Defining and Refining a Food Justice Lens
To create food media with a fuller analysis of power.
This is the text of a talk I gave at Bates College on January 15. Its immediate influences while I was writing it were two fellow newsletters: Jon Randell Smith’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Food Security” and Raechel Ann Jolie’s “girl culture panic & the failures of feminism.” I will write next week about how I write and prepare differently for speaking versus being read.
When we hear the phrase “food justice,” do we imagine a dining table filled with abundant foods? Do we imagine sourdough of locally grown and milled wheat? Do we imagine a workers’ cooperative delivering CSA boxes of regionally grown organic produce? Do we imagine a sliding-scale priced brunch at an otherwise fine-dining restaurant?
Defined by scholar and organizer Rasheed Salaam Hislop in “Reaping Equity: A Survey of Food Justice Organizations in the U.S.A.,” food justice is:
“...the struggle against racism, exploitation, and oppression taking place within the food system that addresses inequality’s root causes both within and beyond the food chain.”
This is the intersectional, community-led response to inequities such as food apartheid, economic stratification, corporate consolidation, and racism that keep different communities from access to fresh, culturally appropriate foods.
Yet the connotation of “food justice” in vernacular, I’d argue, doesn’t bring to mind the significance of the end product of agriculture, processing, and packing of produce and other foods: a meal. “Food justice” in the popular imagination (as much as it is a concept in the popular imagination) is something that happens in certain spaces, is a concern of certain folks: not a framework that could help everyone more deeply consider how policy, global trade, geography, demographics, and media determine what and how we eat, as well as what and how we desire when it comes to food.
In my own work, I consider the ways in which the global food system broadly and the U.S. food system and the corporate consolidation of agribusiness specifically have created a dichotomy in media representations of food: There is the lofty, the political, the economic, and agricultural; and then there is gastronomy, cooking, and pleasure. Often, when food justice is presented to a mainstream audience, it is through individuals or discrete groups involved in the movement: “TK Is Feeding NYC Activists Healthy Food”; “TK wants to remake the food system”; “The Activists Working to Remake the Food System.” (TKs added because it’s not about these folks; it’s about the framing of the headlines.)
These people and groups do wildly important work—I do not seek to diminish that. I do want to point out that the framing puts the onus somewhere else, not upon the reader. These are feel-good stories with feel-good framing. This serves the notion that there are people who will take on the load of food justice, to “fix” the food system, rather than the need for a food justice–oriented lens to be brought to everyday interactions with food as well as the representation of food.
Personal choice and individual power are both over- and under-stated in conversations on the food system: this brings up differences between what is known as the “food movement” or “movements” and “food justice.”
Today, I want to go over some of the key statistics about the global food system; terms and ideas in food justice; and conclude with how a food justice lens in lifestyle media might be adapted to get conversations and perceptions over the imaginative hump of individual activists, discrete activist groups, and personal consumption choice toward a better understanding of how the food system reflects political and economic inequalities—and what can be done to bring a food justice lens to food media, ensuring that it’s not understood as separate from the pleasure and joy that is so often the way in which food is presented, but that these are all part of re-imagining a food system that leaves no one out; isn’t exploitative of land, workers, animals, and all us eaters; and works in the necessity of a decent meal.
Global Food System Statistics
“Around 1.23 billion people were employed in the world’s agrifood systems in 2019, and more than three times that figure, or almost half the world’s population, live in households linked to agrifood systems, according to new research by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) published in April 2023. Of these 1.23 billion people, 857 million worked in primary agricultural production and 375 million in the off-farm segments of agrifood systems.”1
“Livestock production—primarily cows—produce 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The majority of that is in the form of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is a natural byproduct of how some livestock process food.”2
“Globally, animal agriculture uses 83% of the world’s farmland but only produces 18% of our calories and 37% of our protein.”3
“According to the 2023 edition of the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report, between 691 and 783 million people faced hunger in 2022, representing an increase of 122 million people compared to 2019.”4
“Globally, around 13 percent of food produced is lost between harvest and retail, while an estimated 17 percent of total global food production is wasted in households, in the food service and in retail all together.”5
U.S. Food System Statistics
“In 2022, 22.1 million full- and part-time jobs were related to the agricultural and food sectors—10.4 percent of total U.S. employment. Direct on-farm employment accounted for about 2.6 million of these jobs, or 1.2 percent of U.S. employment.”6
“...the top four corporations control more than 60% of the U.S. market for pork, coffee, cookies, beer, and bread. In beef processing, baby food, pasta, and soda the top four companies control more than 80% of the U.S. market.”9
“Farmworkers are employed in one of the most hazardous jobs in the entire U.S. labor market and suffer very high rates of wage and hour violations, and the majority of farmworkers who are unauthorized migrants or on H-2A visas are even worse off, with limited labor rights and heightened vulnerability to wage theft and other abuses due to their immigration status.”10
“Corn is the most widely produced feed grain in the United States, with most of the crop providing the main energy ingredient in livestock feed.”11
“The prevalence of food insecurity increased in 2022 compared with 2021. In 2022, 12.8 percent of U.S. households were food insecure at least some time during the year, meaning they had difficulty providing enough food for all their members because of a lack of resources.”12
“According to the nonprofit organization Feeding America, Americans waste more than $408 billion each year on food, with dairy products being the food item we toss out the most. The average American family of four throws out $1,600 a year in produce.”13
“The United States produces more than enough food to feed everyone, but it wastes millions of pounds of perfectly good food yearly while 44 million people in the country face hunger.” 14
What do these statistics tell us?
The food system globally and domestically employs a staggering number of people, many of whom are poorly paid despite the hazards of the job—including the closeness to pesticides and endurance of extreme weather conditions exacerbated by climate change
Agricultural land is used primarily to grow feed for and house livestock, which accounts for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions15
Food insecurity has gone up in recent years, both globally and domestically, despite the amount of food wasted
Food available in the United States market is owned by a handful of corporations.
It also means that there is an incredible amount of power wrapped up in food: This power can and should be analyzed and criticized regularly, in order to help people make more informed decisions around where their food comes from and who is profiting from it. This type of analysis as a facet of lifestyle food journalism can empower the public to work toward collective solutions in both specific communities and on policy levels to improve land access, land use, farmworker pay and working conditions, and food distribution
Now, I’m going to define some key terms that will often be found in food justice literature. These are key terms for understanding and focusing a food justice lens for food writing.
Food Movement vs. Food Justice
What is often referred to as the “food movement” is often understood as a push for consumer choice to move toward local and organic foods. As this has gained popularity as an approach to food system ills by people with access to and ability to afford local, organic foods, there has been an increase in greenwashing, with a mode of farming emerging that’s been understood as “Big Organic Agriculture,” in which similar scale, chemical and energy inputs, and labor practices are used to what’s understood as “industrial agriculture,” which is “the large-scale, intensive production of crops and animals, often involving chemical fertilizers on crops or the routine, harmful use of antibiotics in animals.” There have also been numerous times when a restaurant lauded for being “farm to table” has come under scrutiny for sourcing products from corporate supermarkets or farms.
According to Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi in their 2010 book Food Justice, food justice seeks “to achieve equity and fairness in relation to food system impacts and a different, more just, and sustainable way for food to be grown, produced, made accessible, and eaten.” Food justice movements assert that the food system as it is has been set up according to the racist, classist structure of the culture at large.
What is food apartheid?
The term “food desert” had grown in popularity to refer to neighborhoods and regions where fresh food was scarce. Food justice activist and urban gardener Karen Washington has corrected this term to “food apartheid,” in order to get away from the connotation of “desert,” as a desert is a natural ecosystem formation and apartheid is a result of systemic political and corporate decision-making.
“What I would rather say instead of ‘food desert” is ‘food apartheid,’ because ‘food apartheid’ looks at the whole food system, along with race, geography, faith, and economics. You say ‘food apartheid’ and you get to the root cause of some of the problems around the food system. It brings in hunger and poverty. It brings us to the more important question: What are some of the social inequalities that you see, and what are you doing to erase some of the injustices?” Karen Washington to Anna Brones for The Guardian
What is food sovereignty?
“Food sovereignty” is a concept developed by La Via Campesina. Founded in 1993, “it is an international movement bringing together millions of peasants, landless workers, indigenous people, pastoralists, fishers, migrant farmworkers, small and medium-size farmers, rural women and peasant youth from around the world.”
According to La Via Campesina’s 2021 publication, “Food Sovereignty, a Manifesto for the Future of Our Planet,” it means: “to insist upon the centrality of the small-scale food producers, the accumulated wisdom of generations, the autonomy and diversity of rural and urban communities and solidarity between peoples, as essential components for crafting policies around food and agriculture.
In the ensuing decade, social movements and civil society actors worked together to define it further ‘as the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.’”
What is culturally appropriate food?
“Culturally appropriate food itself can be understood a number of different ways, but generally refers to the acknowledgment that food must be considered within a cultural framework. Culturally appropriate food does not only refer to the food itself, but also holds space for the cultural practices around the preparation and consumption of the food, considering where, how, and with whom it is eaten. These factors all further contextualize what culturally appropriate food is, with the recognition, then, that different people have different appreciations for what is and is not culturally appropriate food.”16
The Food Empowerment Project is a food justice organization that works to end animal and worker exploitation, among other issues in the food system, and one part of their project is to create websites that curate plant-based recipes for various cuisines in order to make these foods accessible and culturally appropriate. “These projects help people enjoy comfort foods from their culture and share these delicious vegan versions with others,” they say.
What is a community-based food system?
A community-based food system is “one in which sustainable food production, processing, distribution and consumption are integrated to enhance the environmental, economic, and social and nutritional health of a particular place.” 17This is related to ideas of food sovereignty.
What is a “decent meal”?
Dr. Hanna Garth defines a “decent meal” as “a cuisine that not only provides nourishment, but also a meal that is perceived as categorically complete” according to cultural appropriateness “and the opportunity to serve an aesthetically plated meal. The decent meal contrasts with food that is somehow lacking in the previously stated dimensions and would not be deemed appropriate to serve to others as well as potentially being a source of shame for the individual who must eat it. Beyond economic and caloric measures, the aspiration to eat a decent meal is an intimate performance of social status at the level of the family and the self. … this intimate performance is also entangled with raced, gendered, and classed social expectations.”18
Food justice seeks food sovereignty, an end to food apartheid, and the availability of culturally appropriate food to the ends of serving a “decent meal.” Food justice is not merely the ability to access fresh food; it is the space, time, energy, and ability to cook it and serve it in a way that provides a nourishing, complete, and aesthetically pleasing dish according to one’s cultural standards.
What do I mean by a “food justice lens”?
This is a simplified but hopefully generative way in which to establish a food justice lens. To bring such a lens to a piece of food media, we would consider: (1) power: who owns the land, restaurant, shop, etc., and who is profiting from it? How are workers being treated and paid? What are the race, gender, and class dynamics in this space or organization? (2) impacts: who has access to the food being produced or consumed? For whom is the food culturally appropriate? Is there a system in place for waste? Is there a concern for sustainability, whether around ingredients, packaging, or other facets of food production? (3) possibility: where are the openings for change, whether to individual behavior or collective action? Who can lead these in order to ensure they are equitable and fit the needs of the community? Or are the only possibilities ones that bring power and profit to those outside the community?
“I think food, like music, is sometimes misused to celebrate something that’s not there on the ground, politically speaking,” filmmaker and artist Jumana Manna, to The Common Table. “For instance, if a conservative German goes to eat a meal o beans on Sonnenallee in Berlin, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they welcome Arabs in Germany. It might just be because the meal is cheap, tastes good and happens to be near where they live.”
I’d also add that, with a food justice lens, there should be a healthy concern for being too utopian about the transformative power of food, which can only be in place if other needs and desires are met. The crucial question to ask when using a food justice lens is: If food is political, what are the politics?
How can we bring a food justice lens into lifestyle writing about food?
We ask questions about power, impacts, and possibility. For example: While writing a piece for the magazine Lux about Jumana Manna’s documentaries Wild Relatives and Foragers, I was inspired to look into how seeds collected by ICARDA — the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas — were being used today. Wild Relatives chronicles how ICARDA moved their seed vault from Syria to Lebanon for refuge from war, and was duplicating its seeds to be stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen for what is understood as the ultimate in safe-keeping.
As I wrote in my piece, ICARDA’s emphasis on heat and drought-resistant seeds has only become more relevant as climate change brings such conditions to climates that were once more temperate. NPR reported at the start of 2023, “a wheat seed collected in Iran and then stored and saved from the war in Syria has allowed scientists in the U.S. to develop new wheat varieties resistant to the Hessian fly, a pest that causes tens of millions of dollars in damage to American crops every year.”
These seeds, collected and duplicated by scientists in Syria and Lebanon, are now used for U.S. wheat interests. They are assured safe-keeping not in their place of origin and investigation, but instead in Scandinavia. The knowledge and the origin of these seeds aren’t seeing the benefit of this work, as they cannot be assured peace and safety there; in the Global North, they can be of use and, one supposes, profit.
The power lies with those nations who enjoy relative political stability and enforce geopolitical hierarchies; the impacts are to the benefit of those who own land for wheat that might be susceptible to this particular fly or climate change–influenced drought conditions; and the possibilities are that the research of these scientists in Syria and their collected seeds will lead to more stability for those living and eating outside their region than they might in their own.
Answering these questions allows for a different kind of storytelling; Manna, in her film, asks them implicitly. It is a work of art, and it is also a piece of food media that questions existing global power structures and inequities through a justice-oriented lens. Indeed, it enacts the question that I believe is a distillation of the food justice lens: If food is political, what are the politics?
Further Recommended Reading and Watching
Black Food Matters: Racial Justice in the Wake of Food Justice by Ashanté M. Reese and Hanna Garth
Food in Cuba: The Pursuit of a Decent Meal by Hanna Garth
Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement by Monica White
Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land by Leah Penniman
La Vía Campesina: Globalization and the Power of Peasants by Annette Aurelie Desmarais
Who Really Feeds the World?: The Failures of Agribusiness and the Promise of Agroecology by Vandana Shiva
Wild Relatives, documentary by Jumana Manna
Foragers, documentary by Jumana Manna
from Food in Cuba: The Pursuit of a Decent Meal
This Friday’s From the Desk Recommends… for paid subscribers will include my monthly roundup of links, podcasts, and more—this month, centered around the extractive media economy, the demands of the creator economy, and how slowness and limits can restore a bit of autonomy against algorithmically determined digital lives. I will be sending a preview to free subscribers with the short intro essay.
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ICYMI, I’m writing another book:
A Lifestyle Note
It’s not new, but this year thus far has driven home for me how it important it is that I get dressed for every single day despite working for myself, at home. I also don’t save outfits, other than ones that might be outlandish for certain circumstances: I wear what will make me feel good and happy that day. I’m on no-new-clothes effort for 2024, and it’s making me appreciate what I have and wear it all in new ways.