Food Justice

Sustainabilities: Eco-oriented | Justice-oriented | Market-oriented

The food justice movement arose out of a critique of the “mainstream” alternative food movement, referring to efforts to encourage the production and consumption of local, sustainably grown food, with “organic” labelling as the hallmark of these efforts. Like the community food security activists who preceded them, food justice activists are concerned with the affordability of organic and locally produced food, which has been expensive by design to support the producers of that food. Where the food justice critique goes beyond community food security is in a) emphasizing that the lack of geographic access to fresh healthy food—the so-called “food desert” problem—is a product of institutional racism in lending and insuring decisions (redlining) and urban development/disinvestment; b) drawing attention to the cultural racism, or whiteness, of mainstream alternative food in both its leadership and the idioms it employs, e.g., “putting your hand in the soil” and other white agrarian imaginaries;1,2 and c) connecting to the environmental justice critique’s linking of place-based toxic exposures and poor health among low-income people and people of color.3, 4 In food justice, the lack of availability of good food is made equivalent to an environmental harm, with increased prevalence of dietary diseases and conditions (hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and obesity) taken as evidence of such harm. Over time, food justice has come to encompass a critique about general inequities across the food system, including in food production, although this broader critique is immanent at best.

In practice, the food justice movement has largely focused on trying to improve economic and geographic access to fresh, healthy, sustainably produced foods in urban neighborhoods of color (less-so white working-class neighborhoods, or rural communities). It addresses the “whiteness” problem by employing “culturally appropriate” symbolism. For example, food justice activists might publicize the plight of African American farmers or promote foods and recipes associated with culturally black cuisine, such as collard greens and beans (see Alison Alkon's entry on Mandela MarketPlace).5 Or in some cases they offer trainings to whites to encourage solidarity and minimize the “crunchy” factor. Still, as in the local food movement (from which it borrows along with environmental justice)6, the primary endeavor is to shorten the connection between food producers and food buyers as a way to support small-scale, relatively resource-poor producers and provide healthier food to consumers. (It should be noted that since some of these efforts, run through nonprofit organizations, still follow a market model, in effect the nonprofit sector is subsidizing the market.) So, though the food justice movement is by far more race- and class-conscious than the mainstream alternative food movement, much of the on-the-ground work remains more or less the same: educating people about the provenance of the food they consume, having them taste food cooked by trained, albeit hipper chefs, and making locally produced staple foods available in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, under the presumption that if you build it, they will come.7 Not only, then, does the food justice movement define high-quality food in quite similar ways as alternative food (fresh, local, seasonal, albeit with less emphasis on organic per se), it gives scant attention to other injustices in the food system, particularly those arising in food production: exposure to toxic chemicals, poor working conditions as they apply to health and safety, and disparities in wages and employment.

The food justice movement is clearly an important justice-based endeavor that strives to include those who have been excluded by alternative food. Yet, in taking so many of its cues from the alternative food movement more generally, the food justice movement’s vision of sustainability is defined by the organic and local foods movement, which is by no means unequivocally bad, but which can work at cross-purposes to achieving justice. The sources of injustice in the food system (e.g., privatized and racialized land access and tenure, immigration and border policy, inadequate health and safety regulation) are nearly invisible in the food justice discourse, which, in many respects, is simply building alternatives that comfortably exist alongside the industrial food system. But, alas, Northern California visions of sustainability are historically utopian in a similar fashion—focusing on the creation of purposeful alternatives that don’t often confront the source of the problem.

— Julie Guthman

Published June 1, 2015

1. Julie Guthman, "Bringing good food to others: investigating the subjects of alternative food practice," Cultural Geographies 15:4 (2008): 425–441.
2. Rachel Slocum, "Anti-racist practice and the work of community food organizations," Antipode 38:2 (2006): 327–349.
3. Julie Sze Noxious New York: the Racial Politics of Urban Health and Environmental Politics, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007).
4. Robert D. Bullard,Unequal Protection: Environmental Justice and Communities of Color, (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2007).
5. Alison Alkon, "Paradise or pavement: the social construction of the environment in two urban farmers markets and their implications for environmental justice and sustainability," Local Environment: the International Journal of Justice and Sustainability 13:3 (2008): 271–289.
6. Alison Alkon and Julian Agyeman, "The Food Movement as Polyculture," in Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class and Sustainability, eds. Alison Alkon and Julian Agyeman, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011): 1–20.
7. Ann Short, Julie Guthman, and Samuel Raskin, "Food Deserts, Oases, or Mirages? Small Markets and Community Food Security in the San Francisco Bay Area," Journal of Planning Education and Research 26:3 (2007): 352–364.