Food Justice: Issues and Challenges

Food justice is part of the social justice initiative associated with “Progressive” politics. The New Food Movement advocates for food justice. For a taste of these ideas check out Food Justice, Black Food Matters, Feeding the Other, and More Than Just Food. My interest in this topic stems from my concern about food access for impoverished populations. I support some of these efforts and disagree with others. Note that there are some key differences that divide food-justice advocates.

What is food justice? Food justice will be achieved when all people have equal access to healthy food. At its heart, the food-justice initiative seeks to revolutionize the food system. Their wish is to make it equitable for all. The modern food justice movement traces its roots to the Black Panther Party’s efforts in the late 1960s. The Party provided free breakfasts for school children in the San Francisco Bay area. State and local authorities were not meeting the needs of these children. Efforts today focus on access to fresh fruits and vegetables in inner cities and rural areas. Two books that explain the basic principles and current thrust of the movement are Food Justice and More Than Just Food. The fight against food injustice is complex. It faces issues of racial and economic injustice. Efforts to promote food justice cut across cultural, regional and philosophical lines. Solutions lack clarity.

plate of boiled collard greens
Collard greens: healthy or unhealthy? The answer may depend on cultural perspective.

Cultural differences exist between advocates of food justice for all. Much of the early work defined healthy food as fresh, whole fruits and vegetables. Dietary recommendations highlighted “white” produce and considered soul food as unhealthy. Leaders rejected many recommendations made by the Black community. Similar problems exist in Latinx and Asian communities. A lack of dietitians from non-white backgrounds has slowed the roll-out of diet plans. Needed is a better appreciation of traditional foods that fit into a healthy profile. Communication improves when the diet planner appreciates the client’s perspective.

Regional differences also make it difficult to develop coherent national strategies. What works in one community may not work in another one. Growing conditions, cultural considerations, and political barriers all influence what works in a location. Local activists develop detailed plans. Events without media attention don’t draw a crowd. Without a motivated population, the effort falls flat. Outsiders ruffle feathers when ignoring local peculiarities. Perspectives deviate from one region of the country to another. They can even diverge from one side of a big city to the other.

Philosophical differences extend beyond culture and region. Everybody has their own idea of the way forward. Some leaders are militant wishing to tear down the current system. Others are more cautious looking for incremental progress. Where should it start? Should planners tackle the problem from the ground up? Or is more important to work on access to fresh food at the market? Do organizers need to take on everything all at once?  Some speakers have experience in other places that might work here. That may be fine for where you came from, but this community will never accept it. Successful programs require skilled leadership for everyone to get behind a plan and carry it out.

Co-opting a community plan is a hazard that many groups face. Certain activities within a plan may become very successful in meeting specific needs. Outside companies see these programs as commercial opportunities. Organizers lose control of those and associated activities. Communities lose jobs to outsiders. Original goals for food justice fall by the wayside without vigilant oversight.

Controlling the food infrastructure becomes the challenge. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is one solution. Members pay into the CSA. Money flows back to the growers, and the supply chain is local with few links. Pickup may be in the form of pre-packed boxes by each member or in a store setting run by volunteers. Without outside subsidies, only CSA members receive food. Nonmembers are out of the loop. With subsidies, community organizers or governmental agencies can expand the reach of a self-contained food system.

Is there a food system or just a food economy? Without a controlling factor, activists find it difficult to induce systemic change. Desires to fix the food system in free-market economies run into a troubling roadblock. Funding and geography limit control of system infrastructure. With no entity in control of food distribution, the invisible hand of the market takes over. The laws of supply and demand apply when buying and selling goods and services. Food justice is not part of the scheme. Successful efforts in one county, city, or community are difficult to replicate elsewhere. Cultural, regional, or philosophical differences prevent the spread of good ideas. Small companies seek opportunities to co-opt a program for commercial advantage.

Bottom line. Food inequities exist in inner cities and rural areas of the country. Community organizations make progress in many locations. Ready transfer of ideas from one location to another is difficult. Within the food-justice community, there is a lack of appreciation for cultural differences. Nowhere are these differences more pronounced than in defining a healthy food. Geographical differences also affect what works and what does not. Should organizers tackle the problem ranging form broad-based changes to incremental steps? Successful programs need savvy media relations and continued attention to remain viable. To overcome the vagaries of a market economy, boundaries must be constructed. Some entity must exercise control or there is no system—only an economy.

Food distribution is the key. Access to healthy food is the goal. Big Food has a role to play to even the playing field. Companies have an obligation to their stockholders. They also have an obligation to the health of the nation. Fewer adversarial relationships and more cooperative efforts can lead to greater food justice. We must come together and develop common goals.

Next week: Food swamps and what we can do about them.

6 thoughts on “Food Justice: Issues and Challenges

  1. Thank you Allan for your comments. I will be blogging about obesity next month. I will expect more of your comments on that topic then. I agree with you on the importance of Calories. What those who argue against the ‘a calorie is a calorie’ argument miss or misrepresent is that they disassociate energy from nutritional value. Great to hear from you again.


  2. Agreement with most of what’s here, but mark what’s not there — the importance of how much — quantity matters and relates to the great unhealthy of obesity. While veggies are nutritionally important, the focus on them distracts from the even more important issue of Calories.


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