December 15, 2010

Looking at Food System Issues through a ‘Food Justice Lens’

Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl

Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl

Research Assistant

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

I first came upon the term “food justice” from an organization in Oakland called People’s Grocery led by Brahm Ahmadi and others who were fighting against an unjust food system in the “food desert” of West Oakland. At the time, it was an area that left residents with liquor stores and corner stores instead of grocery stores, a high prevalence of obesity and diet-related disease, and food dollars from hard-earned incomes that left the community through “leakage.” In fact, it was this food justice term “leakage” that really tweaked my economic and social justice sensibilities. A 2004 study showed that for every dollar spent at a locally-owned business, 68 cents stayed within the local community, while only 43 cents of every dollar spent at a chain store stayed within the community. Ahmadi lives these numbers, working hard to bring a grocery store into West Oakland, which will create jobs and build the local economy, all while providing healthier food to the residents.


Gottlieb and Joshi’s book title, Food Justice, is the rallying cry of organizations like People’s Grocery and many others, and this book offers a fresh perspective on some of the food system issues that advocates in the various wings of the food movement have been writing about for a long time. The new angle that Food Justice takes is to examine those food system issues through a “food justice” lens. The authors explain what that means: A food justice orientation critiques and assesses the changing nature of food production and processing. It focuses on the need to reverse the disappearance of small farmers and farm-workers, along with the need to craft a different way to relate to the land and grow food. At the center of the food justice ethos is the demand for justice in the fields and work-places that produce and process foods, and for recognition of the dignity of work and basic human rights for those who have been denied such rights.”

In fact, the book goes beyond the production and processing of food to discuss food justice issues on the consumption side as well, with sections on low-income access to food, school food, the marketing of food, and food security. At the end of each chapter a great summary is provided that reminds us to stay true to the food justice perspective amidst the various interconnected food system issues.

I appreciated immensely the detailed sections on the history of the Farm Bill and the history of school food. In engaging detail, readers are taken through the history of one of the most important omnibus bills that exists, a bill that helps shape what we grow and what we eat. The book follows the original farm bill (called the Agricultural Adjustment Act) in 1933 in the depths of The Great Depression, to the 1950s and 60s when the Cold War shaped much of our desire to export food throughout the world from our vast surpluses. It also covers the 1970s when farmers were told to plant “fencerow to fencerow,” even as prices continued to drop and small farms were steadily disappearing. There is a powerful passage about the politics of school food. In the 1960s, the implementation of the National School Lunch Program was controlled by school administrators who had levels of prejudice that drastically stigmatized low-income students who received free lunch. “In Mississippi, for example, children receiving free and reduced-cost lunches were required to wait at the back of the lines until paying students had received their lunch … In Tucson, Ariz.,, low-income children were required to work on lunchroom chores such as sweeping floors or cleaning the washrooms in order to receive a free lunch.” Even a food system researcher will find new stories and new truths in this book.

The authors discuss a movement in India that keeps individuals connected to home-cooked food in the face of long commutes to the cities and an urban lifestyle. For 120 years, “dabbawallahs” have served home-cooked lunches to more than 200,000 people in Mumbai, picking up lunches from people’s own homes and delivering it to them in offices throughout the city.

This story hit a nerve for me, as I have experienced the search for fast, convenient and tasty food while working an office job. However, I have also experienced the U.S. version of the “dabbawallah” when I was teaching high school in Richmond, Calif. One of my students and her family would run a similar business where the family would make homemade enchiladas, pupusas, tacos, etc., and deliver them to teachers and administrators in the school three times a week. At the time, I saw the food as an opportunity for a struggling immigrant family to make some much-needed money, but now I cherish those meals as a way for me to connect to someone’s process of using fresh ingredients to make homemade food and earn an honest living while sharing their food culture. The motivation may still be financial, but this model creates jobs and can improve health while offering an alternative to corporate-owned fast food. It’s another example of how immigrant communities provide such valuable lessons to America.

This inspiring book provides endless examples of real people fighting real challenges and finding new ways to change the food system.

Andersonville Development Corporation. The Andersonville study of retail economics. 2004.

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