Growing up in a pecan orchard in Louisiana, CJ Sentell has farmers on both sides of her family. He also has a doctorate. in philosophy from Vanderbilt University. As CEO of the Nashville Food Project, he manages to combine his philosophical knowledge with his passion for agriculture.
Sentell went to grade school and graduate school in Nashville and returned a third time to lead the Nashville Food Project in 2021. He previously started a farm in Joelton and worked as a vice president at Pathway Lending. In graduate school, he wrote his thesis on freedom, slavery and agriculture – how food systems relate to political systems and economic power. A passion for food justice is something he has in common with the founder of the Nashville Food Project Tallu Schuyler Quinndied in February 2022.
Using mostly food scavenged from area grocery stores, the organization distributes 6,000 to 7,000 meals a week to area nonprofits. In the coming years, Nashville Food Project will continue to expand its community gardens (including a new pending community farm in Mill Ridge Park) as well as lean more into advocacy work while bringing more volunteers back into the organization. , Sentell told the Job. They will also begin a Metro-sponsored two-year analysis of food access and waste in Nashville later this year.
How does the Nashville Food Project relate to the work you’ve done so far in philosophy?
The food project is really about building the food system for the whole city that provides the food people want and need on an ongoing basis. One way to think about this is the difference between emergency food system and community food systems. Emergency food systems are food banks. When floods happen, when tornadoes happen, how do we get food to people in acute crisis? We want to build a food system where we no longer need the emergency food system. That’s the problem, the emergency food system has become the permanent emergency food system. People regularly get their supplies from food banks.
Within this concept, there are a few other concepts. Food sovereignty is about people controlling access to their own food. Food justice is about how the food system perpetuates inequalities and injustices from the context of American slavery to the present day.
What do you think is often misunderstood when it comes to these food justice concepts?
You hear a lot about food deserts. Food deserts are places with chronic access issues, where people have to travel a long way to get to a grocery store. The problem with the food desert concept is that it appeals to some kind of natural ecosystem. A desert is a natural thing. Food deserts are not natural. They are socially constructed, which does not mean they are fake, rather they are the product of social relations. These food deserts did not appear one day. They are permanent proof of systemic inequality, social and economic injustice and political manipulation.
As Nashville grows and more food deserts are created, do you plan to do any advocacy work?
We haven’t done this historically in the past, but we’re really trying to evolve in this area because we just completed a strategic plan that really indicates for the first time that our work is systems-level work. We want to work not just as a band-aid problem, but we want to change the food system. Zoning policies and urban planning absolutely play a role in this regard.
One of the motivating facts of our work is that in this country, 40% of the food grown is thrown away, while one in seven people, one in eight people in this city go without food. It’s not that there isn’t enough food—there is plenty of food. It’s about getting it to the people who need it when they need it. In this sense, it is a problem of social value. It is a problem of ethical consideration of abundance. We live in a world of plenty while people are hungry. It is a problem. It’s a moral problem, and it’s a political problem. It’s not a production issue. We produce enough, and there is enough in this city right now to feed our people.
How did he follow in the footsteps of someone like Tallu?
Honestly, it was difficult. She was an incredible woman. She was of course helped by great staff and amazing volunteers along the way. She was dynamic, charismatic and brilliant, and passionate, and built a very large and effective organization, a very impactful organization in a very short time. This organization has only been around for 12 years now. Many organizations take much longer to achieve this level of impact in our community. From an organizational lifecycle perspective, it’s always difficult to track a founder. And following a Founder as beloved and dynamic as Tallu has been difficult, but worth it, because of the mission and vision she laid out. Even in difficult times, it is rewarding to be able to carry forward this vision and Tallu’s legacy.