Muslims in Action: Iesha Wadala

Food Justice is communities exercising their right to grow, sell and eat healthy food. Healthy food is fresh, nutritious, affordable, culturally-appropriate and grown locally with care for the well-being of the land, workers and animals. People practicing food justice leads to a strong local food system, self-reliant communities and a healthy environment. (Just Food)

Food justice activists work tirelessly around the globe to educate people about the importance of eating food, avoiding the “food-like substances” driving obesity, heart-disease, and diabetes (among other epidemics), and ultimately ensuring access to those foods. From community gardeners to NGO’s, it’s happening, and Muslims are getting involved.

Iesha Wadala is a food justice activist who, while finishing her graduate degree in Public Health at Columbia, co-founded Tierra Direct, a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in the Washington Heights neighborhood in New York. The CSA connected low-income Dominican and Puetro Rican families with organic produce picked the previous night, and introduced The Heights to new foods and new ways of thinking about food.

Coming from a Bolivian and Pakistani/Indian family, Iesha wanted to do something for her Latino Washington Heights neighbors. Her interest in food emerged from work she did back home in Los Angeles; looking around the city, she realized that some neighborhoods had access to fresh foods while others seemed only to have fast food and liquor stores. Later, while teaching English in Chile, she saw the emerging effects of globalized fast food among the children she worked with—children with obesity issues unprecedented at her school. “I came from a different place, where I saw the future,” she says. She instituted a program at her school that combined English language exercises with hands-on demonstrations of how to prepare fruits and vegetables. The links between food and public health emerged, and she landed at Columbia.

Iesha Wadala (right) with La Baraja farmer Pedro Rodriguez (right)
The CSA was initiated through cooperation with Just Food, a NYC-based non-profit whose mission is to “unite local farms and city residents of all economic backgrounds with fresh, seasonal, sustainably grown food.” Just Foods’ New Farmer Development Program connected Tierra Direct with La Baraja Farm, run by farmer Pedro Rodriguez. The Latino connection was important to the Tierra Direct team; connecting Latino farmers with Latino customers was a priority, but Iesha explains that it was also a challenge. Though embraced by young people moving into the neighborhood, long-time Heights residents weren’t familiar with CSAs as a distribution model. They had never before shared risk with a farmer by paying in advance, or purchased foods they themselves wouldn’t have selected in a grocery store, produce that was oftentimes unfamiliar and which needed to be cooked right away. Plus, as an outsider associated with the university, Iesha had to establish herself in the neighborhood as someone who was part of the community. It took time and energy for that to happen; as the only Spanish-speaker on the team, Iesha spent hours on foot, communicating with neighbors and campaigning for the CSA. It is now the second year of Tierra Direct, and last year’s subscribers have returned with plenty of new members. Participants are happy not only with the produce and educational workshops, but with opportunities to connect with Pedro on trips to La Baraja.

I asked her about food justice and the American Muslim community, and she admitted that we have a long way to go. On the subject of the American food system, she says “Muslims aren’t aware of the gravity. They don’t understand what’s taking place.” This applies to growing produce as well as raising animals for meat. “They assume that the cows are just like they were in Pakistan, roaming free.” Iesha is a vegetarian, refusing to eat animals that she sees as “basically dying until they’re slaughtered.”

To change the situation, she recommends a tiered approach. First, she works with her parents’ generation. Iesha has organized screenings for her family to see films such as Food Inc. and Fresh. She encourages her family to eat less meat, and of higher quality (“the taste alone will get people”). Second, she works with the youngest generation in her family, helping her siblings create gardens and grow their own food, showing them how to cooperate with creation. With Muslims she encounters, she stresses our responsibility to the environment, and wants them to know, to really understand and internalize, that everything is connected.

Iesha was raised with deep respect for and awe of nature. While on walks, her father would pause and point out to her a particularly beautiful tree and stand in awe of its beauty. “He taught me that nature is a sign of God, and to be conscious of it and sensitive to it.” Because nature is the second great text of Islam, she emphasizes that “if anything, Muslims should be leading the environmental movement.” This summer she participated in Alim in Michigan, and while there felt the connections between the environment, food, and her faith strengthened–deepening the mutually-fed relation between Islam, social justice, and environmental justice. Young Muslims, she believes, show huge transformational potential: this generation has the education and the funds necessary to make choices that reflect our values. It’s exciting to see the fruits of Iesha’s passion, and to know that her faith feeds the activism that feeds her community.

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