What Food Justice Is and Why It Matters, Explained

The food justice movement seeks to create a fair and sustainable food system.

Two hands holding coriander in a garden

Explainer Food Food Systems

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Food fulfills a basic human need, but it’s not equally accessible to all humans. At least 735 million people worldwide experience hunger — a number that has increased by 122 million since 2019. The uneven distribution of food worldwide results in food deserts, death and illness, among other forms of injustice.

What’s more perplexing: deep and persistent inequities in the food system aren’t due to a lack of food. We are now producing more food than ever, in fact — enough to feed 1.5 times the global population. Yet people across nearly 55 countries do not have access to sufficient food. On top of that, in some countries, nearly 40 percent of the food supply goes to waste each year.

Even though the concept of food justice is often associated with food security, there’s a lot more to the idea. At its core, this ever-evolving movement deals with injustice in every aspect of our food system.

Today, all of the data points towards the urgency of this issue and the need for substantial changes to the way we produce and distribute food. So let’s take a look at what food justice is, and how it seeks to bring equity to food systems.

What Is Food Justice?

The food justice movement promotes practices that make healthy food easily accessible to everyone, no matter where they come from, how much they earn or where they live. The concept covers every aspect of food, whether it is growing, distributing, selling or educating people to opt for healthy choices. Moreover, it advocates for the rights of workers, farmers and landowners.

To understand what food justice is and how it works on a local level, we can take a closer look at organizations like Urban Tilth in Oakland, California, which has established more than 60 community gardens that provide healthy food to people at affordable prices. The “Just Food” organization is another group in the U.S., which trains farmers, establishes farmers markets and reaches underserved areas.

Historical Origins of the Food Justice Movement

Food historians say the Greenwood Food Blockade marked the origin of the food justice movement. In the Mississippi Delta in the early 1960s, access to food was cut off by white people in power as a strategy of disempowering Black residents who were fighting for civil rights. The all-white board of supervisors discontinued the Federal Surplus Food Commodity Program for instance, a program that had been providing food staples to 90 percent of Black people in the winters.

In response to this, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee petitioned President John F. Kennedy to intervene. Eventually, the federal government mandated the reinstatement of the food program. In the end, the blockade ended up acting as a catalyst for a new Food for Freedom program.

Members of this burgeoning movement knew that food justice extended beyond government programs. In 1969, they launched the Free Breakfast for Children program, which sought to address immediate hunger among underprivileged children. Its success sparked a national conversation about food insecurity, eventually increasing funding for the National School Lunch Program.

These victories laid the foundation for the continued battles today for food justice.

Why Is Food Justice Important?

Every human’s survival depends on having access to clean water and food. Below are some of the many reasons food justice is important.

Addresses the Lack of Healthy Food Options

In many places, it is extremely difficult to get healthy eating options — especially in food desert areas. The USDA has estimated that one in eight Americans reside in food desert, though the agency has ceased using the term, recognizing that there are more barriers to good nutrition than lack of fresh food options, which must also be addressed. Still, people who lack access to healthy food are more likely to be overweight, and are also at an increased risk of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart issues, according to the CDC.

Many people opt for unhealthy foods because they are comparatively cheaper than healthy food options. Food justice focuses on providing healthy food at affordable prices so that people can afford fresh and balanced meals.

Pushes for Community Control of Food Production

Food justice encourages people to take charge of their food production and distribution. It means farmers or landowners decide what they want to grow or sell in neighboring areas. This approach aids the availability of healthy local foods and community building.

Community-led food production can increase access to healthy food — creating jobs and supporting local economies. Along with this, it also promotes self-sufficiency.

Identifies Systemic Issues That Prevent Food Equality

The issue of food justice reveals systemic inequalities of racism and poverty.  A huge number of Black and Hispanic Americans face food insecurity compared to white Americans. Moreover, the number of Black children facing food insecurity is nearly three times that of white children.

Food justice addresses unfair policies, racism and financial inequality — and works towards bringing long-term changes.

What Is the Food Justice Movement?

Nutritious food should be a right, not a privilege. Pledging allegiance under this motto, communities come together to voice against  injustice regarding food production, ownership, taxation and distribution. Here are three levels on which food justice works:

Black-Led Food Justice Organizations

Many organizations, such as the Black Food Sovereignty Alliance and National Black Food Justice Alliance, provide food for Black people who are suffering from food insecurity. They work to remove the barriers that prevent Black people from getting nutritious food.

Indigenous Food Justice

Traditional knowledge and practices of land and culture form the foundation of Indigenous food systems. This foundation is a way of paying respect and honoring the traditional practices of the land and its earliest dwellers. There are three main components to Indigenous food justice: protecting the rights of Indigenous land and water, assisting farmers and promoting Indigenous food security and self-determination.

Food Worker Justice

Food worker justice works to improve food workers’ working conditions and rights, as these laborers are frequently underpaid and have few benefits. According to Real Food Media, eight of the 10 lowest-paying jobs in the U.S. are in the food chain.

Ironically and particularly unjustly, workers in the food system are twice as likely to experience food insecurity compared to those in other industries. Food worker justice focuses on ensuring fairness and dignity for those who maintain the smooth operation of our food system.

Examples of the Food Justice Movement in Action

From its origin until today, the food justice movement has inspired people to take action to achieve a just food system. Here are a few examples:

1. Advocating for Agroecological Farming

Some food justice advocates promote sustainable farming through agroecology. The practices and methods used in agroecology emphasize nature-based sustainable farming practices rather than technological advances. Agroecology is typically best suited for small-scale farms, as the approach recommends growing food with minimal pesticides.

2. Championing Food Education

Providing knowledge about healthy foods is one of the main agendas of food justice, as is educating children about healthy food choices. Food education should go beyond healthy food choices, however, to include the tenants of food justice and food sovereignty.

3. Defending Food Workers’ Rights

Food justice recognizes the labor and rights of those who work to get the rest of us our food. It advocates for rights related to working conditions, wages, policies and ownership. Plus, it promotes respect for those who make it all possible — the farmers.

4. Ensuring Equal Opportunity

The next area of work is eradicating the barriers that are causing unequal distribution of food. Food justice seeks to  ensure that no human suffers from a lack of food due to cultural, religious, financial or racial discrimination.

5. Expanding Food Access

Providing food in underserved areas is another element of food justice. Food justice initiatives establish stores, farmer markets and pantries to make it easier for people to access food. It also helps community-led food establishments.

6. Fighting for Land Access

Food justice fights against land taxes and policies that act as hurdles for small-scale farmers and Indigenous communities. Land ownership provides people with the freedom to continue their traditional practices. It’s about saving culture and land from industrial agriculture’s exploitation.

7. Saving and Sharing Seeds

Food justice protects the rights of Indigenous people and their traditions, which also involves preserving biodiversity to save a variety of crops. It helps to protect local culture and rich heritages related to food. Today, a number of organizations conserve seeds as a way to promote crop diversity and culinary heritages.

8. Vegan Food Justice Movement

The vegan food justice movement helps make ethical, sustainable and equitable food systems — as it encourages eating plant-based foods. Among many other concerns, vegan food justice organizations like The Food Empowerment Project seek to reduce the environmental and humanitarian strain of animal agriculture. They advocate for the rights of farmworkers, for access to healthy plant-based food and against food deserts. They also remind vegan activists that just because their food is vegan, that doesn’t mean it’s automatically ethically produced.

Some Food Justice Terms You Should Know

  • Food Bank

A food bank is a large pantry that provides food to people in need. This facility stores a significant quantity of food before distributing it to people who may have insufficient access to nourishment.

  • Food Desert

A food desert is a location where it is extremely difficult to find healthy and fresh food, such as in low-income neighborhoods and rural areas.

  • Food Apartheid

Food apartheid occurs when some communities do not have as equal access to good food as others, usually due to where they live, or their race.

  • Food Security

Food security means having enough nutritious food to eat without fear of running out.

  • Food System

The food system is a vast web that connects farms to our plates. It includes everything from growing and harvesting food, to selling and eating it.

  • Food Pantry

A food pantry is an outlet where people in need get free food. It’s like a small store where people can get groceries to help them get through tough times.

  • Food Sovereignty

Food sovereignty is about communities having control over their own food choices. It fosters the idea of having the right to choose what food to grow and consume.

  • Soup Kitchen

People who might not have a home or enough money can go to a soup kitchen to get a warm meal. It resembles a charitable eatery that assists those in need.

  • SNAP

In the United States, SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. It’s a program that offers low-income households additional money for groceries. 

  • Food Waste

Food waste is the food that ends up in the trash because it isn’t consumed.

The Bottom Line

Food justice started with a simple aim — to ensure everyone has equal access to food. But it has evolved into something much bigger, seeking to revolutionize every aspect of our unjust food system.

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