Notes on the Future of Food Justice
During my research into the historical roots of food justice, as well as its contemporary political expression in California, I was struck by the overriding significance of structural inequalities typically outside the purview of the food movement. By comparing dialectically across my cases, I found that food justice is an important optic to view food politics as well as an organizing principle to solve pressing social problems. It offers a utopian horizon and applies to actually existing conjunctures. Although mass incarceration, labor exploitation, and the interrelated issues of a racialized immigration regime and social boundaries exist in Oakland, Los Angeles, and San Diego, activists tend to strategically focus their food politics. What makes a dialectical comparison compelling is that despite the fact that activists interact with structural conditions in unique ways, similar ethnoracial and class inequities remain prominent. These inequities serve as universal equivalents around which the food movement can deepen its political engagement.
One interview in particular inspired an awareness of the dialectical openness of food justice. Gabriel, an organizer at Planting Justice, suggested that oppression and resistance are interconnected in a variety of ways, and therefore different social movement lineages can lead people to converge on food justice. However, this can also stimulate reflections on the challenges associated with food justice as a plural political project:
What is the food part of this thing? There is a lot of work you could do that involves food. People eat food every day. It is a basic human need. To base a movement on food justice, and whatever that means, has been such a blessing and a curse in the sense that you have such an open movement and space that can be considered a social movement. There is this whole discourse in food justice: everybody eats; therefore everybody can participate in this movement. Totally right on. The underside of that is a really convoluted, what are we really doing kind of movement. If food justice is a practice or a praxis, what is our theoretical background? If we talk about theory practice, I still don’t know if there is any sort of agreement on any level as to where food justice came from. What is it an articulation of? For me, I think that is really valuable to think through and for a movement to articulate. For me personally, again, it has shifted so many times within the movement. . . . I feel like I have spent a lot of energy and time in the food justice movement defending our turf. . . . I got sick of that and stopped doing that because it was burning my own energy to negate other people. It comes from a rational place. There is a necessity for that to be able to assert what we are doing. . . . How are we going to formulate a platform that is a cohesive thing?
Five years and many conversations later, I arrived at some answers. The “food part of this thing” is subservient to the equity part of this thing. The feverish appeal of food justice is the value of a food politics that challenges structural inequalities and engages in political struggle across different social nodal points. I disagree that food justice is convoluted. Instead, due to many social movement influences, food justice has broad appeal. This helps explain its rapid discursive spread and ideological expansion. As an idea and a practice, food justice is positioned to keep building collective power, fostering diversity, and cultivating solidarity. Debating the perimeters of the food justice movement matters less than strategizing how to direct this energy to spread the practice of a food politics that intervenes in structural inequalities.
From the vantage point of 2018, achieving food justice in the United States appears inopportune given the revanchist tenor of Donald Trump and congressional Republicans. After eight years of perceived losses on health care, same-sex marriage, the environment, immigration, and criminal justice and the anti-capitalist mobilizations of Occupy Wall Street and the anti-racist insurrections of Black Lives Matter, there was an opportunity for revenge. With Republican control of Congress and the appointment of cabinet members whose views appear to contradict the stated public interest missions of their agencies, many subordinated groups and left-wing interests have been relegated to an inferior position outside of an imagined time in the past when the United States was great. A time with no civil rights, environmental, health, or labor protections. Essentially, white, wealthy, and male interests trump.
Gramsci famously wrote, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” With the presidential election of Trump, the contradictions of racial neoliberalism reached their apotheosis. The postracial presidency of Barack Obama never resolved the racism behind mass incarceration, the criminalization and deportation of millions of immigrants, and the exploitation of workers of color in low-wage occupations, of which agriculture and food make up a substantial share. Instead of responding to the Great Recession with more stringent laws and regulations to check the power of wealthy interests, the American public bailed out Wall Street while Main Street suffered through a weak low-wage recovery. Moreover, the “one percent” tightened its grip on the levers of government as money became more prominent in elections after the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court decision. In the food system, corporate power only increased despite the planting of the White House Vegetable Garden and First Lady Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity-focused Let’s Move campaign. Trump stepped into the interregnum between all these neoliberal policies and no avowedly left-wing alternative with a savvy right-wing populist brand that tapped into white resentment and anger with celebrity bombast and an unapologetic corporate messaging. Therefore, the small gains made by the food movement over the last decade, such as the rapid growth in farmers markets and local food consumption, the Food Safety Modernization Act, food labeling laws, soda tax initiatives, and Fight for $15–inspired living-wage ordinances, are in peril.
Food justice is not up to the task of engaging each conjunctural terrain as a lone oppositional force. What makes it significant is how left-wing movements have integrated its principles and started looking at their interests through the lens of food politics. “You have to have a conflict before you can have politics,” James and Grace Lee Boggs wrote. “Politics involves taking sides. It means proposing or supporting particular plans, programs, perspectives which you believe are right.” The Black Lives Matter, climate justice, environmental justice, and right-to-the-city movements, as well as parts of the labor movement, have all recognized and opposed inequities in the food system. They have also proposed or demanded solutions that align with their social justice commitments. For example, the Movement for Black Lives collective developed a policy platform that includes demands for the financial support of black alternative institutions such as food cooperatives, an end to food apartheid, the elimination of debt for black farmers, and land for black farmers. In contrast, the Climate Justice Alliance in its Just Transition Principles advocates for regenerative ecological economies that include the democratization of local food systems and the right to clean and healthy food. While the emphases respond to particular conjunctures, they share the recognition that food justice is a fundamental aspect of a larger political project.
This leads to another notable historical development: the use of food to break down social boundaries and foster solidarity across difference. Given the frontal assault Trump has waged on frontline immigrant, Muslim, black, Latinx, and poor and working-class communities, left-wing movements have engaged in a politics not only of resistance but also of alliance building to imagine alternative futures. The Dream Defenders is an anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, and feminist “uprising of communities in struggle, shifting culture through transformational organizing” through projects like Day of Dinners. Day of Dinners included partner organizations like the Women’s March, Planned Parenthood, the Movement for Black Lives, United We Dream, Take on Hate, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the HEAL (Health, Environment, Agriculture, and Labor) Food Alliance. On June 25, 2017, over ten thousand people came together around a meal. The goal of this project was to use the conviviality of food to “break down the walls in our local communities” through potlucks with people from different class, ethnoracial, gender, and religious backgrounds. Some of the conversation starters included, “Describe your first experience of injustice. How did it change your worldview?”; “Whose liberation are you longing for?”; and “What is the vision of hope that sustains you?” Day of Dinners was an event meant to nourish people for the social justice struggles ahead.
The current conjuncture also suggests that food justice faces co-optation and dilution in unique ways that require perseverance to assert a food politics capable of dethroning corporate rule, ending institutionalized forms of discrimination, and advancing social justice. One of the reasons is that food can be fetishized to mask underlying social relations. Under racial neoliberalism, the food movement can reproduce these racialized market conditions and economic logics. Social change becomes about local food, family farms, and organic, where each represents inherent immutable qualities in their commodified form. You may support the local family who grew your organic strawberries. But do you know the labor conditions of the farmworkers who picked them or the workers who made the packaging to hold those strawberries? Do you understand the racialized immigration regime and labor laws that influence that local farmer’s decisions? Have you considered the ethnoracial and class inequities in the rural community where that local farm is located? The often-exclusive nature of these market-based strategies can exacerbate social boundaries, disadvantage groups further, and obstruct collective demands. For example, in concert with urban gentrification processes, demand for organic food options by race- and class-privileged groups may bring in a Whole Foods that supersedes the cultural foodways and food landscape of less privileged groups. The Whole Foods becomes a monument to health and sustainability, obfuscating place-based struggles against institutional racism and white supremacy. So (whole) food itself is more than its biological makeup and nutritional content. Food contains within it social struggle and power relations.
So how might we think about intervening in the present condition? Grace Lee Boggs suggests remaining practically and intellectually reflexive with a sense of both patience and urgency to synthesize hopeful approaches and strategies:
We are all works in progress, always in the process of being and becoming. Periodically there come times like the present when the crisis is so profound and the contradictions so interconnected that if we are willing to see with our hearts and not only with our eyes, we can accelerate the continuing evolution of the human race towards becoming more socially responsible, more self-conscious, more self-critical human beings. . . . This is our time to reject the old American Dream of a higher standard of living based upon empire, and embrace a new American Dream of a higher standard of humanity that preserves the best in our revolutionary legacy. We can become the leaders we are looking for.
Entangled Crises and the Development of a New Food Politics
Food Justice Now! has chronicled the conjunctural development of food politics and theorized through dialectics the historical congruities and continuities linking food, structural inequalities, and social justice. Yet it has proceeded by highlighting social struggles to argue for an evolution of political practice. Because a transformation of our food and social systems will not take place immediately, there are pragmatic reasons to formulate robust policies and regulations.
The major policy vehicle pursued historically by the antihunger, environmental, small-farm, and sustainable agriculture factions of the food movement is the Farm Bill. Over time, each faction has used the Farm Bill to advance its own agendas. However, in the lead-up to the 1996 Farm Bill, a large grassroots coalition that came to be known as the Community Food Security Coalition began to develop an inclusive policy platform. It used the language of “community empowerment, neighborhood and local action, [and] strengthening farmer-to-consumer links” to open political space for a more progressive agenda. In the face of the Republican Revolution of 1994, when Republicans took control of the House of Representatives and the Senate, it was increasingly clear the food movement needed an antidote to powerful neoliberal forces. Although there was fierce debate and skepticism by some food movement stakeholders, the coalition succeeded in receiving authorization and funding for a Community Food Projects program, which created the political opportunity for more radical food justice voices to enter the fray. Nevertheless, the 1996 Farm Bill, informally known as the “Freedom to Farm Act,” fundamentally shifted farm policy by ending price supports and production controls, the two pillars of supply management. This reflected the growing strength of agribusiness and the livestock-grain industrial complex. The rise of the Community Food Security Coalition did not fundamentally transform how the Department of Agriculture interprets its mandates as the enforcer of the Farm Bill through a limited number of lenses and historical relationships with agricultural scientists, corporate interests, growers, and ranchers.
Some of the initial divisions in the food movement have healed, but challenges remain in developing an inclusive and systems-level approach to food policy. The growing presence of food justice as a political force indicates the arrival of a moment where the state, as an arbiter of democratic impulses, faces pressure to respond to social movement demands for economic and racial justice. But food movement coordination has been uneven. Consider the differences between resistance to genetically modified organisms, contestation over organic and nutrition standards, and fights over prisoner-produced food and the low wages of farmworkers. Given the patchwork nature of regulatory bureaucracy in the United States, there are few opportunities to coordinate across interests for a food system predicated on environmental sustainability, health, and social justice. The food movement has learned some of the lessons from its decades-long engagement with the Farm Bill and state and municipal food policy initiatives and is converging around a broad regulatory solution. The revanchist right-wing tide demands as much. While the reaction is to resist, the need is to imagine a clear alternative to the corporatization of politics, white nationalist pride, xenophobic scapegoating of immigrants, and the criminalization of poor communities and communities of color. The utopian horizons of food justice suggest an indispensable way forward.
Given the concern that President Obama would not live up to all the hopes of the food movement and a recognition that the Farm Bill alone cannot address all the problems in the food system, public conversation broke out in late 2014 around how to mobilize for a comprehensive food policy. Food movement leaders Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, and Ricardo Salvador and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post called “How a National Food Policy Could Save Millions of American Lives.” The authors review the failures of current food and agricultural policies. They then urge President Obama to address food in his State of the Union speech:
We find ourselves in this situation because government policy in these areas is made piecemeal. Diet-related chronic disease, food safety, marketing to children, labor conditions, wages for farm and food-chain workers, immigration, water and air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, and support for farmers: These issues are all connected to the food system. Yet they are overseen by eight federal agencies. Amid this incoherence, special interests thrive and the public good suffers. . . . A well-articulated national food policy in the United States would make it much more difficult for Congress to pass bills that fly in its face. The very act of elevating food among the issues the White House addresses would build public support for reforms. And once the government embraces a goal such as “We guarantee the right of every American to eat food that is healthy, green, fair and affordable” — it becomes far more difficult to pass or sign a farm bill that erodes those guarantees.
President Obama did not mention a national food policy in his State of the Union speech. More important, the opinion piece was a clarion call to the food movement to engage in a new kind of food politics.
A month later, the Union of Concerned Scientists hosted a National Food Policy Twitter chat. The food movement was finally strategizing beyond the myopic focus on alternative food initiatives. It included the authors of the Washington Post opinion piece minus Olivier De Schutter. Eleven questions organized the live chat, which each host answered. The questions set off simultaneous live conversations and interventions by many participants. Although the hosts hardly represented the diversity of the food movement, many segments of the food movement historically ignored were present. These included groups like Food Chain Workers Alliance and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, both of which brought the concerns of low-income workers of color and immigrants to the conversation. There were also vocal food justice activists who interjected concern with structural inequalities in the food system: Civil Eats, the go-to food movement blog; Anna Lappé, a highly visible author and sustainable food activist; and the food justice agitator and movement-building visionary Navina Khanna, the Director of the HEAL Food Alliance.
The conversation focused on the content of a national food policy; where in the federal government to house such a policy, especially in relation to the Farm Bill; how to build collective power to create and implement the policy; the role of equity and food-chain workers; and how to resist corporate power. This is a noteworthy list given the historical divisions in the food movement and the challenges of strategizing how to regulate the food system, engage in prefigurative and confrontational mobilization, and elevate the needs of subordinated groups. The W. K. Kellogg Foundation, perhaps a bit hyperbolically, was even compelled to tweet, “for 1st time food mvm’t is working as 1: health, environment, agriculture & labor for a real food revolution.” But as in other social movements, there are “dividends of dissent” that come from infighting. Disagreement allows activists to work through questions of strategy and identity on the road to solving their chief grievances. Although there were several celebratory tweets, it was clear the goal was not to reach some kind of false consensus to smother differences in the name of gathering around food. In this moment, the food movement displayed a capacity to resist the postpolitical pull by deepening its agonistic political practices.
After participants had an ongoing discussion of movement building and excitement about finding ways to build collective power, the sixth question asked, “Do you see a national food policy as our best mechanism for addressing issues of equity? How?” Although Michael Pollan’s response was disappointing (“A food policy that make healthy calories more competitive with junk calories contributes mightily to equity”), his tweet received twice as many retweets and likes than Mark Bittman’s tweet, which read, “I see it as part of the same struggle. You can’t make big changes in food w/o making big changes in many other things.” Maybe this difference reflects the sentiment of the chat participants. If so, it confirms that many of the ideas informing mainstream food politics (e.g., “subsidies create problems for dietary health”) grossly neglect underlying structural inequalities. Critical grassroots voices intervened at these moments to address concerns usually subservient to health and environmental goals. They lent legitimacy to the claims of organizations like the W. K. Kellogg Foundation that this chat was more than an exercise in reproducing the same hierarchy of concerns. A food justice activist from New Mexico named Rodrigo Rodriguez offered some especially incisive tweets. Two of them, “If we don’t address the structural racism in the ‘food movement’ then a national food policy is nothing more than rhetoric” and “People of color farmers and communities are consistently marginalized in food and farming spaces where their voice is important,” aired long-standing grievances. He also tweeted, related to inequities enmeshed in other institutions, “I’ve yet to hear anything about migrant farm workers or land and resource removal in Black, Brown and Indigenous communities.” While it is hard to measure the full effect of such comments, they echo the concerns of many food justice activists who are organizing across social justice movements.
This conversation took place at the height of the Black Lives Matter insurrections, the Fight for $15 strikes, and ongoing climate justice direct actions against the XL Keystone Pipeline. Confrontational politics were in the air. This oppositional social change ethos melded with organizing throughout 2015 by the most progressive segments of the food movement to build on the initial national food policy conversation. The Plate of the Union campaign was launched by Food Policy Action Education Fund, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the HEAL Food Alliance. Their goal was to mobilize the public to push federal policy makers to enact progressive food policies. With the help of the HEAL Food Alliance, the campaign tapped into a grassroots food politics that is building the power of the food movement. In 2015, the theme of The Gathering, an annual food justice conference sponsored by the Growing Food and Justice for All Initiative, was “H.E.A.L Our Food System.” Workshops included “Grassroots Organizing for Good Food Policy,” “Just Labor within the Food Justice Movement? Analyses and Steps Forward,” “Food Justice at the Federal Level: What Will a National Food, Health and Well-Being Policy Look Like?,” and “Justicia Alimentaria Sin Fronteras — Food Justice without Borders.” These ideological shifts show that contemporary food politics are radicalizing and merging with the concerns of a range of social justice movements.
Although most of the food movement could not imagine the rise of Trump at the time, the disappointments of the Obama presidency were enough to increase mobilization around economic and racial justice. With the existential threat of congressional Republicans and Trump to frontline communities, it is noteworthy that the development of a deeper political consciousness through conversations about a national food policy show the ideological advantages of food justice. The calls for structural solutions by food justice activists and the narrowness of the Farm Bill necessitate new policies that crosscut the federal government and that set a foundation for state and local municipalities. While many local solutions exist because experimentation and innovation face fewer hurdles, having a patchwork regulatory environment on matters such as public health, environmental sustainability, labor, and civil rights is insufficient. In practice, this means political organizing must integrate numerous targets. The work of food policy councils and similar convergence spaces are important to build cross-sectoral and cross-interest networks, offer insights into successes and failures, and articulate democratic values upon which to rebuild food systems. Similar efforts to create food movement convergence spaces (e.g., national food policy Twitter chat, national conferences, national coalitions, protests, demonstrations) will only deepen its politics by mobilizing across differences and pooling resources into efforts that restructure federal food policy.
The expanding influence of food justice aligns with the urgency for a food politics that can limit revanchist movements and advance the interests of subordinated groups. Passing a national food policy under the Trump administration is unlikely given the overriding attention by left-wing social movements to resist right-wing attacks on immigrants, people of color, prisoners, public education, the poor and working class, the social safety net, and the environment. But this is not the first time, nor will it be the last time, that progressive and radical forces face daunting odds. In fact, there is a strong public desire for a clear left alternative with a vision that can mobilize people around a social justice agenda. Not only did tens of millions of people embrace the avowed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders during Democratic Party primaries, but also organized left forces regrouped after the election to work together to stoke grassroots energy. In early 2017, The Majority, a coalition with more than fifty organizations, launched its first campaign, “Beyond the Moment.” The Movement for Black Lives played a key role in convening people across climate justice, economic justice, racial justice, immigrant rights, labor, queer, and feminist movements. The Majority used the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech to call for intersectional analysis and organizing. From the April 4 anniversary of the speech to May Day, the goal was to begin prefiguring the political actions necessary “to move masses of people nationally toward meaningful, trans-local actions designed to expand multi-racial, multi-sector and local long-term organizing capacity to strengthen the fight for justice, freedom and the right to live fully, with dignity and respect for all people.” The message of the moment was clear: radicalizing requires building mass collective power across differences.
In the realm of food, the response was similar. Voter research by Plate of the Union found public support for building a broad movement to reform the food system to ensure equal access to healthy and affordable food that takes care of workers, the environment, and farmers. Knowing this, the HEAL Food Alliance quickly mobilized to oppose Trump’s cabinet nominations. His picks for the Department of Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Labor were especially devastating for the food movement. The right-wing résumés of these four wealthy white men included opposition to food stamps, improved nutritional standards, fair wages, environmental health protections, and climate science. Resistance by the HEAL Food Alliance was a stopgap measure with limited chance of success. Therefore, it was surprising when along with the Fight for $15 movement and groups like Food Chain Workers Alliance, Food Policy Action, and Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, they pressured labor secretary nominee Andrew Puzder to withdraw. As the CEO of CKE Restaurants, the parent company of Carl’s Jr. and Hardees, he actively opposed raising the minimum wage and oversaw a fast-food empire that routinely engaged in wage and hour violations, sexual harassment, and other unfair labor practices. While this was a laudable victory, the Senate confirmed many other cabinet members not committed to running their agencies and departments in line with the broad goals of the food movement. The need to resist more crises is inevitable, but the food movement also has a unique political opportunity to advance a comprehensive political agenda that centers equity. As Bittman, Pollan, De Schutter, and Salvador put it a few days before Trump’s inauguration, “Natural allies are everywhere. . . . It’s all connected; the common threads are justice, fairness, and respect. . . . Mature social movements (including those on the right) recognize that it’s always a struggle to get what you want.” As organizing becomes more intersectional, the interests of subordinated groups help bend the practice of food politics to fight for structural changes in the food system.
One of the ways to channel heightened moments of political organizing is into policy crafting around an agenda that reflects the vision of a social movement. Patricia Allen reasons that the food movement will continue to fail in the food policy realm “unless they can somehow overcome the characteristic inertia of the federal government . . . and somehow overcome or outmaneuver the structures of power and privilege that originally created and continue to maintain these policies.” Two promising food movement agendas are a national food policy and a national food strategy. Both would exceed the limited parameters of the Farm Bill, which is too restrictive in its scope to regulate the food system or distribute tax dollars much beyond nutrition assistance and agricultural support.
To advance a national food policy agenda involves developing and then implementing specific recommendations. In 2017, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future enumerated comprehensive food and agriculture policy recommendations for the Trump administration and the 115th Congress. These included the jurisdictions of eight federal agencies and focused on food system sustainability and public health. Thinking through a national food policy based on the topic areas alone reveals the complexity of trying to integrate different policy arenas. While not exhaustive, the list is revealing: antibiotics; antitrust law enforcement; aquaculture, fisheries, and seafood; food access and food policy advocacy; food waste; food procurement; food system resilience; food system workers; industrial animal production; and sustainable diets. A national strategy could help cohere these arenas and accomplish broad policy goals. The 2017 report Blueprint for a National Food Strategy correctly notes that many laws and policies govern the food system, but there is little integration. Coordination of existing laws and policies would help unify the regulation of the food system. Equitable participation would ensure input from marginalized voices. Transparency in decision-making would foster accountability. Commitment to a long-term process of social change would require concrete plans and flexibility to adapt to new conditions. In brief, this entails “utilizing an organizing authority, incorporating stakeholder and public engagement, enshrining goals in a written document, and ensuring periodic updating.”
Over fifteen federal agencies help regulate the food system, so systems thinking and shared policy goals can coordinate the organizing approach taken to current and future food policies. For example, the National Environmental Policy Act is a procedural law passed by Congress that mandates all federal agencies to submit environmental assessments and environmental impact statements for all their proposed actions. While imperfect and contested, it is a concrete example of a law that directs agency actions regardless of who occupies the White House. With a clear target, grassroots organizing can elevate interconnected problems in the food system, lobby Congress, and compel it to call for a coordinated strategy. While an executive order can also direct federal agencies to abide by specific considerations in their daily work, like whether their actions will advance or hinder environmental justice, enforcement fluctuates with administrations, and even when enforcement is implemented, it often lacks coordination. To be effective, the strategy would have legally binding norms and goals that direct federal directives, plans, laws, and policies; require agencies to reform past policies; and receive adequate funding. The interconnected and compounding crises in the food system, although they are difficult to resolve, demand action.
Scattered throughout these food policy and food strategy reports are references to equity but not to food justice. While the reports hope to inspire the food movement to organize across silos, their focus on food excludes a broader vision. If food movement goals remain split up by interest groups, then these policy and strategy suggestions may replicate the historical limitations of the Farm Bill. The sheer range of problems in the food system compels activists to pick an area of interest and then learn everything about it to shape political outcomes. Of course, across the food movement there is the overarching commitment to feed people and create jobs. Yet, without challenging the ideological sway of racial neoliberalism within the federal government, this value system will corrupt noble endeavors. A food justice national strategy is a possible antidote to advocate with “discursive clarity” around a set of principles to inform all federal programs and policies related to food. This unconventional policy method could generate new institutional momentum to disrupt the revanchist inertia with moral and ethical claims that provide a clear alternative. Because food justice concerns touch every part of the food system and many grassroots social movements have commitments to food justice, there is an opportunity to engage in righteous food politics with populist appeal. Retreating into the local to find solace amid the moral crisis infecting every branch of government is to abdicate responsibility for radical visions and guiding practices. Stepping into the antagonism of democratic politics with the goal of restructuring the rules that govern the food system to conform to food justice goals is to accept the political task of fighting for new hegemonic relations.
What might a food justice national strategy cover as a political tool to shape current and future food policy? Movement convergences such as the 2012 Food + Justice = Democracy conference offer guidance to move forward with some agreed-upon principles. This conference was a significant event marking the maturation of food justice. Organizers tapped into over three hundred activists “by coming together to find the spark of the movement for food justice — an ambitious endeavor seeking to ignite conversations with the purpose of crafting a cohesive public policy agenda for food justice.” The diversity of conference attendees suggested the benefits of a broad national mandate that would seek to eliminate inequities in the food system by race, ethnicity, nationality, class, and gender, and promote strategies that advance social equity. The conference devised Principles of Food Justice, which stated the desire for policy solutions to recognize the interdependence of history and contemporary social problems. This is clearly a prerequisite for any future food policy committed to social justice. Under the principle of “Historical Trauma,” the document reads in part, “Acknowledge as fundamental in our consideration of food justice that we cannot deliver food justice without addressing historical trauma and the way it requires an intersectional analysis of our relationship with the land, with each other, with the economy, across cultures, and with our food and other consumption choices.” On this basis, a food justice national strategy could mandate federal agencies to devise strategies to address the structural inequalities stemming from colonialism, slavery, discriminatory immigration regimes, and patriarchy, to name only a few sources of historical trauma in the United States.
Drawing on examples from each of my cases, I want to illustrate how crafting food justice policy that focuses on land, labor, urban and rural community development, health, self-determination, and environmental sustainability could guide federal agencies to address historical traumas. Although treated independently in the following sections, a national strategy would entail agency cooperation to solve entangled problems that transcend simple categorization. In many cases, statutes that can advance food justice already exist. Requiring agencies attend to inequities within the food system would focus the federal policy effort on advancing the interests of subordinated groups. Mandating food justice would also direct the state to address many issues that other left-wing social movements have been agitating for a resolution to for many years.
Without land justice, food justice is impossible. In the United States, land inequities manifest in many forms. White settlers’ dispossession of land from indigenous people disrupted cultural foodways and the material basis for social reproduction. Black farmers have lost land at an accelerating pace for the last one hundred years due to discriminatory lending policies. Corporate consolidation and concentration in agriculture have led to the expansion of large industrial farms, which has pressured farmers to “get big or get out.” Large-scale conventional organic agriculture drives up land values and urbanization envelops farmland, erecting obstacles to land tenure for beginning low-resourced farmers. In cities, there is the intensifying process of gentrification. This contributes to the displacement of low-income communities and communities of color, and drives up the cost of land, raising rents for small food-related business owners and urban farmers. At the same time, gentrification encourages the entrance of more expensive retailers like Whole Foods and boutique bakeries and juice cafés. And these are just some of the problems.
Oakland is undergoing rapid gentrification. For Planting Justice, this has meant shifting food production out of the city into more affordable parts of the East Bay, such as El Sobrante, where the organization runs a five-acre orchard. Instead of challenging private property, its model navigates neoliberal mandates. Building edible landscapes reimagines property by redistributing capital from wealthy and often white people to many low-income, formerly incarcerated black men. While creative, its strategy cannot guarantee a means for poor and working-class people to stay in place. If federal agencies such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development were to increase resources for affordable housing and use regulatory tools to slow housing inflation, gentrification pressures might subside and make urban agriculture a more economically sustainable livelihood.
In San Diego, San Diego Roots emerged out of a campaign to prevent the sale of farmland for development. Lacking the money to buy this land, it turned to educating the public about the importance of local food, hoping to inspire people to keep farming in San Diego’s rural areas. Embodying their ideals, San Diego Roots leased farmland. But there have been restrictions and complications of farming along the border, not the least of which is the constant presence of border enforcement agencies and the nonprofit stress of fundraising or monetizing the farm. The neoliberal conditions of working as a nonprofit in a for-profit farming sector complicates the lack of secure land tenure and makes the process of running a farm school precarious. Under a food justice national strategy, the Department of Agriculture could be responsible for reducing barriers to farming for low-resourced groups with fair and affordable loans and policies that mandate preserving farmland, slowing land inflation, and breaking up large farms. Moreover, there is the need for reparations that include debt forgiveness and land and wealth redistribution to descendants of indigenous people and black farmers whose land was stolen. The reason for this is because land dispossession was necessary to advancing white supremacy and as a result, of all private agricultural land, whites own 98 percent of the acres, which is valued at over $1.2 trillion.
Food justice entails eliminating the exploitation of workers in the food system. The food system runs on the labor of poorly compensated and underprotected women, low-income people, and people of color. Current federal labor laws fail to protect workers, particularly undocumented immigrant farmworkers, who also face an uneven and largely weak set of state-level protections. Therefore, there is a critical need to check the lobbying influence and power of large food corporations with federal agency mandates that eliminate labor exceptions for immigrants, ensure the right to collectively bargain, and provide a livable wage with full access to health care. First and foremost, all food-chain workers require full protection under the National Labor Relations Act and Fair Labor Standards Act.
In Los Angeles, labor exploitation at the intersection of race, ethnicity, citizenship, and class converge. UFCW 770 has fought Walmart for years because its business model is bad for low-income people of color and immigrant communities. Walmart and its contractors have regularly retaliated against workers and eroded grocery retail labor standards. UFCW 770 has also experienced the deterioration of labor protections for meatpacking workers despite record profits and the surging global demand for meat. The Department of Labor, although charged with ensuring fair and safe labor practices, is hamstrung by state laws (e.g., “right to work” laws) and often ignores violations by major corporate actors with disproportionate industry influence. A food justice national strategy would compel the Department of Labor to vigorously prosecute employers for discrimination, expand the most rigorous wage and benefit laws to all food-chain workers, and intervene in workplace practices to protect worker safety (e.g., mandate slowing of the line speed at meatpacking plants). Given the prevalence of undocumented immigrants working in the food system, the Department of Homeland Security must halt deportations and create a pathway to citizenship. The Department of Agriculture could then prioritize helping formerly undocumented immigrant farmworkers become land-owning owner-operators, for instance, through the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program. From another angle, the Department of Justice might be obliged by a food justice national strategy to carry out far more antitrust investigations against agribusinesses with near monopolies, which would give them the evidence to take law enforcement action. For example, UFCW 770 might benefit from investigations into the beef, pork, and poultry industries if they led to breaking up big companies like JBS, Swift, Tyson, and Cargill. Or if there was a case for monopsony, where a company like Walmart squeezes suppliers for lower prices, an antitrust case could be brought against the company to protect the livelihoods of others in that company’s supply chain.
Urban and Rural Community Development
Food and agriculture are key facets in community development. Development refers in its broadest sense to building on and improving a community’s human, social, physical, financial, environmental, political, and cultural capital. The configuration of capitals reflects the degree and kind of assets and inequities that exist in a place. Capitals condition the opportunities for food justice campaigns. Although food justice is concerned with community well-being and the right to control resources based on communal desires, what constitutes a community varies and reflects power relations. The political salience of using community as a framework to build collective power around some end may be paramount. Ends include the desires of people constituted by a place, by identity based on a shared social position, by a desire or an ideology such as social justice or environmental sustainability, and/or by a common practice, culture, economy, or form of politics.
Honoring the diversity of community demands for the right to their cultural foodways and to determine the shape of their food system pushes back against the monocultural mind-set dominating food and agricultural policy. In each of my cases, activists focused their attention on an issue and used this to improve community well-being. There was never a comprehensive campaign to build an entire food system from farm to table. Such an endeavor requires coordination across a range of stakeholders, which each organization inherently understood. For example, San Diego Roots was part of a major campaign that convinced San Diego’s City Council to pass an ordinance in 2012 allowing residents to have chickens, goats, and bees on their property. Similarly, Planting Justice worked in a coalition early in its history to change urban agriculture laws in Oakland, while UFCW 770 sat on the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, which has successfully led battles to expand local food production and consumption. These are notable outcomes that with broader aims and greater assistance could transform local and regional food systems in line with food justice. Community-led food system development would benefit from mandating that federal funding prioritize advancing equity when giving money. This entails reducing bureaucratic barriers to accessing grants, prioritizing the work of small grassroots organizations in historically marginalized communities, reorganizing budgets to divest from harmful food system practices to reinvest in environmentally and socially just food systems, and committing long-term to projects and places.
Locally based mobilizations are occurring throughout the United States, but communities often have divergent reasons for supporting local food system development, which suggests the process is contested and uneven. Whose perspectives drive the process matters. A food justice national strategy requires procedural justice. Federal priorities would need to align with food sovereignty goals. Communities want an array of local food systems, not all of which reflect typical capitalist property and labor relations. To foster the heterogeneity of community development, each agency with relevant jurisdiction would need to back efforts whose priority is not always economic, but may be social, cultural, or environmental. From a food justice perspective, research into something like beekeeping would measure nonmonetary values and take a community’s desire for self-determination seriously. To avoid an urban bias, agencies like the Department of Agriculture could align their Rural Development offices with economic development strategies that build community-controlled food systems outside the influence of industrialized and corporately controlled agribusiness. Although more limited, the Economic Development Administration and the Minority Business Development Agency could prioritize food-based community development to improve the economy in urban and rural places suffering from high unemployment and poverty. To address historical traumas, the executive order could charge these agencies with affirmative action strategies that also focus on the noneconomic desires of low-income communities and communities of color.
Given the centrality of food to health, this is one of the most straightforward principles to support. It is also highly contested considering the history of scientific racism, narratives tying health to racialized phenotypes and body types, and the financial influence of corporate agribusiness in flooding low-income communities and communities of color with unhealthy food. The medical industry monetizes treating these same communities for problems that stem from racialized and classed discourses and practices. Simultaneously, there is widespread food insecurity and hunger, which is largely addressed through government charity and corporate benevolence. Taken together, food access and consumption are major arenas for mobilization. Health inequities related to food offer a tangible focal point to navigate the structural drivers behind ethnoracial and class disparities.
A food justice national strategy might force the federal government to take actions internally in the name of equity that it refuses to abide by internationally. In 2014, Terri Robl, the U.S. deputy representative to the UN Economic and Social Council, explained part of the country’s position on the right to food: “Overall, we view the right to food as a desirable policy goal; it is our objective to achieve a world where everyone has adequate access to food. We do not, however, treat the right to food as an enforceable obligation” (emphasis added). The United States has long ignored its role in global hunger and repeatedly obstructed efforts to hold accountable the trade-distorting policies and practices of its domestic multinational corporate agribusinesses. Therefore, it is unsurprising that the United States is one of only a half dozen UN member states that have refused to ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a key treaty upholding the right to food. From a food justice commitment to ending health disparities, this aversion is problematic.
In Los Angeles and Oakland, issues of health and nutrition are prevalent. People lack the means to purchase healthy food. This reflects historical dispossession and discrimination that have marginalized black and Latinx communities by preventing the acquisition of resources that lead to class mobility. UFCW 770 and Planting Justice have sought to address this legacy by advocating for and creating good jobs. There are also dietary health problems that disproportionately harm black and Latinx communities. The physiological aspects are only part of the health equation. Social evaluation and blame pathologize these groups for eating poorly when there are far more white people with the same dietary health problems resulting from the same behavior. The difference is that institutional racism plays a determining role in producing disparities and privileges.
At a minimum, a food justice national strategy would require that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) are fully funded, easy to access, and prioritize culturally appropriate, healthy, and sustainable food options. Thinking ahead, the strategy could charge the Department of Health and Human Services with eliminating dietary health disparities. The strategy would dovetail with the Action Plan to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities, part of which looks at the social determinants of health and how best to intervene. Additionally, the Federal Collaboration on Health Disparities Research is an important space for food justice scholars and activists to push for a structural analysis of the social determinants of health. These are positive foundations to buttress the development of policies that target poverty, segregation, mass incarceration, and gentrification. A food justice national strategy would also go further than most health interventions, which focus on bringing grocery stores into “food deserts.” It would charge agencies like the Department of Agriculture to develop nutrition standards that acknowledge the health problems associated with foods and ingredients pushed by corporate agribusiness (e.g., sugar, corn, soybeans, dairy, and meat). There could also be mandates to eliminate subsidies for unhealthy commodities, ban marketing of junk food, and institute price supports and parity for fruits and vegetables and heritage and cultural crops. To buoy these actions at the community level, the Department of Transportation would need to prioritize its spending in places lacking access to healthy foods to ensure equitable access to public, affordable, and efficient transportation.
Self-determination has long been a major frame driving food justice activism, which draws on the history of groups like the Black Panther Party. This parallels food movement framing that denounces corporate rule over the food system. Activists, from anarchists calling for a delinking from the political economy of this system, to school teachers advocating for more gardening and culinary arts training to help youth take care of their health, to small-scale organic farmers selling food to local restaurants, share a desire to take back the economy. Unfortunately, such effort often remains individualized. Taking care of oneself (e.g., growing your own food) eclipses collective efforts to build replicable models that chip away at capitalist infrastructure (e.g., credit unions, alternative currencies, and cooperatives). So a food justice approach to self-determination questions models and institutions that foster dependency. The rejoinder is to elevate cultural foodways that corporate agribusinesses conceal by propagating culinary monocultures. Control of the means of production and a voice in all decision-making spaces are therefore prerequisites for community food sovereignty.
As the cases of San Diego Roots and Planting Justice teach, the organizations aspired to take back the economy with both noncommodified and living-wage food work. This was not without complication. While San Diego Roots was more reliant on external foundation and government funding than Planting Justice, they were both still embedded in what critics refer to as the “non-profit industrial complex.” The organizations are part of a process that professionalizes social movements, often in ways that demobilize their more radical wings and principles. This often creates divisions within social movements. White and middle-class groups with greater privileges tend to have more resources than people of color and low-income-run groups. In addition to autonomous practices, both organizations built community around noncapitalist principles. One of the challenges, though, was whether to adopt anti-racist principles. San Diego Roots missed many opportunities to foster self-determination around more than just local and organic food by failing to see how race and ethnicity interpolated this process. Planting Justice, conversely, built interracial and cross-class alliances in its prisoner reentry work. Although both organizations have developed socially heterogeneous networks and reached thousands of people through their work, self-determination requires moving beyond the organizational scale.
Perhaps this is counterintuitive, but a food justice national strategy would still have a role to play in fostering community control independent of concentrated power. Because the federal government manages a multitrillion-dollar budget, it should in theory spend its money in line with the desires of the citizenry. Given the demographic heterogeneity of the United States and the long history of oppression of many different social groups, it is necessary to balance diversity with eliminating inequities. For example, a compelling practice of direct democracy is participatory budgeting. Some cities set aside budget money for citizens to determine its use. The Office of Management and Budget could respond to a food justice mandate by encouraging less conventional government spending priorities and coordinating interagency funding directives. Because the priorities of this executive office often dictate the local use of federal money, there is a unique opportunity to compel the federal government to reinforce autonomous yearnings with more participatory input into budgeting. While there is no guarantee this democratic process would allow food justice activists to spend money as they want, it might encourage greater civic participation and alliance building with other groups committed to social justice. A fully funded Healthy Food Financing Initiative, run by the Department of Agriculture, Department of Treasury, and Department of Health and Human Services, would deepen this process if it was refocused to build wealth in underserved communities. One way to foster self-determination would be to prioritize funding worker and community-owned food and agriculture cooperatives. These efforts could also coordinate with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to encourage zoning laws that allow citizens to organize new food networks that transition away from corporately controlled food supply chains (e.g., development of community-based urban agriculture). The resulting food networks would reflect the social priority of equity and set in motion social relations around food determined at a local level.
An environmentally sustainable foundation is intimately connected to a socially just food system. In the context of air and water pollution, biodiversity collapse, climate change, the use of toxic chemicals, and urban land use conversion, all of which disproportionately harm low-income people and people of color, food justice involves protecting ecosystems and nonhuman nature. This interdependency has motivated an array of food politics. Anti-pesticide activists have fought toxic chemicals in agriculture based on their harm to animals and farmworkers. Climate justice activists see problems like desertification as an issue that both destroys ecosystems and threatens farmers. Water pollution activists link the collapse of fish populations in nitrogen-loaded dead zones like the Gulf of Mexico to the harm this causes to fishers. Because environmental problems in the food system are multifaceted, there are many opportunities to build collective power around policy and regulatory change.
My cases offer a few considerable points. While UFCW 770 dodged the link between environmental problems and its organizing, Planting Justice and San Diego Roots both explicitly articulated why it is important to develop environmentally sustainable alternatives to an industrial food system. The nonprofits used permaculture and organic gardening and farming techniques, which offer alternatives for a climate-just future. On an educational level, Planting Justice and San Diego Roots taught unfamiliar practices to people living in cities. One of the problems is that their reach is limited, a condition shared by most nonprofits. In this context, because labor unions like UFCW 770 represent workers who labor in an environmentally unsustainable food system, they can exacerbate environmental problems and the possibility for building coalitions. If powerful organizations like labor unions do not tackle environmental problems by pressuring the employers of their union members, they are complicit in the harm that falls on their low-income rank and file. Together, the shallow reach of nonprofits and the embeddedness of labor unions in a system that thrives on perverse economic incentives that degrade the environment necessitate federal action.
A food justice national strategy that pushes environmental sustainability from the perspective of equity would likely overlap with Executive Order 12898, Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations. But the food system organizes the relationship between human and nonhuman nature in distinct ways, so there is a policy incentive to manage food-related environmental problems. One target could mandate agencies to draft policies and protocols to reduce environmental harm and help the most vulnerable communities become more resilient to environmental problems like climate change. Part of the regulatory system overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture includes environmental issues like pesticides and natural resource conservation. Few if any policy mechanisms compel these agencies to consider how structural inequalities map onto the environmental protection landscape. For example, the record die-off of bees due to their exposure to the popular class of insecticides called neonicotinoids is framed around the imperative of crop pollination to feed society. This is opposed to focusing on the social inequities associated with the raced, classed, and gendered impacts of the political economy of these insecticides, and the concentrated power of manufacturers like Bayer Crop Science and Syngenta. In brief, a food justice national strategy would enforce and develop environmental statutes to help eliminate environmental inequalities pertaining to food.
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Before concluding, I want to recognize that there is no policy panacea. Although there is the potential for the state to check the excesses of capital, capital has captured much of the state. Race, class, and gender also stratify this relationship, with powerful groups better positioned to exert their influence. The food justice movement will likely continue to navigate these conditions with only partial victories. Policy prescriptions are therefore incomplete. There will also be new social antagonisms emerging around yet-unforeseen sites of social struggle. This entails remaining open to a diverse field of political action and social change and acknowledging when policy does not equate with a political resolution.
Food justice practices will succumb to the postpolitical logic if they relent in contesting relations of subordination. Activists must keep building grassroots power through confrontational strategies that disrupt the political order and alternative strategies that provide new paths to move beyond the structural limitations of current institutions. Because social inequity is heterogeneous, the oppression-privilege spectrum will produce different intersections of resistance. In some cases, conditions will compel a food politics that leverages the state, while in others, it will mean working outside these confines to produce liberatory alternatives; and in still others, a combination of the two. Making demands on the state can be a radical act in the context of neoliberal capitalism and institutional racism, but deeper problems of political elite intransigence and a lack of political will to enforce laws remain. Politics often impedes policy. A policy may be good, but the politicians and political process erect barriers. To advance a radical democratic politics requires seeing food politics as an agonistic process. Antagonism that disrupts the normal flow of social life with vocalized and public demands that produce discomfort for more powerful groups is always necessary.
Winning something like a national food strategy or policy is only one stage of a dialectical process. Per Grace Lee Boggs, if we take seriously the suggestion that food justice activists are the leaders activists are looking for, then giving power to the state is necessary but insufficient. Communities must create the conditions for food justice wherever they live, work, and play. This will include creating and enforcing laws that advance a food justice agenda. The state is not likely going away anytime soon, so it plays an important role in moving society closer to food justice. But activists need to seize the social space opened when the state welcomes a progressive agenda and devise strategies that ameliorate social inequities outside the parameters of our institutions.
The appeal of food justice is greater than it has ever been. People’s longing for a relationship with food not grounded in subordination keeps a flicker of hope alive amid truly daunting odds. Food justice is a robust discursive framework to build alliances across social justice struggles. Creativity abounds in the use of food to address social inequities. And there are countless actions to build more just food networks and markets, confront corporate practices, and create new policies and regulations. Radical food politics is set to keep expanding. If it maintains a commitment to human flourishing, there is a foundation to achieve liberation. Thus the cry for food justice now!