A Fresh Take on the Food Justice Movement and Why It’s So Relevant in Today’s Cultural and Political Context

*In this article, you’ll learn about the transition from small-scale to industrial agriculture, and how this transition created an unequal system of food distribution that disproportionately impacts communities of color within the United States.

It goes without saying that food is a complex and dynamic subject within human cultures. As cultural and political issues evolve, so too do thoughts, trends, and policies regarding food. In recent decades, individuals have become more aware of the cultural, economic, environmental, and ethical implications of food production and distribution. In the wake of such awareness, interest in food-related issues has proliferated across the globe.

The term “Food Politics” encompasses the broad range of food-related issues that societies — both global and local — and individuals partake in. One consequential effect of the growing interest in Food Politics is the development of grassroots food movements that stress the importance of individual action and individual food choice to enact change. The Food Justice Movement represents a grassroots, activist movement that responds to economic and health disparities within urban communities of color. These disparities limit access to fresh, affordable, and nutritionally adequate foods that meet one’s cultural needs.

Despite growing interest in the multifaceted and complex nature of food, both in the mainstream and amongst food scholars, the topic remains largely uncovered in mainstream, easily-accessible journalism. In this article, I provide a general guide, or a starting point, for understanding the complex history and current cultural landscape of American Food Politics while subsequently illustrating the significance of Food Justice in the current American political context. For those interested, I include links to various resources.

The Green Revolution and the Emergence of Modern Food Politics

While food has always been central to culture, technological innovations during the 1960s caused a radical shift in the organization of global food systems. These innovations set the backdrop for understanding the current food landscape. During the Green Revolution, world governments and transnational corporations increasingly utilized new technologies to increase crop yield and create more economically efficient means of food production. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, hybrid seeds (not to be confused with genetically modified seeds), and chemical pesticides hit the world with full force. These new technologies, mainly implemented in Asian agricultural fields, were developed and distributed via Western agricultural corporations such as Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), which has since merged with Dow Chemical Company to avoid litigation following a deadly chemical incident in Bhopal, India.

Much to the dismay of several environmental and justice activists, the so-called Green Revolution resulted in a plethora of unintended ecological and economic consequences as the entire food system reorganized around these new technologies. The Green Revolution may have reduced food scarcity and increased crop yield dramatically, but environmentalists like Vandana Shiva criticize this period for creating a virtual monopoly over global food production and for edging out small-scale farmers. The move from local production to global production has been a source of much criticism. Many Food Justice advocates, of all economic classes, seek a return to the local (we’re all familiar with the stereotypical image of the yoga-loving, flower-print adorning, organic produce vigilante at the local farmer’s market — not that there’s anything wrong with that!).

While the methods of global food production were adapting to technological innovations during the 1960s, so too was the United States. The advent of new technologies ushered in a new era of American food culture, a period marked by the world’s most famous Golden Arches. In came the golden age of fast food and of frozen patties, artificial flavors and blue raspberry candies, corporate branding and overflowing grocery store shelves, and canned meats alongside Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962). It is this transition that journalist Eric Schlosser writes about in his landmark text, Fast Food Nation (2001).

To put it mildly, Fast Food Nation gripped the nation. Schloesser’s ideas, supported by his investigative research, propelled American consciousness toward an abrupt condemnation of fast food. More specifically, his ideas drove upper-middle-class, white Americans toward a condemnation of fast food on the basis of health, thus relegating less expensive fast food commodities to lower-income communities.

Throughout the first decade of the 21st century, backlash against industrial agricultural systems continued to mount. This backlash coalesced in the publication of numerous, unequivocally popular texts, such as Marion Nestle’s Food Politics (2001) and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006). The momentum surrounding the condemnation of fast food was not lost upon filmmakers. Within the same decade, Super Size Me (2004) and Food, Inc. (2008) also made their mark on the public’s consciousness.

Ask any American between the ages of 18–24 if they’ve read or seen at least one of these texts, and you’d be hard-pressed to find one who hasn’t. As a child attending school during the early 21st century, each and every one of these texts and films made it into the classroom. Most often, they were taught as fact rather than analyzed for their activist approach. At just 12-years-old, my public school had hopped on the bandwagon and mandated the viewing of Super Size Me during health class.

The Food Justice Movement and the Fight Against Systemic Oppression

These texts signified a pivotal shift in American food culture, yet they were coming from a very particular group of white, middle-upper-class Americans. The homogeneity of class and race held by these preliminary food scholars has led some individuals, such as Alison Hope Alkon and Julian Agyeman, to criticize the origins of the modern food movement, even equating it to “something of a monoculture” (2). According to Alkon and Agyeman, the preliminary actors of the modern food movement had “similar backgrounds, values, and proclivities” that led them to “similar conclusions as to how our food system should change” (2). Today, the Food Justice Movement rejects a one-size-fits-all approach to the food system by advocating for community-based, culturally-appropriate approaches to addressing disparities in access to food.

According to academic Garret M. Broad, today’s emphasis on PoC-led community initiatives seeks to “transform the very political and economic systems that [have] historically oppressed low-income and ethnic minority communities across the United States” (7). It seeks to empower these historically oppressed communities by giving them the means to organize, produce, and distribute their own food products. The advent of such a phenomenon leads us to one fundamental conclusion: food is inherently political. Food is not only weaponized as a tool of exclusion, but it can be used to empower. As scholars dive deep into the world of food activism, it only becomes more apparent that food systems present an opportunity both for studying and addressing power relations, income inequality, and systemic oppression.

Food activists such as Bryant Terry, author of Vegetable Kingdom (2020) and Afro-Vegan (2014), highlight the systemically racist nature of food disparity and the need to establish community-led initiatives. In lower-income, Black communities, food scarcity is common. While mainstream academics often refer to these communities as “food deserts,” proponents of the Food Justice Movement have renamed this phenomenon the “Food Apartheid.” According to activists, the term “food desert” implies a natural phenomenon of food scarcity, whereas “Food Apartheid” rightfully suggests the systemic nature of such inequality.

Additionally, Body Liberation activists increasingly link the unequal American foodscape and diet culture’s idealization of the ‘thin,’ white body with oppression towards low-income communities of color. Through the intersection of the Food Apartheid, diet culture, and systemic racism, we come to understand the oppressive nature of modern food systems. One sociologist and professor, Sabrina Strings, writes about the racial origins of diet culture amid food inequality in her book Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia.

Food Justice Amid the Covid-19 Pandemic and Racial Inequality

As the Covid-19 pandemic shows no sign of ebbing, and as protests across the world come with the risk of a spike in cases, the importance of the Food Justice Movement becomes overwhelmingly clear. With high levels of unemployment, a virus that disproportionately impacts communities of color, and the closure of several food pantries, those who live in food scarce regions are at a higher risk of suffering from limited food availability. In Chicago, for example, the virus presents various challenges in accessing affordable and nutritious food, specifically in the city’s South and West sides. Not coincidentally, these areas of the city are also home to the majority of the city’s Black and Latinx communities.

Increased susceptibility of current food networks amid the pandemic highlights the importance of sustainable, resilient local food structures. Across the nation, Food Justice activists seek a return to the local by the implementation of community gardens and local food pantries that provide healthy, nutritious, and affordable food. On a national level, The Okra Project provides an example of a collective that seeks to address food insecurity in some of the country’s most vulnerable populations. Through donations, The Okra Project supports Black Trans chefs and Black Trans community members by paying chefs to cook for community members at no cost to either party.

The systemic and racist nature of food insecurity is not new. As we continue to become better allies and to dismantle systems of oppression, it is important to be aware of the systems of oppression that take place through modern food systems. If you’ve made it this far, I hope you’ve come to understand the importance of community-led initiatives in the fight for Food Justice. If you’re interested in learning more, the texts, films, and activists outlined in this article provide a great starting point. Additionally, here are the citations for the cited academic sources:

Food Politics by Marion Nestle

Fast Food Nation by Eric Schloesser

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

Vegetable Kingdom and Afro-Vegan by Bryant Terry

Fearing the Black Body by Sabrina Strings

The Okra Project: a Black, Trans-led nonprofit

Alkon, A. H., & Agyeman, J. (2011). Introduction: The Food Movement as Polyculture. In Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability (pp. 1–20). Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Broad, G. M. (2016). Introduction: Food Justice and Community Change. In More Than Just Food: Food Justice and Community Change (pp. 1–15). Oakland, California: University of California Press.

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