Food Justice is More than Growing Food and Feeding People

December 1, 2021

By Karen Washington

Food justice is more than growing food and feeding people. Knowing this led me and others to question the food system and its policies. How in the greatest country in the world, where we grow enough food and waste enough food, is that food not getting down to the people who need it the most? With 40 million people living in poverty, this was and is unacceptable.

Photo Courtesy of Karen Washington

Many of you have been saying for years that our food system is broken and needs to be fixed, I too was drinking the Kool Aid, until I realized that it was doing just fine, a caste system based on power and privilege. For so long we have been hearing about the struggle for healthy food and clean water, yet we’ve failed to bring to the surface the socioeconomic disparities we often see in communities of color and poor folks. And when we don’t talk and act upon these disparities, it reinforces a food system that is controlled mainly by a handful of people with power. Food alone has no power but now has become a commodity and has been used as a tool for people to have power over others.

It is estimated that the population worldwide by 2050 will increase in size to 9 billion people, and that most of the burden will be in urban areas. Yet, much of today’s industrialization runs parallel with the advancement of technology and the mass industrial production of food. In the end, who benefits from it?

We have people pointing their fingers at poor urban and rural communities telling them if they want food security, all they have to do is grow their own vegetables, give up soda, and exercise, as if, by magic, eating vegetables and drinking water are going to solve the problems in the food system without looking at the structural determinants that reinforce racism in today’s society.

The subsidized/charity-based food system’s byproduct of industrial ag ends up in poor urban and rural communities. It’s cheap with no nutritional value.

For years I have criticized this subsidized/charity-based food system that was being used as a secondary grocery store instead of an emergency food provider and, in light of COVID, it is doing its job. However, in the long run this type of food system is not sustainable, nor should it be.

The industrialized food complex victimizes the poor. Long before COVID, in many cities there were lines of people in underserved communities getting their food from soup kitchens and food pantries on a daily basis. We have known for quite some time that there is a correlation between the food that we eat and our health, yet unhealthy food continues to wind up in poor neighborhoods while healthy food is in affluent ones; and even though poor communities are asked to eat healthy, the healthy, more nutritious food is more expensive, while the food with little to no nutritional value is cheap.

Our food system has cost us to focus more on profits and less on people and the environment. For too long we have been complacent and silent. We have given up our power to the government, lobbyists and big business. So now I will ask the question again: Is our food system broken and does it need to be fixed? No, I believe it has to change. That change comes with power. We must shift the power dynamics of our food system that leaves the poor and communities of color powerless and victimized. Power must go back into the hands of the community.

When it comes to community, we must understand the power we have: this means changing the way we view ourselves holistically and not how outsiders say or think who we are or should be. For example, folks have often called communities with limited access to food “food deserts,” “food swamps” or most recently “food mirages.” This political construct from outsiders would have us to believe that we don’t have supermarkets and/or limited access to food. We do have food: we have processed food, junk food and fast food. What we don’t have are healthy food options.

Instead, I use the term “food apartheid,” which brings to the forefront the effects of systemic racism, income inequality and demographics. We have a food system based on the haves and have nots, and until we recognize that healthy food is a human right for all, we must continue to have those hard conversations.

When thinking about who we are as a community, we need to look at our assets, capabilities and solutions. Asking a community what they need comes from a place of deficit, asking them what they want comes from a position of power.

We must value our social capital and communal wealth — which means voices are heard and collectively have the power to make change.

Another term I hear widely used now is food justice. I say it doesn’t exist, why, because the term has been co-opted, by folks framing their work within a typical food movement program or grant application. If you look at the definition of “food justice”you will find it is “a transformation of the current food system, including but not limited to eliminating disparities and inequities” — this is not a passive movement but an active one. So, in order to work on food justice, you have to be willing to work on dismantling the social injustices. The same goes for food sovereignty, which La Via Campesina defines as”the right of peoples and governments to choose the way food is produced and consumed in order to respect our livelihoods, as well as the policies that support this choice.”

The goal is less dependency on capital-intensive inputs that extract and greater attention to social and environmental principles that build communal wealth. In principle, it is about equity in the decision-making process and the distribution of resources when it comes to the common good for all people. Power must be in the hands of the people, thus advocating greater control over food production and consumption by people who have been marginalized by those with power.

Power: change starts with giving up power, which is very difficult to do. Power is like a drug. But as long as the food system embraces a power dynamic society of power over, it will remain stagnate and resistant to change.

From small farmers and growers, to food and farm workers, a healthy food system is not just about growing healthy food but making sure that all parties along the food chain are treated fairly and humanely. Food has become a commodity, based on profits and not on people. In order for the food system to change we must face the fact that it is about sharing or giving up power.

A food system that is dominated by white privilege and wealth, with a historical frame of power over has to acknowledge that power, and then give it up.

More than ever this pandemic has forced us to redefine what community looks like. A monolithic approach to growing food does not work from the standpoint of what we grow, or who is growing our food. Our food landscape has changed. We have now engaged folks to focus on a local food system that supports local businesses, small farms, farm workers, locally grown food.

This is our defining moment as a nation to examine the food system. In the name of food justice, agriculture must be fair and just. Healthy food must be a human right for all, along with water. We must see that the opportunity to have land and grow food is an option for all and not for some. We must acknowledge the practice of Indigenous people and not co-opt their practices as a new discovery.

When we talk about what it means to be inclusive, that means having power in the decision- making process in all aspects of agriculture, from policies, regulations, laws and seats at the table.

Finally, let’s raise our voices and shovels together. The impact from COVID-19 has magnified the inequities around hunger and poverty of which most of us know too well. This is our time; we cannot go back. We must reach out across communities, states and nations. Our food system is on one hand complex, on the other simple. There are dots along the way we must connect. From the person that plants the seed to the food that’s on our plate. Together, this food movement is ours to take back. We all must play a role in building a healthy food system that is fair, just and equitable, and it starts with each one of us.

Washington is an activist, food advocate and farmer. She is the co-owner of Rise & Root Farm in Chester, New York, and in 2010, co-founded Black Urban Growers (BUGS), an organization supporting growers in both urban and rural settings. This essay is excerpted from her keynote speech at the 2021 Common Ground Country Fair. You can watch Washington’s keynote in its entirety here.

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