Sophia Roe has an incredible brain – and thankfully, she’s kind enough to share it with us all. Over the past nine months, Roe has been one of the most instrumental figures when it comes to educating people, myself included, about white supremacy and anti-racism. However, unlike the rise of Instagram activists who share pretty, palatable tiles with easy to follow instructions, which – importantly – won’t wreck one’s carefully curated Instagram aesthetic, Roe comes to the table with a unique and unashamedly bold perspective. Growing up food insecure and in and out of the foster care system, Roe went on to train as a chef in New York, using her lived experience and learnings about the food and wellness industry to carve out a space for herself, building a career on the basis that food is inherently political.
Roe has since amassed a following of 275,000 Instagram fans – a number which jumps significantly weekly – thanks to her informative videos, a series she dubs ‘Pillow Talk’, which covers everything from code-switching to spiritual bypassing and redlining. In May, Gigi Hadid had Roe on her Instagram channel to discuss racial justice and a few months later, it was announced that Roe would be heading up her own VICE series, Counter Space. Unlike your run-of-the-mill cooking show, Counter Space looks at the world’s most pressing political issues through the lens of food, including the way political dissent in Hong Kong is directly tied to street food culture and the situation in Mexico, where farmers are being left without work because it is now cheaper for Mexicans to import corn from America due to the mass production of crops. In every episode, Roe shows the immediate impact equitable food access can have on communities, and highlights exactly why it’s impossible to separate food from politics.
“Food is absolutely a political and institutionalized power conversation,” Roe explained when we spoke on my podcast After Work Drinks late last year. “I grew up food insecure. I was a foster care kid and my mom stole food my whole entire life to feed us.”
Even now, Roe sees the effect of the hunger crisis firsthand. “I live across the street from a food pantry as we speak. So I see every single day who has food and who doesn’t and why that exists. People don’t like to have conversations about systematic oppression and white supremacy. But, as far as I’m concerned, you can’t have a conversation about food without talking about Black people in America.”
She continued, “We all know the story. We all understand colonization, we all know what happened. Black people in so many ways are responsible for agriculture as it exists today. We can have all kinds of conversations about the sort of factors of systematic oppression, we can have tons of like conversations about that, but what I think is very interesting is when we look at the demographics of people that have access to, not just food, but nutritious food, I think that’s a very important conversation.”
“As far as I’m concerned, you can’t have a conversation about food without talking about Black people in America.”
Referencing the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in June 2020, which is being dubbed the biggest civil rights movement in history, Roe says, “In America, it took a nine-minute video of a black man being murdered by four police officers for people to take systemic racism seriously – and I don’t even know that the response would have been what it was had it not been for the pandemic. People have been forced to see this thing that’s happened and be subjected to complicated, really tough, hard conversations. I don’t want to be harsh, but I just don’t care anymore. I don’t care that it hurts people’s feelings to mention white supremacy.”
The statistics are hard to ignore: In America, there are an estimated 50 million people, including 17 million children, who are food insecure. That’s one in six people who go to bed hungry. Roe says that when we treat hunger like a temporary emergency, we are completely missing the point. “Some canned food drives won’t fix this issue,” she explains. “A big problem is that the people who address hunger at the institutional and policy level haven’t themselves experienced it. I think it’s really important that these policymakers be connected and tied to this issue so they can properly understand the severity of the situation.”
What’s hard to get your head around is that despite millions of people not having access to food, there’s an abundance of it in the world – it’s just not getting to those who need it. The question is why. “We’re a culture that obsesses over food. We’re always talking about it. But talking about food shouldn’t just be about things like counting calories, wanting to eat organic, or fine dining Michelin restaurants. There’s so much other stuff to talk about when it comes to food, and the biggest elephant in the room is that a lot of people don’t have it. Period. They just don’t have any food.”
“I don’t care that it hurts people’s feelings to mention white supremacy.”
On a base level, Roe says that as consumers, it’s incredibly important to realize that where we spend our money matters. Instead of walking into a big supermarket chain, for example, spend your money at the local farmer’s market. “Being a conscious and informed consumer is about holding manufacturers and companies accountable, and that’s something I’m starting to see a lot of,” she says. “I love it. It’s sexy. It’s delicious! There’s nothing I love more than a consumer understanding how much fucking power they actually have.”
When 40 per cent of the food in America is wasted before it even gets to the grocery store, you have to question why. “You have money. Manufacturers need it,” she explained. “You can absolutely hold these companies accountable and say, ‘Hey, I don’t like this practice.’ Why not contact a grocery store or contact a manufacturer and say, ‘I don’t understand why you make all this food just so that it gets thrown out? I didn’t ask you to do that. Why are you ordering all this surplus of extra food.'”
As 2021 continues much in the same way as 2020, Roe is an essential person reminding us of the direct impact the global pandemic and economic crisis have on the most vulnerable people. Though the huge issues we’re facing can feel overwhelming, if we focus on the community around us and make changes to the way we consume and think about food, we’re already making progress. Another tangible thing you can do? Follow and listen to Sophia Roe.