Farm to Spork: Meet Dell DeChant

Dell DeChant, Associate Chair and Master Instructor of The University of South Florida’s Religious Studies Department. 

When we examine the overall scope of our food systems, we must acknowledge the diverse array of characters involved within the equation: Some folks may be farmers, while others may be local business others. Others, in this particular case, may be academics. I recently had the privilege to meet Dell Dechant, the Associate Chair and Master Instructor of The University of South Florida’s Religious Studies Department. For the past ten years, DeChant’s work has focused on the concept of Food Sovereignty, a concept we will delve into throughout the course of this article. His work is seen beyond the classroom, and evident throughout the town of Newport Richey. As a longtime New Port Richey resident, DeChant has been involved with several local food movements, including his efforts in helping the city establish and adopt a community gardening and urban farming ordinance, both of which encourage the growth and cultivation of food.

What better way to learn about the character and breadth of DeChant’s work, than by sitting down, over a casual lunchtime chat? The following is an annotated transcript of our recent interview, which took place at Roses Bistro, a local restaurant located in the heart of Downtown New Port Richey. As a note, our interview has been annotated and lightly edited for clarification purposes.

Sweet potatoes grown by growers in the New Port Richey FarmNet

1. [The Funky Spork] Tell us about yourself, and the academic work that you do.

[DeChant]: I would like to first begin by clarifying that the study of Religion is the study of culture systems, the study of language, history, and the way cultures interact with one another. We also look at the study of the Sacred Legitimation of a culture. What do we value? What do we place meaning in? What we value and what we find meaning in is a Sacred component of our life experience.

Agrarianism or experiences within popular culture can also be considered within the examination of Religion. What I study are manifestations of the Sacred within contemporary culture: That can look like traditional expressions of what we call religion: Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and so on. But manifestations of the Sacred can also occur in seemingly secular aspects of culture: politics, economics, and the media.  For example, in terms of manifestations of the Sacred: What does it mean for a culture to embrace the acquisition of goods and consumerism as a source of meaning, value, purpose, and identity?   In other words, what are we, as a culture, willing to make sacrifices for? What are we willing to put all of our energies into for the sake of enrichment, empowerment, and for self-understanding? These are some of the nuances that attracted me to Religious Studies.

2. [The Funky Spork] How do you intersect the academic work you are doing in religious studies with the Food Sovereignty and justice movement?

[DeChant]: My study of religion and contemporary culture eventually led me to the study of Religion and Ecology, and Religion and Food Systems, two areas that I have been working on for the past ten years. I helped to establish the Urban Food Sovereignty group, at the University of South Florida.

My work in Food Sovereignty also extends to New Port Richey. In our town of New Port Richey, we have a sustainable movement called FarmNet. FarmNet is an effort to establish a sustainable community inspired by agrarian ideals – like Food Sovereignty.  FarmNet unites local farmers together with local markets and restaurants, supports locally owned and operated businesses of all sorts, hosts Farm to Table evenings, and promotes seasonal harvest festivals. As a result, more residents are learning about the local foodshed and seasonal produce, what businesses are locally owned and concrete actions that can be taken at a local level to restore community, local economics, and Food Sovereignty.  Folks are beginning to ask local businesses about the sources of their food ingredients, and these businesses, in-turn, have been listening.

3. [The Funky Spork] Can you explain what Food Sovereignty is, and what it means?

[DeChant]: Food Sovereignty is the opportunity and the right for persons to determine their own food systems. This includes the farming, the gardening, and the actual production, and processing of their own foods. This allows individuals and their communities to have that opportunity and fundamental right to make decisions about how they will produce, acquire, and share their food with others.   The Food Sovereignty movement emerged several decades ago in the Central American region, with roots dating to the Via Campesina movement, where indigenous farmers and people had become displaced from their land and dispossessed of resources to produce food due to the encroachment of industrialized agriculture (link). The Via Campesina Movement began as an effort of indigenous people who re-inserted control over their own food production and food choices, so they could determine what was appropriate for them and their community independent of control from large, multi-national corporations, as well as their own government.

One nuance regarding Food Sovereignty in the US is the challenge of individuals in urban environments having the ability to produce their own food. The challenge involves food that is produced in immediate local urban environments, according to local seasons and local knowledge; a process which is clearly superior to food that is produced using industrial methods and then shipped into urban environments. In fact, to add to this argument, the contemporary scholar Wendell Berry observed that for two generations beginning with the Baby Boomer Generations, US Culture has lived with the costly luxury of living thoughtlessly about the sources of our existence: The sources of food, water, clothing, and community. The cost of this luxury impacts sources, such as distant individuals working in exploitative conditions, and the destruction of our environment’s natural resources, along the way.  US culture has largely not had to worry about where our food comes from or how it’s produced. The vast majority of US society primarily thinks about their food sources in terms of the industrialized outlets (such as grocery stores, restaurants, or food delivery services). Because of this luxury, both ignorance of and indifference to the way food is produced, the distance it travels, the working conditions of farm laborers, the treatment of animals in CFOs, the damage to done ecosystems, the decimation of wildlife, and so on.  We consume food without context or care – and we can do so because of the industrial food system.

As with other elements of our industrial consumerist culture, the industrial food system sacralizes over-production, over-consumption, convenience, speed, and low costs, and indifference to the negative consequences of production.  These patterns therefore result in large amounts of food waste. Correspondingly, because of the same forces that are at work in the industrial food system is at work throughout the industrial system of the United States and the West. Ironically, those same forces are what also result in impoverished people having an inability to purchase food.

4. [The Funky Spork] What are the intersections between religion, and food?

[DeChant]: Once again, the way I approach the study of religion as the study of manifestations and Sacred Legitimation: What do we value? What are our sources of meaning, value, purpose, and identity?  What defines us and tells us about our world?  And what are the myths and rituals that are most important to us within a particular culture or system? These questions led me to the study of new religious movements, which led me to the study of popular culture, in general, and then eventually into questions about ecology and the contemporary ecological crisis. In each of those moments of research, I was finding that there were overarching streams that lead to the manifestations of the sacred.   In terms of contemporary popular culture, examples manifestations of the sacred can be seen in holidays, sporting events, media, music festivals, logos, and consumerism, politics and other activities that relate us to government.

I eventually became interested in I eventually became interested in how our forms of sacred legitimation impacted the natural world, and this led me to the study of religion and ecology. From there, I became interested in studying Religion and food systems. The overarching correlation between all of these subjects was the study of the Sacred, and how that concept manifests into the society that we are born into. If you think about religion in a very generalized sense, all involve the consumption of food: Some traditions are explicit about the importance of fasting or adopting a particular diet, in order to live a proper religious life. Other religions may have certain foods that are symbolic of the context of their Sacred practices and rituals. For example, Christianity has a ritual meal, known either as the Lord’s Supper or Communion. Religious rituals, such as the concept of prayer or saying grace have been a Sacred method when eating.  Food has been a major component of Religion from the very beginning of humanity.

5. [The Funky Spork] What are some words of advice you would offer to someone who is interested in doing more to promote food justice within their everyday lives?

[DeChant]: Learn the sources of your existence, and act accordingly.  Grow your own food (even a single plant), find local growers and support them, buy only seasonal produce, avoid industrial food (grocery chains, fast food, convenience stores), shop local, talk to others.  While individual work may seem pointless, individual commitment is critical.  A small hinge can move a heavy door.  Rosa Parks took a seat on a bus.  Greta Thunberg sat down in front of the Swedish parliament building. The work of individuals is part of the change that is occurring and can become massive and culturally transformational.  It is important to do what we can as individuals to certainly make a difference in our own life. But it is also important to move to tell others about the importance of this type of work to the degree that we possibly can. It is also imperative to involve larger institutions, particularly government (local, state, and national), to get on board with these changes and work to share the necessity of such changes with the broader community – anyone who will listen, really.  

6. [The Funky Spork] How can people find out more about the work you or the food group is doing, if they would like to get involved?

[DeChant]: The USF Department of Religious Studies and the USF Urban Food Sovereignty groups will be hosting the Tampa Bay Urban Food Sovereignty Summit on October 22. The summit will bring together local growers, gardeners, farmers, academics, researchers, local organization, and Activists that do work pertaining to food justice and sovereignty. This free public event will take place from 5:30-8 p.m. at the USF Gibbons Alumni Center, located at 4202 E Fowler Avenue, Tampa, FL, 33620.

For those unable to attend the summit, we ask that you get involved with the USF Food Sovereignty group. You can also connect with the New Port Richey FarmNet’s Facebook page, and express your interest in joining the USF Food Sovereignty group. You can also directly contact me, by messaging me at dechant@usf.edu, and I will add you to our email list.


To learn more about the USF Food Sovereignty group, visit: https://www.usf.edu/news/2019/promoting-food-soveregnty.aspx

Full video of our interview discussion.
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