What is ‘food justice’?
I came to food justice as an ideology, a lifestyle and a career path, almost by accident. I have always been passionate about social justice, but like many young people, I had a hard time determining exactly where and how to utilize my passion. I traveled to developing nations, volunteered countless hours, and switched my college major from international studies to social work back to global studies. I’ve worked with children, immigrants and refugees, urban and rural poor, and people with disabilities. I enjoyed and learned from each of these experiences – some more than others – but had a hard time figuring out exactly where my niche was. My other great passion being food, I even toyed with the idea of culinary school, but dismissed that notion as self-indulgent. I had already committed myself to forging a career in social justice and poverty relief, but discerning exactly how I could do the most good was no easy task.
After college, I spent a year serving as an Americorps volunteer for Bread for the City in Washington, DC. I worked as a case manager, which I figured out was not what I want to spend my life doing, but something else happened in my time there. I met a lot of amazing people doing grassroots organizing and advocacy work around the idea of food justice, which was something I’d never heard of before. When I learned what food justice meant – the intersection of food and social justice, a vision for a food system that is healthy, sustainable and accessible for all people – the light bulb went on. Really brightly. Everything clicked, and I knew that’s what I was meant to do with my career.
Long story short, that’s what brought me to The Campus Kitchens Project, where I work to empower young leaders to prevent food waste, fight hunger, and build community. At CKUMB, I hope to incorporate community gardening, nutrition education, and SNAP (food stamps) outreach in order to take our program beyond meals – to a more comprehensive food justice endeavor.
A relatively new concept, the idea of food justice has emerged in recent years as people have become more informed and active about food issues. Depending on who you ask, you’ll get a wide variety of definitions. According to a book by the same name that I recently began reading, food justice seeks to ensure that the benefits and risks of where, what, and how food is grown, produced, transported, distributed, accessed and eaten are shared fairly.” On a similar note, The California Food and Justice Coalition “promotes the basic human right to healthy food while advancing social, agricultural, environmental and economic justice priorities.” The Community Alliance for Global Justice defines it as “the right of communities everywhere to produce, distribute, access, and eat good food regardless of race, class, gender, ethnicity, citizenship, ability, religion, or community. Good food is healthful, local, sustainable, culturally appropriate, humane, and produced for the sustenance of people and the planet.” While acknowledging food justice as a complex and diverse issue, I like to simplify things by referring to Slow Food USA‘s core value: food that is “good, clean and fair.”
It’s important to respect the diversity of definitions and perspectives on food justice, because they are born out of the needs and priorities of the communities and organizations that are working toward food justice. It’s easy to pick out a common thread of ideals that run throughout the wide array of definitions: public health, human dignity, and environmental stewardship. Most of us fail to realize that the food choices we make are part of a much larger food system, and have consequences far beyond the aisles of the grocery store.
A broken system
Food justice and various manifestations of what might be called the “food movement” have emerged out of the realization and recognition of myriad injustices in the food system – a system that is essentially dysfunctional. Most of us understand at least a few of the reasons why food matters. Obviously food is our most basic, vital, and constant human need, but it goes far beyond that; it is a human right, determines our health, is one of the biggest sectors of the economy (local, national, and global), and it has a deep impact on the environment.
Before we can approach food justice, we must understand the injustices prevalent in the modern industrial food system. Food access is the most obvious, but it goes far beyond hunger. One in six Americans struggles with food insecurity, meaning “limited or uncertain access to adequate food” according to the USDA. Globally nearly one billion people are hungry. Access also means what kind of food people are able to obtain, and for many low-income people, this often means unhealthy options that can range from fast food restaurants to convenience stores. We all know the consequences of a poor diet: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other serious illnesses, which are significantly more common among people living in poverty, particularly communities of color.
This only scratches the surface. What many of us don’t see is the far-reaching impact of food on workers, communities and the environment. Before your meal hits the plate, it travels a long journey across many miles and through many hands. Many of the workers who grow, harvest, handle, process, and ship our food are subjected to long hours, back-breaking work, and minuscule pay (often less than minimum wage). In the worst scenarios, they are exploited and abused by their employers, and exposed to dangerous agricultural chemicals that cause devastating illnesses.
But people are not all that’s affected by our food system. Even though we rely on natural resources to nourish and sustain us, industrial food production is having disastrous effects on the environment, from chemical pollution to topsoil erosion to depletion of natural resources. Fossil fuels are used to produce, process, package, and ship food which then travels an average of 1,500 miles before you eat it (losing nutrients and flavor in transit).
I could go on and on about the detrimental effects of the modern industrial food system, but let’s return to the topic at hand – food justice – which has arisen in response to growing awareness (and outrage) about the failures of the food system.
Cultivating a better world
Food justice means access to good, healthy, sustainable food that nourishes bodies, communities and ecosystems. From the soil where we plant the seeds to the workers who harvest the produce to the way we treat the livestock to the corner store where people shop – we must take into account every element of our food system and work as communities to make it more just. So now that we’ve approached what food justice means, you may be wondering how to apply it. What can you do, short of quitting your job and going to work on the front lines of the food movement? What can we do, as communities and as a nation, to make food justice a reality?
I have a few suggestions to get you started, but this list is by no means exhaustive. I encourage you to do your own research and check out the resources at the end of this post for more information.
- Eat less meat. I’m not saying you should be a vegetarian, but if you cut back a bit, you’ll be reducing your carbon footprint and improving your health.
- Buy local. When you shop for your food locally, especially from small farmers, your meal has a much lighter environmental impact, better flavor and nutrition, and a positive impact on the local economy.
- Eat seasonally. Demand for tomatoes in December and strawberries in February creates a market where produce is shipped thousands of miles (ie: Peruvian asparagus). Food in season tastes better and you’ll appreciate it more.
- Give back. Volunteer for a Campus Kitchen near you, go on a gleaning trip, or join a student or community organization working for local food justice. Donate to your favorite foodie cause!
- Make change. Join your local chapter of Slow Food or take action on issues at the policy level.