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The Nashville Food Project Announces New CEO, C.J. Sentell

A conversation with the nonprofit’s new CEO, including the relationships between freedom and food through the intersection of slavery and agriculture

C.J. Sentell
Nashville Food Project

As a follow-up to the February announcement that The Nashville Food Project (TNFP) was searching for someone to continue Tallu Schulyer Quinn’s legacy of the nonprofit she founded in 2011, its Board of Directors announces that C.J. Sentell has been hired as the organization’s next CEO — just in time to celebrate TNFP’s 10th anniversary.

A statement with Sentell’s bio reads like something out of Quinn’s playbook: “Sentell brings many years of experience as a seasoned nonprofit leader and social entrepreneur to TNFP. In addition, he has actively farmed for the last decade, informing a component of his doctoral dissertation which traced the relationships between freedom and food through the intersection of slavery and agriculture.”

“C.J.’s strategic vision impressed the search committee and board, and he conveyed a deep understanding of the complex food systems in which The Nashville Food Project works,” said Jeff Warne, chairman of the Board of Directors. “C.J. has a demonstrated ability to diversify boards and staff and leveraged his own nonprofit’s resources to support BIPOC-led/focused nonprofits. For these reasons, and more, the Board looks forward to the meaningful work and passionate enthusiasm C.J. will bring to The Nashville Food Project.”

Eater Nashville spoke to Sentell for his first Q&A as TFNP’s CEO. Here’s what he had to say.

Q: No two humans are alike. Where do you see the direction TNFP is headed with your leadership that may differ from before?

A: Tallu founded an amazing organization that fills such a unique and important role in the Nashville food system. I’ve been in this position for just over a week, and every day I grow more in awe of this incredible group of people and the work they do each day. My primary goal is to continue this work, building on Tallu’s legacy to bring people together to grow, cook, and share nourishing food in ways that cultivate community and alleviate hunger in our city. This mission transcends any one leader. In this way, any difference in leadership is more about the stage of growth the organization finds itself in at the start of its second decade. For example, much of our current work involves responding to forms of food insecurity as experienced by Nashvillians in the present; as we grow, it is important to develop additional tools that address the root causes of these experiences more generally. Acute food insecurity is actually the symptom of larger, systemic forms of inequality, which makes our task moving forward to incorporate these into our work as well. This involves focusing on areas such as public policy, capital access, education, and workforce development, and food entrepreneurism and infrastructure to empower different communities within Nashville to meet their own food needs in the most direct and consequential way.

Q: How does “the relationships between freedom and food through the intersection of slavery and agriculture” translate in modern times?

A: I began research on this topic more than a decade ago because I noticed that the sustainable agriculture and local food movements didn’t fully appreciate the ways food and agriculture were linked to forms of exploitation in the past and present. (Since then, thankfully, this has changed; there are now many people and organizations focused on these issues.) To begin to understand the relationship between freedom and food — both historically and in the present — it helps to situate how the production, distribution, and consumption of food inevitably shapes the political organization of societies. For example, prior to the invention of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, human beings obtained their food by hunting and gathering. With a few notable exceptions, these people lived in largely egalitarian societies in which wealth and other resources were distributed relatively evenly. Only with the introduction of agriculture do human societies move (quite rapidly) toward more entrenched forms of social and economic inequality. In fact, the first economically significant forms of slavery occur only with the introduction of agriculture. In this sense, there’s something about agriculture that contributes to (and perhaps even causes) social inequality, and whatever that is has been around from the beginning and is still around today.

Also, it’s important to understand how the theory and practice of freedom — at least in Western democracies — is a direct response to actual forms of slavery. Freedom as a political value, in other words, develops only as a consequence of the social facts of enslavement. American slavery was overwhelmingly agrarian, and the food system that we have today exists in an unbroken continuum to these historical forms of agricultural slavery. When most Americans think of slavery, maybe the first images that come to mind are of enslaved people toiling on the farms and fields of antebellum America. In this sense, for most people, slavery is a thing of the past, not the present. But this is simply not the case. In fact, from a strictly numerical perspective, there have never been more people living under conditions of enslavement as there are today. In agriculture and other forms of labor, slavery is still very much alive — both across the world and in the U.S. The contemporary food system did not appear, fully formed, one fine day; we inherited it with all these dynamics already baked in, so to speak, and it is up to us to change it for future generations.

Q: If you had only one issue to tackle during your tenure with TNFP, what would it be, and how would you do so?

A: The issue I’m most interested in involves bringing more people to the table, engaging more people in the work of The Nashville Food Project. Because we envision a vibrant community food system in which everyone in Nashville has access to the food they want and need, our work needs to incorporate the broad array of communities across the city. Nashville has experienced rapid, dramatic growth over the past decade, but this new prosperity is not reaching all communities. TNFP is working to make sure that all in Nashville get the nourishing food they need through thoughtful stewardship of our city’s resources of food and land. Broadening our work to include all Nashvillians is perhaps the most important challenge we face. It is also perhaps the most exciting.

Q: Opinions vary greatly regarding how to best serve the underserved and can often become polarizing. What is the best way to bridge the gap for the greater good?

A: I am a firm believer that individuals and communities are best situated to solve the problems they face. TNFP uses good food as a tool to disrupt cycles of poverty, working toward a vision of community food security. We take a holistic approach to this work, emphasizing strategic collaborations with local farmers and partner organizations to achieve community-driven solutions. Food is the way to overcome this polarization. High poverty and the disintegration of communities have resulted in Nashvillians without enough food to eat and without the connections to tap into community resources for support. Food brings people together, and TNFP believes food is the perfect medium to unite people in deep ways. The nonprofit partners we work with every day share our meals to build community and strengthen their programs. Our gardens provide places for deep connection to the land and to diverse community-building strategies. The volunteers in all of our programs nurture, support, and build community with us and each other every time they gather. While neighboring organizations address food insecurity by providing emergency food, our holistic approach and emphasis on collaboration supports our vision of a community food system, in which every Nashvillian has access to the food they want and need through a just and sustainable food system.

Q: What does sustainability (in all of its facets) mean to you?

A: For me, sustainability involves identifying and developing solutions to social, economic, and environmental problems that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same. It really comes down to the old idea that we should live and work in ways that benefit seven generations into the future. It is a regulative idea, a concept that helps to guide our actions toward a future that is at least as good as the present, if not better. Sustainability in this sense is a type of hope for the future.

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