A YEAR had passed since Hurricane Katrina. Most schools in New Orleans had been destroyed or damaged and had only begun to reopen in 2006. As the rebuilding efforts got under way, education emerged as a critical issue, since the schools had been in such poor shape even before the hurricane. New Orleans residents talked of turning the tragedy into an opportunity to start anew, especially with the school system. But among the voices talking about what needed to be done there was one glaring omission: the voices of the students themselves.
That omission led to the birth of one of the most imaginative and inspirational groups to burst onto the scene in New Orleans, one that sought to apply the emerging food justice approach to improving the school food environment as part of a broader transformation of the schools themselves. A group of about twenty middle school students, calling themselves the Rethinkers, joined in an organizing effort to identify what was wrong with the schools in New Orleans and envision a better way. They had been brought together by Jane Wholey, one-time journalist, media consultant, and activist who had experience training young people to voice their ideas to the public through press conferences and other media strategies.
By the summer of 2008, the Rethinkers had chosen to focus on school food and the school cafeteria environment. To them, the issues were clear and visible: the food tasted terrible and the cafeteria conditions were pathetic. Long lines and short lunch periods made it nearly impossible for students to wash their hands, eat, and digest the food. And the list went on, all symptoms of a broken school food operation. The group brought in Johanna Gilligan of the New Orleans Food and Farm Network, a local alternative food policy and advocacy group, as a resource person to work with them. Under Gilligan’s guidance, the Rethinkers began to learn about alternatives, including bringing local, fresh foods into the cafeteria, changing menus to provide healthy and fresh food, and reorienting the overall school food environment. They also discovered that food had powerful environmental implications, including the ramifications of distant sourcing rather than using local food sources.
That summer, as part of their learning process, the Rethinkers went out to Grand Isle to talk to the local shrimpers and hear their stories. Shrimp was at the heart of the New Orleans food and culture connection and central to the community’s battered identity. Although the New Orleans shrimp industry had been hit hard by Katrina, the Rethinkers learned that the major issue for local shrimpers was the development of industrially farmed, globally sourced shrimp that was heavily laden with chemicals and antibiotics and then shipped to New Orleans and other far-flung destinations. This restructuring of the shrimp industry was directly tied to the globalization of the food supply that was undermining local food cultures and devastating regional food economies. Industrially farmed shrimp, associated with what has been called the “Blue Revolution” (an aquatic version of the industrial, export-oriented, globally driven Green Revolution), had literally transformed the very nature of the shrimp that were available in restaurants like Red Lobster and stores like Wal-Mart. As the organization Food First described it, “semiintensive and intensive shrimp farms function more or less as aquatic feedlots for shrimp and have environmental impacts similar to those associated with factory farming of cattle, hogs, and poultry, all part of the transformation of food in the late 20th and early 21st century.”
The Rethinkers quickly became more passionate about the food issue, not just as a way to improve their school meals but also because they could envision themselves as part of something larger that could help their community. They realized that by changing what came into the school cafeteria they could also help stimulate the local economy, most notably the devastated local shrimp industry.
The 2008 press conference hosted by the Rethinkers focused on school food issues and was the best attended to date. The ramifications were immediate. The superintendent of the school district committed himself on camera to working toward incorporating the sourcing of local food for school food programs—a timely issue, since the district had begun to discuss a possible new food service contract. When the school nutritionist, who had become sympathetic to the Rethinkers’ local food agenda, asked if the Rethinkers could provide proof that kids would actually eat healthy local fare, the Rethinkers conducted blind taste tastes and successfully demonstrated that students would indeed eat local, fresh, and healthy foods, an eye-opening outcome for some of the school officials. Other changes were also in the works, including plans to develop school gardens at all fifteen new schools under construction. Perhaps most important for the Rethinkers was the commitment to place locally harvested shrimp on the school food menu.
The changes in the New Orleans school food environment quickly became known throughout the country and were seen as a major victory for alternative food advocates. But as the food advocates discovered, what was unique about the Rethinkers was that school children—middle schoolers—had initiated the changes themselves, and in the process had learned about food justice. As word of their activities spread, the Rethinkers were invited to speak at various events, and to participate on a plenary panel during the Fourth National Farm to Cafeteria Conference in Portland, Oregon. First organized in 2002, these conferences had become the major gathering for school food advocates around the country. More than 600 people heard the Rethinkers tell their inspiring story and were stunned to see how young these change-makers were, yet how confident and empowered they felt, and what important changes they had accomplished. The Rethinkers got a standing ovation, a testimony to their phenomenal success. For the middle schoolers from New Orleans, it was an affirmation of what they had dreamed: that they could make change happen. In the process, they had become food justice champions. Although the changes they had accomplished were modest, and although monitoring to ensure implementation remained a challenge, they had nevertheless demonstrated that another way was possible—one school, one cafeteria, and one shrimper at a time.
IN THE winter of 2000, the environmental justice journal Race, Poverty, and the Environment dedicated part of an issue to a discussion of food and the environment, noting the parallels between environmental justice advocacy and the approach of some of the emerging community food groups. The environmental justice slogan that the environment is “where we live, work, and play,” the editors observed, could be extended to “where, what, and how we eat.” Put another way, the new work on food could be seen as seeking to transform where, what, and how food is grown, produced, transported, accessed, and eaten.
This discussion occurred at a critical time in the development of the food justice and environmental justice movements. While environmental justice groups had helped reorient the environmental movement to address environmental disparities and better link the struggles to uncover and mitigate community hazards with broader system change, the emerging community food groups were still grappling with core issues of equity, empowerment, and social change to better define their own place among a diverse and sometimes divided set of food advocacy groups. Since then, some unifying themes have begun to emerge, such as the need for a healthier food system.
Food justice, like environmental justice, is a powerful idea. It resonates with many groups and can be invoked to expand the support base for bringing about community change and a different kind of food system. It has the potential to link different kinds of advocates, including those concerned with health, the environment, food quality, globalization, workers’ rights and working conditions, access to fresh and affordable food, and more sustainable land use.
Putting together the two words food and justice does not by itself accomplish the goal of facilitating the expansion and linkage of groups and issues. Nor does it necessarily create a clear path to advocating for changes to the food system or point to ways to bring about more just policies, economic change, or the restructuring of global, national, and community food pathways. But it does open up those pathways for social and political action, and it helps establish a new language of social change in the food arena. Even as food justice has begun to represent a compelling way to talk about changes in the food system, it remains a relatively unformed concept, subject to multiple interpretations. At best, it is seen as a work in progress, residing at the edges of an emerging alternative food movement.
The published literature and media presentations on food justice provide little guidance. The recent explosion of books, articles, and films that critique the dominant food system and identify an alternative approach, from Michael Pollan’s best-sellers The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food to films such as Food Inc. and King Corn, have been influential in elevating alternative food ideas and agendas for change. Yet food justice remains little explored in print, film, and other media, particularly when it comes to analyzing food justice as a potential new social movement and its implications for food system change. This situation stands in contrast to, for example, the environmental justice movement’s specific history, its particular set of reference points, such as environmental disparities, a growing body of writings, and a set of prominent issues, organizations, and constituencies associated with environmental justice.
A few attempts have been made to define food justice by noting how the food system creates food injustices. For example, Tim Lang and Michael Heasman argue that “there is rising evidence of injustice within the food system,” which they characterize as “the maldistribution of food, poor access to a good diet, inequities in the labour process and unfair returns for key suppliers along the food chain.” Yet even as the language of justice is embraced by a growing number of food groups, exactly what constitutes a food justice approach still remains a moving target.
One of the first alternative food groups to incorporate “justice” into its name and agenda was New York’s Just Food, which was founded in 1994. In 2002, the Community Food Security Project (one of the programs within our organization, the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute, or UEPI) changed its name to the Center for Food & Justice (CFJ). We felt it was important to include the word “justice” in the center’s name to more explicitly link its work to the work of other social and environmental justice organizations, even as we sought to identify opportunities for broad food system changes.
Several other alternative food groups have begun to use the food justice framework to identify themselves and their issues. Yet the shift toward a new language has not always been smooth. The emerging food justice–oriented groups and advocates have challenged the composition, agendas, and policy initiatives of many of the alternative food groups, a critique that has yielded new insights in this area of work. Commonly, tension arises over the emphasis, that is, whether the group should address inequities in different parts of the system or system change. Many groups, including UEPI, have successfully used research and action projects to elaborate a food justice orientation while seeking and evaluating opportunities to transform the food system. Food justice has the capacity to reorient the food movement in both ways—to prioritize the need to address inequities while seeking to change the system as a whole. Food justice also has the potential to be integrated into other social justice movements, such as those concerned with community economic development, the environment, housing, or transportation. It also has the potential to serve as a key common element binding together different groups on behalf of a broad social change agenda.
THE FOOD justice groups today are at a pivotal moment. They have begun to influence the direction of food advocacy to make it more inclusive, pointing out the need for deeper changes in the food system. They have brought about some impressive changes at the institutional level, in some policy arenas, and perhaps most extensively in the public discourse around food—where and how it is grown, the importance of access, the need for a new kind of eater’s ethic, and the need for a connection to where one’s food comes from. Yet the food justice groups also remain uncertain about where these early victories can lead and how an overarching theory of change of the food system should be further developed to help shape their future actions and agenda. An even greater hurdle looms as the dominant food industry interests begin to respond to the changes that have taken place and the challenges presented to their power and control over food system choices. As food retailers such as Wal-Mart, the pesticide and agribusiness players such as Monsanto, the fast food and junk food purveyors such as McDonald’s and PepsiCo, and the vertically integrated operators such as Tyson become aware of these new challenges, they are expected to introduce a new set of arguments, to undertake preemptive and manipulative actions to obscure the notion of change, and to work to ensure that the more entrenched aspects of the food system, such as the trends toward corporate concentration and global reach, remain out of play. In light of the vast reach of the dominant global food system and the expected responses of the major players, the question for food justice advocates remains, can more fundamental or structural change truly happen?
For that to happen, the food justice groups need to expand their own reach and identify how they can best accomplish three major goals: (1) influencing existing food groups and helping them coalesce through actions into a social change movement, (2) identifying an agenda for change that may be incremental but that also establishes a structural shift in the food system and points to a longer-term theory of change, and (3) linking their advocacy and goals to those of other social movements in the United States and globally to promote more socially just, sustainable, and democratic communities and societies and an alternative globalization agenda.
The first goal, establishing a social change movement, seems possible and even within reach, owing to the rapid growth and proliferation of food justice advocacy, the diversity of advocates, the different issues that have been raised, and the increasing presence of young people in the food justice groups, bringing a new passion, energy, and desire for change to the movement.
The second goal, identifying and advancing structural change and developing a longer-term theory and agenda to make such change systemwide, remains more evasive. The United States especially has long been a burial ground for system change advocacy, particularly in the food arena, in part because key constituent groups such as farmworker- and small farmer–based organizations, workplace groups, and poor people’s movements lack strength, in part because of the absence of a political force such as a green party or a social democratic party that could nurture such advocacy and ensure that reforms are structural and lasting. Yet the debates surrounding the 2008 Farm Bill are instructive in how such structural change can begin to be identified. During the Farm Bill legislative process there was a noticeable shift in the discourse—in the language and ideas about food—with a concomitant recognition of openings not yet seized but potentially available in future debates and political struggles to come. The strength and reach of that language and those ideas about the need for food system change can lead to small victories but also have the potential to lay the groundwork for broader structural reform as the discourse changes. This notion of language and ideas helping make change happen reflects what Antonio Gramsci once described as a “war of position”—that is, civil society actors, by redirecting the public discourse, lay the groundwork for the deeper political, institutional, economic, cultural, and government changes required. The new language about food justice, therefore, helps shape an action agenda; those actions in turn underscore how incremental change can begin to turn into fundamental change; and as those changes occur they further influence and deepen the critique about the dominant food system.
It is the third goal, advocacy around food system change becoming part of a broader social change movement, that may at first seem most elusive. Groups advocating for social change around specific issues such as housing, the environment, transportation, or even the economy have been locked into “issue silos,” reinforced by the absence of crosscutting organizations or political parties or unions or any of the other potential social change agents capable of driving a broader social movement. This has also been true within the food groups themselves. Yet it is here where food justice advocacy can play an important role. Food issues are embedded in daily life experiences, and food pathways (where and how food is grown, produced, accessed, and eaten) intersect with any number of other issue areas and constituent group interests. By speaking the language of justice and system change, food justice builds crossover appeal and several potential linkages that are easy to understand, including for those not deeply rooted in food issues. You can’t change the food system unless you also begin to address the global economic forces and the social, political, and cultural institutions affected by them. It is why the call for food justice and food sovereignty has resonated with the World Social Forum and its appeal for an alternative globalization.
Social change movements have emerged at different times in the United States. The turn of the twentieth century, for example, saw the rise of the Socialist Party and other progressive social movements. The 1930s, and more recently the 1960s and early 1970s, when the civil rights, feminist, antiwar, student, and environmental movements burst onto the scene, identified critical social change agendas, some but not all of which came to be embraced and partially implemented. It is not yet clear whether we are on the cusp of such an era; but among the groups currently advocating for change, those calling for food justice and food system change and reinvention show promise of contributing to and inspiring a new social movement.
Robert Gottlieb is the Director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute and Professor of Urban & Environmental Policy at Occidental College.
Anupama Joshi is co-director of the National Farm to School Network.
Homepage photo: Steven Walling/Wikimedia Commons/2007.