What is food justice? We tackle the broad concept of food justice as well as some of the causes of food injustice and a list of organizations fighting for food justice in America.
Food justice is broadly defined as everyone having the resources available to make the food choices they want. In most cases, that means access to healthy food—something many of us take for granted. This should happen, in theory, independent of race, socioeconomic standing, and geography, and as the richest nation on earth with roughly $160,000 of wealth per person (mostly sitting idle at the top), you might think it would be a foregone conclusion. But, of course, it is not.
Not having enough to eat—a more specific and severe (but related) issue often called food insecurity—is part of the fabric of America, in fact, one in nine Americans experiences some form of food insecurity. According to the USDA, 22.5 percent of African American households and 18.5 percent of Hispanic households are food insecure, both of which trump the national average of 12.3 percent. But advocates for food justice argue that ensuring everyone simply has enough to eat doesn’t go far enough. They argue that food and nutrition are so closely tied to health, mood, cultural identity, and productivity that we ought to be fighting so everyone is able to eat in ways that contribute to quality of life, not just survival.
Beyond access to food is the importance of education and information about it. A huge part of maintaining food justice means ensuring communities have the skills—cooking, farming, business)— as well as tools, and information to make smart food decisions and build healthy food systems for themselves. Land ownership, food growing, and overall food sovereignty is another facet of food justice that many advocates and organizations have begun addressing. Giving people of every economic and racial backgrounds the tools to create and develop their own food systems rather than solely rely on the systems engineered by mostly-white, dollar-driven corporate America. This means an increase in farming and other means of food production for communities of color, both in rural and urban settings. Finally, food justice is developing the channels of distribution and food business both within and outside communities of color. Creating self-sustaining food micro-economies that nourish the people who drive it.
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Kathy Soll is the director of Teens for Food Justice, a non-profit that teaches urban youth about growing and distributing food. To date, they’ve built four fully-operational hydroponic farms serving 14 underfunded schools in New York. Soll tells me that Food Insecurity is so much more ubiquitous than many of us realize and surfaces in ways we might never consider. “What many people don’t realize is that even folks with jobs, sometimes multiple jobs, still can’t afford to feed their families in the ways they want or need to. Underfunded communities end up eating more processed foods high in salt, falt, and sugar because they are cheap and available.” Why that matters: Look no further than the COVID-19 stats, which has killed a disproportionate number of people of color, almost certainly a function of more underlying health conditions—diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure—per capita.
Causes of Food Injustice
Food justice is the natural progression after food security but, like other forms of justice, it is heavily dependent on class, race, resources, and funding. When communities, particularly schools but also hospitals, prisons, food banks, and assisted living facilities are underfunded, food insecurity and/or food injustice is far more likely to take place. Like many other institutions in America, these inequities can be traced directly to an expansive racial divide.
Let’s take schools as an example: A 2019 study by EdBuild of public school funding found that schools serving predominantly non-white students received $23 billion less than schools serving the same amount of predominantly white students. If that sounds like a lot of money, it’s because it is. “For every student enrolled, the average nonwhite school district receives $2,226 less than a white school district,” the report states. Discrepancies like this and others have a direct impact on food systems in schools and broader communities. These shortfalls are only exacerbated in times of crisis like the COVID-19 outbreak, and Axios recently reported that school systems around the country were struggling to feed low-income students in the wake of the pandemic.
Farming is another glaringly unequal measure of our food system, and for rather obvious reasons that date back as far as America itself. The hurdles of home and land ownership—both legal and economic—have always been greater for Black and brown Americans. Because of this, minorities have been disproportionately housed in urban settings where farming and horticulture are far more challenging. As of last year, African Americans represented just two percent of all farmers in the U.S.
Why Food Justice Is Important
Beyond the obvious notion that people require food to live, there are other ways our unbalanced food systems manifest negatively. Some may not be as obvious or easy to trace as hunger but are just as integral to the ideas of justice, equality, and the pursuit of happiness. Consider how much chronic or acute health problems can slow a person down, for instance, especially in a country with many uninsured or underinsured citizens. When a person is sick, they lose time and often money, too. Both deficits translate directly into lost opportunities for advancement in work, school, and social life. When you then consider how closely health is tied to diet and nutrition, the ramifications of food injustice become very clear.
How Can We Fight for Food Justice?
Because food justice is such a sweeping and systemic problem, it can be difficult to know where to begin helping. Much of the factors that cause or exacerbate food injustice revolve around complicated budget policy, zoning and redistricting (often done unfairly), public policy, as well as how states and counties lobby for and then receive funding. Electing officials who speak about and advocate for food justice—along with social justice—in America is a good place to start. Also, find out if there are minority-owned markets, farms, and other food businesses in your area and support them or help spread the word.
While advocating for the expansion of vital programs like SNAP is essential, others like Teens for Food Justice aim to develop more structural solutions. The student-run farms, along with other non-profit producers have been delivering boxes of healthy food (mostly vegetables) to people in the community. There are plans to open five more farms in the next year (NYC, Miami & Denver) all in neighborhoods not likely to see a Whole Foods moving in anytime soon.
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Food banks, food shelves, and other non-profit organizations are on the front lines of food justice, but there are also programs aimed at educating communities about land development, farming, gardening, cooking, and healthy eating. Getting involved or donating to one or more of them is a fast and easy way to help advance food justice.
Organizations Working for Food Justice in America
Black Dirt Farm Collective is a collective of Black farmers, educators, scientists, organizers, and researchers guiding a political education process.
Black Urban Gardeners and Farmers Cooperative of Pittsburgh works with Black and brown communities in Pittsburgh to grow food and share cultural traditions through farming.
Black Urban Growers (BUGS) helps communities build networks and support for farming in both urban and rural locales. Through education and advocacy around food and farming, it nurtures Black leadership.
Castanea Fellowship is a two-year fellowship for minority leaders working for a more just food system in any of the areas of health, environment, agriculture, economics, and community.
Civil Eats is a daily news source for critical thought about the American food system.
Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive (CoFED) is an organization led by queer and transgender people of color that works with young people of color to build food and land co-ops.
Detroit Black Community Food Security Network ensures that Detroit’s Black communities participate in the food movement through urban farming, youth programs, and the upcoming Detroit People’s Food Co-op.
Family Agriculture Resource Management Services (FARMS) is a legal nonprofit, committed to assisting Black farmers and landowners in retaining their land for the next generation.
Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund is a non-profit cooperative association of Black farmers, landowners, and cooperatives, with a primary membership base in the Southern states.
Food Chain Workers Alliance is a coalition of worker-based organizations whose members plant, harvest, process, pack, transport, prepare, serve, and sell food, organizing to improve wages and working conditions for all workers along the food chain.
Food First works to end the injustices that cause hunger through research, education, and action.
Food Forward fights hunger and prevents food waste by rescuing fresh surplus produce, connecting this abundance with people in need, and inspiring others to do the same.
Freedom School Demonstration Farm runs a Fresno, California-based program aimed at empowering Black and Brown youth to grow food.
HEAL Food Alliance brings together groups from various sectors of movements for food and farm justice to grow community power, develop structural leadership, and expose and limit corporate control of the food system.
Los Angeles Food Policy Council works to ensure food is healthy, affordable, fair, and sustainable for all through policy and also by coordinating and connecting people across the LA region, including government, business, and community groups working on food.
The Land Loss Prevention Project responds to the unprecedented losses of Black-owned land in North Carolina by providing comprehensive legal services and technical support to financially distressed and limited resource farmers and landowners.
The National Black Farmers Association is a non-profit organization representing African American farmers and their families in the United States.
National Black Food and Justice Alliance organizes for Black food and land by increasing the visibility of visionary leadership, advancing Black people’s struggle for just and sustainable communities, and building power in our food systems.
New Communities Land Trust is a grassroots organization that has worked for more than 40 years to empower African American families in Southwest Georgia and advocate for social justice.
The Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust advance land sovereignty in the Northeast through permanent and secure land tenure for Indigenous, Black, Latinx, and Asian farmers.
Planting Justice works to empower people impacted by mass incarceration and other social inequities through a nursery, land trust, and various community farming efforts.
Restaurant Opportunities Centers United is fighting to improve wages and working conditions for the nation’s restaurant workforce.
Sankofa Farms seeks to create a sustainable food source for minorities in both rural and urban areas located in Durham and Orange County, NC.
The Seeding Power Fellowship is an innovative 18-month food justice fellowship program.
Soil Generation is a Philadelphia-based Black- and Brown-led coalition of growers building a grassroots movement through urban farming, agroecology, and community education.
Soul Fire Farm is a Black, Indigenous, and minority-centered community farm committed to ending racism and injustice in the American food system.
Southeastern African American Farmers’ Organic Network is a regional network of Black farmers committed to using sustainable practices to manage land, grow food, and raise livestock.
Teens for Food Justice works to ensure universal equitable access to healthy, fresh, affordable food by training youth in 21st century hydroponic urban agricultural farming techniques, entrepreneurship, and health/nutrition education, and advocacy.
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Header image courtesy of Getty Images / Luis Alvarez.