The Place of Race in Food Justice

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Frances Moore Lappé’s bestselling book Diet for a Small Planet, the first major work to criticize American meat production and advocate for a plant-centered diet as a means to combat global food scarcity. It is widely considered a foundational book of modern vegetarianism.

Forty years after the publication of this landmark book, the global food movement has made astonishing bounds: farmers markets are thriving, urban gardening and community-supported agriculture programs are becoming increasingly popular, and sales of organic goods have risen exponentially in the past decade. But there’s a lot still left to be done amid the great successes of our current food revolution.

As prominent American journalist and Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser asserts, any movement that focuses too narrowly on food without a fundamental commitment to social justice is bound to fail. And whose voices are being marginalized within the global food movement? As a disheartening report released last year by the Applied Research Center showed, the answer is overwhelmingly people of color — who on average make $5,675 less per year than whites in the food industry, and are concentrated in low-wage jobs.

While the convergence of racial justice and the food movement is not widely acknowledged, racial disparities in wages, access, and nutritional education show that a race-conscious effort to reform the food system is necessary to build healthier communities. From the production workers who pick and produce food, to the people who cook and serve it, the current system is largely built on cheap food, cheap labor, and the exploitation of impoverished workers.

Food justice must be grounded in racial justice. Though the interconnectedness of these movements may not be at the forefront of the American consciousness, an array of communities, groups, and individuals are working to challenge the dominant discourses around food and health in the United States and assert the need for a more nuanced vision of food reform. Here are just a few reasons to be hopeful:

  • The California Food and Justice Coalition (CFJC) prioritizes the needs of low-income communities and communities of color through projects such as garden-based education programs in underserved schools, community gardens for WIC recipients, and farmer’s markets that accept food stamp cards.
  • The Sistah Vegan Project, headed by activist and author Breeze Harper, focuses on the intersection of critical race theory, social injustice, and the vegan movement .
  • The Food Trust, a non-profit that began in the early 1990s by conducting nutrition education classes for inner city children in Philadelphia, has developed farmer’s markets in public housing developments and works with low-income communities to develop lasting and affordable food resources.

In a time when the face of health and environmental consciousness in America is too often portrayed as middle-class or wealthy, white,  and educated, these groups and others are recognizing the importance of aligning the movement for food justice with the needs of communities of color. They are at the forefront of ensuring that more food is being locally sourced and sustainably grown, and that alternative economic models like farmer’s markets and community gardens are thriving in places they didn’t previously exist.

Still the purchasing power of the federal minimum wage has declined almost 20% in the past forty years, and people of color remain those most negatively impacted by the failures of our food system. While the intersection of food and racial justice remains largely unaddressed within our media, by supporting organizations that acknowledge the pervasive racial injustice within our food system and educating ourselves about how to benefit these communities, we can build a greater, more conscious movement for food justice.

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2 thoughts on “The Place of Race in Food Justice

  1. Pingback: We Cannot Shop our Way to Food Justice | Hampshire Political Writing Workshop

  2. Pingback: We Cannot Shop Our Way to Food Justice | Resolver Revolver

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