Inequality and Resistance
The Legacy of Food and Justice Movements
Structural inequalities drive many problems in the food system. Thinking counterfactually we might ask, “What would happen if everyone could afford and access healthy food?” or “What would the lives of food workers be like if they all received living wages and free health care?” There would be higher levels of human flourishing. Yet, as of now, not everyone has the same life opportunities. Patricia Allen, a sociologist who has long studied food and agriculture, outlines the current predicament thusly: “It is clear that our food system does not meet the fundamental criteria of social justice such as freedom from want, freedom from oppression, and access to equal opportunity.”
A focus on inequality throws contemporary racial neoliberalism into relief. Neoliberalization is an ongoing social, political, and economic process premised on valorizing individuality and reducing society to capitalist exchange. The institutional corollary is the rollback of social welfare and the rollout of the privatization of public goods and initiatives that control, criminalize, and discipline the poor, working classes, and people of color. For example, neoliberal narratives overlook how hunger results from labor exploitation and poverty and justify policies to remove social safety nets in the name of meritocracy and individual responsibility. Color blindness mutually constitutes this process as a racial project to undermine the victories of the civil rights movement. The narratives of color-blind racism, along with related policy imperatives, neutralize debates about racial inequality and prevent solutions to race-related social problems. Some of the major frames reinforce neoliberal narratives, like “But everyone has the same opportunity.” There is also a naturalization of racial stratification where people assume “things are just the way they are” and “we all prefer to be with our own kind.” These two perspectives then justify blaming indigenous communities and marginalized communities of color for their social disadvantage and minimizing their experience of racism. Common deflections include “They are interested in other things” or “It’s better now than in the past.”
The stakes in the debate over why we have inequality and how to solve the problem are high. Consider three stark examples that influence the food politics discussed in this book: income and wealth distribution, immigration, and racism in the criminal justice system. In the United States, top incomes have surged, and the top 0.1 percent holds 22 percent of wealth compared with a low of 7 percent in 1978. Over two million undocumented immigrants have been deported from the United States since 2008, which carries harsh legal consequences and contributes to a private immigrant detention complex that houses about half of the thirty thousand people held in detention facilities every day. Police shootings of unarmed people of color are excessive and reflect a racialized system of mass incarceration where people of color face longer sentences and account for 60 percent of all prisoners. In response to these conditions, groups with less institutional power to determine the rules governing their lives have found ways to create alternatives and seek structural reforms. Since the Great Recession, public outrage has been palpable and has spilled over into the practice of food justice. The Occupy Wall Street movement erupted on the streets of hundreds of cities throughout the United States and called attention to collusion between economic and political elites, while the demand for a $15 minimum wage by the Fight for Fifteen movement followed in its wake. The DREAMers, a social movement driven by undocumented youth, used civil disobedience, community organizing, and lobbying to force President Obama to pass the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals in 2012 and to push back against immigrant deportation and detention and the dehumanizing “illegal” narrative. The Black Lives Matter movement spread rapidly after the high-profile murders of black people at the hands of white police officers, inspiring widespread protest and organizing that are resisting anti-blackness and color-blind racism and are demanding criminal justice reform.
Like the movements mentioned above, historically, the largest left-wing social movements in the United States were fundamentally concerned with some structural inequality. This stems from the historical legacy of the institutionalized power of Protestant white men over indigenous groups, African slaves, many waves of immigrants, and women. Added to these social conditions is a dominionism that placed humans above nonhuman species, which justified the exploitation of natural resources and those who historically acted as their stewards. The advantages afforded to those at the top of the socioecological hierarchy were accumulated through the plunder of land, the exploitation of labor, and the legal codification of white supremacy and patriarchy. This history reverberates today through a dialectical process of social struggle that has eliminated some of the most oppressive conditions, only to set in motion new forms of prefiguration and resistance.
Given that the promise of democracy is unrealized, each set of dialectical conditions fosters political commitments. Social movement scholars have often differentiated between “old” social movements and “new” social movements to distinguish eras of mass mobilization in the United States and Europe and their associated strategies and targets. This refers to the historical differences between “old” left mobilization around working-class desires to overthrow or make reforms to capitalism to “new” left mobilization in opposition to racism, sexism, homophobia, and the degradation of the environment. Despite the heterogeneity of targets, these social movements meet the political criteria outlined by political philosophers Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe of engaging “in a type of action whose objective is the transformation of a social relation which constructs a subject in a relationship of subordination.” In the case of old social movements like the industrial workers movement, large blocs of working people resisted structural inequalities in factories and demanded the redistribution of resources and the right to equitably participate in political and social life. In the case of new social movements like the environmental justice movement, poor, black, Latinx, and indigenous communities have mobilized to reduce their disparate exposure to urban, industrial, and chemical hazards and sought to create healthy environments for all people. These and other oppositional social forces consider their inequitable disadvantages as problematic. Their response is to deploy democratic discourses, such as equality, to show that relations of subordination are oppressive and need eradication.
In the pantheon of social movements, what makes the food movement a unique force for social change? Social movements are “a loose collectivity acting with some degree of organization, temporal continuity, and reliance on noninstitutional forms of action to promote or resist change in the group, society, or world order of which it is a part.” In its current manifestation, the food movement encompasses a wide cross section of interests and concerns aimed at reforming and transforming the food system. After all, the food system entails more than a produce-distribute-process-sell supply chain. It reproduces relations of subordination. In response, the food movement engages in food politics that include, but are not limited to, agroecology, antihunger, food safety, food security, food sovereignty, food-chain workers, genetic engineering, local food, land access, nutrition and health, permaculture, sustainable farming, urban agriculture, vegetarianism, and veganism. Topically, the food movement is diverse. Substantively, it takes on greater significance in the history of social justice movements in the United States when activists act on food justice principles with food politics that confront inequality within and beyond food systems. The distinction of food politics infused with food justice is the diversity, and therefore the degree to which activists operate outside different “institutional or organizational channels” to eliminate oppression.
With the previous description in mind, it is necessary to see food politics as much more than the kind of “alternative” initiatives ascribed to the food movement. Scholarly and activist debates over the past two decades have framed food politics around whether they create alternatives to the conventional food system. These include initiatives promoting organic agriculture, supporting small farmers, developing direct-to-consumer markets, and expanding urban agriculture. While many scholars have analyzed alternatives when they fail to take into consideration issues of social equity and justice, they have paid less attention to how food politics are always in flux. Food politics reflect who participates and where they participate. For instance, the reasons why a white college student versus a refugee family from Guatemala engages in urban agriculture are likely different. What food can accomplish for each group is distinct. Based on one’s social position, the motivations and the outcomes of participation vary. The white college student may be concerned about corporate control of the food system, and so she wants to assert her agency by growing her own food, while the Guatemalan family may experience economic and social marginalization, and so they grow food to supplement their income and maintain their cultural foodways.
Measured in terms of the increase in organic food production, farmers markets, urban agriculture, and the spread of food policy councils, there is a shift in how people value food and their willingness to join together to change the food system. Yet, for many years, the center of this shift has reflected a consumer politics interested in shorter food supply chains, food quality, dietary health, and the environment. Left out of much of the public enthusiasm and scholarly literature is an appreciation of the different and often competing forms of food politics. Especially important is the question of whether certain forms of food politics recognize and confront inequities. There is a wing of the food movement whose secessionist food politics focus on the needs of farmers, environmental sustainability, and eating good food. It uses the market to increase the connection between producers and consumers, often through “buy local” and “get to know your farmer” initiatives. This wing has its prefigurative vanguard, say, in those who develop land cooperatives to expand organic or permaculture farming practices, as well as its neoliberal contingent whose members only vote with their forks. The wing of the food movement whose food politics are instead confrontational seek structural changes in the conventional food system, emphasize policy and the governing authority of the state, and prioritize economic and racial justice for eaters and workers. Members of this wing run the gamut from those who start nonprofits to politicize food and intervene in structural inequalities to grassroots community-based groups who engage in direct action to feed people or reclaim land for local food production.
While food movement coalitions form and dissolve regularly, which reveals a degree of ideological flexibility to work across differences, leveraging coalitions into a sustained power bloc that prioritizes food justice at a national level remains unrealized. Will corporate agribusiness co-opt the food movement as marketers and economists figure out how to make sustainability and health key to a disciplined consumer subject? Are consumer politics capable of developing alternatives that operate outside the grasp of corporate agribusiness and reach across stratified sectors of society? There are also questions about the potential of confrontational politics that target structural inequalities. Will food politics evolve due to the increased involvement of those committed to food justice? Might an expansion of food justice to include the concerns of other social movement allies strengthen food politics? Or perhaps there will be one wing of the food movement that gets institutionalized like the mainstream environmental movement, and another environmental justice–like grassroots wing that is committed to equity and social justice.
For food justice activists, the future relevance of the food movement rests on its ability to create more than alternatives; it must embrace confrontational politics, just like those historic left-wing social movements that fought against structural inequalities. In order to understand how food justice informs the development of food politics and to evaluate its transformational capacity, a dialectical analysis compares the root causes of inequity and the kinds of movement building that tie food to specific social problems and power dynamics. Attention to historical problems in the food system shows that previous social movements set the groundwork for certain food justice strategies to expand the current vision of food politics. Looking back in time helps project what might be possible going forward.
Structural Roots of Food System Inequalities
The sociologist Eric Olin Wright offers a valuable framework to evaluate social alternatives to institutions that perpetuate oppression and inequity, namely, whether they “would eliminate, or at least significantly mitigate, the harms and injustices identified in the diagnosis and critique.” One way to determine how social justice commitments can expand food politics is to link problems in the food system to their economic, political, and social roots. This relationship helps to illuminate how the analyses and strategies of relevant social movements historically motivate the contemporary practice of food justice. Driving this dialectic is the generative relationship between inequality and the problem-solving ethic of food justice activism. Strategically speaking, such an examination can account for whether emergent food justice goals are, in Wright’s language, “desirable,” “viable,” and “achievable.” The first step is to diagnose and critique the most salient social forces driving an identified problem.
The production of food in the United States includes a history of oppression, dating from the plantation economy of the South to the expansion and settlement of the West reliant on subsequent waves of Chinese, Japanese, and Latinx immigrant agricultural labor. Farmworkers are historically at the social margins, but so too are workers in meatpacking and food-processing facilities. As the muckraker Upton Sinclair famously wrote, “Here is a population, low-class and mostly foreign, hanging always on the verge of starvation and dependent for its opportunities of life upon the whim of men every bit as brutal and unscrupulous as the old-time slave drivers; under such circumstances, immorality is exactly as inevitable, and as prevalent, as it is under the system of chattel slavery.” The mistreatment of workers also takes place in food retail. For example, restaurant workers “behind the kitchen door” experience poor pay, racial and gender discrimination, few benefits, and low job security. There are currently over twenty million workers in the food system, most earning low or poverty wages and more likely than workers in other industries to be receiving social welfare such as food stamps. In particular, people of color and women are more likely to earn lower wages and hold fewer management opportunities than their white and male counterparts. These food-chain jobs are in some of the most dangerous industries in the United States, especially farming and food processing, which are overwhelmingly performed by a Latinx and undocumented workforce.
There are also many structural problems at the point of consumption. Traditional foodways have been lost or disrupted, many communities lack access to healthy food, and these same communities have been inundated with local food initiatives that tend to benefit white people more than people of color. As public health reformers are quick to point out, low-income, black, and Latinx communities are most likely to suffer from diet-related diseases such as obesity. Perhaps one of the unintended consequences of ensuing interventions is an overly deterministic view of who is more likely to be “fat.” The social stigma emanates from a public and many health-care professionals who blame individuals for making “bad” eating choices. Such stigmatization, coupled with social constructions equating thinness and beauty, obfuscate the structural forces of capitalism and neoliberal policies that produce these health problems. After World War II, fast-food corporations proliferated rapidly and were quick to lobby political elites to avoid any policies that might educate the consumer on the nutritional quality of their food. While consumers can now access an incredible variety of food, access to the highest-quality food remains stratified along class, gender, and racial lines. In cities such as Oakland, as white people moved to the suburbs and set up racial covenants, and redlining in neighborhoods with large black populations prevented economic development, disinvestment in food retail in black neighborhoods reduced access to healthy food options. These trends reflect the capitalist political economy of the food system and institutionally racist development patterns, which produce cheap food at the cost of equity and human health.
Problems furthermore proliferate in the food system in terms of the domination of nature. While this is important insofar as humans harm nonhuman species, it also reveals something about contemporary social relations. Murray Bookchin argues that “all ecological problems are social problems,” because “dominating nature stems from the domination of human by human [due to] . . . institutionalized systems of coercion, command, and obedience.” The fact of social hierarchy suggests that those with greater environmental privilege can protect themselves from the environmental problems they are most responsible for creating. As the environmental justice movement has clearly shown, those marginalized by race, ethnicity, nationality, class, and gender disproportionately experience environmental problems. This is similarly the case at all stages in the food system.
Industrialization of the food system in the United States perpetuates peak oil, peak phosphorus, virtual water, pesticide toxicity, dead zones, genetically modified organisms, biofuels, and global warming. For example, pesticide dependency leads to the contamination of fresh water supplies, the death of domestic animals, degradation of fisheries, and collapse of vital bee colonies, which grows worse as pests become more resistant and necessitate greater pesticide application. Agriculture and food corporations profit not only from environmental degradation but upon the exploited labor that the system relies. To reiterate, humans dominate each other as a prerequisite to dominating nature. Low-paid precarious labor is the shaky foundation the food system is built on to deliver cheap (i.e., environmentally destructive) food. Such problems are rooted historically in the expansion of capitalism and urbanization, which set off a series of ecological rifts alienating humans from each other and from the natural environment. As rapidly industrializing economies force farmers into cities, leaving agricultural livelihoods for factory jobs to fuel a growing consumer economy, the soil nutrient cycle collapses; food waste is often not reintegrated back into soils, and because more food has to be exported to cities, fertilizers are imported from elsewhere. One of the best examples illustrating this process is the Dust Bowl. Intensive industrial farming methods depleted soil nutrients to feed a rapidly increasing urban population and various war efforts, which simultaneously led to topsoil erosion. Humans dominating each other in the form of the expanding power of capitalists over wage laborers and the violence of war drove agricultural practices that compromised ecological integrity. Consumption of more food nutrients in the cities (and trenches) exceeded what was recycled back into the soil on farms. Entire grassland ecosystems in the Great Plains were devastated, in turn contributing to the displacement of over half a million poor people.
Conjunctures in the food system originate from colonialism, capitalism, and institutional racism and continue to refract their problems through the human need for sustenance. Together, the current production, consumption, and ecological conjunctures set the terrain of social struggle. The forces of opposition, in this case, the food movement, are responding in many ways. While each conjuncture suggests unique responses — there are obvious differences between preventing labor exploitation and environmental degradation — a common ideological, political, and semantic vantage point displays unified opposition. As the history of those strands of food politics most germane to my cases suggests, food justice holds the potential to be that unifying force.
Social Movement Legacies and the Evolution of Food Politics
The food movement has started to prioritize addressing structural inequalities in the food system. On Food Day 2015, the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, in conjunction with the Equity Summit hosted by a nationally recognized nonprofit called PolicyLink, decided on the theme “Food Equity in Action.” The renowned Angela Glover Blackwell gave a keynote in which she advocated, “Equity is a superior growth model.” She meant this not just in terms of economic justice, but in the sense that an equity-focused food politics helps communities to bridge social boundaries such as race, while respecting the needs and traditions of each group. On the other side of the country, the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group held its annual conference in Saratoga Springs, New York, whose theme was “Putting MOVE in the Movement!” In addition to keynotes, there were workshops and discussion groups dedicated to what it means to build a food movement, antiracism in food movement activism, and food labor organizing. The description of the event linked the legacies of prior movements and social justice to the food movement: “Civil rights, labor, women’s rights — the movements that transformed our world can give us insight on ways to accelerate food systems change. What can we learn from leaders past and present? How can we better organize our work, our networks, our message, our media? Learn and strategize with hundreds of attendees . . . as we work to build a movement and realize the change we want to see.” These food movement convergences recognize the diffusion of social movements over time and reflect how food justice can encompass a wide variety of social justice politics.
Social movements inform future mobilization in terms of the identification of problems and the discourses and strategies used by activists. Three of the most influential social movements that reverberate in the food politics in my cases are the organic farming movement, the farmworker and food worker movements, and the black power movement. With respect to a deeper historical timeline, the seminal agrarian populist movements offered frameworks for food and farming activists concerned with social inequalities. Most important, all these social movements aspired to widespread social change. Because they were embedded in larger structures of power and networks of support often well beyond their immediate loci of activity, their impacts still resonate. Yet most historical accounts of contemporary food politics only focus on those movements that influenced “alternative” food politics. In other words, the hippie, self-help, health food, and back-to-the-land movements, all of which were part of the counterculture movements in the 1960s and 1970s, serve as the historical foundation. Yet this overlooks previous food- and farming-based social movements and fails to account for how other conjunctures and insurrectionary movements such as the black power movement would influence food justice activism.
Agrarian Populist Movements
The historical significance of agrarian populist movements in the United States rests in their symbolic value as pinnacles of grassroots democratic struggle. As such, they offer foundational lessons for the evolution of domestic food politics. The end of the Civil War left millions of black and white Americans, mostly farmers, marginalized economically and socially. Despite heroic efforts, many poor white Southerners were unable to pull themselves out of a crop lien system where merchants never paid for a year’s cotton crop in excess of the debt accrued by the farmer for that season. During the 1870s, millions of white farming families migrated westward in hopes of finding cheap land and new opportunities (often at the expense of indigenous people). However, the economic reality was grim for those who settled out west and became increasingly worse throughout most rural communities. Landless tenant farmers increased, small landholders accrued larger debts, and peonage became widespread. For many blacks who stayed in the South, there was similar populist outrage. While they directed some of this at building economic power through initiatives like farmers’ cooperatives and exchanges, and boycotts of agricultural trusts, they also fought the rise of racist Jim Crow laws, and worked to increase political participation. In turn, rumblings of revolt grew into the largest democratic mass movement in history, consisting of both blacks and whites and landed and landless people.
One of the main collective economic responses to the consolidation of land ownership, monopolization of the railroads, and tightening of financing was to create cooperative warehouses, grain elevators, and community-run exchanges. Foremost among these endeavors was the National Farmers Alliance and Industrial Union, which set the organizational foundation for cooperative economic power and education on how the corporate state quashes participatory forms of democracy. The populists also set up alternative social institutions such as newspapers and local schools, all the while making sure to increase rural scientific literacy and create agriculturally relevant programs within universities. At around the same time, there was the formation of the largest black agrarian organization in the country, the Colored Farmers’ National Alliance and Co-Operative Union. This black populism devised similar mutual aid strategies, albeit under distinct conditions. Given widespread racial inequities, blacks also demanded an end to racially disparate practices such as the convict-lease system, which white planters used to prey on black men convicted of petty crimes by purchasing and exploiting this cheap labor pool.
Although the populist revolt eventually withered because white Southern Democrats used violence, race-baiting, and fraud to cripple the movement, there are a few important legacies for contemporary food politics. First, cross-racial alliances developed both among farmers and between industrial workers and farmers. Class solidarity was able to bring blacks and whites together even in the aftermath of the Civil War. This is not to suggest that white supremacists were absent from the movement, or that blacks, Chinese, and Jews faced no discrimination. Race was a fatal wedge used to weaken agrarian populist movements in the face of left-wing populist factions agitating for more socialist and anti–big business policies. Second, women’s political participation in populist organizations was important for mobilizing a fuller cross section of society, which provided a base of support for the passage of women’s suffrage. Third, in those places where the urban and rural poor built strong ties, the movement was successful, for example, electing their representatives in the People’s Party or the Union Labor Party. Fourth, agrarian populism proved mass movements can challenge the consolidation of land and the financial and legal infrastructure used to maintain elite capitalist power. Such movements, though, face stiff opposition and must find ways to leverage their resources and political opportunities. Nevertheless, using newfound influence to control the levers of political and economic power from below can reproduce such systems and all their flaws or require colluding with elites within these institutions to receive marginal personal gains or reforms while sacrificing structural transformations. In brief, the mix of political organizing, empowering subordinated groups, and building bridges across social boundaries was central to one of the first historical examples of collective food politics in the United States.
The Organic Farming Movement
After World War II, there was a diffusion of chemicals into industrial agriculture, such as nitrate for bombs repurposed into the peacetime industry of nitrogen-fertilizer production. In response, environmentalists were concerned with impacts on public health, which set off another major agrarian-based shift in the 1960s, but this time with the added support of an urban upwardly mobile consumer base. The American public started to value sustainably managing natural resources. There was a growing recognition of the harmful environmental and social outcomes of scientific and industrial technology, and a desire among urbanites for closer communion with nature. In Rachel Carson’s epochal Silent Spring, she wrote, “The earth’s vegetation is part of a web of life in which there are intimate and essential relations between plants and animals. Sometimes we have no choice but to disturb these relationships, but we should do so thoughtfully, with full awareness that what we do may have consequences remote in time and place.” She was reflecting on how chemicals such as DDT — used during World War II to control typhus-carrying lice and malaria and then released to farmers as an insecticide to support industrial agriculture and to douse Mexicans entering the United States under the Bracero Program as farmworkers — were dangerous to all forms of life.
The sentiments, that the human and nonhuman environments are inseparable and that ethical questions imbricate survival questions, spread rapidly in the popular imagination and materialized in environmental social movements, lifestyle modifications, public policy, and economic practices. In California, activism addressed a range of topics: land conservation, both for recreational and aesthetic reasons; healthy eating, which included nonprocessed “natural” foods and vegetarianism; pesticide reduction in the name of protecting farmworkers, animals, and eaters; organic gardening and small-scale farming; and back-to-the-land communes. Underlying many of these ideals was a distrust of industrial mass society pushed by government and business interests. The anti-capitalist countercultural currents of the 1960s and 1970s pushed the emerging organic farming movement to link its sustainable production methods to a range of social concerns. For example, organic farming practices resisted the corporately controlled fertilizer and pesticide industries. These converging and interrelated countercultural practices have continued to diffuse into contemporary food politics.
Chief among these contemporary shifts is the emergence of California’s organic farming industry, which is the largest in the United States. California was the first state to have an organic labeling system, which California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) started in 1973. The founders of this certifying agency and trade association identified with the countercultural trends at the time. Many of them hoped organic agriculture would begin as an interstitial practice that eventually corroded the foundations of industrial agriculture. Toward such ends, CCOF devised standards to valorize organic produce and help people navigate the food consumer marketplace. The idealism of CCOF and organic farming was short-lived, as other certification schemes and laws vied for legitimacy. Huge growers soon dominated the sector, which over time weakened organic standards and enforcement; perpetuated a lack of commitment to social standards; increased costs for small farmers, such as the price of land; and set up a pricing system that excludes many eaters. Now, there are also some activists and growers in the organic industry resisting labor regulations that protect farmworkers, which obstructs any kind of food politics broadly committed to economic justice. The original populist appeal and agrarian ideal of organic agriculture now abut the industry’s capitalist composition. Although organic agriculture is ecologically and nutritionally superior and reduces harmful pesticide exposure for farmworkers, it falls short of an oppositional movement of small-family farms using agroecological practices that sells affordable produce and adequately pays farmworkers.
Since the 1980s, many organic farming activists have continued to move away from some of the founding radical ideals. The current organic craze has mutated into a consumer alternative to conventional food and forgone opposition to the economic and political structures upon which the food system relies. Epitomizing this trend is Earthbound Farm, the largest grower of organic produce in the United States, most recognized for their packaged salads. Beginning on 2.5 acres in Carmel Valley, California, the company now boasts over fifty-three thousand acres under organic production, much of it contracted to a network of growers. Earthbound Farm sells its produce to over 75 percent of all American supermarkets. In 2012, the company had over $460 million in revenue and $75 million in earnings. After the leveraged buyout specialists HM Capital Partners purchased a 70 percent controlling share in the company, HM Capital morphed into a new private equity firm, Kainos Capital, whose specialty is the food sector. White Wave, a division of the dairy giant Dean Foods, then bought Earthbound Farm for $600 million in 2013. In addition to the influence of finance capital in the organic sector, multinational food corporations increasingly buy organic food–processing companies. This consolidation includes major California organic companies. Examples include Kashi (Kellogg), Odwalla (Coca-Cola), Naked Juice (Pepsi), Muir Glen Organic (General Mills), Santa Cruz Organic (Smucker’s), and Sweet Leaf Tea (Nestlé). In addition, organic and natural food retailers Whole Foods (Amazon) and Trader Joe’s (Aldi) and distributors United Natural Foods and Tree of Life cornered most of their respective markets.
The history of the organic farming movement in the United States illustrates that ideals do not always translate into expected outcomes. In this instance, the neoliberal logic of the prevailing political economy infiltrated the movement through initiatives like organic labeling. Some proponents were concerned with this state of affairs, but the privileged social position of most others made it easier to let go of oppositional principles in the name of greater profit. The history of the organic farming movement reveals that powerful corporations have capitalized on the new growth market in “green” products. Nevertheless, some of the same prefigurative politics that animated the original movement live on in those starting urban farms or community gardens, running small and midsized family farms, and leading organic advocacy organizations such as the Cornucopia Institute. What is less clear is the degree to which some activists integrate concerns with structural inequality with organic methods of food production. The legacy of the “market as movement” permeates how organic farmers create social boundaries between themselves and immigrant farmworkers. This postpolitical tendency to prioritize market-based strategies can impede a confrontational food politics that fights for food justice. The trajectory of the organic farming movement suggests activists face historical choices of whether to adopt the structural analyses driving progressive movements or accept widespread neoliberal notions that ignore underlying inequalities.
Farmworker and Food Labor Movements
There is a long labor history in California of immigrant food-chain workers. Popular opinion often claims these workers are willing to work for less, work harder, and are more docile than the native-born population. Yet the historical record reveals ongoing labor struggles. Not only do more people of color and immigrants work in the food system than whites do, they receive lower pay and fewer benefits, experience less upward mobility, face greater discrimination, and are exposed to more dangerous working conditions. In response, farmworker and food labor movements have demanded society recognize the inherent human dignity of all workers. They have also fought to overcome subordination along the lines of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, and class that are embedded in capitalist wage-labor relations. Given that a socially just food system is impossible without ending inequities, the history of farm and food worker resistance is essential to understanding the development of food justice–inspired food politics.
As the former labor organizer and sociologist Marshall Ganz has shown, there were three waves of farmworker organizing in California before the United Farm Workers (UFW) arose in the 1960s to carry out the most successful challenge to growers’ power to date. The first wave of organizing came about in the early 1900s by Japanese labor associations and the International Workers of the World (IWW), a radical labor union committed to organizing immigrants and other marginalized laborers. After the Chinese were prevented from immigrating in the late 1800s, there was a labor shortage, so the Japanese were encouraged into farm labor and by 1905 accounted for half of California’s seasonal farm labor. Because they could not own land, many Japanese farmworkers staged strikes to improve labor conditions, and when needed, they formed interethnic alliances with Mexicans and Filipinos to improve wages. In the eyes of growers, farmworkers were a contingent and mobile labor force, so they would sometimes concede to workers’ demands, but never with more than short-term contracts. One of the major IWW campaigns took off after building farmworker discontent in fields throughout California, so they targeted the single largest agricultural employer in the state, the Durst Brothers Hops Ranch in Wheatland, California. The housing conditions and pay were deplorable, with many workers laboring through dysentery and typhoid fever. After Ralph Durst refused to improve pay, working, and living conditions, workers voted to strike. The following day, a riot ensued during an IWW organizer’s speech after a deputy fired a gun, which protesters then wrestled away and used to kill him and the district attorney. In spite of the murder conviction of two Wobblies (common name for IWW members), the IWW inspired farmworkers to continue organizing throughout the state. The IWW went on to win many workplace wage increases through wildcat strikes and established local union halls as freespeech spaces for migrant workers to build solidarity and organize around their interests.
The next wave of organizing came during the 1930s and early 1940s. Due to sharp wage cuts and fewer farmworkers per acre of land, radical organizers, mainly from the Communist Party, Mexican and Filipino labor associations, and the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), stepped back into the fields. Of particular importance was the Communist-aligned and Filipino-led Cannery, Agricultural, and Industrial Workers Union (CAIWU). Unlike most organizing efforts up to that point, there was little federal support for farmworkers. Although they successfully leveraged the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 to get the federal government to intervene in wage negotiations with growers, the intervention failed to generate the outcomes hoped for by farmworkers. Therefore, CAIWU staged some of the largest and most successful strikes to date. This era also saw the founding of unions in California’s processing, packing, and distribution centers. Despite major territory and sector disputes between the AFL and CIO, the formation of the Longshoremen, Teamsters, and the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America created a new generation of unions representing food workers. Big labor union successes were modest, and oftentimes excluded Mexican and Filipino interests, who therefore formed their own labor associations to represent farmworkers as the newly formed industrial unions focused on organizing the growing urban labor force.
Organizing continued throughout the 1940s and into the early 1950s due to the development of the first farmworker-only labor union, the AFL’s National Farm Labor Union (NFLU). Unfortunately, the NFLU was largely unsuccessful in its boycott and strike efforts, and was not accountable to its Mexican and Filipino constituencies. Compared with the efforts of the IWW and CAIWU, which explicitly confronted racism and solidified their position as a greater ally, the NFLU failed to build the power necessary to take on growers. Moreover, because the AFL housed and funded this union, it was insulated from the demands and needs of farmworkers, which resulted in decisions that limited developing the cultural capital needed to organize Mexicans and Filipinos. The NFLU also did not quell the influence of a new bracero program. Growers outmaneuvered the NFLU by getting the Truman administration to increase the number of documented workers from Mexico, which applied downward pressure on wages and working conditions throughout the industry and prevented unionization of what was now an even larger workforce.
The NFLU set the stage for the formation and future success of the UFW. Beginning in the 1960s, for the first time in the fields of California, labor organizers successfully linked demands for racial justice and economic justice to win major victories. The famous grape boycotts secured better wages, better working conditions, pesticide protections and bans, and most important, the power of labor contracts through collective bargaining. Activists, the public, and scholars have overly focused on the exceptional nature of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta as organizers and the once powerful UFW. Most important, however, is the fact that fifty years of organizing California’s farmworkers paved the way for the successes of UFW. One of the culminating moments was the passage in 1975 of the landmark California Agricultural Labor Relations Act. The state passed this legislation to intervene in the historic struggle between growers, local political elites, and racist reactionary groups on one side and radical and liberal activists and labor unions and interethnic labor associations on the other side.
At around the same time that farmworkers were making gains, there was a wave of unionization in cities due to the efforts of the Retail Clerks International Union (RCIU). This resulted in major grocery retail chains such as A&P, Lucky Stores, and Safeway improving workers’ pay and offering the union an opportunity to bargain for better working conditions. Much like many farmworker campaigns, the union adopted boycott and strike tactics. Because the grocery retail industry was not yet dominated by a handful of companies with the logistical capacity to absorb these actions and it could not be outsourced, grocery retail workers were advantageously positioned to make major gains. The major chains were 88 percent unionized by 1955, and membership in the RCIU grew from sixty thousand to five hundred thousand between 1944 and 1968. These victories set the stage for workers and unions to fight to maintain their advantage over companies. As technological changes in the food system led to job losses, unions chose to consolidate. Most important for grocery retail, this meant a reduction in the number of butchers as more processed meats filled the shelves. These factors led to the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America to merge with RCIU in 1979 to form the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, becoming the largest union affiliated with the AFL-CIO.
While workers in grocery retail made major gains, many fast-food establishments, restaurants, and big-box grocery retailers are still resolutely anti-union. Even in the fields, the gains of the UFW were short lived; organizing has dramatically declined, growers continue to exploit farmworkers, and an overwhelming majority of farmworkers remain nonunion with few other protections or advocates. Because farm and food workers remain marginalized, the struggle for food justice is ongoing. Labor organizers have undertaken a wide range of strategies and tactics, many of which they borrowed or modified to fit the context. Yet they often face powerful social actors, such as politicians, business owners, or racist and nativist publics, as well as institutional conditions that shape the field of contention.
The Black Power Movement
On a march through Mississippi in 1966, in contrast to the chant of “Freedom Now” by activists associated with Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the more radical Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee led by Stokely Carmichael introduced the world to the slogan “Black Power.” Encapsulated in the difference between the two frames were strategic orientations to addressing institutional racism. The demand for freedom centered on the need for legislative changes and protections. Although the call for black power did not always shunt the role of the state, it emphasized a black identity and consciousness promoting self-determination. For all the successes of the civil rights movement, black urbanites across the United States continued to experience racism in prisons, schools, and jobs and held little political power at local and state levels. Consequently, while the black power movement fought to reform local institutions, it also engaged in what the Black Panther Party (BPP) referred to as “survival pending revolution.” Although the media caricatured the beret-wearing, gun-toting black radical who resisted police brutality, the movement consisted of many other participants and strategies, such as those who adopted African names and developed black-oriented groups within larger organizations such as universities and legislatures. Survival meant supporting black community development on the way to dismantling racism. The goal was not strictly separatism, but empowerment.
The fusion of reform-based and autonomous political strategies coupled with the elevation of a distinctly black collective identity resonated in many cities with large black populations. In cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Oakland, and New York, the BPP tapped into economically marginalized black residents who were frustrated with the failure of the liberal welfare state to lift blacks into the middle class. Incidents around the same time, such as the assassination of Malcolm X early in 1965 and then the volatile police abuse of a black man months later in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, were stark reminders of the racist conditions under which black urbanites lived. It was in this context that riots exploded in cities such as Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, which highlighted the economic and social conditions undermining the welfare of black communities. As Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin put it, “The well-being of individual black bodies and the collective black community reflected the overall welfare of the larger black body politic. Improving the health status of blacks thus went hand in hand with improving their political, economic, and social status.”
The BPP improved the welfare of blacks by developing sixty-five different community programs between 1966 and 1982. These included programs such as Benefit Counseling, Community Pantry, Employment Referral Service, Free Breakfast for Children, Free Busing to Prisons, Food Cooperative, Legal Aid and Education, Liberation Schools, Nutrition Classes, and Youth Training and Development. These programs were the central work of the organization. Grounding their organizing was a Ten Point Program outlining the BPP’s demands and beliefs. Black radicals explicitly understood that strategies for social reproduction responded to the hegemony of capitalism and institutional racism. They developed these “survival programs” to build up the capacity of blacks to engage in revolutionary struggle. Their demands are directly relevant to contemporary food politics because food justice activists have adopted and modified them to fit other class, racial, and ethnic groups’ needs. These include the following:
- 1. We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black and oppressed communities.
- 2. We want full employment for our people.
- 3. We want an end to the robbery by the capitalist of our Black and oppressed communities.
- 4. We want decent housing, fit for the shelter of human beings.
- 5. We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present-day society.
- 6. We want completely free health care for all Black and oppressed people.
- 7. We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black people, other people of color, all oppressed people inside the United States.
- 8. We want an immediate end to all wars of aggression.
- 9. We want freedom for all Black and poor oppressed people now held in U.S. federal, state, county, city and military prisons and jails. We want trials by a jury of peers for all persons charged with so-called crimes under the laws of this country.
- 10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, peace and people’s community control of modern technology.
Although there are autonomous strands of food justice activism that build on this conjunctural analysis to develop solutions beyond the state, much of the activism combines prefigurative and confrontational strategies. In the short term, food justice requires leveraging the state to ameliorate social problems, but long-term liberation is unlikely if it relies on an institution whose raison d’être is to accumulate and consolidate power. This strategically overlaps with how the ideas and tactics of the black power movement set the foundation for contemporary struggles such as the Black Lives Matter, environmental justice, and prison abolitionist movements.
Tensions with the state permeate the political legacy of the black power movement. The historian William Van Deburg suggests there are two dominant ideological positions that informed strategy: pluralist and nationalist. Although there was not always a clear distinction, the division illustrates differences between food justice politics that infiltrate and reform institutions and those that foster autonomy for certain racial and ethnic groups. On the one hand, there were activists and intellectuals who argued that blacks had to control land, which required entering and leading economic and political institutions, so blacks were in no way reliant on whites. To end de facto segregation in city halls, schools, and workplaces, community leaders needed to take over the bureaucratic apparatus responsible for administering daily needs. Greater representation was a prerequisite for the equitable distribution of resources. Black power activists coupled these strategies with developing black-run businesses that hired local black residents. Similarly, they advocated for community control of schools to improve the services offered to students and nurture students with culturally relevant education. These strategies relied on the belief that blacks needed to leverage their power to shape the institutions structuring black life. On the other hand, black nationalists eschewed the cultural, economic, and political establishment because it had failed blacks and did not appear to be improving in a post–civil rights era. The goal was to develop alternatives instead of trying to take over existing institutions; the only way to negotiate with whites was to control their own lives on their own institutional terms. Some thought this required black-only territories spread out across the country, while others believed there should be just one territory, either in the United States or somewhere in Africa. Compared with this territorial nationalism, revolutionary nationalists advocated for supporting African independence movements throughout the continent and engaging in revolutionary struggle to overthrow capitalist rule in the United States. This meant commitment to a socialist transformation led by the oppressed by any means necessary, including violence.
As with the other social movements discussed earlier, the black power movement faced political and social backlash. The covert operations of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) had surveilled and infiltrated the civil rights movement for years, but ramped up its operations to discredit and disrupt the black radicals who came afterward, especially those with nationalist or revolutionary positions. The state will adopt a counterinsurgency posture when it feels threatened. In the case of the BPP, which directly challenged the legitimacy of law enforcement, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover declared the BPP was “without question . . . the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” Such assertions then justified actions that stoked violence against the BPP by “rival” groups, fostered internal dissension, and discouraged public support. The FBI was involved in a conspiracy to destroy the BPP. In Chicago, for example, this led to other tactics aimed at sabotaging the Free Breakfast for Children program, disrupting the distribution of their newspaper, and a COINTELPRO-backed police raid in 1969 on an apartment where the leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were murdered. FBI campaigns against the black power movement ultimately removed one of the few community-based bulwarks against the rising tide of racial neoliberalism that would economically ravage low-income black communities. These actions by the state reveal the levels to which political elites use their institutional power to suppress social movements that demand institutional transformation.
From Dialectical Observation to Dialectical Evaluation
In developing his “analysis of situations,” Gramsci advanced a dialectical method of observing society to determine the possibilities for radical social change. In the Prison Notebooks, he wrote, “The most important observation to be made about any concrete analysis of the relations of force is the following: that such analyses cannot and must not be ends in themselves . . . but acquire significance only if they serve to justify a particular practical activity, or initiative of will.” While food politics can be observed and analyzed with reference to their historical significance, a further dialectical step of evaluation can identify opportunities for intervention.
We can evaluate each of the aforementioned movements’ visions and politics in terms of their desirability, viability, and achievability. The question of desirability takes place in the realm of utopian discussions of ideal institutions and abstract principles. Although discussions of desirable alternatives clarify ethical and moral principles, they lack a clear plan of action. For example, California’s organic movement was predicated on the belief that a desirable world would be one in which corporately controlled industrial agriculture disappeared and would be replaced by an array of diversified small-scale farmers. Organic agriculture has not turned out in this way. Failures raise the question of viability. Asking whether social alternatives are viable requires evaluating whether outcomes match the desires that led to the proposal. Unionizing and protecting farmworkers from pesticides, for example, used to be a radical proposal given the history of repression by racist growers and reactionary groups throughout the twentieth century. There was no way for the Wobblies and Communists to know that what they thought was viable in the early 1900s would turn out to be achievable in the mid- to late 1900s with the rise of the United Farm Workers. Nevertheless, they imagined that another world was possible, one that would surmount the oppressive conditions they witnessed. Viability is historically and geographically contingent. Finally, there is the question of achievability; is a proposed transformation of existing institutions possible. Wright suggests that this “depends upon the extent to which it is possible to formulate coherent, compelling strategies which both help create the conditions for implementing alternatives in the future and have the potential to mobilize the necessary social forces to support the alternative when those conditions occur.” Interrogating what is possible considers relations of power, which requires determining the relative position of those seeking some transformative change. To take another case, one can evaluate the BPP’s Ten-Point Program and point out the variability in its outcomes. While state repression thwarted the practical achievability of the whole program, the BPP still realized some semblance of self-determination over “land, bread, housing, education, [and] clothing” through their survival programs.
Considering the food politics that have diffused into the practice of food justice helps to explain ideological and strategic differences. The range of political commitments and theories of social change run from the total rejection of capitalism and the state to the complete acceptance with some minor reforms. For those with a radical ideology of food justice that is critical of structural inequalities, there is greater support for strategies used in the farmworker, food labor, and black power movements. Those with a “moralist” conception of food justice emphasize the goodness and rightness of creating alternatives, arguing that communities without access to local and organic food need to learn their value and accept help from others, which falls in line with much of the contemporary organic farming movement. Social movement spillover also creates the opportunity to critique conceptions of food justice that are incapable of resisting and eliminating inequities. It avails scholars and activists alike with historical examples to imagine how to expand the conception and practice of food justice.
With hindsight, food justice activists can reflect on whether some of the abovementioned real utopian analyses and solutions are desirable. The short answer is yes. Food justice activists would like to see corporations lose their stranglehold over the food system, organic farming in its most ecologically sound methods predominate, food and farm workers thrive, and capitalism and institutional racism dismantled. While these are desirable ends, the process of getting there is riddled with questions regarding viability and achievability. The history of the struggles discussed in this chapter teaches that all social movements reflect specific conjunctures. A desire for an exact end abuts the conditions under which activists must navigate. While social change visions compel most activists, they need to focus in on the details of movement building. Food justice offers a vision for reevaluating certain strategies. It helps ask whether neoliberal initiatives reliant on consumer choice of organic food are going to lead to ending corporate control of the food system. It provides a way to look beyond the dominant narratives to consider how a vision for economic and racial equity requires intermediate and achievable ends, such as a federal policy mandating a $15 minimum wage and the right to collectively bargain. It helps tap into the history of social movements to learn that confronting institutional power is imperative to remake society.
The two movements reviewed here that were the largest threat to the economic and political order were the agrarian populist movement and the black power movement. These two movements adopted mutual aid and prefigurative strategies and simultaneously challenged elites and institutions in an endeavor to dismantle structural inequalities. Although also perceived as dangerous to the status quo, the organic farming movement focused most on creating alternatives to, while the farmworker and food labor movement worked on reforming labor practices within, the conventional food system. All these movements contributed ideas and strategies that have influenced new generations of activists. As the food politics in each of my cases show, food justice is the conceptual container capable of appropriating and reimagining these former movements for the needs of today. Hence, I disagree with the overly pessimistic conclusions of Richard Walker, who writes in his history of California agriculture, “Looking back at California’s triumphal march of agrarian capitalism, one catches a whiff of anarchism, socialism, and utopianism in the air blowing out in the fields and packinghouses. . . . Yet none of these alternative visions has come to pass. . . . Capitalism in the California countryside has steamrolled the anarchist communist, the business populist, and the farmworker organizer with equal abandon. . . . That has been the principal secret of its success.” While it is undoubtedly true that many of these social movements did not reach their desirable ends, there were moments of achievement. Besides, the politics at the heart of many of these movements live on, and with time, activists have rearticulated what viable and achievable alternatives look like in the context of actually existing neoliberal capitalism and institutional racism. I agree, then, with the distinguished historian Robin D. G. Kelley, who argues, “Unfortunately, too often our standards for evaluating social movements pivot around whether or not they ‘succeeded’ in realizing their visions rather than on the merits or power of the visions themselves. By such a measure, virtually every radical movement failed because the basic power relations it sought to change remain pretty much intact. And yet it is precisely those alternative visions and dreams that inspire new generations to continue to struggle for change.” Such perspectives, including those that reduce California’s food politics to just another example of neoliberalization, play into a narrative that oversimplifies food politics and overlooks how food justice activism works across social boundaries to address structural inequalities. They miss how ideas and activists go into abeyance and wait to reemerge, always in a new form, once a political opportunity arises, a new collective identity is formed, enough resources are captured to engage new campaigns, or a new threat surfaces. This dialectical understanding accounts for relations of subordination beyond a single sector like the food system. Instead, it recognizes the spirit of resistance passes down and morphs, in this case, to provide inspiration that nurtures food justice politics.