Radicalizing Food Politics
Collective Power, Diversity, and Solidarity
The food movement often advocates for “good food,” a principle that combines environmental, economic, and social sustainability, and consequently the creation of a “good food table,” a space for fostering community and new food systems. In practice, this includes everything from mobilizing food policy councils to hosting community potlucks. Yet as an idea that encompasses the mainstream ethos of the food movement, this principle depends on many assumptions. Most common is the notion that food is a mechanism to convene people across differences and to foster civic participation. “Everyone eats,” so the saying goes. This visceral fact means problems in the food system should inspire people to care about what they eat. Food is the optic of change. But this framing obstructs the underlying structural inequalities in the food system. Moreover, a kumbaya politics dovetails with the postpolitical when it masks oppression and depoliticizes inequities. If good food simply means people make different consumption choices or convince government bureaucrats to encourage more farmers markets, then it is an insufficient frame for eliminating the problems driven by neoliberal capitalism and institutional racism. This is not to malign the ritual of gathering around food. Nor does it presuppose that food cannot be a vector around which to mobilize cross-cultural exchange. Instead, there are political ramifications of ignoring the centrality of antagonism and social difference to democratic struggle. To unmask social hierarchies within the food system, which are contingent but present themselves as natural, is to acknowledge the viscosity of contestation. In the context of contemporary democracy, contestation revolves around inequities, a generative process necessary to advance the interests of subordinated groups. Managing problems and mediating interests consensually present the real possibility that the inequities faced by groups become secondary to achieving some middle ground. An alternative is to refocus the political imagination around the messy agonistic process of the struggle for food justice.
Food justice, as a historical set of ideological commitments and strategies aimed at eradicating oppression in the food system and society, is a promising way to practice politics. This is not without difficulty. Social justice–oriented food politics, from their expression in the agrarian populist movement on through to their countless forms in the current food movement, have not fully liberated people from the ravages of capitalism, state power, and institutional racism. Nevertheless, as part of a dialectical process of navigating different terrains of social struggle, they have succeeded in articulating, and in some instances achieving, greater collective power, freedom, and equity. The dissent and some of the radical visions represent a nonlinear vision of conflictual democratic politics. The dialectical process of this antagonism, always open and reflecting different conjunctures, offers many moments for intervention. To recognize these moments is to assert the need for more divergent modes of political action. Within a democratic context, food justice practices develop through the process of tacking between relations of subordination, transformative yearnings, and reformative practices.
As the political philosopher Jacques Rancière has maintained, democracy is an anarchic principle that “implies a practice of dissensus, one that it keeps re-opening and that the practice of ruling relentlessly plugs.” Democracy is not a state where people with certain qualifications, such as education or wealth, rule and others are preordained to be subject to that rule. The “power of the people” can emerge only when there is politics, an arena within which the agency of the ruled can contest the power of the rulers and vice versa. Politics is not about possessing power, nor is it about the relationship between society and the state, commonly understood in terms of an assumed state superiority to act on an inferior citizenry. Politics is the capacity to act based on the assumption everyone is equal to everyone else. People consummate equality when they act to demonstrate their equality. Think of the formerly incarcerated black activists in Oakland who, despite losing freedoms at different times in their lives, assert their equality through restorative food justice practices. Equality does not require the rulers to distribute equitably things to the ruled. This is what Grace Lee Boggs means when she asserts, “We want and need to create the alternative world that is now both possible and necessary. We want and need to exercise power, not take it” (emphasis added). “Compost the empire,” the ruptural notion guiding Planting Justice, reflects one mode of practicing food politics that strives for new configurations of power by broadening the scope of freedom in the face of oppression. As Rancière reasons, “The ‘freedom’ of a people that constitutes the axiom of democracy has as its real content the rupture of the axioms of domination.” He is referring to the human capacity to alter hegemonic relations as the political essence of democracy: “The citizen who partakes ‘in ruling and being ruled’ is only thinkable on the basis of the demos [“the people”] as a figure that ruptures the correspondence between a series of correlated capacities.”
Articulating food politics as a practice of dissensus sharpens what it means to engage on the terrain of the conjunctural. While structural inequalities are ubiquitous, dialectical humanism shows that a multitude of confrontational and prefigurative strategies can lead to new hegemonic relations that advance a radical and plural democracy. If one of the problems of the food movement has been the market as movement, then one of the ways through this impasse is to rearticulate the political and democratic practices that reject the neoliberal impulse for consumer solutions. The reasons for this shift abound. Neoliberalism as hegemony presupposes the individual is the locus of action. From this follows a familiar line of reasoning. If an individual has a problem, say, a Latina grocery bagger is underpaid by the supermarket that employs her, then she should work harder to receive a raise. Dismissed by the neoliberal view is the political economy of the grocery retail sector and the food system within which it operates. The race to the bottom to squeeze capital out of racialized and gendered labor disappears as an explanatory variable. Similarly, inequities along the lines of race and gender melt into the language of individual rights and emerge only when there is an act of “discrimination.” Even patterns of discrimination morph into aberrations in a post–civil rights era. All of this is to say that the individual is superior to the collective; the social is dead, and along with it social problems and social movements.
Pushing against the neoliberal harbinger of the postpolitical requires more than democratic control over the economy in a typical Marxist sense. Drawing on Antonio Gramsci, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe argue for a “radical democracy” predicated on a distinct view of social antagonism and hegemony. One of their central tenets is that “democratic struggle emerges within an ensemble of positions, within a relatively sutured political space formed by a multiplicity of practices.” Antagonism is part of everyday life. Views of others, social positions, organizations, and institutions are therefore open to change; social conditions can never ossify or eliminate difference. In other words, antagonism emerges around more than food (or the economy, the state, etc.). Food politics is one field within which social struggle is ongoing. Social groups are relative to one another with respect to their situation within a matrix of oppression. Consider the analytical and practical significance of the class, ethnoracial, and gender (and other) positions of the grocery bagger. As was the case at United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 770, organizers understood that the large Latinx and black makeup of their union membership required supporting immigrant rights and food security campaigns. Perhaps unusual, but this labor union’s food politics recognized other antagonisms to not foreclose on alternative political visions.
Food justice is one heterogeneous project among many striving for radical democracy, namely, for new hegemonic formations within the postpolitical and neoliberal moment. This open dialectical project reflects Laclau and Mouffe’s theorization of hegemony as a “type of political relation:” “The openness of the social is, thus, the precondition of every hegemonic practice [and] . . . the hegemonic formation . . . cannot be referred to the specific logic of a single social force.” Similarly, food justice, with its diverse historical roots and conjunctural engagements, offers an expansive terrain to practice food politics in a way that acknowledges social difference and strives for equity across a range of antagonisms. This is qualitatively different from gathering around food as some lowest common denominator that ignores difference by prioritizing consensus. Food justice is potent politically precisely because of the plurality of its social justice demands, which demarcate sites of social struggle to transform some relation of subordination.
Food justice is also a powerful movement-organizing principle. This raises the question, how does food justice–inspired politics unfold? The conjunctural analysis of Gramsci, the dialectical humanism of the Boggses, and the post-Marxist insights of Rancière, Laclau, and Mouffe on politics and radical democracy help account for this dialectical process. My focus on resistance to the problems of mass incarceration, labor exploitation, and immigration and social boundaries translates some of the universal commitments to equity into distinct social justice–oriented food politics. Together this means food justice can unify previously disparate political practices. But first, activists and scholars need to shed some of the shibboleths of food justice that reduce it to a narrow band of neoliberal or postpolitical practices (e.g., market as movement, white people bringing good food to black people). Instead, by accepting the centrality of antagonism to politics, focus can turn to tracing how intergroup conflict is generative of common emergent conditions that help advance food justice across unique contexts.
Strategic Considerations for the Emergent Practice of Food Justice
UFCW 770, in collaboration with other economic and racial justice groups, supported warehouse workers as part of a larger campaign against Walmart. This case points to how fighting for labor rights is central to food justice because it contests relations of subordination and reinforces the fact that agonistic political practices are necessary to eliminate practices like the corporate race to the bottom. Specifying this dialectical process illuminates collective power, diversity, and solidarity as common emergent conditions. For UFCW 770, these conditions are never given. They are goals that evolve based on historical victories and missteps to meet the needs of current campaigns.
Assembling coalitions across typical labor movement divides is difficult, but when unions can develop positive-sum coalitions that achieve victories, build their own power, and advance community interests, there is the increased chance of shifting political climates and activist cultures. Central to the Walmart and warehouse workers example is the complex relationship between worker centers and labor unions. Broadly speaking, with the industrial restructuring, decline of labor union membership, and increase in nonunion service jobs over the past four decades, worker centers have stepped in to support economically marginalized communities and nonunionized workers. These centers often focus on ethnoracial and linguistic commonalities and take a more holistic view of how to improve the lives of poor people. When collaborative opportunities emerge, say, in the famous coalition in Nebraska between UFCW and Omaha Together, One Community (OTOC), which successfully unionized hundreds of meatpacking workers, the role of local organizations like OTOC is critical to success. With deeper connections to the community that workers come from, worker centers often prioritize social problems that intersect with economic conditions, like the documentation status of immigrant workers. Therefore, when labor unions are unable to step out of their typical top-down organizing models, communities might view them as paternalistic and overly focused on increasing their membership. Whereas in Nebraska UFCW initially viewed its role as a strategic supporter, as OTOC had years of buy-in from the community due to its organizing efforts, in Los Angeles UFCW 770 sought to co-opt and undermine Korean Immigrant Worker Advocates (KIWA), a community-based worker center organizing Korean grocery workers. KIWA had succeeded previously in increasing wages for restaurant workers in Koreatown and sought similar advancements for grocery workers, but instead of coming up with a strategy to build collective power with a resource-rich labor union, they wanted to maintain their autonomy. While positive-sum coalitions can increase the overall power of workers, social movement history suggests that wins are not inevitable.
The week I arrived in the Organizing Department at UFCW 770, a host of labor unions and advocacy groups were in the middle of supporting a labor struggle of warehouse workers in Ontario, about an hour and a half due east in the elite-coined region aspiringly called the Inland Empire. A few years prior, in 2009, the Change to Win Federation (CTW), a new coalition of labor unions focused on increasing labor organizing, helped launch the worker center Warehouse Workers United (WWU). The reason for forming WWU was to increase the presence of organized labor within the distribution and logistics industry. The Inland Empire was a logical place to center the initiative, as it is home to one of the largest distribution centers and warehouse districts in the United States. In the fall of 2012, warehouse workers, many of them immigrants from Mexico and Central America, were entrenched in a months-long campaign against NFI Industries. WWU and its labor allies targeted a company facility used exclusively by Walmart, which was part of a comprehensive campaign to associate Walmart with poor labor practices throughout its supply chain. Due to low wages and unsafe working conditions, workers participated in strikes, protests, and marches. With the help of WWU, they also filed complaints with government agencies and launched lawsuits. Because many of the one hundred ten thousand workers in Inland Empire’s warehouse zone are temporary workers for subcontractors with giant corporations like Walmart, unionizing the industry was unlikely. Instead, organizers worked to build collective power with other allies.
The Organizing Division at UFCW 770 was two years old at the time and strengthening its labor ties throughout Los Angeles and the surrounding metropolitan area. For years, the union was losing members and bargaining power due to the entrance of low-wage grocery retailers like Walmart. An organizer named Ann remarked, “We have been beaten down. . . . We’re constantly fighting back companies that are trying to cut wages or cut a retiree who deserves the pension they got. You find people who lost that battle after being lifelong union members now shopping at Walmart.” Instead of accepting the irony of these circumstances, UFCW 770 recommitted to organizing. The union waged a multipronged campaign against Walmart consisting of efforts to keep the company out of Los Angeles, improve working conditions for Walmart associates, and support workers in Walmart’s supply chain. They joined forces with those sharing this common enemy, an affinity that compelled support for WWU. With fewer resources than Walmart, building relationships with groups committed to economic and racial justice throughout the region was necessary.
There is a long history of labor solidarity at UFCW 770 informing their approach to battling Walmart. In 1985, for example, meat cutters at seven grocery stores throughout Southern California, who at the time had separate contracts from clerks in the same stores, were involved in a bitter labor dispute. During contract negotiations that year, the stores’ bargaining representative, the Food Employers Council, first formulated what became a typical corporate position: we need labor concessions because of the entrance of big-box retailers like Walmart. Rejecting proposals to slash wages, benefits, and hours, nearly ten thousand meat cutters went on strike in early November. In solidarity with this action, twelve thousand warehouse workers and drivers represented by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters also went on strike to push for a better contract. The intent of such labor solidarity was to apply pressure to corporate grocery stores like Vons by garnering public support for picket lines to harm store profits. The most contentious issue was a proposed two-tier wage system where new employees receive lower wages than those already employed for the same work, a concession that UFCW ultimately caved to after an eight-week strike. Despite this loss for grocery meat cutters, which signaled the beginning of an era of corporate consolidation that compelled labor unions to come up with new strategies, building labor solidarity remains a key strategy.
It is unsurprising UFCW 770 supported WWU. Not only have warehouse workers backed grocery workers in the past, but also, given the flattening of wages and benefits since the 1980s and fewer union members, UFCW 770 politicized economic inequality alongside many left-wing interests in the wake of the Great Recession. The important takeaway from this labor solidarity is that organizers paid constant attention to the shifting economic landscape and took advantage of political opportunities to knock Walmart off balance. As I explored in chapter 3, this strategy focused on the problem of poverty, which it used to mobilize many different interests in favor of better food access and quality jobs. In line with the cultural sensitivity of worker centers, WWU also highlighted how immigrant warehouse workers making poverty-level wages are more exploitable while at work. As a worker at an NFI Industries facility, Marta Medina, reported, “The work here is hard. When I was pregnant and asked for lighter work, they told me, ‘We didn’t hire you to have children. Work faster or leave.’” She was not the only one exploited at work: “We didn’t know what our rights were, but we knew we weren’t safe and needed to make a change.” Just like many other workers, instead of accepting these conditions, Marta fought back.
Mirroring a damning report into Inland Empire warehouse working conditions titled Shattered Dreams and Broken Bodies, a Latina WWU organizer spoke at a rally I attended on November 15, 2012, to end retaliation against workers. Addressing a largely black and Latinx crowd of about 150 people, including people from labor unions like UFCW 770, workers from OUR Walmart, and Good Jobs L.A. coalition representatives, she drew attention to how this rally came at a time of national scrutiny of Walmart and its supply chain. As we gathered in a large circle, she exclaimed, “At every juncture in Walmart’s supply chain, workers are rising up. . . . We are at the warehouse because workers didn’t have access to clean drinking water; their working equipment was broken; there is little ventilation and extreme temperatures in the summer. . . . Injury rates in the warehouse are extremely high.” She went on to praise workers facing retaliation for railing against poor labor conditions throughout Walmart’s supply chain: “In Walmart stores workers are silenced when they speak up about their jobs also. The two groups of workers as well as guest workers, who also work in the Walmart production facilities, are working together . . . to improve the working conditions and get the respect for thousands of workers in Walmart’s supply chain.” The importance of solidarity across the supply chain frames these confrontational tactics as part of a larger strategy, one increasingly common with food labor organizations like the Food Chain Workers Alliance. This builds the collective power necessary to maintain pressure that translates into improvements for workers. One of the most significant of achievements was the settling of a $21 million lawsuit in May 2014 claiming rampant wage theft by Schneider Logistics Inc. of more than eighteen hundred workers at three of their warehouses dedicated solely to working with Walmart. Vindicating the claims of workers at NFI Industries a few miles down the road, the judge ruled in this case that Walmart could be named as a co-defendant because it exercised incredible control over how Schneider Logistics Inc. ran its warehouses, essentially pressuring them to increase productivity.
Building collective power strengthens food justice as a social movement. If, as the famed social movement scholar Sidney Tarrow suggests, social movements are “collective challenges, based on common purposes and social solidarities, in sustained interaction with elites, opponents, and authorities,” then the food politics of food justice activists are part of this process. But to evaluate whether food justice “builds crossover appeal” with other social justice movements requires viewing food politics through the lens of whether activists build collective power around solving underlying problems. This is what it means to engage radically. As the Latin etymology implies, a radical action is one that gets to the roots of the matter. Similarly, the modus operandi of the food justice movement, as a movement of movements that crosscuts social change agendas, is building collective power around shared interests to respond to structural problems.
Philosophers and social scientists have long studied power, a survey of which might fill a small library. For the purposes of understanding food justice as a force for social change, the sociologist William Domhoff offers a definition that builds on Bertrand Russell’s insight that “power is the ability to produce intended effects.” Collective power, then, “concerns the capacity of a group to realize its common goals. . . . It is what makes possible the existence of distributive power: if the group didn’t have the collective power to grow and produce, there wouldn’t be anything worth fighting over.” Such a broad definition of collective power converges with a dialectical explanation of how hegemony is a continually contested political project around economic, political, and social conjunctures. But why is building collective power necessary? Because collective power is a prerequisite for achieving outcomes, scholars and activists can identify the nature of the conjunctures driving food politics and evaluate whether they work toward food justice. Given that the fight for food justice is likely never ending, working collectively is a surefire way to build a base of political support to continually confront “elites, opponents, and authorities.”
When activists think like a movement, they strive to collectivize their struggles in ways that strengthen the food justice movement. Putting aside consumer politics, food justice may remain relevant as a mobilizing principle if proponents can expand their institutional and grassroots power. Carceral, labor, and immigration conjunctures uniquely illustrate what it means to partake in such movement-building practices. This includes expanding institutional power with the purpose of improving the lives of subordinated people. Strategically, this means working in alliance with grassroots organizations and advocacy groups, participating in political actions, gathering petition signatures, fundraising, lobbying elected officials, framing media messaging, and critiquing injustices. There are also prefigurative forms of power that require increasing grassroots leadership and control. This is where practices such as farming, gardening, cooking, eating, social boundary bridging, and environmental sustainability and social justice consciousness raising can be means for greater self-determination. The key is for such practices to sustain over time. As Planting Justice and UFCW 770 have shown, tackling complex social problems requires an ongoing commitment to mobilization strategies that draw on and build new social networks, organizational structures to coordinate collective action, and shared cultural frameworks and identities.
After years of food justice evolving from a sparsely used term to a diverse social movement committed to advancing social justice in the food system, it appears the conviviality of food is uniquely positioned to help build collective power. Planting Justice, for example, ties a commitment to permaculture as an integrative principle to its food politics. In one of many media interviews, Gavin articulated, “Mass incarceration rips people out of their land and from their communities and doesn’t do anything to repair those relationships once they come home. . . . That is such a flagrant example of what happens when people and place and story and land have been disconnected. It’s where we are starting as a political act, but also because those folks [formerly incarcerated people] are the leaders that we need in order to transform our society [emphasis added].” When members of Planting Justice first started working with formerly incarcerated people inside San Quentin State Prison, they brought their urban agriculture and permaculture skill sets with them. Their commitment to social justice merged with an “‘inner’ and ‘outer’ gardening approach” that built connections and a shared sense that it was possible to end “ongoing cycles of incarceration.” As Julius, a middle-aged black man who after the Insight Garden Program went on to work at Planting Justice, related, “The program made me a better person. Now that I’m out, I’m more active in the community and in work. When the garden is planted, and the work is done, and the vegetables grow, it brings a lot of people together. That’s the way community grows.” After spending two years and ten months in prison, he went on to build permaculture edible landscapes and support the development of a five-acre permaculture orchard. Reflecting on these experiences, Julius shared, “Looking at all these jobs we did in the past, you know what I’m saying, and the smiles on people’s faces, you know what I’m saying, I put that there, I built that there for them.” In other words, his individual actions reflect prefigurative strategies that contribute to building collective power. Planting Justice often calls on its evolving social networks to take political action to support prisoners and engage in policy and legal efforts to reform the reentry process. This ideological and material affront shows the tenuousness of the carceral conjuncture.
Behind fostering new black food justice leaders whom society otherwise writes off as ready-made criminals with little chance for redemption is an appreciation of what the abolitionist Frederick Douglass famously wrote: “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” Given recent exposés of mass incarceration in the United States that liken this system to a “new Jim Crow” and a “racial caste system,” Douglass’s clarion call still rings true today. Advancing human liberty requires continual struggle: “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. . . . Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.” Resistance for formerly incarcerated people and their allies in Planting Justice relies on a collective mutual aid strategy comprising a network of thousands of people. Together this supports formerly incarcerated people with living-wage work and a pool of allies to agitate for policy reform that helps them defy California’s recidivism odds.
Restorative food justice practices are the result of many different people acting in concert against the criminalization of low-income communities of color. Although Planting Justice and its allies reject the use of “blows,” they rely on “words” like those of canvassers stopping passersby on busy Oakland street corners. These counterhegemonic actions rearticulate the process by which people become “formerly incarcerated people” by tying this to racist policies and practices. Such a strategy fosters an “us” mobilizing collectively to build power in opposition to the “them” responsible for perpetuating inequitable outcomes in terms of incarceration and reentry. For example, on November 12, 2015, Planting Justice joined a caravan to Sacramento led by Californians United for a Responsible Budget “to urge the Board of State and Community Corrections not to approve Sheriff Ahern’s request for $54 million to expand Santa Rita [Alameda County’s jail].” The sheriff proposed to use the money for a mental health treatment unit, but opponents noted the recent history of inhumane conditions, violence, and human rights abuses in the jail. Planting Justice, along with many families of formerly incarcerated people, spoke out against what they believed was an attempt by the sheriff to co-opt the efforts of reentry service providers and grassroots criminal justice reform organizations with a “social service” jail proposal. Despite opposition, the board unanimously voted to use more realignment money for jails instead of reentry. As one board member was reported to have said, “Preventing recidivism is difficult or impossible.” However, the prefigurative strategies of Planting Justice and its allies show that collective power is necessary to prevent recidivism. While this battle did not result in the kind of distributional power activists hoped for, it reveals the line of opposition drawn against the state’s disposal of formerly incarcerated people. While these kinds of sub–food justice politics will not always produce victories, without such mobilization, victories will always remain out of reach.
One hallmark of food justice is a commitment to racial equity, which manifests in an array of food politics. This includes building cross-race and cross-class alliances to challenge corporate power (UFCW 770), explicitly condemning institutional racism (Planting Justice), or reimagining divisive spaces that perpetuate the racialization of immigrants (San Diego Roots). Underlying these particularities, the issue of diversity crosscuts how activists practice food justice. But like any dialectical process, the unique inequities and constellation of actors and approaches shape the social relations.
Blindness to the ethnoracial context can contribute to white activists interpreting food justice to mean that they need “diversity,” seen here as inherently beneficial, while overlooking how this flirts with tokenism. Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence. When one adds a black or Latina staff member, or when someone convinces a person of color to give a presentation about race in the food system, the issue of diversity equates with meeting quotas. It simultaneously may ignore the culture that produced the ethnoracial organizational makeup to begin with. Marcelo Felipe Garzo Montalvo, a food justice activist and former board and staff member with Planting Justice, wrote a letter to the food justice movement in which he addressed this and related topics. After expressing gratitude for many of the positive attributes of the movement, he critiqued what he sees as “our collective mis/understandings of ‘power, privilege, and oppression,’ and therefore how we strategize their undoing and/or transformation through food systems work.” Having spoken with him many times, I was aware that this grievance stemmed from a concern with activists not contextualizing a chosen solution within the reality of intersecting sets of social problems. Referring to a cultural tendency of food justice politics, Marcelo elaborated,
I have been asked, or called in as a “consultant,” to discuss “anti-oppression,” “anti-racism,” or other ways to engage the perennial (and very frustrating) question of “why are there no people of color here?” Or more often than not, “why is there a lack of diversity in our organization?” or “how can we be more inclusive?” It must be noted that “lack of diversity” and “inclusive” are often neoliberal code words for a space being already white-dominated. When I see a call for papers asking for a list of “how tos” for working with people and communities of color in food systems, I am reminded of the dozens of times I have been asked these sorts of questions, and the dozens of times I have been unable to offer the prescriptive answers these folks may be seeking. Many times when I hear these code words, I fear it is already too late. A space and culture has already been created and established that is so thoroughly white (corporate [we don’t need to be a corporation to be corporate] and heteropatriarchal [dominated by the norms of heterosexual males]), that it contains within it one of the hallmarks of whiteness itself: white guilt and its accompanying savior complex.
Indeed, whiteness, privilege, and thoughtlessness often permeate white-dominated food movement spaces. While white activists need to reflect on their motivations for diversity, without an overarching anti-racist praxis, they may miss opportunities to advance a food politics capable of intervening in institutional racism.
It is common to think of diversity as something to achieve in an organization, institution, or movement that lacks people of color, but this creates the perception that people of color (or other underrepresented groups) are outsiders or at-risk victims. This may reinforce exclusion and inequity. At the same time, diversity is not a sufficient condition to ensure that all groups have the same access and opportunities, say, to urban agriculture resources in a diverse city. Given the prevalence of color-blind politics that correlate the assorted ethnoracial mix of a city with the notion that racism is dead and ignore the structural inequalities that predominate in communities of color, it is important to break down how food justice practices engage with this context. Perceptions and actions in the name of diversity can reveal a lot about whether a mixture of socially distinct groups can work across social boundaries to create equitable forms of food politics that produce equally equitable results.
My cases highlight some of the ways that orientations toward diversity influence food politics. While a deficit model focuses strictly on disadvantages, an asset model prioritizes the cultural and social forms of capital that communities of color bring to their practice of food justice. In the former, groups will use diversity to act on behalf of a statistical minority, usually with charity. The reasoning goes that we live in a post–civil rights multicultural society, so we should make sure that each group has its basic needs met. In the latter, diversity celebrates the distinct skills and forms of knowledge each group possesses. By bringing this to bear on social inequities, there is the recognition that social justice requires inclusivity, representative leadership, and working alongside marginalized groups to solve the root problems collectively. For example, in Los Angeles, many antihunger groups operate from a deficit position. Reports such as Rising Food Insecurity in Los Angeles County by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health conclude with major recommendations to increase government and nonprofit food assistance programs. The irony is that the report spotlights the stratification of food insecurity among adults living in households with incomes less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level but only mentions fleetingly in a single bullet point the need for better wages. More than any other indicators, Latinx (63.5 percent) and foreign born (60.8 percent) correlate with food insecurity, so it is all the more a missed opportunity to tie other economic policies (e.g., fair housing statutes) to immigration reform (e.g., a pathway to citizenship that immediately extends greater labor protections and civil rights). In contradistinction, UFCW 770 is attentive to the plight of Mexican and Central American immigrant communities. Their food politics approach diversity by fostering leadership and working with these groups to improve their economic and social standing, which includes fighting off racist immigration proposals and supporting Latinx El Super workers.
Related to the relationship between race and diversity are strategy and diversity. Relations of subordination play out on countless terrains. Mutually constitutive of this reality is social antagonism, which means the subordinated and their allies adopt a plethora of strategies. Speaking to this position, anarchist and author Peter Gelderloos explains, “A diversity of methods is necessary in our struggle because none of us have the answer regarding the one true strategy for revolution; because there is no one size that fits all and each of us must develop a unique form of struggle for our respective situations.” Conjunctures emerge in different times and places, which requires reading the internal contradictions of the moment to identify the best way forward. Practically speaking, because inequities manifest in the food system in so many ways, there is the need for the food movement’s food politics to be nimble. This is one of the food movement’s strengths. As Gelderloos argues, “Our movements are harder to repress when we replace a party-line unity with a broad solidarity, when we attack as a swarm and not as an opposing army.” Putting aside the appeal to revolution in the typical anarchist sense of smashing the state, the larger point about respecting the diversity of differently situated social groups and their political visions, both individually, and then collectively through solidarity efforts, emphasizes the benefits of strategic fluidity.
There are also questions at the interface of race, strategy, and diversity. The adoption of some collective identity (e.g., immigrant union member, black food justice activist, white locavore) draws lines of insider and outsider, a process that reflects activist goals and political opportunities and constraints. The construction of collective identities when food justice–oriented food politics are considered runs the spectrum between exclusive and inclusive campaigns. On the one hand, there are historical precedents such as Fannie Lou Hamer’s Freedom Farms Cooperative, which used agriculture as a form of resistance to support black sharecroppers and tenant farmers facing white backlash in Mississippi for exercising their right to vote. With the real threat of starvation promulgated by whites, black farmers pulled together into an agricultural cooperative as an act of self-determination. On the other hand, there are countless examples of multiracial coalitions that set the terrain for contemporary articulations within the food movement. Prominent among these is the support of the black freedom struggle for the Mexican American–led United Farm Workers (UFW). As backers of UFW’s boycotts, black activists found common cause as part of a broader movement for racial and economic justice. This latter example is interesting in light of how organizations are more likely to be exclusive without an underlying commitment to social justice, a broad anchor that can hold groups together. But ideological commitments go only so far if an organization does not reflect the community within which it works, either demographically or geographically. The practical question concerns how to navigate the very diversity that makes a democratic struggle generative of greater social equity. These are ultimately strategic decisions regarding how people chart a path between sameness and difference.
For example, San Diego Roots created an inclusive identity around local food and a desire to democratize local food access. This reproduces a common food movement assumption that society’s plurality is significant insofar as people can reach consensus across difference. After sharing that most food grown in San Diego County is exported while most food eaten in the county is imported, Mel Lions, the director of San Diego Roots, counseled, “My biggest piece of advice is that if you are interested in being part of the local food movement . . . you already are part of the local food movement.” If people have purchased local food or considered where their food comes from, or if they are eaters, then they are de facto contributing to the food movement. Wild Willow Farm as an education center is open to anyone in the community. But this construction of sameness, while encouraging people to share in the joys of local food, at the same time strategically forecloses on ethnoracial and class differences within “the community.” Such discourses sidestep inequalities that require confrontation within local food spaces. While not discounting the bridging power of food, their model of diversity ignores working with the interests, assets, and needs of local Latinx or newly arrived Latinx immigrants living in the borderlands in favor of a party-line unity around local food. While representatives of these communities sometimes attend events like farm potlucks and share their culinary traditions, San Diego Roots undervalues the social and political motivations behind such cultural foodways. In brief, San Diego Roots both encourages and excludes diversity in its framing. One of the mechanisms for engaging in food politics that both respect and inspire ethnoracial diversity is solidarity. This is a necessary condition for food justice in the pluralist context of democracy.
In a dialectical reflection on how globalization is reshaping the meaning and practice of solidarity, Grace Lee Boggs wrote about an experience she had learning about the displacement of Afro-Columbian farmers by paramilitary-backed palm oil agribusinesses. She explained how these farmers fought to reclaim their territory, which she identified with in her hometown of Detroit. “We are resisting by growing our own food,” Boggs wrote, “struggling to bring the neighbor back into the hood, creating Peace Zones out of War Zones, and redefining Work to mean making a Life and not just a Living.” Sharing stories and struggles across social boundaries is one of the key practices of solidarity. Instead of withdrawing into the ethnoracial or class-atomized outcome of globalization — say, as a shopper who buys a burrito at a local Mexican taqueria ignorant of the deportation of the cashiers’ undocumented cousin who emigrated to the United States after being displaced as a small farmer due to the post-NAFTA importation of cheap agricultural commodities — solidarity calls for finding ways to work with the unevenness. Identifying the inequities embedded in relations of subordination offers new paths to becoming an accomplice on the path to dismantle structural conditions. Boggs concluded, “Solidarity is beginning to mean connecting grassroots communities who are resisting corporate devastation and displacement by creating ways of living that give us control over our lives.” Solidarity requires respecting what is distinct about a struggle and acknowledging that similarities can encourage new networks.
Activists in Oakland, Los Angeles, and San Diego had unique opportunities to reach beyond their immediate milieu. For Planting Justice, this meant acting in solidarity with formerly incarcerated people and groups committed to economic, racial, and restorative justice. UFCW 770 engaged in labor solidarity with workers in occupations outside the union’s purview and with immigrant rights networks. Paulo Freire famously wrote, “True solidarity with the oppressed means fighting at their side to transform the objective reality which has made them these ‘beings for another.’ The oppressor is solidary with the oppressed only when he . . . stops making pious, sentimental, and individualistic gestures and risks an act of love.” For Freire, to love is to affirm the inherent dignity of dehumanized people with concrete communal actions that overcome that dehumanization. Saying that you care about someone is different from taking steps to support them. For example, San Diego Roots failed to act in solidarity with immigrants. While there were those like the former lead farmer, Titus, who tried to compel his compatriots to foster ties with Latinx borderland communities with actions like collaborating with a local community garden, this was largely isolated. There were more platitudes than actions. Warning against only partially supporting the oppressed, Freire suggested, “To affirm that men and women are persons and as persons should be free, and yet to do nothing tangible to make this affirmation a reality, is a farce.”
It is illuminating to explore solidarity through negative examples. Compared with Planting Justice and UFCW 770, San Diego Roots did not as actively engage in building solidarity with subordinated groups. Territorial border imperatives complicate the forms of political allyship pursued by San Diego Roots. The politics of the border are endemic to San Diego, especially for those working in agriculture. For much of the city’s history, the border was a fluid space where people moved easily through. However, the militarization and securitization of the border in the past two decades reflects an entrenched local military culture and nationwide xenophobia propagated by the belief that immigrants are a threat. In turn, local food activists overwhelmingly ignored issues faced by Latinx immigrants, most problematically regarding labor issues in the local food system. This internalization of ethnoracial separation coupled with a glossy “local food” emphasis limited San Diego Roots’ engagement with the issue of immigration. Despite Wild Willow Farm’s proximity to the border, the perspective by some local food and organic farming activists that their work was a form of “homeland security” foreclosed on a solidaristic food politics with the (trans) local Latinx community. Ironically, this discourse can also justify sealing off the border from those same people who cross the border to work in California agriculture by framing them as the problem behind cheap food. In the end, these notions obstruct solidarity by reproducing stereotypes that absolve growers and politicians for their exploitative practices by blaming immigrants and ascribing characteristics that mark them as different and therefore less deserving.
As an open political project, food justice necessitates thinking about and acting on a range of conjunctures. While activists at San Diego Roots regularly denounced “the corporate industrial food system” and prefigured taking back the economy with noncommodified forms of labor, they overlooked some entrenched ethnoracial inequities along the border. Although troubled by the racial profiling and deportations of Latinx people in 2007 after wildfires forced San Diegans to seek shelter at evacuation centers, many activists in San Diego Roots perpetuated a variety of popular racialized discourses. Chief among these was the notion that immigrant farmworker exploitation is unavoidable. The defeatism of such language naturalizes ethnoracial inequalities through the belief that food would cost too much if farmworkers received living wages. Some activists expressed discomfort with these arrangements, but in a context where white San Diegans rarely chose to cross the border and generally view Mexico with suspicion, San Diego Roots’ choice not to expend resources addressing these problems becomes more understandable. At the same time, the organization is primarily white and generally lacks Spanish-speaking skills. A popular discourse that foreign-born farmworkers labor in an industry undesirable by most (white) Americans perpetuated this demographic difference. In conclusion, while the militarized and racialized territorial mandates of the border offered a unique opportunity for San Diego Roots to think through how to achieve food justice along the U.S.–Mexico border, their imagination remained limited.
Planting Justice, on the other hand, provides more ideas for building solidarity as an act of ideological intervention to reimagine food politics. This is noteworthy because the typical framing of problems in the food system as food problems is often the major barrier standing in the way of identifying and then combatting oppression. While observers of mass incarceration might see this as just one of many social ills plaguing Oakland’s black and Latinx communities, Planting Justice believed it was significant and that food justice could be an effective response. Their activism ties into a long history of prisoner solidarity movements in the United States, as well as those movements committed to supporting political prisoners. As Paulo Freire reasoned, solidarity requires acting as an accomplice with the oppressed. Standing with people like former prisoners reaffirms their humanity in response to the curtailment of their freedoms and marginalization. Although the actions of Planting Justice did not generally include efforts to abolish prisons, they offered critiques and spaces for reflecting on the racism at the heart of mass incarceration. Moreover, they supported prisoners inside San Quentin State Prison as they began the process of healing from the historical trauma of mass incarceration and then met the needs that formerly incarcerated people articulated once they left. Nicole Deane, an organizer at Planting Justice, asserted, “The dominant model of prisoner re-entry — which emphasizes policing formerly incarcerated people’s behavior — is an undeniable failure and must be radically rethought. We can’t keep building more prisons. We can’t jail our way out of our own failure to ‘rehabilitate’ people.” In response, creating dignified work for formerly incarcerated people is “a political statement that the labor of former prisoners is valuable and that their success and well-being is a worthy investment.” Solidarity is ultimately a political practice that builds connections across social boundaries by taking a risk with one’s privilege and supporting from behind.
To conclude, solidarity is both an outcome of the configuration of institutional, organizational, and activist demographics and the condition for reconfiguring these relations in more socially just ways. While food can be a site of division, it can also forge solidarity across social boundaries. There is nothing inherent to food that makes bridge-building possible, but when activism engages reflexively with its context, it can inspire new political practices. Acting intentionally is part of what facilitates learning about the most pressing social inequities. Then it is possible to speak out for food justice and form the alliances that can create change. To forge solidarity across differences requires staying open to conflict and messy deliberation and working to identify commonalities. The very diversity of problems in the food system compels solidaristic food politics.
Food Justice and the Hope for a Radical and Plural Democracy
Why is food justice a compelling perspective? Food justice can universalize social struggles around a commitment to equity to broaden the horizon of food politics. Regardless of whether the food movement embraces reaching out, there are always opportunities to build collective power by mobilizing beyond movement boundaries. The common ground that animates this possibility is the anchoring power of food justice. Adopting equity as an equivalence between social struggles generates greater diversity and solidarity. Food justice is not a zero-sum demand. As Laclau and Mouffe assert, “It is only on this condition that struggles against power become truly democratic, and that the demanding of rights is not carried out on the basis of an individualistic problematic, but in the context of respect for the rights to equality of other subordinated groups.” With the liberation of one bound to the liberation of all, this entails recognizing the diversity of human needs and redistributing equitably the resources to live dignified and fulfilling lives.
Conversely, because food justice foregrounds equity, it offers a strategic path to respect the breadth compelled by the heterogeneity of social justice struggles. The “unevenness of the social” requires that the demand for radical democracy include a commitment to plurality. Food politics that intersect with carceral, labor, and immigration conjunctures suggest as much. After all, these are disparate with respect to their unique economic, political, and social terrains. The widespread imprisonment of low-income people of color is dissimilar enough from the ways in which immigrants in the United States experience marginalization that there are scholars and social movements that enumerate the particularities. How these terrains overlap with the food system is equally distinct. Nowhere is this more obvious than in how food politics differ across my cases and therefore how context shapes interventions. Consider, for instance, the differences between how Planting Justice fights racial and economic inequities with food alongside formerly incarcerated people, while San Diego Roots sidesteps supporting immigrants. The opportunity for recognition is present. Yet the response varies. Even if San Diego Roots took steps to ameliorate inequities, its strategies, notions of solidarity, and collective action would reflect the conditions in local agriculture along the U.S.–Mexico border. From a theoretical and a mobilization perspective, it is necessary to recognize the plurality of social relations.
There are major lessons here for food justice activism and the food movement. Once we reject that the food system is the only space within which food politics can take place, a whole range of strategic opportunities opens to build different kinds of collective power to challenge the forces that drive inequities. This is not to ignore how the food system arranges social relations. What is important is how the food system is inside the realm of the political. It reflects and reproduces cohesion and separation that exists throughout society. Yet, because the food system is not a self-contained totality that independently operates by immutable laws, it is gravid with opportunities for resistance. In the context of the longing for radical democracy, how the food movement goes from identifying needs to achieving ends is an urgent consideration. If resistance remains devising alternative food models that reproduce racial neoliberalism without considering the diverse needs of subordinated groups, then the food system will continue to wreak havoc on people and the planet. Alternatively, food justice requires a resolute commitment to identifying the structural inequalities undergirding capitalism and institutional racism, a willingness to let go of failed food movement strategies, and an imagination up to the task of achieving socially just outcomes for eaters and workers alike.