The term food justice is used frequently and we believe it is important to define a topic before we attempt to address it. In this article, we will describe the various elements that encompass the food justice issue and offer further reading on each subtopic for those interested in a deeper dive. In coming weeks, we will also feature geographically specific nonprofits and non-governmental organizations serving at-risk, food insecure communities.
Food justice often refers to an issue of access to food. In many communities, families won’t have a grocery store selling fresh food within a reasonable distance. This in turn often leads to a reliance on corner stores, liquor stores, or bodegas that primarily sell packaged foods that are low cost and shelf stable. These foods are often calorie dense but nutrient empty. Many specify that access to food is specifically access to fresh and nutritious foods. Communities that do not have fresh food markets in their vicinity are often referred to as food deserts.
Food deserts can be more specifically described in some communities as food apartheids, which recognizes the racism and classism that often underline the food justice movement. More and more, market forces drive out small businesses that serve communities of color. Similarly, in working class communities, individuals may often work more than one job or be employed in shift work, making the middle-class experience of grocery shopping and cooking multiple times a week inconsistent with their home lives. This also drives a classist system where lower socio-economic families are forced to turn to fast food or food that requires little to no preparation; again, a situation where the food is devoid of nutrition.
As gentrification pushes into more and more communities, many previous food deserts are becoming food mirages where grocery options exist, but are cost prohibitive to the average community member. This creates the illusion of food accessibility, but still perpetuates the problem. In these cases, and others, the options tend to not be culturally appropriate for the local community. While food justice can be an issue in any poorer community, including in poor white communities, they typically disproportionally affect non-white communities of brown and black individuals that are historically marginalized. Food options there must then offer a cultural responsivity to the cuisines, palates, and eating traditions of the local community.
in response to food injustice, there are some hyper-local movements to empower their specific communities such as community gardens and urban farming. Urban farming seeks to reclaim abandoned or overlooked land for the betterment of the local community members. Community gardens endeavor to engage locals in the process of growing food, both to bring fresh produce directly into the communities and to also offer educational opportunities. Many gardens serve as living classrooms and partner with nearby kitchens, exposing children to previously unknown vegetables, and engaging busy working parents in accessible and germane menus.
Beyond the local end user consequences of food injustice, there are a number of other considerations when you look up the supply chain. This can include fair treatment of workers who are cultivating the land and farms where food is grown. In the United States, farm workers may be temporary, seasonal, or illegal migrants who are easily taken advantage of or paid less than minimum wage. They can be exposed to unhealthy pesticides and chemicals in their work and often have little recourse or worker protections. Beyond farm workers, there are a number of different industries that are involved with our food before it makes it to our plates. These include food processors, food packagers, chemical workers, and retail and grocery employees.
The demands on our food chain also promote farming choices that rarely take into account the sustainability, wellness, or longevity of the land being farmed. From water usage to farm runoff and from crop selection to farming practices, sustainability on the farm is closely tied to food justice in communities. Here is where the evolution of modern, industrial agriculture most fails our communities and the land we call home. This cannot be separated from decades of land stealing, displacement and enslavement, deforestation and soil degradation, and the pressures to produce at scale.
- To read more about food access, deserts, apartheid, and mirages, visit the Food Empowerment Project.
- To learn more about racism and classism in our food system, continue reading this article from The Institute for Feed and Development Policy (Food First).
- To learn more about the fair treatment of workers, visit the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
- To read more about Why We Can’t Separate Justice and Sustainability in the Food System, visit the Union of Concerned Scientists.
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