposed to something picked up from a fast-food joint. Offering people foods that they have a connection to can be two gifts in one.”

Food Industry Workers

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has exposed flaws in the food system that have especially hurt low-wage food service workers. “There are levels to the investments that we can make to create real change within the food system,” Bernardo says. For starters, he suggests patronizing businesses that place the rights of food workers front and center. “Support businesses that pay their workers a living wage and provide paid time off, health care, and maternity leave. The health of food industry workers is directly connected to the overall health of the whole food system and those of us that depend on it.” 

Additionally, Bernardo urges locals to become members of food co-ops — or to start their own. He touts projects such as the Detroit People’s Food Co-Op, a full-service grocery store in development on Detroit’s west side, as a true change-maker. “Become a sustainer of this business by investing your dollars into it, as opposed to having a purely transactional relationship with local restaurants that support workers’ rights.” 

Divested Communities

Bernardo implores metro Detroiters to support the growers in marginalized communities who, during a period of extremely high rates of home foreclosures, started urban gardens to create hyperlocal food systems. “Oftentimes, we look at the potential of urban gardens by how much they produce,” Bernardo says, which he believes is misguided. “What we should really be celebrating is people creating healthy environments and stronger connections to their own health, to each other, and to the land.” He applauds neighborhood sites serving fresh produce to people who may not have access to transportation, such as Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, which holds a weekly farmers market on Detroit’s east side, and Feedom Freedom Growers, which hosts a weekend market in the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood. “Put your dollars where they’re going to make the biggest impact.”

Those Grieving a Loss

“What we’ve been experiencing over the past year and a half is a major sense of loss, and that may be attributed to loved ones passing away during the pandemic,” Bernardo says. “The best thing that we can do to heal is to make sure that we are creating systems of mutual aid and care.” For those dealing with grief, Bernardo looks to the community gardens and urban farms that create safe spaces for locals to connect with others to feel affirmed, empowered, and loved.


This story is featured in the November 2021 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition. 

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