Why the Food Justice Movement Matters

Last fall, I had the opportunity to interview Chris Hedges for my radio show, just after he’d delivered a powerful but incredibly discouraging talk about how Americans are becoming less able to think critically (based on his book Empire of Illusion) and how the Democratic party can longer be counted on to support the interests of working people (Death of the Liberal Class).  I asked him what he thought we ought to do about this depressing state of affairs.

His response: work on promoting locally-grown, sustainable agriculture.  Even though I serve on the board of an organization engaged in that kind of work, his response surprised me.

But lately –in part because of a terrific panel at the Working-Class Studies Association conference in June – I’ve been thinking about the potential power of food justice as an alternative to traditional leftist organizing.  I still believe in unions, but the American labor movement has been struggling for a long time, and much as I’d like to believe that unions can be the driving force for social justice, I simply can’t muster high expectations anymore.  I still believe that how we vote matters, despite knowing that many of those we elect either won’t or can’t do enough to support progressive policies.  I see more potential in the work of community organizers, though as the authors of Contesting Community suggest, such work is too often limited by public policy that promotes a neoliberal, privatization-oriented approach.

So what does the food justice movement have to offer that’s any different? Consider the definition of that phrase: food justice aims to ensure that the benefits and risks of producing, distributing, and consuming food are shared fairly by everyone involved and to transform the food system to eliminate inequities.  That’s a highly inclusive definition that encompasses everyone from the farmer to the tomato picker to the home cook and the corporation that sells canned goods or fast food.  That defines food justice as a cross-class, multicultural movement that engages in a wide variety of work on local, regional, national, and global levels.  The food justice movement includes efforts to create urban farms, community-supported agriculture projects (CSAs), programs focused on getting fresh produce to people who live in food deserts, protecting the rights of workers on farms and in restaurants, and challenges to corporate farming practices that endanger the ecosystem – and much more.

The nature of food ensures that much of this work is inherently hands-on and personal while also addressing systemic, structural issues.  Quite literally, food is for most people something we handle every day.  Projects like urban gardens and CSAs give consumers the opportunity to get our hands dirty.  Volunteers in urban gardens and CSA members who provide sweat equity to local farmers make concrete, physical connections with the source of their food.

Unlike unions (which are usually open only to those who work in a specific workplace), many food justice projects are open to anyone who wants to participate, and individuals can become involved on a variety of levels.  You can join a boycott, buy your produce at the farmer’s market, or volunteer a few hours at an urban garden or food pantry.  Here in Youngstown, the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative coordinated the efforts of dozens of local volunteers who visited the many corner convenience stores in the city last year.  The volunteers spoke with the store owners and looked at what was on the shelves.  They then created a map that clarified the location of local food deserts, identified problem stores that sold only junk food and alcohol as well as the few small urban shops that offered fresh produce and good-quality meats, and used that data to encourage the city to work with two national chains to bring full-scale grocery stores back to local neighborhoods.  No one had to pay membership dues, take a certification vote, or do anything but sign up to help, and anyone could attend the community meetings in which the campaign was planned and discussed.

That kind of work is necessarily local, as is much of the food justice movement, but the effort is also national.  For example, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United has branches in major cities and some states around the country doing research, organizing, and advocating on behalf of food service workers.  It’s a national effort with a local presence.  Among other things, ROC-U has documented the effects of the low wages and limited benefits of most restaurant jobs on local economies.   And while ROC-U focuses on organizing workers, consumers can also get involved by paying attention to the local organization’s protests and information and patronizing restaurants that treat workers well.

The ROC-U campaign highlights another important strength of food justice as an alternative political movement: it creates opportunities for consumers to connect with producers and distributors of food, and that often means helping people cross boundaries of class and race.  I see that with Grow Youngstown, the local group that I work with.  Over the past month or so, during my visits to the Fairgreen Neighborhood Garden, an urban garden in a low-income neighborhood on the north side of Youngstown, I’ve talked with colleagues from the university, local activists, people who live in the neighborhood, and women from a nearby residential program for homeless families.  Some have PhDs and some didn’t finish high school.  They are white and black, retired and still in elementary school.  Those interactions don’t just enrich my life.  They strengthen the community.  Since the garden was created, we’ve seen more families moving into the neighborhood and more interaction among those who live nearby.

At the same time, Grow Youngstown, like many food justice projects, relies on and encourages networking with others who care about the local community.  Over the last three years, we have collaborated with the City of Youngstown, the Northside Farmer’s Market, two area churches, a local synagogue, a nearby organic farm run by an order of nuns, the university, several neighborhood associations, the Rescue Mission, and half a dozen other local and regional organizations.  Food justice may focus on food, but it connects with issues like economic development, race and class inequities, education, vacant properties, and of course, environmental sustainability. In the process, we build our own capacity to pursue significant projects, and we work with other groups to develop, together, the networks, knowledge, skills, and experience to organize effectively on behalf of both the local community and broader regional and national issues.

Food justice accomplishes something else: by emphasizing alternative sources of food, it challenges the dominance of the corporate food industry.  I’m not sure how much difference that makes to ConAgra, ADM, or Kroger.  But it reminds us that we have economic alternatives.  What we eat and how we shop matters.

That opportunity is not limited to those with means. Fresh Moves, a mobile produce market retrofitted into a city bus, takes affordable fruits and vegetables into neighborhoods around Chicago that don’t have decent grocery stories.  Farmer’s markets around the country are now accepting food stamps.  At Grow Youngstown, the regular shares of our CSA and a grant from a local foundation subsidize the cost of weekly subscriptions for low-income families.  So while my family enjoyed the locally-grown berries, zucchini, cucumbers, onions, and herbs that I brought home last week, someone else’s family ate just as well for half the price.

But the value of this accessible, very modest, and truly pleasurable form of activism extends beyond the food.  It helps local farmers be more able to grow unusual crops in a sustainable way, with reasonably-paid farm workers.  It helps provide a paid summer internship for a  recent college grad and a job for the woman who manages the CSA.  It supports an urban garden that brings neighbors together, and it helps to build a social justice network that includes people working for change in practical ways despite all the frustrating, discouraging, sometimes overwhelming social and economic problems we face these days.  It may not be the answer, but it’s not just cucumbers, either.

Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies

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12 responses to “Why the Food Justice Movement Matters

  1. Reblogged this on A.C.R.E.S.S. Farms and commented:
    THIS is what ACRESS was born for!

  2. Reblogged this on All Hail Honeybees and commented:
    “Food justice may focus on food, but in connects with issues like economic development, race and class inequities, education, vacant properties, and of course, environmental sustainability.”
    -Sherry Linkon
    Center for Working-Class Studies

  3. Curious to see what impact the new reality show Roseanne’s Nuts can have on this issue as she supports organic farming…?

  4. Is the “emerging movement” real, or is it the latest manifestation of “back to the land” idealism? Food coops, etc., have come and gone, but the food companies, retail food outlets, restaurant chains, etc. continue to dominate the food chain, and the North American food unions (UFCW, BCTGM, IBT, UNITE-HERE, FLOC and UFW principally) working with IUF continue to struggle to organize and represent workers in the food chain. An argument can be made that localized food production and distribution cannot sustain the wage levels necessary to middle class life in the US. But whether or not that is true, the central question seems to be how can there be a just transition from the current food system to a new system, without further harming the economic prospects of workeers in the current system…?

  5. Sherry,
    The Harvest Club of Greater Huntington Beach has been in service for over 2 1/2 years. We glean produce, mostly fruit, from homeowner’s trees and distribute it to local organizations that are already feeding people in need. In order to change our country, progressives and community organizers have to create infrastructure that offers people a model of how a community can sustain themselves. Simply challenging the power structure, and a corrupt one to boot, is not enough to change people’s attitudes and values. We are operating in one of the most conservative counties in the country, yet we have seen universal praise for our project and participation by many citizens that would ordinarily avoid contact with those of us on the left. We have found an ideal bridge building project. We have conservative homeowners who hate waste, church members who are motivated by service to others, political progressives who understand that sustainability relies on limiting the distance between where food is grown and consumed all working together on a project that brings fresh, healthy and tasty food to food dependent individuals and families.

    The demand for food assistance is growing and before it becomes a serious crisis, we now have the time to encourage people to grow food on their property and to collaborate to share their bounty with others. We are building community now so that should the economy get worse, we will be able to help those in need. Feeding people is political and changes people for the better over time. Start a harvest club in your neighborhood and town.

  6. Locally, we’ve seen some members of our “Slow Food” chapter participate with community gardens. This is one kind of mixture that’s really needed. You’re probably aware that “Slow Food” is a mixture of simple food snobs and people who understand the political issues involved. They need to talk to each other.

  7. I left the an SB5 panel discussion tonight reminded of why I decided local food was the area in which to turn my attention and organize. 1) It is quick gratification and vital to our lives 2) The process of solving this problem demands that we measure the value of energy and the price of labor (our own), 3) The band on the wagon is blue and red.

    Solving the local food problem demands the we address our communities capacity for entrepreneurship, for labor, and most importantly for creating interdependent relationships. A local economic system of any kind depends on relationships that are human based, as opposed to a “human to corporate person” based such as the “job” or “workforce” environment. It is only the human to human relationships that can be truly responsive to the needs of the individual and the community.

  8. Pingback: USW Blog » Blog Archive » Why the Food Justice Movement Matters

  9. Pepi Leistyna

    Great to wake up to your post as I’m currently writing on reality TV weightlose shows and while they reduce the question of obesity to a neoliberal notion of personal self-regulation for the mostly working-class participants who are exploited on such programs, this really is a public policy issue and when it is addressed as such it leads to all kinds of questions about economic inequalities, many of which you point out; e.g., access, fastfood corporations targeting poor communities, agribusiness, healthcare, etc. And, as you conclude, such concerns are all relevant to working-class consciousness and movements. Very important connections that are largely neglected. Thanks for the post — you’ve motivated me to keep writing today :)
    Best,
    Pepi Leistyna

  10. Very compelling, Sherry. Thanks for this.

  11. Sherry Linkon

    Of course it’s both/and. My point in commenting on other movements is not to reject them but to highlight why I find this emerging movement more compelling and promising right now.

  12. Sherry, A good essay!

    I strongly agree that a food justice movement is very important for the reasons you outline. My work with the IUF (International Union of Foodworkers) made me think about this approach often.

    Two thoughts: You correctly stress the local aspect of organizing around food, but it is also has deep regional, national and global dimensions. It is as vital to analyze the global agro-food complex as the global energy or military industries. There are plenty of organizing handles at all levels (For a quick example see Mark Bittman’s article in yesterday New York Times magazine on taxing sugary beverages).

    Second, you rhetorically contrast it with the current frustrations of labor organizing. Surely this is a both/and rather than an either/or.

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