What Is Food Justice?

Food justice is a movement to improve access to fresh, healthful, culturally relevant foods and to ensure that food chain workers—from farm workers to food servers—receive fair wages, employment benefits, and safe working conditions. Food justice advocates acknowledge how race, class, and gender have historically shaped the food system and strive to make it more equitable.

Some even aim to work outside the food system entirely, advocating for more locally grown food rather than food produced in the commercial agricultural system.

Why Food Justice Matters

Food plays a crucial role in every person’s life. No one can survive without nourishment and food is a major determinant of health, making access to high-quality food a basic human right, activists argue. But Americans who have been marginalized the most, especially low-income individuals and people of color, struggle to obtain such food.

Food Deserts

Lower-income groups and people of color may only be able to afford or easily access lower quality, highly processed foods because they live in neighborhoods without full-service grocery stores, complicating efforts to find a variety of produce options like fresh or frozen fruit, grains, and protein foods. In these areas, corner stores, bodegas, and chain restaurants are often the only available sources for food.

Food deserts, as neighborhoods without supermarkets are known, have links to redlining, a historic form of discrimination in which banks denied mortgages to people of color trying to buy homes in white neighborhoods.

Today, food deserts are concentrated in low-income communities of color, while more privileged neighborhoods typically have access to a wide range of grocery stores. And there are other issues at play that make this issue complex. For example, people who live in food deserts generally don't have a lot of time to spend in the kitchen as they may be single parents and/or working long hours.

Relying on corner stores and chain restaurants that serve high-fat, high-sugar, and high-salt foods for nourishment contributes to a number of adverse health outcomes for communities who are already burdened by poor health outcomes related to healthcare discrimination, racism, and chronic stress due to living in a society that doesn't value their humanity.

Understanding Food Justice

  • A movement that contends that access to fresh, healthful, culturally relevant foods should be a basic human right
  • Includes concern for fair pay and treatment for the workers who grow, pick, transport, or serve food
  • The United Farm Workers and the Black Panther Party are historic examples of food justice advocates
  • To participate in the movement, support striking food workers, follow food policy, buy locally grown food, and donate to charitable organizations

Food Justice & Indigenous Peoples

Food justice is also tied to the U.S. government’s historic treatment of Indigenous peoples. Moving Native Americans away from their ancestral homelands and forcing them into reservations disrupted their traditional dietary practices and has been linked to high rates of health problems in these communities today.

But closely tied to food justice is the food sovereignty movement, defined by the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance 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.”

The movement has seen Indigenous peoples reclaim their ancestral foods, dietary practices, and foraging and farming techniques.

African Americans in cities like Detroit and New York are also engaging in food sovereignty by growing their own food on urban farms and distributing it to vulnerable community members.

Food justice is a term that not only refers to one’s access to food but also to the people who grow, pick, transport, sell, or serve it. Workers of color are overrepresented in the food system and continue to fight for improved wages, benefits, and working conditions. People who work in the fields growing, picking, transporting, and selling food are often people who don't have consistent access to adequate foods. For many of them, if they don't work, they don't eat.

From enslavement onward, the labor of people of color in agriculture and other industries has been devalued. In the 1960s, activists fighting for justice for farm workers began to raise public awareness about this.

Historical Examples of Food Justice

The term food justice may not yet be familiar to the masses, but it is not a new concept.

César Chávez and Dolores Huerta

During the turbulent 1960s, the heyday of the civil rights movement, activists César Chávez and Dolores Huerta founded the United Farm Workers (UFW) labor union—initially the National Farm Workers Association—to empower agricultural laborers and raise public awareness about their treatment. 

Although these workers played an essential role in society, toiling in the fields for the nation’s fruit and vegetables, they did not receive a minimum wage, let alone a living one. But the Delano grape strike—along with marches, fasts, and boycotts—drew national attention to the plight of these workers, and the UFW organized much of the grape growing industry by 1970. 

The UFW’s actions weren’t the first time farm workers banded together to advocate for themselves, but their efforts to unionize these workers received support from the likes of then-U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-New York) and made national headlines.

The labor union’s pursuit of justice for farm workers raised public awareness about why the people who pick the nation’s food deserve the same protections as others.

The Black Panther Party

In its effort to unionize farm workers, the UFW received support from the Black Panther Party, the leaders of which said they shared a common experience of oppression with the mostly Hispanic and FIlipino agricultural laborers. But the party was also one of food justice champions.

In the late 1960s, it launched its free breakfast program for children in Oakland, California, ensuring that economically disadvantaged Black youth had access to fruit, cereal, milk, and other sources of protein before the school day began. The Panthers viewed access to nourishing foods as an issue directly tied to the liberation of African Americans.

They believed that nutrient-dense foods could strengthen the body and mind and that high-energy, nutrient-poor foods caused long-lasting damage that led to health pandemics in communities of color.  

With donations from grocery stores and input from nutritionists, the Panthers made their free breakfast program so successful that it spread to 45 different locations. By the 1970s, the group had fed breakfast to tens of thousands of children, many of whom hadn’t regularly eaten breakfast before. The party’s efforts toward food justice influenced the federal government to begin providing free breakfast for schoolchildren across the country.

Participating In the Movement 

The list of ways to get involved in the food justice movement is quite long. To start, consider buying locally grown food. Shop at the farmers markets in your community or patronize grocery stores and restaurants that sell such food. If you have the means and the inclination, try starting your own garden and giving some of the fruits and vegetables grown to neighbors who may not have regular access to these foods.

Producing food locally is also beneficial to the environment, as scientists have linked factory farming—and the greenhouse gases it produces—to climate change.

Climate justice, which highlights how people from marginalized communities suffer the most from global warming, intersects with food justice. 

Ending Food Insecurity

Food insecurity, or the inability to consistently access high-quality food, is also a worldwide problem, but privileged people can help to combat it by making donations to local food banks and volunteering at them as well.

Faith-based organizations such as Food for the Poor and Bread for the World have particularly worked to ensure that hungry people across the globe get the nourishment required to lead active and healthy lives.

They seek donors to make monthly commitments to help those in need. Similarly, labor advocacy groups rely on donations as well. The UFW is one of many such organizations seeking donations to help it better support the laborers who pick the nation’s crops.

Supporting Strikes

In addition to donating to labor unions and charities, food justice allies can support workers when they go on a strike. Listen to their demands and do your part. That could mean not patronizing a certain business for the length of the strike or contacting management to ask that workers get wage increases, paid sick leave, safer working conditions, and more. 

Public Policy Changes

Food justice, like all forms of social justice, is directly tied to public policy. As such, it’s important to have a working knowledge of domestic (and, in some cases, global) food policy and to contact elected officials about the legislation you’d like them to oppose or support.

Issues as wide ranging as the federal minimum wage, immigration policy, free school lunch, and production line speeds in food processing plants are among the many largely decided on at a national level. But city and state lawmakers also influence food policy.

Get to know them by attending city council meetings, town halls, and other events (physically or virtually) where the public can air their concerns. Far from a niche cause, the food justice movement means taking an interest in how society functions as a whole. 

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  1. United Farm Workers Union. The Story of César Chávez.

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