Food System Transformation Should Embrace Food Justice

Editor’s Note

Food justice, and racial justice in the food system broadly, are important topics for Stray Dog Institute. Since 2021, as part of our commitment to building racial justice in the US food system, Stray Dog Institute has committed a portion of our giving each year to groups that hold racial justice in the food system as a central focus of their work. We view this grant commitment as a small but meaningful step forward, and we continue to work toward a future in which Stray Dog Institute’s financial and non-financial contributions to the movement increasingly prioritize racial justice. We are committed to continually learning and examining our impact to improve our contributions to inclusive food justice.

Food is a basic human need, and access to healthy and culturally appropriate food is essential for all individuals and communities to thrive. Nevertheless, over 38 million people in the US lack secure access to nourishing food, including 12 million children. Furthermore, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC)[i] are disproportionately affected by inadequate food access and its negative health consequences. Black children are three times more likely than white children to live in food-insecure households, and US counties with predominantly Indigenous populations have higher rates of food insecurity than predominantly white counties.

Understanding the history and priorities of the food justice movement is an important step for food system advocates working to achieve food system transformation for the good of all people, animals, and the environment.

While important and necessary, broadening consumer access to healthy food is only one part of addressing racial, ethnic, and economic injustice in the US food system. The production, processing, and distribution of food under conventional industrial agriculture reflect racial, gender, and class biases present in dominant political and economic structures.[1] The same systemic biases excluding BIPOC communities from equal access to food have also been responsible for decades of injustice perpetrated against BIPOC individuals in relation to education, housing, employment, criminal justice, and healthcare.[2] BIPOC activists and frontline communities have long recognized that food access disparities are a justice issue, the true solutions to which lie deeper than simply ensuring food availability.

Born as a response to white-led environmentalism, food access disparities, and the invisibility of racial justice in the early food movement, the food justice movement highlights and challenges the harmful food system structures that produce unjust outcomes at all stages of the food system.

The systemic focus of food justice is compatible with—and belongs as part of—the movements for food system transformation and farmed animal protection. Both food justice and food system transformation seek to reshape society’s relationship with food, replacing dominant extractive industrial food production with structures and practices that promote universal equity and wellbeing. Transitioning to a food system that promotes all aspects of the common good requires addressing structural problems and injustices that create harmful outcomes for stakeholders throughout the supply chain, from food apartheid to the exploitation of food workers. Understanding the history and priorities of the food justice movement is an important step for food system advocates working to achieve food system transformation for the good of all people, animals, and the environment.

HISTORY OF THE FOOD JUSTICE MOVEMENT

Food justice carries a range of different meanings from one context to another, but its central focus is addressing the systemic roots of unjust disparities in food access. Food justice in its current form combines elements of the US civil rights movement, the environmental justice movement, and growing tides of community resistance to oppressive food systems.

The history of food injustice in the US extends back as far as the colonial dispossession of Indigenous people and the establishment of farms and plantations by European colonists. However, the movement crystallized in the 1960s and 1970s against the backdrop of broader social justice movements. By the middle of the 20th century, economic and agricultural dispossession of Black US residents in the wake of Jim Crow policies and structural racism had produced food apartheid, leading the Black Panther Party to establish a free school breakfast program in Berkeley, California as a form of local resistance.

Around the same time, environmentalism faced a reckoning with systemic racism, giving rise to the environmental justice movement. From its inception in the late-19th century, the environmental conservation movement had remained overwhelmingly white, with an unrecognized history of racial exclusion. In 1987, the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice released its seminal report “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States,” showing through public data that hazardous waste facilities in the US were primarily located in majority Black and, using the terminology of the US Bureau of the Census, Hispanic communities.[3] The report made visible the hidden connections between structures of racial injustice and environmental inequities. Pioneering BIPOC food justice activists in the 1980s and 1990s combined the nascent framing of environmental justice with longstanding community resistance to food access disparities to highlight pervasive justice concerns in the food system.[4]

WHAT IS THE FOOD JUSTICE MOVEMENT?

Food justice views food access disparities as a systemic problem born of structural racism and loss of community control of food. By confronting the root causes of injustice in the food system, food justice advocates seek to reclaim communities’ self-determination and sovereignty over food production.

Shaped by its historical biases, the dominant industrial food system continually perpetuates injustice to individuals and communities of color across the US, for example, by excluding farmers of color from equal access to land and capital,[5] disproportionately relying on workers of color to perform the most dangerous and unpleasant food processing tasks, and contributing to chronic health conditions among BIPOC consumers who lack access to affordable, healthy foods because of systemic social exclusion. 

In the struggle to establish a new food system paradigm, there is much common ground that can—and should—be found between the food justice, environmental, and animal rights movements.

Food justice activists promote community-led strategies that overcome food access barriers and contribute to systemic solutions for food system injustices. Food justice activism may look different in different contexts depending on each community’s unique experience and needs, but the following are common priorities of the movement:

  • Addressing structural injustices that produce racial, ethnic, economic, and gender disparities in food access
  • Reestablishing community control over the production and distribution of food
  • Safeguarding the rights of agricultural and food processing workers
  • Increasing access to healthy foods by strengthening grocery availability through mainstream retail channels and establishing alternative and communal systems of food provision

BLACK-LED FOOD JUSTICE ORGANIZATIONS

Numerous Black-led food justice organizations are working to address the systemic inequities that hinder food access at both local and national levels. Many Black-led food justice groups engage in reconnecting with the land and working to heal the trauma and violence of centuries of racism. The following is an illustrative—though not comprehensive—list of Black-led organizations with a focus on food justice.

Soul Fire Farm is an Afro-Indigenous community farm that centers on sustainable agriculture, health, and environmental justice. Soul Fire Farm’s projects reach over 160,000 individuals, and they bring together communities to share their skills. Their work includes reparations and land back initiatives, urban gardens, food deliveries to food-insecure households, and educating policymakers on food justice issues.

HEAL Food Alliance is a multi-racial coalition of fifty-five member organizations spanning food producers, food chain workers, Indigenous groups, public health experts, scientists, and food justice activists from all sectors. HEAL works to advance social and environmental wellbeing and food sovereignty through a transformation of the dominant extractive colonial food system.

The National Black Food and Justice Alliance is a coalition of over forty organizations representing hundreds of Black urban and rural farmers, land stewards, and organizers all over the US. Their mission is to protect Black land ownership and to use and promote food sovereignty in Black communities.

The Black Church Food Security Network connects Black communities with Black farmers to establish stable systems of food distribution. Planting Justice builds edible permaculture gardens and assists formerly incarcerated individuals with jobs.

Black Urban Growers fosters community support and networking for urban and rural farmers and encourages Black leadership within agriculture, while the Land Loss Prevention Project assists Black landowners in North Carolina facing the loss of their land with legal services and technical support.

INDIGENOUS FOOD JUSTICE

Indigenous cultures in the US have a long history of ancestral food knowledge and connection to the land, acknowledging the holistic impact of food ecosystems. Nevertheless, Indigenous US residents face high rates of economic inequities and hunger, with one in three living in poverty. The colonial imposition of commercial food systems with attendant shifts in dietary norms and reduced access to fresh nutritious foods has led to elevated rates of diet-related chronic disease among many Indigenous communities in the US.[6] Food justice advocacy by Indigenous people and their allies seeks to protect traditional practices, preserve cultural knowledge, and return land to Indigenous hands.

Indigikitchen, founded by Mariah Gladstone (Blackfeet, Cherokee), envisions Native food as resistance to imposed colonial food systems. Indigikitchen produces videos and training on how to prepare Indigenous foods commonly grown and eaten prior to contact with colonial settlers. Gladstone frames the practice of cooking traditional foods as a way of opposing colonization and revitalizing cultural connections to land and food.

Dream of Wild Health grows and sells produce raised by Indigenous farmers through community-supported agriculture (CSAs) and at farmers markets. They also teach Indigenous children about foraging, seed saving, and other strategies to foster communal resilience. They host the Indigenous Food Network, which champions multigenerational and intertribal collaborations on food justice issues.

FOOD WORKER JUSTICE

Food justice advocacy also includes seeking justice for workers within the food chain. Food workers play a crucial role in growing, harvesting, transporting, preparing, and packaging food, yet they experience some of the most unhealthy and dangerous employment conditions. Jobs in the food chain represent eight of the ten lowest-paying jobs in the US. Food system workers face greater food insecurity and are twice as likely to rely on government supplemental nutrition programs as workers in other industries. The meatpacking and poultry processing industry—in which 64% of workers are BIPOC, compared to 35% of overall US workers—is notorious for exploitative labor conditions and high rates of injury.

BIPOC individuals comprise a significant portion of the food chain labor force, including many immigrant laborers among their ranks. Workers in food harvesting and food processing face particularly high rates of discrimination and denial of rights, but their diverse experiences of injustice are often silenced by economic inequality, language barriers, and lack of bargaining power.[7] Because of the fear of deportation, immigrant workers may be especially reluctant to speak out about abuses like unsafe working conditions, wage theft, denial of the right to organize, sexual harassment, and pesticide and chemical exposures.

The Agricultural Justice Project has developed a Food Justice Certification program that approves farms and retailers that adhere to fair labor and trade practices. The project provides technical assistance and training to employers to empower food chain workers and grant them dignity and respect. It also solicits the input and expertise of workers when formulating certification standards.

Farmworker Justice is an organization that works to empower migrant and seasonal farmworkers, with the goal of improving the conditions of farm labor and the health and wellbeing of farmworkers.

Food Chain Workers Alliance is a coalition of worker-led organizations encompassing workers in food harvesting, processing, packing, transportation, preparation, service, and retail. Food Chain Workers Alliance advocates for a just food system that respects, uplifts, and protects workers at all stages of the food system.

EXAMPLES OF FOOD JUSTICE ADVOCACY

Food justice engages with systemic causes of injustice through a variety of actions and topics at all levels of the food system. Due to the wide variety of injustices present in conventional extractive agriculture under the control of agribusiness, each person’s or community’s lived experiences of injustice, discrimination, bias, or abuse may be different. Accordingly, advocacy for food justice in each community may take different forms. Additionally, how communities choose to pursue justice also depends on specific ecologies, traditions, and cultural practices. A variety of approaches commonly employed by food justice advocates appear below:

1.   ADOPTING AGROECOLOGICAL FARMING TECHNIQUES

Agroecology is a systems-based approach to food production that integrates the sociological, cultural, and ecological aspects of a community. Agroecology principles include ecologically appropriate and diverse crops, co-creation and sharing of knowledge within and between communities, returning to and celebrating traditional foods, and restoring direct connections between farmers and food consumers.

Food justice employs strategies that directly challenge and bypass the products and supply chains of industrial agriculture and industrial animal production.

Agroecological farming can foster food sovereignty and preserve local land and environments, but it is also a political and ideological approach to overturning harmful and extractive food systems.

Example: La Via Campesina is the coordinating body of an international movement that advocates for the interests of smallholder farmers, including food policy reform and knowledge sharing for agroecology. Currently active in 81 countries, La Via Campesina represents about 200 million small-scale farmers and agricultural workers and advocates for peasant- and worker-driven agroecological farming that celebrates the value of traditional ecological farming knowledge held by Indigenous and agrarian communities.

La Via Campesina first developed the term food sovereignty and brought it to public discourse during the 1996 World Food Summit as a response to the harmful structures of globalized extractive food systems. Since 1993, La Via Campesina has led opposition to harmful neoliberal food policies such as the subsidization of commodity crops and the dumping of excess commodity crops as international food aid. In 2021, La Via Campesina coordinated peasant and smallholder farmer resistance to the strong representation of agribusiness interests and priorities at the first UN Food Systems Summit. Their 2022 priorities include national and international support for democratic reform of food and farming to support justice for farmers and calls for an international commitment to agroecology as a solution to global environmental degradation.[8]

2.   CHAMPIONING FOOD EDUCATION

Food justice education within underserved BIPOC communities can spread knowledge of nutrition, community gardening, and connections between food and justice, empowering members with resources to grow and obtain healthy, fresh food. Food education aimed at youth can help young people make connections between food production and systemic injustices in food provision and understand how their choices can contribute to a just food system transformation.

Example: Detroit Black Community Food Security Network improves food access and food empowerment within Detroit’s Black community by influencing public policy, providing food education, operating a cooperative urban farm, and equipping youth to pursue careers improving the food system.

3.   DEFENDING FOOD WORKERS’ RIGHTS

Over 21 million workers are employed in the US food system, yet they are politically and economically disenfranchised. Food workers make valuable contributions to food production and distribution; defending the rights of workers is key to challenging exploitative food systems.

Example: The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is a worker-led advocacy organization that promotes the human rights of food chain workers. They have fought against human trafficking and gender-based violence, providing worker-to-worker rights education. Externally, the Coalition educates consumers about the exploitation of food chain labor and operates Fair Food programs where buyers pay a price premium that is passed on to workers. Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been one of the most visible and successful workers advocacy organizations in US history, inspiring many related organizations and empowering the broader food justice movement.

4.   ENSURING EQUAL OPPORTUNITY

Many communities experiencing food insecurity also face other systemic hurdles, like under- and unemployment, lack of educational opportunities, and barriers to adequate healthcare.[9] Food justice advocates recognize that these issues play an important role in the ability to acquire healthy food. Equal opportunity work and education are contributors to better food access.

Food service workers are disproportionately women and people of color, reflecting the continuation of historical patterns of economic exclusion.[10] Food service workers are also twice as likely to face poverty and material deprivation compared to the general workforce.[11]

Example: Restaurant Opportunities Centers United gathers national data on the demographics and experiences of food service employees, advocating for livable wages and safe, healthy working conditions for all restaurant workers.

5.   EXPANDING FOOD ACCESS

Expanding food access encompasses community-based initiatives, including urban gardens, farm-direct Community Supported Agriculture, farmers markets, food pantries, and other initiatives that bring additional healthy, fresh food to people and communities struggling with secure food access. However, achieving universal food access also depends on broader solutions to the poverty and income inequality that contribute to food apartheid.

Examples: Black Farmers Collective is one of several organizations working to grow and deliver fresh produce to communities that struggle with food access. They also provide training to enable food insecure communities to start cooperative urban gardens. Los Angeles-based grocery service SUPRMARKT provides local low-income Black and brown communities with affordable, organic, vegan food to make healthy diets accessible to all.

6.   FIGHTING FOR LAND ACCESS

Since the beginning of the twentieth century and intensifying since the mid-1980s, US farming has followed a consistent trend toward fewer, larger farms, vertical integration of farms, and corporate consolidation. Small and mid-size farmers have been increasingly displaced from their land and excluded from markets dominated by agribusiness corporations.[12] Black farmers have suffered disproportionately as a result of these consolidation practices in agriculture combined with a long history of discriminatory federal policies that have excluded them from land and financial benefits made accessible to white farmers. Ensuring equal opportunity land access is crucial for historically marginalized communities to take back control of food production, a key pillar of both food justice and food sovereignty.

Examples: The Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust uses a community land and conservation trust model to foster BIPOC land stewardship and environmentally sustainable farming practices. Family Agriculture Resource Management Services (F.A.R.M.S.) provides financial assistance and other forms of support to help struggling Black farmers retain their land. Their advocacy has saved land and farm real estate worth nearly $4 million from being lost to foreclosure or as a consequence of inadequate estate planning.

7.   SAVING AND SHARING SEEDS

Industrial agriculture relies on monocropping—a practice that has vastly reduced plant and soil microbe biodiversity—to produce industrial commodity crops, including the soy and corn that support intensive farming of animals. As standardized, patented seed varieties proliferate through commercial relationships controlled by agribusiness contracts, crop genetic diversity—and the traditional knowledge held by the farmers of traditional crops—is continually being lost. Collecting and preserving seeds from traditional and heirloom crops is an Indigenous-led initiative considered vital for ensuring future crop and ecosystem biodiversity. Preserving and sharing seeds also safeguards culturally valuable foods and plants that are well-suited to their environments, which can help increase farm resilience in the face of climate change. Sustainable farming practices, like agroecological farming, rely strongly on the use of ecologically appropriate plants.

Example: The Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance provides support to regional and tribal seed sovereignty initiatives, deeming seed saving not only an integral collective cultural inheritance, but also critical for feeding future generations.

WHY IS FOOD JUSTICE IMPORTANT?

Food justice is important not only for providing nourishment to marginalized communities but also because it deconstructs how intersecting oppressions reduce food access. BIPOC populations experience disproportionate levels of hunger, poverty, and illness due to persistent discriminatory social, political, and economic structures.

Simply bringing more food into communities that struggle with food access will not address food access barriers for residents who face underemployment, low wages, lack of mobility, and unsafe environments. Food justice movements recognize that for BIPOC communities to be well nourished, many intersecting adverse factors, from poor food availability to broader health barriers, must be addressed. Recognizing that justice is built on equalizing power, food justice advocacy prioritizes initiatives and solutions that come from within affected communities—rather than strategies imposed by outside interest groups—to develop lasting and culturally viable solutions to the systemic injustices that cause food access disparities.

WAYS TO SUPPORT FOOD JUSTICE

The systemic changes supported by food justice movements have synergies with the aims of related food transformation movements concerned with industrial agriculture’s negative effects on people, animals, and the environment. Food justice employs strategies that directly challenge and bypass the products and supply chains of industrial agriculture and industrial animal production. Strategies such as strengthening sustainable farming, promoting community-embedded agroecology, and returning land to its dispossessed ancestral stewards can also help to fight the expansion of large-scale human and non-human animal exploitation by agribusiness and mitigate the devastating environmental effects of industrial farming.

Transforming the dominant industrial food system will require work by allies from many different movements. A transformed food system designed to strengthen the common good will benefit food justice as well as small farmers, farmed animals, and the environment.

CONCLUSION

Food justice encompasses many different goals and movements responding to the specific history and needs of underserved communities nationwide. Advocates for food justice recognize that food insecurity and food apartheid occur within the context of other intersecting oppressions. By highlighting the systemic roots of food injustices, food justice movements seek to restore resilience and food sovereignty to BIPOC communities, creating a transformed food system with justice at its core. In this struggle to establish a new food system paradigm, there is much common ground that can—and should—be found between the food justice, environmental, and animal rights movements. Both food system transformation and food justice can extend the potential of their movements by finding and amplifying shared priorities with the power to achieve multiple overlapping benefits for people, animals, and the environment.


[i] Stray Dog Institute uses the term BIPOC to recognize the lived histories of oppression and resistance experienced by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. This term is not universally embraced, particularly because it can erase the experiences of individual groups by lumping them together. Additionally, the language of this term reflects the specific historical social context of the United States and may not accurately reflect current or past racial and ethnic descriptions elsewhere. We recognize these drawbacks and use the term BIPOC only when a statement is truly applicable to Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Middle Eastern, North African, East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander communities in the US. When an experience or condition is applicable only to a specific group, we use specific rather than general language.


[1] Hanna Garth and Ashanté M. Reese, “Black Food Matters: An Introduction,” in Black Food Matters: Racial Justice in the Wake of Food Justice (University of Minnesota Press, 2020), 1–28.

[2] Angela M. Odoms-Young, “Examining the Impact of Structural Racism on Food Insecurity: Implications for Addressing Racial/Ethnic Disparities,” Family and Community Health 41, no. 2 Supp(April–June 2018), https://doi.org/10.1097/FCH.0000000000000183.

[3] “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States: A National Report on the Racial and Socio-Economic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites” (United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, 1987), http://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/unitedchurchofchrist/legacy_url/13567/toxwrace87.pdf?1418439935.

[4] Alison Hope Alkon, “Food Justice: An Environmental Justice Approach to Food and Agriculture,” in The Routledge Handbook of Environmental Justice (Routledge, 2017).

[5] Alison Hope Alkon and Julian Agyeman, Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability (MIT Press, 2011).

[6] Dipayan Sarkar, Jacob Walker-Swaney, and Kalidas Shetty, “Food Diversity and Indigenous Food Systems to Combat Diet-Linked Chronic Diseases,” Current Developments in Nutrition 4, no. Suppl 1 (September 2, 2019): 3–11, https://doi.org/10.1093/cdn/nzz099.

[7] Brian Stauffer, “‘When We’re Dead and Buried, Our Bones Will Keep Hurting’: Workers’ Rights under Threat in US Meat and Poultry Plants” (Human Rights Watch, September 4, 2019), https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/09/04/when-were-dead-and-buried-our-bones-will-keep-hurting/workers-rights-under-threat.

[8] “La Via Campesina Political Declaration: 30 Years of Collective Struggle, Hope and Solidarity” (La Via Campesina, April 17, 2022), https://viacampesina.org/en/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2022/04/EN-Final-April-17th-Declaration-14-04-2022-1.pdf.

[9] Julia A. Wolfson et al., “Barriers to Healthy Food Access: Associations with Household Income and Cooking Behavior,” Preventive Medicine Reports 13 (March 2019): 298–305, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pmedr.2019.01.023.

[10] “Ending Jim Crow in America’s Restaurants: Racial and Gender Occupational Segregation in the Restaurant Industry” (Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, 2015), https://rocunited.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2022/06/RaceGender_Report_LR.pdf.

[11] “2020 State of the Restaurant Workers: A Comprehensive Analysis of the U.S. Restaurant Workforce” (Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, 2020), https://stateofrestaurantworkers.com/.

[12] James M. MacDonald, “Tracking the Consolidation of U.S. Agriculture,” Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy 42, no. 3 (2020): 361–79, https://doi.org/10.1002/aepp.13056.

About the author

Stray Dog Institute

To cultivate dignity, justice, and sustainability in the food system, Stray Dog Institute provides nonprofit allies with funding, strategic research, and opportunities for collaboration. Together, we hope to build a more compassionate world for people, animals, and the environment.

About the Author

To cultivate dignity, justice, and sustainability in the food system, Stray Dog Institute provides nonprofit allies with funding, strategic research, and opportunities for collaboration. Together, we hope to build a more compassionate world for people, animals, and the environment.

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