Food as Social Justice Politics
Creative efforts to rearticulate the conditions that produce inequities in the food system and what it means to practice food justice abound. Amid entrenched social antagonisms, expressed in the guise of social movements confronting neoliberal capitalism and institutional racism, the food justice movement is mobilized similarly in opposition. The difference? It uses food as a tool for social justice. This positions the movement to intervene in many conjunctures in the ongoing dialectic between food and social change. Activists are aware of the challenges of bridging food justice to an array of social problems that reflect unique constellations of power and structural conditions. Yet, instead of activists seeing this diversity as a barrier, it is the inspiration for tirelessly reimagining how to increase human flourishing in the face of widespread social suffering. Over the course of five years of research, I followed this dialectical process in major California cities. What I found surprised me. The major problems confronting activists committed to food justice revolved around mass incarceration, labor exploitation, and immigration. These appear disparate upon initial inquiry, but in the eyes of activists, they are an opportunity, albeit not always realized, to use the social justice commitments that motivate food justice to radically deepen the democratic potential of food politics. In the pages that follow, I argue that food justice is the sine qua non that connects activists across a range of interests and stretches the frontiers of food politics precisely because of the resonance of food justice in broader social struggles.
I first began to understand the radical potential of the food justice movement and its importance to the dialectical expansion of food politics during a hot and dry summer day in June 2012. I was building a permaculture-designed edible landscape alongside formerly incarcerated people in the small backyard of a Berkeley, California, home. This was one of hundreds of gardens built over a six-year period by an Oakland food justice organization called Planting Justice, most of which were built by formerly incarcerated people paid a living wage. During this installation, four black men who were recently released from San Quentin State Prison, one other white man, and I broke up and removed concrete, installed irrigation, assembled raised vegetable beds, spread fresh soil and mulch, and planted an assortment of fruits and vegetables. After breaking for burritos, our staple lunch that summer, we removed debris found while transforming this yard from an underutilized space into a food oasis and swept up loose soil and cardboard. We then packed up the big, blue biodiesel work truck and rumbled down the road displaying the organization’s motto on a large magnet adhered to the tailgate: “Grow Food, Grow Jobs, Grow Community.” My time in Oakland taught me a lot about the devastating impacts of mass incarceration on working-class black communities and about the difficulties of the prisoner reentry process. I also learned that political work across ethnoracial and class boundaries must be deliberate and sensitive to the needs of those facing systematic forms of oppression. In this case, urban agriculture imagined through the lens of food justice generated a capacity to disrupt the prison pipeline.
To continue my fieldwork to learn about urban food politics in California, I left Oakland after two months to return to my home city, a place that had changed greatly since I was a child decades prior. I started farming in San Diego along the U.S.–Mexico border with a group of organic farming and local food activists and observed different strategies to distribute the food we grew to local well-to-do foodies and low-income people. I wrestled daily with the complexities of farming in an ecosystem bisected by a militarized border representing a history of boundary production, colonialism, and racial resentment. But I also found that some organic farming and local food activists hoped for the elimination of borders and a deeper embeddedness within the local ecosystem. One day, a farmer named Titus and his Rottweiler led me around the unplanted backfields of Wild Willow Farm to show me where the farm was going to expand into an area with fertile soils previously farmed by others. While explaining the prior use of the land, he also pointed out the coyote trails, which were visible because of their distinct scat, and the shallow, eroded beds of dried-up rivulets etched into the landscape. Shifting from a natural history to a social history of the space, Titus started talking about the movement of people and shared that earlier in the morning, Border Patrol agents in their cars and helicopters were chasing down border crossers: “There are many immigrant trails that run through this landscape. People have been using them for a long time; it’s like the Underground Railroad.” Active solidarity with those escaping slavery allowed the Underground Railroad to thrive, which set in motion future movements that fought for freedom and equality. In another way, the borderlands presented a choice of whether or how to support immigrants, such as those who end up as farmworkers in San Diego.
After five months of building gardens and farming, I moved to Los Angeles to intern with United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 770, a hardscrabble labor union representing over thirty thousand workers. I was interested in the labor politics of the grocery retail and meatpacking industries. As an intern in the Organizing Department, I was absorbed into the planning, strategizing, campaigning, rallying, and protesting that are labor union mainstays. In this contentious environment, the union put me to use calling community partners, finding new allies in the food movement to support Black Friday strikes against Walmart, and engaging in the sticky politics of representing cannabis dispensary workers. I found that labor organizing in Los Angeles required building bridges with working-class communities of color and immigrants; first- and second-generation Latinx workers in particular make up ever-larger numbers of the labor force, especially in low-wage jobs in the food system. Knowing that the labor movement could not continue to be “male, pale, and stale,” UFCW 770 diversified its leadership over time. Almost everyone in the Organizing Department spoke Spanish, and issues formerly peripheral to the union, such as food insecurity, were vital to building labor power. Through strategic partnerships with food justice activists and labor organizers, UFCW 770 has helped shift the conversation over food security from supply-side to demand-side solutions. As an organizer named Ann told me, “When we are talking about food justice issues . . . we can’t organize up here and not tie it to, ‘How do you put your food on your table?’” Their answer is that racial and economic justice are prerequisites for food justice.
As these initial anecdotes of food politics suggest, different social antagonisms structure how and whether people practice food justice. They also have practical implications for identifying how food justice ties into furthering other social justice movements. Witnessing many organizational strategies and hearing people’s creative analyses left me with the distinct impression that our imagination of food politics is too narrow. Alas, I found three uniquely promising arenas for movement building: carceral politics, labor politics, and immigration politics. Each arena offers new ways to think about pressing political conjunctures as well as the political uses of food to advance social equity. Until fairly recently, food justice activists have remained within the food movement without strategically broadening their food politics to work across movement boundaries. Expanding our view of food justice requires decoupling food justice fromthe overly simplistic idea that food itself is the site of struggle. Food politics that first identify the root causes of problems and then work to tackle these problems will then transform people’s relationship with food. My book chronicles a diversity of approaches, challenges, and opportunities associated with such a political project.
Food Justice Foundations
In many respects, the current development of food justice reflects the environmental justice movement’s insistence that environmental inequalities are not ultimately about the environment but about how structural inequalities harm people as they relate to the environment. Similarly, food justice is primarily concerned with oppression and inequity in the food system. Food demarcates the focus of struggle. In the first major scholarly look at what is now commonly referred to as the food justice movement, Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi characterize the movement’s vision as “ensuring that the benefits and risks of where, what, and how food is grown and produced, transported and distributed, and accessed and eaten are shared fairly.” Although a useful starting point to ascertain how people experience food injustices, and therefore open enough to account for various food justice practices, Gottlieb and Joshi’s book does not offer an analysis that captures the specific structural drivers of food injustices. There is less explicit attention to colonialism, capitalism, and institutional racism.
Partially in response, Alison Alkon and Julian Agyeman use a critical race framework to contend, “Communities of color are beginning to engage in food justice activism in order to provide food for themselves while imagining new ecological and social relationships.” Their vision of this new social movement “recognizes the agrifood system as a racial project and problematizes the influence of race and class on the production, distribution, and consumption of food.” Yet the food system is more than a racial project; it reproduces and reflects the conditions of neoliberal capitalism and patriarchy. This is where Kirsten Valentine Cadieux and Rachel Slocum draw on a wider set of political practices to synthesize four ways that food justice activism intervenes in structural inequalities. They conclude that transforming the food system requires the following:
- 1. Acknowledging and confronting historical, collective social trauma and persistent race, gender, and class inequalities
- 2. Designing exchange mechanisms that build communal reliance and control
- 3. Creating innovative ways to control, use, share, own, manage, and conceive of land, and ecologies in general, that place them outside the speculative market and the rationale of extraction
- 4. Pursuing labor relations that guarantee a minimum income and are neither alienating nor dependent on (unpaid) social reproduction by women.
This vision opens the possibility for diagnosing many forms of oppression that influence and are the target of food justice activism.
Debates over what counts as food justice expose different emphases and therefore the political stakes. This is important because the radical hopes for the food justice movement do not always reflect actual food justice activism in the United States and Canada. Food justice organizations tend to focus on increasing access to healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food, many through empowerment strategies to get low-income communities of color involved with urban agriculture. Those with radical political ideologies and programs seeking to transform the food system are the exception or are unrecognized. To bridge this gap through praxis requires seeing that food justice activism does not take place in a food system vacuum free from other social forces. Perhaps more to the point, clarifying the relationship between economic, political, and social contexts and food justice struggles can help identify cross-movement linkages. From an analytical perspective, food justice activists and scholars tend to share the conviction that it is necessary to eradicate oppression in the food system. This is the basis upon which to examine and theorize the possibilities for integrating the insights and strategies of different social justice struggles.
Food Justice Now! asks several key questions about the development, practice, and potential of food justice–oriented food politics. First, what are some of the historical antecedents to the food justice wing of the food movement? When considering that food justice is at core a critique of and call to eliminate structural inequalities in the food system, many previous social justice movements have influenced contemporary articulations of food justice. This social movement spillover effect roots food justice in the past while opening new possibilities going forward. Relatedly, how do activists interpret contemporary conjunctures through food? Neoliberal capitalism, postsettler colonial conditions, and institutional racism intersect in complex ways to produce interrelated social problems. Many food justice activists evaluate their work through the resulting problems to deduce a strategic course of action. Third, what economic, political, and social alternatives can a dialectical analysis of food justice help interpret and imagine? Approaching food justice in this way is useful precisely because food justice struggles transform many relations of subordination into sites of antagonistic food politics aimed at eliminating oppression. Last, can an expansive notion and practice of food justice create a diverse political platform that inspires new social struggles? The future of the food justice movement requires reading food justice activism against the heterogeneity of contemporary conjunctures. Responding strategically to address these contexts strengthens the political position of food justice. Food justice activists are therefore in the unique position to adapt ideologically and push the food movement to expand in new directions.
Food Justice Futures: Recovering History and the Terrain of the Conjunctural
In 2010, organizers at Planting Justice articulated their theory of social change and approach to food justice. They used the metaphor “compost the empire” to inspire the belief that oppression never lasts because it produces conditions that people resist and use to build more equitable societies. Empire, understood as the modes of capitalism, imperialism, and institutional racism that oppress and stratify social groups, is not totalizing. Instead, it is an ongoing process open to recognizing the commonality of oppression across different crises. As opposed to reducing crises to universals of “class” or “race,” the variegation of empire creates opportunities to advance social equity through recognizing, reimagining, and reassembling the particular. While oppression is ubiquitous, how it manifests allows for unique interventions. For Planting Justice, the analysis leads to engaging in food politics that reclaim farming, gardening, and eating to intervene in mass incarceration to advance economic and racial justice. Their paper reads in part,
By emphasizing the “systems” approach to our food justice work, we make visible the limitations of many contemporary food-related movements in North America. These movements have emerged over the past 40 years to change the way we eat and produce food in the Global North. Many of these movements, however, have been led and maintained by white, male or other privileged subjects that prioritize only certain moments in the agrifood system itself. This has led to the obfuscation of many struggles and concerns pertaining to workers, people of color, women, and the land. By emphasizing the agrifood systems approach to organizing our movements we hope to reveal the many spaces within the agrifood system that remain unaddressed by dominant food movement agendas. In this effort, we will locate struggles for food justice from below, from communities of color, particularly native (women’s) struggles, and how they dismantle multiple oppressions through intervening at each stage of the agrifood system.
These insights dialectically link oppression, resistance, and food justice. In doing so, they elevate what the eminent historian Howard Zinn referred to as “people’s history.” This recovery of alternative narratives and radical trajectories identifies unrecognized crises and hence sites of social struggle. Oppression may be common throughout the food system, but particular relations of subordination set the stage for distinct forms of resistance and reimagining how to advance food justice.
The theory of social change I develop throughout each chapter begins with a similar premise. There are many conjunctures, each a potential terrain to resolve antagonistic social relations in favor of oppressed groups. Antonio Gramsci’s conjunctural analysis is particularly useful in this regard. While imprisoned by Benito Mussolini’s fascist government for his revolutionary work with the Communist Party of Italy, he wrote, “A crisis occurs, sometimes lasting for decades. This exceptional duration means that incurable structural contradictions have revealed themselves . . . and that, despite this, the political forces which are struggling to conserve and defend the existing structure itself are making every effort to cure them, within certain limits, and to overcome them.” These crises, such as mass incarceration, the militarization of borders, and the exploitation of immigrant workers, “form the terrain of the ‘conjunctural.’” Oppositional forces organize on these terrains to establish new social relations. They are the immediate problems that help activists interpret structural conditions. From the vantage point of food justice, while the goal is to advance equity in the food system, this requires identifying and expanding political opportunities. In the same passage, Gramsci contended that “in the immediate, it [opposition] is developed in a series of ideological, religious, philosophical, political, and juridical polemics, whose concreteness can be estimated by the extent to which they are convincing, and shift the previously existing disposition of social forces.” This book is at once a dialectical synthesis of the generative power of historical and social forces that propel the development of food justice and constitutive of the dialectical process of discovering new opportunities to transform food politics. Instead of seeing oppression and resistance in isolation, this theory of social change places them in a dialectical relationship.
The first step in this conjunctural analysis is to trace the lineage of food justice. While the collection of historical narratives in this book is not exhaustive, I suggest they teach us that the stories the food justice movement tells itself partially determine the kind of food politics imagined as possible. There is a long social movement history of activism that uses food and hunger to push for progressive social change. In the mid-1600s, groups like the True Levellers called for the overthrow of the English monarchy and sought to abolish private property in order to create small agrarian communes for the poor and dispossessed. This group later became known as the Diggers, a group of Protestant radicals who built colonies and farmed on common land in order to advocate for self-determination and to resist enclosure. A little more than fifty years later, as urban industrial capitalism accelerated in England, there began a series of food riots by those resisting the commodification of basic staples and the subsequent increase in prices. These riots took place over a one hundred–year period, as rioters demanded a return to traditional modes of exchange and a removal of elites from the realm of food production. Then, during British colonialism in India, Mohandas Gandhi led the famous Salt March to the coastal village of Dandi to produce salt without paying tax. This was an act of self-determination on the part of the independence movement to confront the British monopoly of a common staple.
There are also examples of similar food politics in the United States. Indigenous tribes have sought to recover cultural foodways disrupted during the initial genocidal colonial era when white settlers forced them onto reservations, thus creating dependency on food rationed by the government. Such endeavors include regaining access to ancestral hunting, fishing, and gathering grounds, planting indigenous plant varieties for nutrition or medicinal purposes, and engaging in farming practices that strengthen cultural heritage. In urban and rural communities alike, food has figured prominently in debates over poverty. As part of the late civil rights movement, the Poor People’s Campaign linked racial justice to economic justice. Activists produced reports, pushed politicians to hold hearings, and camped out in front of the Department of Agriculture to condemn the callousness of food and farm policy to the needs of poor communities of color and poor whites. Their demands included free food stamps and school lunches, which ultimately led to federal antihunger and nutrition assistance programs. Hunger and food access have also been important to a politics of survival and black liberation. Black Panther Party chapters throughout the country developed the Free Breakfast for Children Program to feed children before going to school, to create a space for political education, and to point out the failures of the American government to support black people. In Philadelphia, an all-black anarcho-primitivist group called MOVE lived communally, committed to armed resistance against racism and police brutality, grew much of their own food, ate mainly a raw vegan diet, and advocated animal rights. The police considered the members of MOVE to be so subversive that they bombed their commune in 1985, killing many of the members and imprisoning others.
Yet when we think of food justice, these histories are obscured or lost. Even those books and articles that draw historical parallels and attempt to trace the use of the term food justice overlook the fact that food security was not a simple end, nor was it the only connection between the words food and justice. Throughout the 1980s, there were many charitable and religious organizations working on a range of social justice issues, one of which was hunger. Antihunger activists tied their food politics to poverty, war and peace, and the link between paying for expensive foreign policy and cutting domestic social welfare. Beginning in 1982 in Chicago, a group called Food Justice Programs engaged in community organizing and hunger relief work and published a newsletter called Food Justice. In addition to eaters, the history of food justice includes workers. In rural communities of color, there is the notable focus on farmworkers. If you consider political organizing on farms in California, there is a long history of tying together notions of food and justice. In 1984, the United Farm Workers started a magazine called Food and Justice. Labor organizers used this medium to publicize the history of multiracial farmworker organizing, the struggles of farmworkers against pesticides and unfair labor practices, and ongoing boycotts. This magazine was a cultural tool that fostered the solidarity of supporters with frontline accounts of the farmworker movement.
Even some of the early visionary statements on food justice remain buried. In 2008, a multiracial group of twenty-two people from eleven states and sovereign Native American lands came together for a six-day retreat convened by the Center for Whole Communities at Knoll Farm in Waitsfield, Vermont. Claiming that food justice is a movement “rooted in historical struggle” and building on “social movements of the past and present,” the group engaged in a collective visioning process to develop principles and approaches. The group’s resulting manifesto, Food Justice: A People’s Movement Whose Time Is Now, acknowledges diversity as a strength and a means to oppose oppression and to work toward liberation. In covering many topics, ranging from the opposition to the racist criminalization of immigrants and capitalist violence against workers to the sacredness of food and the need for ecologically resilient and sustainable food systems, the manifesto argues for a systems-level analysis and a leaderful food justice movement. Although it advocates for alternative and equitable food enterprises, it emphasizes the need to help shift “the structure of ownership” to support “an equal distribution of resources.” Furthermore, it reveals an anti-neoliberal agenda that repeatedly politicizes food and acknowledges the positive power of the state: “We are seeking political power to bring about policy change and to hold those in power accountable to our social change agenda.” The manifesto is an ideological artifact that integrates decades of radical left thought to set a foundation for the continued expansion of food justice.
I begin with these examples to assert the analytical and strategic advantage of a dialectical understanding of food justice. From an activist perspective, articulations of radical food politics advance the dialectical work of discovering how to intervene in the problems activists face on the ground. Attention to the rich history of what we might call food justice work pushes beyond the current myopic focus on food. Although this is perhaps counterintuitive given the obvious centrality of food to bringing together those who want to solve problems in the food system, this preoccupation often overlooks the internal economic, political, and social conditions that produce relations of subordination in the food system and broader society. Ironically, the emphasis on trying to increase local food availability often misses the local ways in which corporate concentration manifests itself beyond the preponderance of fast-food chains, big-box retailers, and what activists and scholars have referred to as “food from nowhere.” Overlooked are the ways race, ethnicity, class, gender, and the state intersect with corporate power to produce an array of inequities. This includes how redlining, capital divestment, and white flight produce food insecurity, or what some refer to as “food apartheid”; the exploitation of the working class, women, and people of color in food service; and the fetishizing of “ethnic” food that overlooks how institutionalized discrimination has disrupted cultural foodways. It is important for scholars to operate from a theory of social change that is relevant to the food justice movement to navigate the practical implications of these related histories and narratives.
Dialectical Humanism and Social Movement–Relevant Theories of Social Change
The dialectical relations between grassroots struggle and a host of social forces represent what David Meyer and Sidney Tarrow have called a “social movement society.” Social movements are a key factor in social change; they are the social and historical antithesis to various manifestations of the status quo. At present, crisis seems to be the status quo, with some of the biggest crises affecting the food system, which in turn rally many social movements. Neoliberal political and economic restructuring after the Great Recession, ethnoracial conflicts, and ecological feedback loops between climate change and a range of socioecological disruptions produce the conditions under which food justice emerges as a hopeful alternative. Food justice activism alone is incapable of solving these crises. However, it offers some grassroots-generated paths at a time when there is widespread engagement with prefigurative politics and participation in democratic social movements. As food justice continues to intersect with many of these endeavors, it is part of the dialectical motion of social change in the food system and wider society.
For the purposes of understanding the transformative potential of food justice as an idea and practice, dialectics offers a useful method of inquiry. Dialectics builds on the ideas of Karl Marx. Although Marx never used the term, other radical thinkers developed dialectical materialism to explain human action and the hope for social transformation, namely, how society would transition out of capitalism to communism. While capitalism as an economic system consists of many social actors organized differentially around their relationship to capital, a historical process that Marx sought to understand relationally, it is not the only system around which social life is organized, nor is it the only system open to a dialectical analysis. Some Marxists might cry foul for divorcing dialectics from a strict class-based approach to political economy. Yet from the perspective of many relational methods of inquiry, Marxists have refined a very useful method. The relationship that different peoples of color and women have to capitalism varies. Black women in the United States, for instance, have been in a weaker economic position not because of something inherent in their personhood that is exploitable by capitalists. Rather, white men have institutionalized laws that elevate their social position, benefit economically from the history of slavery and patriarchy, and tend to be the capitalists who work to maintain this state of affairs. The individual and localized experiences of these relations motivate specific forms of movement building. Any analysis that overlooks these internal political and social conditions is therefore inadequate for understanding distinct dialectical relationships and appropriate strategies for intervention.
Reflecting a position that is common among post-Marxists, French sociologist Henri Lefebvre wrote in reference to the contingent relationships between economic, political, and social conditions and social struggle, “No expression of dialectical materialism can be definitive, but, instead of being incompatible and conflicting with each other, it may perhaps be possible for these expressions to be integrated into an open totality, perpetually in the process of being transcended, precisely in so far as they will be expressing the solutions to the problems facing concrete man.” But it is not just that social life is open to change and is constantly evolving as different social forces compete for hegemonic dominance. People’s embeddedness in relations of subordination means that human agency is enduring at the individual and collective levels.
Dialectical humanism, as developed by James and Grace Lee Boggs, pushes these debates from the perspective of activist scholars who approach dialectics from an experiential and heterodox reading of crises. The Boggses spent most of their lives in Detroit organizing for economic, racial, and environmental justice. They infused this work with an evolving social movement–relevant theory of social change. In Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century, the Boggses analyzed revolutions in Russia, China, Guinea Bissau, Vietnam, and the United States to argue that contextualized social analysis is central to developing the thinking required for future revolutions. They drew on Hegel to advance a dialectical method of thinking that focuses on the internal causes of social problems that perpetuate conflict and prevent the solutions necessary to actualize humanity’s potential. This method aims to develop revolutionary ideology to inform revolutionary politics. The Boggses reasoned that to produce “a new unity,” ideological and political struggle is required to resolve the contradiction: “But this new unity is only temporary, since within it a new duality or a new contradiction between the actual and the potential is emerging, creating the basis for further struggle towards a still higher form of existence.” Translated to the case at hand, social inequalities obstruct the actualization of food justice and set the conditions for a range of social struggles that strive for food justice. This leads to new analyses that inform strategies to resolve the contradictions with innovative food politics. Beginning with the premise that the nature of social struggle in democracies like the United States represents a dialectical process of contestation and the construction of new hegemonies, food politics can lead to closures that produce the antagonism necessary for radicalizing democracy.
Dialectical humanism as praxis prioritizes actions that work toward human flourishing and views the revolutionary process to resolve previous contradictions that obstruct this flourishing as a series of contested ideological, economic, political, and social conditions. Tracing these conditions is the first step to develop an understanding of various conjunctures to inform future action. While revolution often connotes closure, either in its common usage (e.g., The American Revolution; The Bolshevik Revolution) or in romanticizing past revolutions (e.g., the proletarians overthrew the bourgeois capitalists), dialectics suggests otherwise. There are ongoing social struggles to alter the hegemonic circumstances that perpetuate oppression in all its unique entanglements.
In the pages ahead, I develop a food justice dialectics that asks how food justice activism as a process seeks to address an array of conjunctures, and how research into these processes helps reproduce oppositional yearnings. In fusing the theoretical with the practical with the intent of informing contemporary food justice struggles, this book is a work of public sociology. Michael Burawoy, who increased the space for public engagement in his 2004 American Sociological Association (ASA) Presidential Address, later contended that we need a “political imagination,” capable of what another former ASA president, Eric Olin Wright, refers to as “envisioning real utopias.” It is insufficient to merely point out why there are problems in the food system. As Marx famously remarked, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”
A food justice dialectics can inspire a radical political imagination and a set of strategies within the contemporary postpolitical era. Grounding this era is the notion that there is no alternative to capitalism. The postpolitical logic also buoys the color-blind logic of racial neoliberalism by ignoring the political origins of institutional racism and affirming that any ethnoracial inequities are the result of an individual’s inability to get ahead within a meritocratic society. Social life is no more than individual market-based decisions, and political institutions engage in technocratic governance to manufacture consensus around a set of practices amenable to private interests. The belief that we have reached the end of history has colonized politics. Liberal democracy, a representative form of government based on elections charged with protecting individual liberties within free-market economies, is the penultimate form of social organization. Based on a logic of personal responsibility or at best a kind of charitable humanitarianism, government functions as a bureaucratic management tool that disciplines the realm of politics to its formalized rules and regulations. If you have a problem, go to the polls or buy something different. The personal problem supersedes the universal problem it represents. In C. Wright Mills’s terms, the postpolitical thwarts the politicization of “personal troubles” into “public issues.”
These conditions, while hegemonic, are a site for democratic struggle. The postpolitical does not foreclose on other kinds of politics, although it represents a power imbalance between forces that benefit from these conditions. Although there are pressures to bend the practice of food justice to these logics, there are many counterhegemonic forms of food politics that push back. Sometimes they are confrontational. Sometimes they are prefigurative. Regardless, food justice strives to universalize the problem and establish new hegemonies predicated on human rights and social justice. Referring to demand-based social movements and political activities (e.g., food justice now!), Slavoj Žižek notes, “The situation becomes politicized when a particular demand starts to function as a metaphoric condensation of the global opposition against Them, those in power, so that the protest is no longer just about that demand, but about the universal dimension that resonates in that particular demand.” Herein lies the power of food justice. It is a demand that expands the field of political struggle by reminding society of the structural inequalities that only political struggle for food justice (e.g., racial justice) can eliminate.
Much like a Gramscian conjunctural analysis identifies crises as entry points into determining universal demands, the Boggses’ dialectical humanism encourages social movements to address and abolish the fundamental injustices that divide people. Identifying the contours of the neoliberal counterrevolution to the social movements of the 1960s, they concluded that while capitalist development in the United States had largely succeeded in integrating a wide cross section of society, it had focused on technological overdevelopment at the cost of social and political underdevelopment. The role of new social movements was to rise to these historical conditions by refining their methods of struggle to revolutionize people’s relationship to material needs by improving social relations and increasing political engagement. Instead of seeing the end of history, James and Grace Lee Boggs offer a way to identify the plurality of political spaces to participate in democratic struggle. Their method is therefore open to emergent political practices that reduce the prevalence of social antagonism at different points in the matrix of oppression. Food justice activism is part of the dialectical process to uplift and build bridges across the diversity of our humanity. It includes protest politics to reform the food system as well as strategies to revolutionize our everyday cultural practices and create alternatives to transform dominant systems, say, through an autonomous, immigrant-run community garden. This is very much in line with Grace Lee Boggs’s assertion, “Fighting on the side of Humanity against the Empire of Money, we need to go beyond opposition, beyond rebellion, beyond resistance, beyond civic insurrection. We don’t want to be like them. We don’t want to become the ‘political class,’ to change presidents, switch governments. We want and need to create the alternative world that is now both possible and necessary. We want and need to exercise power, not take it.” Although it is important to assert power to change the food system, not every effort is capable of transforming power imbalances. While strategic interventions into problems in the food system abound, there are also different political imaginations that inform these social struggles. Dialectical humanism helps to identify the forms of food politics that can advance social justice and build collective power to advance the interests of the food movement in the face of difficult odds.
(Food) Justice for All
When many popular food writers cover food-related activism, they tend to focus most on those aspects of the food system that appear to have a simple solution. The attention is often on pesticides in farming, E. coli on our spinach, antibiotics in our chickens, waste lagoons from factory farms, the prevalence of obesity, the experience of hunger, and so on. These are largely tangible and have an apparent solution: do more or less of something to increase or reduce the pervasiveness of the problem. Yet, as many critical food scholars have shown, colonialism, neoliberal global capitalism, and institutional racism produce the conditions behind such problems. The root conditions become apparent when we consider the social relations between those making decisions about how to grow, process, and sell food and those carrying out, responding to, or disproportionately experiencing the negative outcomes of those decisions. In short, there are inequities. The solution lies in pursuing social justice.
But what does it mean to pursue social justice to achieve equitable outcomes or even liberation? As some environmental justice and food justice scholars contend, we need to look at justice in terms of recognition, process, procedure, and outcome and how these mutually constitute one another. For example, there is a deep commitment by many food justice activists to ensure the recognition of indigenous communities and communities of color historically marginalized in the food system. In practice, this might mean recognizing the need for indigenous peoples’ access to ancestral fishing and hunting grounds as a form of cultural reproduction and food sovereignty. But it is insufficient to recognize the culturally specific experiences and needs of groups. It is also important to ensure that an equitable process includes the voices and methods of historically marginalized groups. In cities with food policy councils, for example, citizens need to be cognizant of the many stakeholders involved, but especially those normally excluded from the process. Groups like farmworkers and dishwashers, who in a city like San Diego overwhelmingly come from Latinx communities, are rarely included in discussions about how to improve the food system. Relatedly, procedures need to be in place or developed that ensure that the rights of people are respected and upheld. Take labor rights. While workers may have a right to a safe workplace or collective bargaining, in practice it is difficult for nonunionized meatpackers who speak another language and lack economic resources to access the procedures that guarantee these rights. Although vital, it is hard to imagine equitable distribution of material resources, such as healthy food, without mechanisms that empower oppressed groups. Determining that there is inequity in outcomes such as wages, land, or food security is important, but also requires an appreciation of the social processes that produce such outcomes in order to decide how best to respond.
My focus on conjunctures leads me to conclude that the politics of food justice can expand with respect to a wider field of social inequities. This begins with first elevating social justice demands, which broadens the predominant emphasis on environmental sustainability within most local food politics in the United States. Specifically, food justice includes all ideas and practices that strive to eliminate oppression and challenge the structural drivers of all inequities within and beyond the food system. Food justice also advocates for the right to healthy food that is produced justly, recognizes diverse cultural foodways and historical traumas, and promotes equitable distribution of resources, democratic participation, and control over food systems. In brief, food justice includes not only social struggles often outside the purview of the food movement but also justice in terms of recognition, process, procedure, and outcome.
Food Justice Now! argues for the advantage of a dialectical mode of inquiry into institutional practices and food politics to evaluate the degree to which activism in different contexts ameliorates inequities. In Oakland, food justice organizers use food to advance economic and racial justice for formerly incarcerated people. In Los Angeles and San Diego, labor organizers and local food activists see food justice in relation to reforming or creating alternatives to the food system, but how they engage with the problems of labor, immigration, and social boundaries varies. I grapple with the lessons offered by these cases to provide suggestions on how to build a food movement that prioritizes food justice. This requires positioning these cases within a history of social movements that mobilized food and envisioned the food system as a space to advance social justice. Furthermore, these cases provide empirical evidence to base recommendations for dissolving some of the boundaries of the food movement to build collective power across social movements committed to social justice. Food justice deepens movement building and broadens food politics to new terrains of social struggle.
In chapter 1, “Inequality and Resistance: The Legacy of Food and Justice Movements,” I develop the argument that structural inequalities shape social movement struggles. Within the food system, the prevalence of class and ethnoracial disparities illustrates that conjunctures like food insecurity and the exploitation of food-chain workers stem from problems like institutional racism and corporate concentration in capitalist economies. I begin with historical lessons from the agrarian populist movement of the late 1800s to contextualize a discussion of the proliferation of social movements that have emerged since the 1960s in response. Most notably for the case studies in Oakland, San Diego, and Los Angeles, these include the organic farming, farmworker and food labor, and black power movements. Despite the unique conjunctures that informed their terrains of social struggle, these social movements shared a commitment to social justice. This dialectical observation suggests the importance of dialectical evaluation. How can the lessons of the past inform opportunities for intervention? Consider the desirability, viability, and achievability of a social movement’s goals. In other words, it is imperative to dissect the legacy of these social movements with reference to the relations of subordination that they sought to transform. The case studies teach that the food movement continues to grapple with these relations and that food justice activists can learn from the past to inform current possible resolutions.
In chapter 2, “Opposing the Carceral State: Food-Based Prisoner Reentry Activism,” I investigate how the current system of mass incarceration entrenches racial inequities in Oakland and informs the fusion of social justice–oriented carceral and food politics. Before, during, and after people enter prison, they experience a range of structural barriers and institutional biases that make it difficult to break out of the prison pipeline. Chapter 2 chronicles the responses of food justice and restorative justice networks in Oakland to inequities experienced by prisoners and formerly incarcerated people. The resulting cross-movement collaborations develop not only socially just alternatives with reentry work that reduces recidivism through permaculture-informed urban agriculture initiatives but also political campaigns that target political elites. Activists committed to prison reform and abolition, restorative justice, permaculture, and economic justice expand the parameters of food justice. This restorative food justice of healing and mutual aid produces living-wage jobs, reimagines relationships to food and land, opens new policy paths, and creates spaces to overcome the historical trauma of mass incarceration.
I discuss strategic responses to a food system that undervalues food work and exploits food-chain workers in chapter 3, “Taking Back the Economy: Fair Labor Relations and Food Worker Advocacy.” One of the multifaceted requirements for food justice is economic justice. This entails creating new forms of meaningful and equitable food work and advancing the interests of food-chain workers with greater labor protections and rights. While initiatives in San Diego are revaluing food work with noncommodified forms of labor that prioritize the social and ecological values of organic farming, labor and food justice movements in Los Angeles are exemplary of a food politics that focuses on labor justice for food-chain workers. In contrast to those who claim that food work is exceptionally difficult to remunerate fairly, I show how reimagining food justice is a prefigurative act to re-create wage labor relations and a reform effort to engage politically with food-chain workers to improve their livelihoods. Moreover, labor conjunctures are so entrenched that food justice activists should be wary of sacrificing quality jobs for access to healthy food. Instead, food justice can be a means to engage in a demand-side analysis and confrontational food politics.
Whether or not activists confront the inequities faced by immigrant food-chain workers in the United States, this ongoing reality in California abuts whiteness and privilege in the food movement. Chapter 4, “Immigration Food Fights: Challenging Borders and Bridging Social Boundaries,” considers these dynamics. Chapter 4 begins on the U.S.–Mexico border. It looks at how largely white organic farming and local food activists in San Diego experience, understand, and attempt to think beyond the production and maintenance of social boundaries between themselves and migrant farmworkers. I investigate the tensions between maintaining an “us” in the food movement and a “them” needed to keep the food system running. This informs the prospects of a food politics that is capable of overcoming ethnoracial and citizenship boundaries. I then compare how labor organizers in Los Angeles navigate the economic conditions in grocery retail and meatpacking as they strive to represent immigrants and second-generation workers. The ethnoracial and class makeup of food workers pushes labor organizers to challenge the race-to-the-bottom practices of food corporations. Last, I offer an example from Oakland of how food justice organizers can stand with immigrant rights movements, and how the opportunity is urgent and seemingly everywhere.
In chapter 5, “Radicalizing Food Politics: Collective Power, Diversity, and Solidarity,” I synthesize the lessons of chapters 1 through 4 to suggest that food politics is a practice of dissensus that is most potent when informed by social movement history and a commitment to food justice. By reimagining the historical roots of food justice, foregrounding food justice as an idea to combat oppression in all its guises, and devising both prefigurative and confrontational strategies that use food to advance social justice, the food movement can become relevant to far more people. Through a survey of strategic considerations relevant to my cases and beyond, I contend that building collective power with a diversity of strategies and solidarity across social boundaries can help achieve greater equity in the food system. Food justice offers hope for achieving a more radical and plural democracy because it universalizes social struggles around a commitment to equity while respecting the need for strategic breadth to address distinct problems.
I conclude the book, in “Notes on the Future of Food Justice,” by putting my main arguments and ideas in conversation with a pressing dialectical development: the revanchist politics embodied by Donald Trump and the Republican Party. At the same time, the dialectical openness of food justice creates a political opportunity to join with other social movements to engage on many conjunctural terrains. Some parts of the food movement are already working beyond movement boundaries, with food justice offering the clearest means by which to mobilize alongside forces for economic, racial, climate, and environmental justice. Instead of seeing movement building as a zero-sum game, the food movement is beginning to consider the need to challenge deeper power relations and networks to advance social justice. One of the initiatives I chronicle is the emergence of discussion and organizing for a national food policy. To achieve this might require first fighting for a national food strategy. I bring together these different political urges with the critical role that food justice will need to play to offer a compelling vision to mobilize people beyond simple resistance to revanchist reactions. Therefore, a food justice national strategy might begin the process of institutionalizing a commitment to social justice in the food system by mandating federal agencies to reform previous laws and devise new ones.