“Climate change is the existential crisis of our time, and it’s clear that our current system is failing those who most need—and deserve—federal assistance after a national disaster. The good news is that there are affordable ways of reversing that damage and building a more equitable system. We call on policymakers and elected officials to take the initiative and work to solve these problems before it’s too late.” -Rachel Gore Freed, Vice President and Chief Program Officer at Unitarian Universalist Service Committee
Federal disaster response efforts have long disproportionately benefited the white and the wealthy, but the growing impact of climate change makes it critically important for policymakers to steer more resources and assistance to Indigenous Peoples, communities of color, and other marginalized populations. On April 12, 2021, the Legal Justice Coalition (facilitated by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and the Lowlander Center) and the Rising Voices Community Relocation & Site Expansion Working Group released the policy brief, Addressing Climate-Forced Displacement in the United States: A Just and Equitable Response. The brief, co-authored by 36 community leaders, legal advocates, researchers, and allies from across the United States, highlights the inequity and injustices of climate disaster response and recommends concrete, high-level policy solutions.
Ricki Draper (past LiKEN Community Engagement Coordinator) and Mary Cromer (Deputy Director of the Appalachian Citizens Law Center) published an Appalachian Citizens Law Center (ACLC) report (September 2019) examining water affordability and the impact of rate increases in eastern Kentucky’s Martin County. County residents have been organizing around water quality and demanding accountability from their local district government since a 2000 coal slurry spill into the nearby waterways. Martin County has one of the highest costs for water which many residents do not rely on for drinking, cooking or hygiene. This is due to the water’s known murky color and hazardous qualities.
The study grounds itself in the issue of water burden, which the authors define as the percent of a household’s income spent on its water bill. Presenting water burden for households in 10 income brackets and using the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) standard for affordability, the study finds that water is unaffordable for over 45.8% of Martin County households. The EPA upholds that a water burden of 2.5% or above is unaffordable, and for 18.1% of Martin County households with incomes below $10,000 — the water burden is 6.5%, which is more than twice the EPA threshold. Findings indicate this burden is even higher for Martin County’s 1,229 SSI recipients, who would be spending 7.97% of their income on water with the district’s rates. This is more than three times the EPA threshold.
16% of household water meters were disconnected between July 2018-June 2019, further demonstrating the unaffordability of the district’s current rates. Martin County residents cannot afford ongoing rate increases. The district claims the increases are to acquire revenue to fix the water system, but this system has neglected residents for years. Residents are concerned about how the district allocates public revenue towards projects that do not best serve the needs of their communities.
The report concludes with several suggestions for responding to the affordability crisis, such as asking the district to protect citizens – especially their most vulnerable – from ongoing rate increases. The authors urge the Public Service Commission to consider affordability when setting public utility rates and to explore alternative rate structures.
Since the report was published, the water district has entered into a contract with the outside management company Alliance Water Resources. In the study report, the authors note that over the past year, the district’s water loss rates have varied from 72.8% in August 2018 to 57.4% in February 2019. In September 2019, the average water loss rate for the year in Martin County was 69.54%.
At the Martin County water board meeting held in July, the district reported that the water loss rate was 70.77% in June 2020. Six months into Alliance’s management, 37, 173 gallons of water were lost out of the 52, 524 gallons produced. Citizens have also expressed recent concerns over higher water bills, which Alliance has said is due to their transition to new software that reads to the nearest ten gallons as opposed to the nearest 1,000 gallons. Martin County citizens continue to advocate for infrastructural changes and an urgent need for funding to be allocated towards improving water quality and water affordability.
Eastern Kentucky Water Network
LiKEN has helped convene a vibrant Eastern Kentucky Water Network (EKWN), composed of organizations and individuals working passionately on water issues across Eastern Kentucky. The network was formed in late 2019, and continues to meet bimonthly since then. EKWN provides a platform for stakeholders to work together to secure clean and affordable drinking water and improved watershed quality in Eastern Kentucky. The Network hopes to equip Eastern Kentucky residents with the capacity to affect and change water related policies at the local, state, and national level.
Tap Water Study
Martin County residents have long distrusted their district’s water system. For more than a decade, residents have regularly received notifications in water bills that disinfectant byproduct levels have exceeded EPA maximum contaminant levels. A recent collaborative tap water study — the first of its kind — confirms how water in the county exceeds the U.S. EPA maximum contaminant levels for cancer associated disinfection byproducts and coliform bacteria.
The University of Kentucky College of Appalachian Research in Environmental Sciences (UK-CARES) and citizen scientists from Martin County Concerned Citizens worked together to pilot the study. Over the course of the 2018-2019 calendar year, Ricki Draper and Nina McCoy visited 97 households in Martin County to collect water samples for chemical analysis and to administer a survey aimed at evaluating community health concerns.
Preliminary findings were published this year and reported back in a community forum in July. 47% of household samples had at least one contaminant that exceeded at least one U.S. EPA maximum contaminant level or secondary maximum contaminant level. The study also found that 99% of respondents reported concerns with their drinking water, including problems with odor, appearance, taste, and water pressure. Only 12% of respondents reported actually using tap water for drinking water.
UK-CARES and MCCC will continue to work to examine these issues more in depth and to develop technical tools to help water utilities respond to the problems that have been identified.
Cover jacket for 2019 book, edited by Devon Mihesuah and Elizabeth Hoover, Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States: Restoring Cultural Knowledge, Protecting Environments, and Regaining Health.
Is feeding the hungry, a key moral value in religious teachings across cultures? I was recently asked this by a pediatrician concerned about child hunger in low income communities in the U.S. This piece weaves together contributions from our anthropological hive mind, after I posted her query on two anthropological digital platforms.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of reciprocal food exchange to the maintenance of group cohesion and egalitarianism in horticultural and foraging societies–through daily and seasonal practices grounded in and by myth and ritual (Rapaport 1979, 1984, 1999). To give just one example among many, a Yanomami hunter cannot eat the animals he kills, but must share the meat with his family and others and “…the reciprocal exchange of meat and other foods between individuals becomes a critical factor for the maintenance of village cohesion” (Good 1989, 131). (Also, for a broad look at the intertwining of food and social life in all societies, see Mintz and DuBois 2002.)
Ceremonial food distribution
Akissi Britton says, “In Orisa traditions of the Yoruba (of Nigeria) and Yoruba diaspora–Afro-Cuban Lucumi and Brazilian Candomble–while there is not the same “mandate” as in the Abrahamic faiths, there is absolutely a concept of food sharing that is an important part of ritual. After many large (and small) rituals in which animal sacrifice takes place, for the ritual to “take” or be completed it is essential for the food to be prepared and shared with the community. There is also the practice of feeding those who come to do the long and hard labor of ceremony, which is a sign of reciprocity and giving thanks to the workers of ceremony” (personal communication, Akissi Britton, December 2020, for more, see Perez 2016).
In Sikhism, equitable sharing of food is particularly central to Sikh identity and practice — in the tradition of the langar (or free kitchen). In Gurudwaras (Sikh temples), this volunteer run, community kitchen is very important. According to tradition, it was started by the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak, who possibly drew from a 4th century reform food practice in Hinduism. Guru Nanak specifically designed langar to inculcate equality that breaks down barriers of religion, caste, race, creed, age, gender, or social status. The value of equality is embodied in the great care taken to create seating arrangements that put everyone on an equal level, and volunteers are carefully trained in the values and traditional protocols for equal and courteous service for all regardless of their status. This practice has globalized with the Sikh diaspora, and langars around the world often attract many hundreds, including many unhoused people. (For more, see Nesbitt 2016.)
Pervasive practices of food sharing throughout the many varieties of Hinduism give moral value to the giving of food and the renunciation of greed for food (even while food taboos are key mechanisms in maintaining caste and other hierarchies and inequalities). Food is distributed to the poor from temples as part of AnnaDaan – ritual food donation, and in the giving of Prasad (food distributed as a blessing). Merit is gained from alms given to mendicants who ask for food (whether because of poverty or as part of a spiritual vow).
In Buddhism, general practices of compassion include food sharing. For instance in Theravada countries, such as Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar, food redistribution is often directed toward monks, and temples often redistribute the excess to any who come to their grounds, as well as in frequent holidays.
Care for those who are on the margins of societal provisioning is a recurrent admonition in Muslim, Jewish, and Christian scriptures, with repeated stated obligations to feed widows, orphans, and even the stranger, and strong injunctions to charitable giving of food in general.
The dynamic interplay between the needs of self and neighbor can be seen in one of the most important Muslim scriptures regarding hunger: “He is not a believer, who having filled his stomach, went and slept all the night while his neighbor remained hungry although he was aware of it (72 Hadith Al-Ausat by Rabrani).” Some interpretations of this principle include a strong class analysis: Hadith Number 8: The Reason for Zakat, A Trial for the Wealthy:
On the authority of Abi Abdullah (Imam) al-Sadiq (peace be upon him): Zakat has only been enforced as a trial for the rich and as a provision for the needy. Were people to carry out the zakat of their wealth, no Muslim would remain poverty-stricken and needy; he would manage with that which Allah has decreed. Indeed, people are only impoverished, needy, hungry and unclothed as a result of the sins of the wealthy. (Man La Yahdhuruhu al-Faqih, Volume 2, page 7)
These scriptural injunctions shape daily practices in fascinatingly complex ways (Benthall and Bellion-Jourdan 2009, Deeb 2006, Taylor 2015).
Food sovereignty: decolonizing our understanding of food equity
Indigenous movements are distilling ideas of food sovereignty that emphasize that moral questions about the distribution of food must be embedded in rights to land and production (Cote 2016; Grey and Patel 2014; Mihesuah and Hoover; Vernon 2015). Cherokee scholar Jeff Corntassel says “Without the ability of community members to continuously renew their relationships with the natural world (i.e., gathering medicines, hunting and fishing, basket-making, etc.), indigenous languages, traditional teachings, family structures, and livelihoods of that community are all jeopardized” (Corntassel 2008, 118). These movements engage contemporary struggles with perspectives that draw on traditional wisdom and practices, while situating claims within universal human rights frameworks (for more on rights to food in international human rights frameworks, see Messer 2004). This cosmological and moral vision is grounded in dynamic, living, placed relationships among land, ecology, and humans that reconnect the production and consumption of food into local social and cultural webs of mutual responsibilities and relationships and “…challenges the hegemony of the globalized, neoliberal, industrial, capital-intensive, corporate-led model of agriculture that created destructive economic policies that marginalized small-scale farmers, removed them from their land, and forced them into the global market economy as wage laborers…[and] requires examining the efforts being made by Indigenous communities to restore these relationships through the revitalization of their Indigenous foods and ecological knowledge systems” (Cote 2016, 2).
What can public anthropology contribute to the multistakeholder effort to end hunger?
It is difficult to summarize anthropological knowledge on this topic–for the general public or for policy makers–because there is such a lavish variety of cultural expression in norms about feeding the hungry. But, anthropologists have a lot to contribute to public conversations about food equity and the role of religion. Specifically, we can help to make real the poetics, power, and appeal of these forms of human generosity across diverse traditions, to support broad collaborations and inter-cultural appreciation of the diversity of gifts that different religious traditions bring to ending hunger. These thick descriptions of cultural diversity can provide evidence for a different view of human nature from that embedded in much of our hyper-competitive and increasingly unequal society. Public debates about hunger in the early 21st century are continually distorted by the undertow of several centuries of market ideologies that attribute a magical capacity of market competition to solve social problems of inequitable distribution. This magical market cosmology can make hunger seem inevitable because inequality looks natural if competitiveness is deemed the dominant trait of human nature (Reid and Taylor 2010).
Emerging Indigenous voices can make particular contributions because they bring a different grounding to these questions from religions grounded in scriptural injunctions. For instance, scriptural calls to feed the hungry in Abrahamic traditions have a universalizing force and clarity. But, Indigenous spiritual practices rooted in land- and community-based practices bring different powers and perspectives for ethical action that very directly engage issues of equity and justice around the full food chain (from production to consumption to regenerative recycling).
Acknowledgements: I thank Deborah A. Frank for posing the original question, which I posted onto the American Anthropological Association and the Environment and Anthropology Society listservs. Many thanks to those who responded with helpful scholarly citations or their distillations of literatures in areas of their expertise (shown in parentheses): Leslie Sponsel (Amazonia and Hinduism); Robin Hide (New Guinea); Akissi Britton (Yoruba); Murray Leaf, Jerome Krace, Shahbaz Ahma, and Devayani Tirthali (Hinduism); Devayani Tirthali and Robert Williams (Sikhism); Christopher Taylor (Islam).
Betsy Taylor is a cultural anthropologist and Executive Director of the Livelihoods Knowledge Exchange Network (www.likenknowledge.org). Over the past 25 years, she has worked for community-driven development in Appalachia the U.S., and in South Asia — seeking to integrate issues of health, agriculture, forestry, culture and environmental stewardship.
Benthall, Jonathan & Bellion-Jourdan, J. 2009. The Charitable Crescent: Politics of Aid in the Muslim World. London: I.B. Tauris. 2nd ed.
Corntassel, J. 2008. “Toward sustainable self determination: Rethinking the contemporary Indigenous-rights discourse”. Alternatives: Global, Local, Political.33(1): 105–132.
Cote, Charlotte. 2016. “‘Indigenizing’ Food Sovereignty: Revitalizing Indigenous Food Practices and Ecological Knowledges in Canada and the United States”. Humanities. 5:57(1-14).
Deeb, Lara. 2006. An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi’i Lebanon. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Good, Kenneth. 1989. “Yanomami Hunting Patterns: Trekking And Garden Relocation As An Adaptation To Game Availability In Amazonia, Venezuela”. PhD Dissertation. University of Florida.
Grey, Sam and Raj Patel. 2014. “Food sovereignty as decolonization: some contributions from Indigenous movements to food system and development politics”. Agriculture and Human Values. 32: 431–444.
Messer, Ellen. 2004. “Hunger and human rights”. In Human Rights: the Scholar as Activist. Carole Nagengast and Carlos G. Velez-Ibanez (Eds.). Oklahoma City: Society for Applied Anthropology. Pp. 43-64.
Mihesuah, Devon and Elizabeth Hoover (Eds.). 2019. Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States: Restoring Cultural Knowledge, Protecting Environments, and Regaining Health. University of Oklahoma Press.
Mintz, Sidney W. and Christine M. DuBois. 2002. “The Anthropology of Food and Eating”. Annual Review of Anthropology. 31:99-119.
Nesbitt, Eleanor. 2016. Sikhism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Pérez, Elizabeth. 2016. Religion in the Kitchen: Cooking, Talking, and the Making of Black Atlantic Traditions. New York: New York University Press.
Rappaport, R.A. 1979. Ecology, Meaning and Religion. Richmond: North Atlantic Books.
Rappaport, R.A. 1984. Pigs for the Ancestors. 2nd edition. New Haven: Yale University Press. (Reissued Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2000)
Rappaport, R.A. 1999. Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Reid, Herbert and Betsy Taylor. 2010. Recovering the Commons: Democracy, Place, and Global Justice. Urbana: University of Illinois.
Taylor, Christopher. 2015. Islamic Charity in India: Ethical Entrepreneurism and the Ritual, Revival, and Reform of Zakat among a Muslim Minority. PhD dissertation in Anthropology. Boston University. https://open.bu.edu/handle/2144/13993 in OpenBU.
Vernon, Rachel. 2015. “A Native Perspective: Food Is More Than Consumption”. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development. 5:4(137-142).
When you hear the word “gingerbread,” you might think Christmas. But in southeast Kentucky, when people of a certain age hear “gingerbread,” they think Election Day.
In a special report as part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Project, Nicole Musgrave, traces the surprising history of gingerbread in Knott County, Kentucky from everyday treat, to election time tradition, to fundraising champion.
Gingerbread Was A Household Staple
In her cozy kitchen in Hindman, Kentucky, LaRue Laferty watches over her teenage grandson, Jaxon Conley, as he makes a fresh batch of gingerbread. All of the ingredients are sitting on the green countertop of the kitchen island. So are the necessary tools, like metal baking sheets, measuring spoons, and a KitchenAid stand mixer.
Laferty, who is in her 80s, has a head full of short, white hair. She wears glasses and a green cotton face mask, and uses a walker to move around her kitchen. If you ask folks around Knott County who the best gingerbread bakers are, Laferty’s name usually comes up.
“I don’t really profess to be a gingerbread-making queen, but I do make a lot,” she says.
When she was growing up, gingerbread was a year-round household staple.
“Anytime we went to grandmother’s, she had it,” Laferty says. “And my mother made it all the time, she kept it made.”
Knott County gingerbread isn’t crisp, snappy cookies, and it’s not moist, fluffy cake. It’s somewhere in between. Bob Young is a local historian born and raised in Knott County. He is in his 70s and he remembers most of the women in his family made this style of gingerbread.
“Gingerbread as we knew it here was just a glorified biscuit,” Young says. “And full, absolutely full of molasses.”
Before white sugar became easily accessible in southeast Kentucky, molasses was the primary sweetener. Every fall, sugarcane farmers hosted stir-offs. Folks gathered to watch as the sugarcane juice was boiled down to a sticky syrup, and they left with full jars to stock their pantries.
Aside from powdered ginger, the other ingredients—flour, fresh eggs, buttermilk and lard—were things people already had on hand. That made gingerbread inexpensive.
“Gingerbread was something that anybody, anybody nearly could get,” Young says.
Just A Nice Little Way To Ask For A Vote
One place you were sure to find gingerbread in Knott County was at the polls on Election Day.
“The candidates, they would hire good gingerbread makers in the community to make gingerbread, and they would give it out at the polls,” Laferty says.
We’ve spoken with over 100 thought leaders across all industries and sectors to understand the most impactful strategies for combating climate change. Here are our findings.
Climate change is, put simply, one of the greatest challenges our modern society has ever faced. And it needs to be addressed now. After many years of shining a light on this crisis, the urgency of tackling the climate change crisis head-on has finally gained consensus and is a recognized goal across the world. But that success doesn’t mean success is guaranteed, as now the challenge is creating agreement and momentum towards successfully implementing necessary actions to mitigate climate change.
It is difficult to canonize anthropology and anthropological concepts, in part because of the creative tensions within the discipline’s contradictions: a desire and deep respect for local knowledge with a global, comparative perspective, what might be called the “anthropological imagination.” Firmly rooted in—and in defense of—an inclusive vision of humanity, an anthropological imagination inspires “radical empathy.” It offers the scaffolding of a coalitional politics that values the specificity of local struggles but also reaffirms and defends humanity. We must identify the humanity in others, and the common humanity in their struggle, while affirming particular identities and challenging differential privilege: an anthropological imagination inspires radical empathy and solidarity, reminding us, in the words of the World Social Forum, that “another world is possible.” How people learn to cultivate this anthropological imagination and bring it in the service of marginalized groups is not generally discussed, and rarely taught. This article aims to bridge this gap. On October 10, 2018, Julie Maldonado, Associate Director for the Livelihoods Knowledge Exchange Network (LiKEN), discussed her new book, Seeking Justice in an Energy Sacrifice Zone: Standing on Vanishing Land in Coastal Louisiana, via video‐conference with Mark Schuller’s Anthropology and Contemporary World Problems class at Northern Illinois University. This interview offers one perspective of a career focused around advocacy anthropology that aims to reach public audiences and policy‐ and decision‐makers in ways that translates scholarly research into information that is most useful for problem solving and enacting change in response to our climate crisis.
The Appalachian region is filled with rich culture and natural beauty, but it’s also plagued by enduring economic hardship due to decades of capitalist exploitation. The organizations here all work to support its diverse communities, providing services and other opportunities to restore and maintain the region’s vitality for future generations. This video was made with Ezvid Wikimaker.
Under the banner of a just transition, we’ve seen some great work to develop things like the RECLAIM Act and include in that the value of community participation in planning for the use of public revenues from the Abandoned Mine Land funds. While imperfectly implemented so far, that was the beginnings of a model for the ways in which you could get a region off the addiction of fossil fuels by combining the environmental reclamation money with community empowerment and participation, as well as job creation. We see a great potential for breaking the idea that its jobs vs. the environment by linking grassroots livelihood and job creation with healing from fossil fuel damage.” – Betsy Taylor, Director at Livelihoods Knowledge Exchange Network (LiKEN)
High school students in Rignall’s Stories of Place project visited a coal-impoundment lake and found that a family cemetery had been established on its banks about 150 years ago.
When most Americans think of the coal region of eastern Kentucky, they think of poverty — but Karen Rignall ’92 *94 is determined to help residents of Martin County, Ky., tell their own stories.
An assistant professor in the University of Kentucky’s Department of Community and Leadership Development and in the Department of Sociology, Rignall obtained a $50,000 public-engagement fellowship from the Whiting Foundation in 2018 to help her undertake a project she has called “Stories of Place in Martin County.” The project enables area high school students and their families to reexamine their community — physically, historically, and socially — to develop a better understanding of what it has been through and what it might become.