What is Food Justice?
Though it’s a large movement, food justice generally refers to holistic efforts towards increasing the access to healthy food in communities that have historically faced barriers to finding fresh and affordable goods “through a variety of retail channels ranging from farmer’s markets to locally-owned corner stores and supermarkets,” according to the Urban Growers Collective. Generally, the idea is that easy access to fresh, healthy food is a human right.
It’s also concerned with putting the means of producing and distributing this food in the hands of members of those communities, particularly communities of color and low-income communities. There were a lot of reports during the early days of the pandemic of the strains it was putting on large-scale food supply lines, since the U.S. still grows much of its food outside of the communities where it ends up — put together, the ingredients of your average meal have traveled about 4200 miles to reach your table.
Food Insecurity in the Pandemic
The pandemic and correlated recession have revealed the extent to which food insecurity threatens America, as 1 in 4 households have had a member skip meals or had to rely on food donations at one time or another. Feeding America, who coordinate a network of over 200 food banks in the country, estimate that about 17 million people will come through their doors in the last 6 months of 2020.
A story I remember hearing on NPR in April talked about the lines BMWs and other luxury import cars waiting for donated food boxes in the northeast — fresh and healthy food being too expensive threatens Americans across socioeconomic lines, especially in times of crisis.
For both farmers and consumers to survive an unprecedented economic situation, you might have heard stories about farms pivoting to sell directly to the community, cutting out distributors and middlemen. This is the kind of arrangement that benefits everyone involved, while also building community and cutting down on excessive carbon emissions.
Think Global, Act Local
Food justice is something that should interest all travelers, especially if you’ve ever enjoyed eating at a trendy, farm-to-table restaurant on your way around the world; you know the distance that having fresh, local ingredients can go towards making a special meal. But it’s no coincidence that these largely appear in gentrified areas and within a more up-market context. Restaurants like this have the capital and flexibility in their overhead costs to reach out to organic farms and those with sustainable practices in their area.
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Grocery stores and farmers markets might help expand access to this locally-sourced food, but the former are driven by profit margins, like any big-and-growing-bigger business, while farmers markets cannot always service customers who use food subsidies like SNAP.
So why should there be barriers to access to healthy, local food for communities who may not have expendable income to eat out, need to spend money on the chronic and genetic health conditions that disproportionately affect them, and are more susceptible to public health crises? The food justice movement emphatically says, we can do better. Organizations like Chicago’s Urban Growers Collective, who I mentioned in the first paragraph, are leading the effort to do so.
Urban Growers Collective is an urban farming project and farm incubator with seven urban farms on the south and west sides of Chicago, areas of the city that suffer economically as a result of segregationist policies like redlining — the practice in which banks and financial institutions literally drew lines around areas of a city where people of color lived, agreeing not to lend to these communities.
The lasting effects of such overt and institutional racism are profound: relations between Black business owners and major banks are still virtually nonexistent. Most Black entrepreneurs start their businesses today with cash loans from family or friends.
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But the idea behind groups like Urban Growers Collective is to uncouple food and finance altogether. After all, you don’t need to talk about capital in order to learn how to farm and grow your own food, even if it’s something as small as a few herbs and vegetables in your windowsill.
Giving people the tools and expertise they need to farm on a small scale in their communities increases the overall strength of the larger food system; when you can use organic methods to produce food that stays in its community, you can work with a greater biodiversity of produce and farm year-round, something not always possible on a larger scale. Just ask the USDA:
“Organic farming can integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.”
The mention of cultural practices there is critical — a big part of UGC’s mission is to provide communities with “culturally-appropriate” produce, believing in the power of a food tradition to build community and ultimately make conversations around culture a little easier in this country. As activist Owen Taylor explains on the Table Underground podcast:
I know that for my Italian ancestors… becoming “American” is what they would call it, was so important because they would belong, they would find more material success. There were so many incentives to lose your language, lose your religion, lose your food culture, in exchange for all the privileges and benefits of being considered white in America. It’s something I talk about with my partner, who is Black… and I know for him it’s really frustrating to be in mixed groups or with white folks who will say something like “Oh I have no culture,” which is something I grew up thinking and believing too.. Which is, first of all unfair to those who came before us, and second of all totally untrue. But it’s also what allows white supremacy to flourish, this concept that there is such a thing as whiteness, and that we’re buying into it…
More food autonomy opens the door to more autonomy in general, perhaps even towards actual life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The words “justice for all” should never be followed by “who can afford it.”
A Change of Seasons
The only way to reverse the latent adverse effects of discriminatory policies is with policy change, and individual change drives institutional change. While we all want to travel the world, I’m willing to bet that we also love our communities. When you could spend 2021 WWOOFing, consider spending it volunteering at an urban farm or community garden in your area. Write to your representatives demanding that the prison-industrial complex cease using unpaid, incarcerated labor to produce food goods. Destigmatize farming in general and the use of SNAP or food stamp benefits, as these are programs that everyone’s tax dollars pay for — it’s our money.
The more individual work we do to promote food justice that, the more attention institutions will pay. Just look at the Urban Growers Collective again, whose co-founder Erika Allen led the group’s collaboration with “Always Growing, Auburn Gresham,” a new community foundation on Chicago’s south side that recently won the inaugural Chicago Award, a $10 million grant on behalf of the Pritzker Traubert Foundation. This supplements $4 million of funding from the federal C.A.R.E.S act to create a fund for a “healthy hub” in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood, creating 600 jobs and around 20,000 pounds of food annually, while also providing health services to the community.
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You can see a program of the Urban Growers Collective, the Fresh Moves Mobile Market, in action on season 3, episode 2 of the Netflix series “Somebody Feed Phil,” in Chicago. For more coverage of how Black-owned urban farms like UGC’s are fighting food inequality during the pandemic, read this story from Reuters. And for everything else UGC related, visit their website or their Instagram.