People of color are the most severely impacted by hunger, poor food access, diet-related illness and other problems with the food system. The food justice movement works not only for access to healthy food for all, but also examines the structural roots of these disparities — and works for racial and economic justice, too. This work isn’t new. What gets lost in the predominant narrative about urban white foodies obsessing over the latest food trend and statistics on poor health outcomes for minority groups is that people of color have been bringing historical injustices in the food system to light and have been working toward empowering alternatives.
The dominant food system, with its cheap, empty calories and ubiquitous fast food joints, leaves many Americans undernourished and unhealthy — and the brunt of those results are borne by low-income communities of color. Nationally, the rate of food insecurity for African-American households is more than double that of white households, 1 while one in five Latinos are food insecure — compared with one in ten whites and one in eight Americans overall. 2 Heart disease, cancer, diabetes and stroke are among the most common causes of illness, disability and death in the US. The factors that lead to these chronic conditions, including lack of access to healthy food, can be more common for minority groups. For example, Native Americans are 60 percent more likely to be obese than US whites, and the rate of diagnosed diabetes is 77 percent higher among African-Americans, 66 percent higher among Hispanics, and 18 percent higher among Asians than among whites. 3
But we cannot look at these as isolated facts, separate from a larger context. Food insecurity and high rates of diet-related disease correlate with poverty, which disproportionately impacts people of color. This is no coincidence — a long legacy of discriminatory and inequitable policies has left historically-oppressed peoples to start off with less wealth, property and opportunity than white people. 4 In addition to the racialized roots of poverty, the food system itself is built on centuries of exploitation of people of color. The roots of today’s hunger and health inequities run deep.
Food justice is a holistic and structural view of the food system that sees healthy food as a human right and addresses structural barriers to that right. The movement draws in part on environmental justice, which emerged in the 1980s as a critique of how environmentalism became more mainstream as it became more elite, more white, and more focused on wilderness and scenery than on human communities vulnerable to pollution (the effects of which are at once disparate and racialized). 5 Environmental justice is a movement primarily led by the people most impacted by environmental problems, connecting environmental health and preservation with the health of vulnerable communities. Food justice efforts (which are generally led by indigenous peoples and people of color) work not only for access to healthy food, but for an end to the structural inequities that lead to unequal health outcomes.
In some cases, environmental and food justice intersect. For example, many factory farms and meatpacking plants, which pollute neighboring communities’ water and air through excess manure runoff, noxious dust and noisome smells, are situated in communities that are predominantly inhabited by people of color. 6
A food justice lens examines questions of access to healthy, nutritious, culturally appropriate food, as well as: ownership and control of land, credit, knowledge, technology and other resources; the constituent labor of food production; what kind of food traditions are valued; how colonialism has affected the food system’s development and more. 7
A related concept is that of food sovereignty, defined as people’s right to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. 8 The idea of food sovereignty was developed by the international peasant group La Via Campesina, which claims 200 million members worldwide.
Land and food have been weaponized throughout the history of the US. The food system as we know it was built in large part by controlling people of color through force and coercion, including Native Americans, enslaved Africans, Chinese and Mexican farmworkers and many more. (Low-income white farmers have also struggled in very real ways, both historically and currently, but they have not been discriminated against on account of their race.) Since historical racially-motivated policies and beliefs created the current system, any discussion about changing it must also include a frank discussion about the long-term consequences of those policies — as well as how race motivates policies and culture today.
The hard truth about food and agriculture in the US begins with the fact that the vast majority of this nation’s farms are on stolen land. Federal laws, including the 1830 Indian Removal Act, 9 mandated that tens of thousands of people be removed from the land they had inhabited for countless generations. The US Army supported efforts to exterminate the buffalo, a primary food source for tribes of the Great Plains, as a strategy to starve Native Americans into submission. 10 The taken land was then redistributed for free or at extremely low cost to settlers, most of whom were white, through measures such as the Homestead Act. 11
What I miss in the US food movement is an urgent sense of history. History about the soil on which local food is grown. About the blood of first nations and slaves in that soil. About the legacy of settler colonialism that lets some folk obsess over kale while those harvesting it can’t afford to buy it.
Meanwhile, businesses in both the North and South were enriched for more than a century by legal slavery. Following the Civil War, the passage of sweeping Jim Crow laws institutionalized discrimination and ensured that cruel and unequal treatment of African-Americans would continue for decades. As a result, many former slaves and their descendants continued working in the fields sharecropping or to pay off debts, often in conditions not notably better than enslavement. Those who were able to buy land often didn’t have it for long. Black farmland ownership today is at about six percent of what it was at its peak in the 1920s; black farmers were dispossessed by discriminatory practices by the US Department of Agriculture and by acts of racial intimidation and terror — many rural Black Southerners were fleeing violence when they moved to northern states as part of the Great Migration. History has repercussions: those low rates of black property ownership are a key cause of today’s massive wealth gap. 12
But just as racialized violence and disparities in the food system are nothing new, people of color have always worked to create alternatives. As a few examples: enslaved people cultivated crops and food traditions from Africa through their enslavement 13; George Washington Carver was a pioneer in plant science and nutrition in the early 20th century; Southern Black landowners used their land as collateral to post bail for jailed civil rights workers and were key to the civil rights movement. 14
In the 1960s, the Black Panther Party, which fought for black self-determination, established more than 60 “survival programs” to meet community needs. 15 One of these was a breakfast program that distributed free breakfasts to 20,000 children in 19 cities — and is credited with jump-starting the National School Breakfast Program. 16 Around the same time, United Farm Workers, founded by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, united Filipino and Mexican workers in a movement that won rights for tens of thousands of farmworkers and paved the way for legislation guaranteeing basic worker rights to agricultural workers. 17
This legacy continues today, with many groups working to claim the rightful place of indigenous people and people of color in the narrative of the US food system and fight for both racial justice and access to good, healthy food for all.
For many Black-led farm and food organizations, empowerment begins by reckoning with the trauma of slavery, working with their populations to redefine a relationship with land from one of trauma and violence to one of healing and power. Soul Fire Farm in upstate New York offers a Black and Latinx Farmers Immersion to do just that. 18 Since 2012, the program claims more than 350 graduates, 83 percent of whom are farming or otherwise involved in producing food following the program. 19 Soul Fire is part of the Freedom Food Alliance, a collective of farmers, political prisoners and organizers who use food justice to address racism in the criminal justice system. In Detroit, a city with a large undeveloped land base and rapid gentrification, Detroit Black Community Food Security Network has been building power for more than a decade to ensure that wealth and other benefits from redevelopment will accrue to the city’s historically Black population rather than exclusively to white newcomers. Black Urban Growers was founded in 2010 to build community support for black farmers in both urban and rural areas, and the National Black Food and Justice Alliance cultivates black leadership and organizes for food and land sovereignty. In the South, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives has been supporting farmer cooperatives for fifty years, while the Southeastern African American Farmer’s Organic Network (SAAFON) helps black farmers, vastly underrepresented in organic farming, navigate the certification process and provides small loans and other assistance.
For Native American communities, food justice and food sovereignty are often about re-establishing native culture and foodways, destroyed by colonialization and displacement, and about reclaiming indigenous health. The Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance and White Earth Land Recovery Network/Native Harvest both work to restore indigenous food systems that support self-determination, wellness and cultures and rebuild relationships with the land. The First Nations Development Institute supports rebuilding Native control over their own food systems, while the University of Arkansas School of Law Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative provides practical, technical and legal support for such efforts. Minnesota-based chef Sean Sherman and his team, together known as “The Sioux Chef,” are revitalizing Native American Cuisine. They write that in the process, they are re-identifying a North American Cuisine and reclaiming a long-buried and inaccessible culinary culture.
Immigrants and migrants from Central and South America have been successful food justice organizers for decades as they have often led the fight for farmworker rights. Much of today’s food justice organizing by Latinx groups still carries on this long tradition; as immigrants from Africa, Asia and around the world have also become farm and food workers, many of them have joined these fights as well. Groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Food Chain Workers Alliance and Community to Community Development, each led by immigrant and migrant farm and food workers, have won major victories in terms of wages and fair treatment, and brought multinational corporations to the bargaining table. The Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) has been successfully organizing restaurant workers to advocate for improved wages and working conditions.
Rooted in Community brings together youth groups centered on food justice, from around the country, for an annual conference to learn from one another toward building the next generation of food justice activists.
These are just some of the many organizations working right now to bring an explicit racial justice analysis to farming and food, examining the history and present context of white supremacy in the food system and working to ensure equity and access for all people.