The Friedman School: As white as Wonder Bread

On Nov. 5 and 6, the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, based in Tufts’ Health Sciences campus, will host its annual Friedman Symposium. The symposium brings together policymakers, food industry leaders, public−health experts and sustainable−food advocates to discuss nutrition challenges through both a science and policy framework.

Kathleen Merrigan, current deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and former assistant professor and director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment Program at the Friedman School, is this year’s keynote speaker. Merrigan is an outspoken advocate for local and regional food systems, and we should certainly be proud that she will address our school to discuss the achievements she has made in her new leadership post.

The broader purpose of the symposium, as described on its website, is to serve as “a forum where all parties who have influence or interest in the outcome of nutritional wellbeing may share ideas and gain knowledge that will affect the direction of policy, the advancement of scientific understanding, and improve the quality of nutrition and physical activity for populations in the US and worldwide.”

But something is missing from the symposium this year.

It’s people of color.

Of the 27 confirmed speakers, only one is a person of color. But the whiteness of Friedman goes much deeper than this Symposium. Indeed, the faculty, staff and student body are, as I’ve observed, predominately white.

So, we students ask: With all that continues to swirl around us about racism and the long−term struggle that people of color have faced against oppression, why does the Friedman Symposium look the way it does?

It can’t be because there aren’t any people of color who have something important to say. People of color have risen to influential leadership positions in the so−called “sustainable” or “good−food” movement.

Will Allen, Gerardo Reyes, Van Jones, Michelle Obama and Mas Masumoto are just a few of the leaders in this movement who are effecting change on rooftops, in schools and on farms throughout the United States. Lest we forget the Boston−based leaders like Glenn Lloyd, Julian Agyeman, Mel King, Vivien Morris and Barbara Ferrer, who are all doing tremendous work to change the landscape of our own local food system.

And what about all the people on the ground who suffer most from the inequities of our food system? What about the growing numbers of young people all over the United States who are rethinking how we grow, distribute and eat food? Shouldn’t they be at the symposium to share ideas, gain knowledge and shape policy?

We know people of color were not intentionally excluded from the symposium. But it doesn’t appear that they were intentionally included, either. Herein lies the problem. Many of the problems in our current food system are deeply rooted in institutionalized racism.

In President Barack Obama’s March 2008 speech on race, he made clear to the American people that racism is still a strong and ugly force that shapes our country. This force explains economic inequalities, health disparities and the pervasive achievement gap among black and white students. In his speech, the president quoted William Faulkner, who once wrote, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.”

In order to combat the racism that still persists in America, it is necessary that we take steps to actively and intentionally address the issue of race and engage in potentially uncomfortable conversations.

This opinion piece is a starting point for change at the Friedman School, and we students are committed to sustaining this conversation. Accordingly, we have already submitted a proposal to our school to form a Committee on Diversity and Racial Equity, which will help bring diversity to the forefront of our school’s practices and culture.

Together, let’s address the present in earnest. Let’s create a school that reflects the diversity that constitutes both our food system and our country.

A group of Friedman students, including Lindsey Ripley, Oni Tongo, Ronit Ridberg, Eva Agudelo, Amelia Fischer, Elana Brochin, Elizabeth Whelan, Molly McCullagh, Nicole Tichenor, Lauren Parks, Jackie MacLeod, Lauren E. Wood and Tina Galante — a group that is predominantly white — also supports the ideas conveyed in this opinion piece.