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