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Food Justice

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Sustainable food for all

Food justice is an environmental and social movement with goals of assuring equitable distribution of the benefits and risks concerned with the consumption and production of sustainable, affordable, nutritious foods.[1] Food justice relies on the premise that there are substantial inequalities within the industrial food system, which it wishes to address by incorporating concepts and techniques from other justice movements, such as critically theorizing about race, class, ethnicity and taking into consideration sustainability and food access. Food justice is a topic of both scholarly inquiry and part of wide-ranging activist movement.[2] Food justice expands on the ideas of food security and food sovereignty to work alongside other movements such as income inequality,[3] restorative justice,[4] racial and gender discrimination,[5] and environmental degradation in order to address social, economic, and cultural aspects of food systems in the United States and abroad. It goes beyond the older simplistic paradigm of "feeding the world" and includes concerns of equitable distribution and access to food and unequal power relations in food consumption and production.[6]

Origins of food justice[edit]

The term "food justice" was coined by Bryant Terry to describe relations between schools and communities in the provision of fresh produce and better quality food to all Americans, especially people of color.[7] The resulting movement differs from the food sovereignty movement in its focus on the intersections of racial justice and equitable access to high quality foods.

The food justice movement gained support in the 1990s, drawing inspiration from the racial justice framework of the civil rights and environmental justice movements in the US.[8] In addition, the disproportionate impacts of diet-related illness on low-income communities of color and the simultaneous food sovereignty global peasant movement La Via Campesina gave increasing attention to food justice.[9][8]

Industrialization of US food systems[edit]

The industrial revolution and in the mid-18th century and subsequent urbanization shifted food production from individual farms, gardens, and local butchers to distant, large conglomerate farms, marking a historic shift from people producing their own food to having little knowledge of their food's processing and origins.[10][11] Although the term 'food justice' was not yet invented, the movement for public knowledge of their food's production originated after Upton Sinclair published The Jungle in 1906, bringing widespread attention to unhygienic practices in the meat industry.[12] The green revolution, from the 1930s to the late 1960s, exacerbated the environmental impacts of food production due to the advent of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. However, supporters of the green revolution maintain that it allowed for much greater crop yields and agricultural efficiency, and thus allowed for population growth, improved health outcomes due to more adequate nutrition, and lower food prices.[13] The shift from local to industrial food production also gave people more time to pursue other tasks or professions, contributing to economic growth.

Racial justice and food[edit]

Black Panthers Free Breakfast Program[edit]

In 1969 members of the Black Panther Party established The Free Breakfast for Children Program in Oakland, California to cook and serve food to children who were food insecure, working to address lack of food access within Black communities. The Black Panther Party understood food insecurity and racial violence as intertwined since both forms of state power worked to oppress Black people.[14] Moreover, the Black Panther Party viewed healthy, nourished bodies as central to fostering the educational growth, consciousness, and communal strength necessary for survival and fighting against racial state violence.[15] The program in Oakland grew in popularity, and breakfast programs became mainstays of Black Panther Party chapters across the United States.

Farm Workers Movements[edit]

The United States has a long history of immigrant labor. The Bracero program was implemented as an agreement between the United States and Mexico and became Public Law in 1951. It stated that “no bracero could replace a domestic worker. This provision was rarely enforced and the main reason the growers lobbied for the program was to in fact replace the domestic worker… there bracero workers could be paid less which helped depress wages of the farm workers”[16] Beside low wages, farm workers faced terrible working conditions where growers did not provide portable bathrooms or clean drinking water. They experienced long working hours under the sun, and sometimes whole families worked in the fields, including children.

Cesar Chávez, a Chicano who was born into a family of migrant farm laborers, fought against the hunger, low wages, inhumane conditions that farmworkers experienced in order to provide fresh produce to the tables across America. “Chavez modeled his methods on nonviolent civil disobedience of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. – employing strikes, boycotts, marches and fasts – to draw attention to La Causa [the cause].”[17] In 1962, the National Farm Workers Association was founded in Delano.

The Delano Grape Strike began in September 8, 1965 when Filipino agricultural workers of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, led by Larry Itliong, launched what would become a five-year strike of table grapes and wine in Delano, California. The United Farm Workers Union combined the efforts of both Filipinos and Mexicans into the broader civil rights movement.[18] Led by Cesar Chávez, Mexican farm workers of the National Farm workers Association joined the strike a week later. The two organizations merged in 1966 to form the United Farm Workers. Over the course of five years, the strike expanded throughout California, and members of United Farm Workers traveled to major cities across the United States to hold rallies and urge consumers to boycott California grapes. The Delano Grape Strike culminated in 1970 when grape growers in the Delano area agreed to sign union contracts for agricultural workers.[19] United Farm Workers continues to lead strikes, boycotts, and rallies in demand of better working conditions and wages.

Food and the body[edit]

Disabled bodies and food[edit]

According to a 2015 report by the CDC, 53 million people in the United States live with a disability[20]. People with disabilities are more likely to be living in poverty and have reduced access to food[21]. Disability and food justice advocates call for a both shift in public perception of disability as well as an increase in infrastructure supporting people with disabilities[22] Disability and Food Studies scholars have discussed the way in which food becomes a site[clarification needed] in which ableism is perpetuated, whether difficulty obtaining food in grocery stores, inaccessible restaurants or discourses about "food as medicine", positing disability as something to be eliminated,[23]. Disability scholar Kim Hall termed these discourses “alimentary ableism”[23] critiquing the ways that they create dominant ideas about food and food justice.

Medicalization of food[edit]

Food studies scholars have pointed to the biomedicalization of food as a site[clarification needed] of critique and analysis. Scholars who study the medicalization of food analyze the social and cultural forces which structure scientific and medical knowledge and how these forces have informed ideas of “food as medicine”[24]. The power of the medical institution in the characterization of food as good or bad are traced, for instance, specifically through the development of Gerber baby food and the changing ideas for what was seen as healthy for infants and children during the 19th and 20th centuries.[25]

While the "food as medicine" framework can improve access to "healthy" choices and remove stigma for some food related issues, scholars have found flaws this framework. Disability studies scholars have expressed concern with the narrative of good food preventing disability and the necessary tragedy which disability must play in such a discourse as well as the racist and classist undertones of "hygienic eating" and the focus of food systems on individual health rather than concern for worker safety.[26] Additionally, scholars have critiqued the disproportionate medicalization of women’s lives (including food), the disguising of harmful socio-cultural forces as natural medical realities, and an unnecessary and excessive dependence on biomedical expertise and systems.[24]

Genetically modified organisms[edit]

Another concern for food justice is genetically modified organisms (GMOs), particularly how GMOs can be dangerous in the hands of big corporations. One example is wild rice. The documentary Manoomin: A Minesota Way of Life is part of a campaign against genetically engineered wild rice in the State of Minnesota. The film, aimed at state legislatures, details the cultural, spiritual, and historical significance of wild rice to the Ojibwe people of Minnesota. The threat to the rice comes from corporations who want to genetically engineer wild rice, which can then compromise the integrity of sanctity[clarification needed] of it.[27]

Monsanto patenting of seeds has also been controversial for hurting farming. Vandana Shiva, an environmental activist, says that "Monsanto’s talk of 'technology' tries to hide its real objectives of ownership and control over seed where genetic engineering is just a means to control seed and the food system through patents and intellectual property rights." She claims Monsanto's patents on seeds are hurting farming in India.[28]

Critiques of food justice[edit]

Although food justice is often treated as a solution to the industrial food system, including corporate farming and agribusiness, academic scholars of feminist, queer, disability, race, and gender studies have shown that there exist criticisms to the food justice movement as well.[29]

The most common critiques target the mainstream alternative food movement in the United States. These contemporary movements encourage consumers to “eat local, eat organic, grow your own, learn how to cook and preserve foods, no factory-farmed animals, more farmers' markets.”[29] Although the food justice movement began in part as an extension of the environmental justice and civil rights movements, some scholars have argued that it has morphed into an “individual-centered consumer body project”[30] and a “neoliberal hygienic eating project.”[29] Others have criticized that although food justice promises democracy and equality, the movement charges the market or the consumer with the responsibility of actualizing such ideas.[31] These criticisms address alternative food movement’s emphasis on individual consumption, such as the movement to buy local or buy organic.[32] Such consumer-oriented models focus on ethical consumption, rather than structural issues caused by the industrial food system.[33]

Other criticisms identify the movement’s reliance on historical anxieties and suspicions of certain foods, and in turn, certain identities.[31] These critiques derive from the movement’s focused language on health, virtue, and self-improvement. Similarly, its categorical distinctions between “good” food and “bad” food have been critiqued at length. Professor at Appalachian State University Kim Hall argues that food justice’s emphasis on eating “appropriate” food is a practice of bodily purification and boundary maintenance against those perceived as threatening. [29] As a result, many people are often stigmatized for their food choices. These scholars argue that food justice continues to perpetuate ableism and other forms of injustice if the movement does not attend to the implications of these norms and language choices.[29]

Global food justice[edit]

US Huey helicopter spraying Agent Orange in Vietnam

Food justice is also an issue in other regions of the world. Developing countries may grow food for export, yet struggle to feed their populations. Additionally, food sources may be contaminated by outside military forces, such as in the cases of Agent Orange in Vietnam, in which large quantities of an herbicide were sprayed on villages and farmlands with intergenerational adverse health effects. Another example is radioactive fallout from nuclear tests in the Bikini Atoll of the Marshall Islands where nuclear bomb tests conducted by the United States military contaminated the local food supply with radiation, leading to food insecurity and health issues.[34][35] Global food system activists such as Vandana Shiva have worked to improve food access and sustainable agriculture in the developing world.[36] Global instances of food injustice generally reflect wider power relations and the North-South Divide.

Food deserts[edit]

A food desert is a region or community with limited access to healthy and nutritious food; this deficiency can be due to a variety of factors, including cost and distance to grocery stores.[37] A large portion of the food justice movement is concerned with how food deserts are distributed and the correlations of lack of access to food with both race and income.

The US Census Bureau report on median income by race in the United States from 1967 to 2008.

A 2010 review of food deserts literature found both socioeconomic implications and racial disparities connected to food disparity in areas with lower access to food. In low income communities, high crime rates lead to a cycle of theft and increased food prices; as a result of this, people who are unable to travel outside of their immediate neighborhoods sacrifice quality for convenience.[38]

The intersectionality of race and socioeconomic status is important to consider in examining cases of food injustices. The United States Census Bureau has consistently reported Black and Hispanic Americans as having lower median household incomes than White Americans.[39] Among communities in Detroit, Michigan, impoverished black communities are both farther from the closest supermarkets and, on average, have less supermarkets within a three mile radius than analogous impoverished white communities.[40]

Structural causes of food deserts[edit]

One proposed cause of food deserts is legislation that disproportionately affects people of color and socioeconomic minorities. Components of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal contained racial implications that affect living patterns today.[41] The Fair Housing Administration's 1939 manual states that “if a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes.”[42] Because of this policy, some home loan benefits were unavailable to minorities.[43] Additionally, urban zoning policies of the 1950s may have contributed to segregated living patterns.[44]

One effect of restrictive zoning policies is the pattern coined “white flight”.[45] As middle-income white Americans began moving to government subsidized suburbs, grocery stores and food retailers followed.[42] The opportunity to purchase inexpensive suburb land led to the rise of massive supermarkets in which multiple varieties of products were sold in one store.[46] As a result, many urban markets, which were more expensive to maintain than their suburban counterparts, were abandoned.[47]

Effects on low-income communities and communities of color[edit]

The US Department of Agriculture estimates that the number of people living in low-income communities with low access to supermarkets is 23.5 million, around 8 percent of the US population.[48]

Health effects[edit]

Food deserts have many health implications, including being correlated with increased BMI[49] and increased risk of cardiovascular disease.[48] A US study conducted between 1999 and 2004 found that obesity rates among African Americans and Hispanics were 15 and 6.8 percent higher, respectively, than that of white Americans.[50]

Diet quality tends to improve with increases in income. Data from the US Department of Agriculture indicate that low income households spend less money on food than households in other income brackets; the USDA data also show that the foods most commonly purchased by low-income households are often those containing fat, oils, sugar, potatoes, and refined grains.[51]

Academic consequences[edit]

Food deserts may affect academic achievement in affected regions. The National Food Service Management Institute states that poor nutrition leads to students’ increased susceptibility to illness, and that undernourishment results in decreased cognitive functioning.[52] Additionally, there is evidence that high blood lead levels can negatively affect academic performance and social behavior in children.[53] Diets with high calcium and iron intake help reduce the absorption and toxicity of lead for exposed children.[54][55]

Economic impact[edit]

Employment opportunities associated with food businesses are often absent in food desert communities; for example, retail jobs associated with supermarkets may be absent.[41] Grocery stores can create up to 200 jobs each[56] and act as anchors for nearby businesses.[57]

Case study: South Los Angeles[edit]

A case study by the Community Health Council on food deserts in South Los Angeles suggests developing small corner stores in especially deprived regions.[58] The council states that because access to full sized markets is often limited in low-income areas, it is important to create incentives for store owners to sell healthy products and to ensure stores are able to accept SNAP and WIC benefits. The goal of this initiative is to allow people to make healthy choices without changing their shopping habits.[58] The study looks to New York City’s 2008 Healthy Bodega program, which aimed to increase the variety, availability, and quality of healthy food sold at bodegas[59] as a key example of success of this kind of initiative.

Food assistance programs[edit]

Food assistance programs, such as the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), are considered to be part of food justice.[citation needed] The FNS (part of the USDA) administers federal food and nutrition assistance programs, with the purpose of enabling children and low income families better access to healthy food. The FNS also promotes healthy eating through nutrition educational programs that link health and diet.[60] The FNS was established on August 8, 1969 but many of the food programs existed long before as separate agencies as part of New Deal programs such as the Food Stamp Plan and Needy Family Program.[60] There are many types of programs that are mostly geared to certain groups like students, seniors, women and many others. Some examples include Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that was formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and Senior Farmers' Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP).

Food Distribution Programs[edit]

Food distribution programs strengthen food security through high quality, 100% American-grown USDA commodity distribution and food assistance to low-income groups.

Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP)[edit]

Commodity Supplemental Food Program is geared towards improving the health of low-income elderly persons at least 60 years of age by offering supplemental food.[61][62] In addition to seniors who are eligible for this program, women, infants, and children currently receiving these benefits who were certified to receive help on or before February 6, 2014 are also eligible to continue to receive assistance under the program rules in effect on that date, in accordance with the Agricultural Act of 2014.[63] Women, infants, and children who apply to participate in CSFP on or after February 7, 2014 cannot be certified to participate in the program.[63]

Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR)[edit]

Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations provides USDA Foods to income-eligible Native Americans families and households living on or near Indian reservations, and in the State of Oklahoma.[64]

The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP)[edit]

TEFAP helps supplement the diets of low-income Americans from different age groups by providing them with emergency food assistance like food banks at no cost at all.[65]

Child Nutrition Programs[edit]

Child Nutrition Programs provide healthy, nutritious meals and snacks to American children.

Examples of Child Nutrition Programs include:

  1. Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP)
  2. National School Lunch Program (NSLP)
  3. School Breakfast Program (SBP)
  4. Summer Food Service Program (SFSP)[66]
USDA is working hard to expand access to farmers’ markets for those participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)[edit]

SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, provides nutrition assistance to millions of eligible, low-income individuals and families and provides economic benefits to communities.[67] SNAP is the cornerstone of food programs and initiated the creation of various other programs. The pilot food stamp program happened during 1961-1964, and President Kennedy's called on an executive order for an expanded food distribution. Shortly after, he announced that the food stamps be purchased.[68]

Women, Infants & Children (WIC)[edit]

Women, Infants and Children is a federally-funded health and nutrition program for low-income pregnant and postpartum women, infants and children under 5 years old.[69] WIC provides nutritous food, nutrition and breastfeeding education, and assists families with access to relevant healtcare services.[70] Examples of WIC include:

  1. Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (FMNP)
  2. Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP)

Food justice policy efforts[edit]

Local solutions[edit]

One local solution to improving food accessibility is through the proliferation of local and community farms. Food First, an independent organization based in Oakland, California, aims to connect and promote the economic growth of East Bay Area urban farmers by supporting regular farmer's markets.[71] Expanding bodegas and small corner stores in areas with limited access to full-sized commercial markets may help disadvantaged peoples purchase healthier and higher quality foods.[59]

The Agricultural Justice Project (AJP), founded in 1999, offers farms the opportunity to gain Food Justice Certification (FJC).[72] The principles of the certification are that "all workers have the right to safe working conditions, just treatment, and fair compensation and all farmers have the right to fair, equitable, transparent agreements and pricing."[73] The AJP aims to encourage participation at every step in agricultural food production and sales, from food to table.[73]

Future of food justice[edit]

Food justice advocates have expressed concern regarding the Trump Administration and its potential impact on communities being able to obtain healthy, affordable food.[74]

International trade agreements[edit]

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a trade deal that greatly expanded the rights of corporations over workers, consumers, food producers, and the environment.[75] U.S. President Donald Trump has withdrawn the United States from the TPP.[76] This trade deal attempted to bring 40% of the world’s economy into one trading region, and the U.S. would have been the largest partner.[77] Trump's proposed alternative to the TPP is a bilateral trade agreement that food justice organizations believe will continue to threaten small farmers.[75]

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) created a trilateral trade agreement between Canada, Mexico, and the United States in 1994. Trump has stated that he intends to renegotiate the terms of NAFTA for purposes of domestic protection and raising prices on Mexican imports. This would affect Mexican farmers, as well as the 6 million US jobs that depend on free trade with Mexico.[78]

Environmental Protection Agency[edit]

Environmental Justice office[edit]

Mustafa Ali, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency’s office on Environmental Justice, has resigned as a result of the Trump Administration’s proposal to decrease funding for programs that help poor and minority communities.[79] The EPA Environmental Justice office is under threat to be completely dismantled.[80]

Federal funding[edit]

In the 2018 preliminary budget proposal, Trump planned to decrease EPA funding by 31 percent and eliminate a fifth of its employees,[81] although funding for drinking water infrastructure would remain.[81]

Affordable Care Act[edit]

The Affordable Care Act is threatened to be terminated under the Trump Administration.[82] This means that social services addressing food security are at risk of losing funding or disappearing.[83]

Food policy[edit]

The Child Nutrition Act is up for reauthorization. The reauthorization happens every five years and includes Congressional review and reauthorization of all child nutrition programs, including SNAP, WIC, and the school lunch program.[84] The Farm Bill will also be up for renewal during the administration.

Corporations have historically dominated federal policies in the U.S., and consumers and small growers have little voice in the process of deciding policies.[85] Low-income people, particularly people of color, have even less power, and lack the choice in determining their own food and nutritional decisions. Black and hispanic low-income neighborhoods are often food deserts, meaning they lack grocery stores and accessible real food.[85] Therefore, millions are dependent on government funded programs like SNAP and WIC.[85]

If President Trump signs the drafted executive order titled: “Protecting Taxpayer Resources By Ensuring Our Immigration Law Promote Accountability and Responsibility", it would deny first-generation immigrants and their second-generation citizen children access to these programs.[86] According to a recent analysis by the National Academies of Sciences, 45.3% of all immigrant-headed households with children use a food assistance program.[87] 88% of all children living with immigrant parents are U.S. citizens.[87] This does not account for the millions of undocumented immigrants that currently do not receive SNAP or WIC benefits.[86]


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