What is Food Justice + Why Is It Important?

What is Food Justice + Why Is It Important?
What is Food Justice + Why Is It Important?

What is food justice and why is it important? How does it connect to environmental racism and race in general? I feel within the zero waste community, this isn’t a topic that’s often talked about enough. We’re often encouraged to shop for our groceries plastic-free, which while a nice ideal, isn’t possible for everyone for varying reasons. So many people do not have access to bulk food stores, farmers markets, or fresh produce in general, let alone plastic-free produce. How can we expect to make the zero waste movement more inclusive if we cannot see and address these problems? We can start by examining food justice, and how it correlates to race and the environment. 


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What is Food Justice + Why Is It Important?

What is Food Justice + Why Is It Important?

What is food justice?

Food justice is the belief that everyone (regardless of race, income, gender, national origin) has the right to access fresh, healthy food. Healthy food is a human right: Everyone needs to eat, and everyone deserves to have access to fresh foods.

Access is a mix between affordability, location, and cultural appropriateness. It means people deserve food they can afford, easily get to, and honors their culture. For example: A local farmers market that offers a wide range of culturally diverse fresh foods at affordable prices.

When I speak of cultural appropriateness, it’s important to understand some cultures get sick if they eat unfermented foods, or other cultures where the majority of folks are lactose intolerant. There are so many diverse ethnic groups with unique cultural backgrounds to consider who all eat different foods. So, it’s important for these groups to be able to not only eat the foods they know and love, but also to be healthy doing it. It’s about maintaining your grandmother’s special dish as much as it is about keeping healthy.

Food is culture: It’s how we nourish our families, share love, and communicate with one another. Being able to prepare and enjoy food that is actually healthy for our bodies allows us to have food security.

According to Disabled World, Food security is defined as the availability of food and one’s access to it. A household is considered food secure if the occupants do not live in constant hunger or fear of starvation. Stages of food insecurity can range from food secure situations to full scale famine.

Not everyone has access to fresh food, and it’s even harder on people of color. Nationally, the rate of food insecurity for African-American households is more than double that of white households. Also, one in six Latino households in the U.S. struggles with hunger. For Latino children it’s even worse – more than 18 percent of Latino children are at risk of hunger, compared to 12 percent of white, non-Hispanic children.

There truly is a connection between race and food insecurity, and it’s something we must all see and act on.

Imagine living without knowing where your next meal is coming from. Imagine frequently going hungry – not by choice, but because you cannot afford or access healthy food.

I’m not sure about you, but when I’m hungry or dehydrated, it’s extremely hard to focus on anything. How can we expect our neighbors to get involved in the zero waste movement, in the climate crisis, when they don’t even have enough food in their fridge?

Food justice strives to correct these wrongs. Along with food justice, comes food sovereignty which asserts that people must reclaim their power in the food system by rebuilding the relationships between people and the land, and between food providers. By BIPOC communities reclaiming the land, and their relationship to it, food justice can be achieved.

Why is food justice important?

We all need food. Simply put, it’s a human right. Unfortunately, where you live, what skin color you are, and your income all influence how you eat.

Here’s an example that hits home for me: On Staten Island, where I live, the North Shore is 48 percent black or Hispanic, while the South Shore (where I live) is predominantly white. For every supermarket in the North Shore, there are 28 bodegas. Compare that to the South Shore where I live: For every supermarket in the South Shore, there are 4 bodegas.

This is a perfect example of food insecurity and food deserts. Food deserts are areas that have limited access to fresh, nutrient dense food – they tend to be filled with fast food chains and convenience stores. Bodegas tend to sell cheap, pre-packaged foods that contain little to no nutrients. Considering the North Shore is a low income community, they’d likely struggle with affording the food a supermarket sells even if more moved into the neighborhood.

This is the sad truth about food deserts and food injustice. When a low income black family can only afford $15 on groceries every week, there’s no way they’ll be able to reason out spending $4 on a single head of lettuce.

Food injustice and racism tie together very close. And it’s not just because of food access.

According to Roots of Change, food injustice began by taking the land from Indigenous people to create farms. It continued with the enslavement of Indigenous and African people to work the farms. It continued with the exploitation of immigrant labor from Asia and then Latin America.

Farm management tends to be white while farm workers and food workers are people of color. This also means crop growing has exposed people of color to more chemicals (think Roundup).

Controlling land and food is the ultimate form of oppression. Hunger is a weapon designed to keep people where they are.

The sick irony of all this? We have enough food on the planet to feed everyone. It’s a problem with mismanagement.

Currently 1 in 9 people will suffer from hunger, and climate change will only make it worse. In 2010 alone, 133 billion pounds of food was wasted. That’s $161 billion worth of food – in only one year! Imagine what it’s like altogether.

Food waste is a huge part of the climate crisis: When food is thrown away and sent to landfill, it doesn’t decompose properly and emits methane and other greenhouse gases. Methane is 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

All this food waste could be averted from the landfill if consumers, grocery stores, restaurants, and farmers managed their food better. It could go to those who are in need and feed so many people. But again, it’s all about control.

If you ever watch the documentary Just Eat It, you’ll be appalled at how grocery store workers are literally told to throw out perfectly good food and destroy it on purpose so no one can get to it. After all, free food isn’t exactly a way to make a profit, now is it?

If we expect people of color to join the zero waste movement, and fight climate change, we should also expect better from these systems designed to oppress BIPOC communities. If we want to divert food waste, a contributing factor to climate change, we also have to remember who it hurts the most.

This is why we must think beyond ‘plastic-free food’ – we must think about why only certain communities get access to fresh food in general, let alone plastic-free produce. We must question these systems that are designed to starve people into submission.

We cannot have environmental justice without racial justice. In the same way, we cannot have environmental justice without food justice. Food is life – without access to affordable whole foods, BIPOC communities will continue to go hungry – and that’s not a debatable topic, nor is it helpful in the fight against climate change. When we nourish our bodies, we nourish our minds.

How is food justice good for the zero waste movement?

For starters, people need food to survive. They need it to fuel their bodies. It’s one of the most basic human rights and needs. We can’t expect people to get their groceries package free if they don’t even have access to fresh foods to start with.

Also, bulk food stores are rare to find in low income, BIPOC neighborhoods. So, along with fresh foods, it’s hard for BIPOC communities to shop for package free items – period. Be it dry goods, bulk liquid items (like soap, shampoo, etc.) or fresh foods.

But having access to them isn’t enough – these shops must also be affordable so BIPOC communities can enjoy them. We must find a way to make fresh foods less expensive than unhealthy over-processed foods.

We also have to make the zero waste movement more accessible. Which is why fighting for food justice is so important. If we advocate for it, and help out our local communities, we can create food systems that enable and empower BIPOC communities to shop plastic-free, if they so choose. And, most importantly, they gain access to the fresh foods white people take for granted.

But let me stress that shopping plastic-free for your groceries is only part of what the zero waste movement stands for. Plastic-free is a nice goal and aesthetic, but zero waste is more than just a mason jar filled with trash. It’s about creating impactful change that helps the environment and its people as a whole. It’s time we use our privilege to make zero waste more accessible and inclusive for everyone.

We have to think a little broader than plastic – and helping fight food injustice is a great place to start. Plus, lots of the food justice solutions I list below help promote a more circular economy in general!

How can we help achieve food justice?

Glad you asked. Achieving food justice isn’t exactly a one and done deal – there’s a lot of things to take into consideration. It’s not an easy path, but it’s one worth doing. And it all starts with you.

I know it’s tempting to think on a global scale because we want to see BIG changes happen in our world, but I encourage you to start small. The smaller the better, in fact.

It’s a good idea to start analyzing your own food spending habits and questioning where you get your food from. Also, observing your local community and taking notes on food accessibility is important too.

There needs to be a focus on your own actions and spending habits, along with a way to bring it into your community. Making change within yourself is fine, and a good place to start, but it needs to go beyond that for food justice. Making a change in your local community is where the most food justice will occur.  It will help create a stronger, more resilient community altogether – and that’s priceless.

Here are my top tips for achieving food justice in your community:

  • Start with yourself. Purchase food that supports local farmers that tend to be smaller in size and treat their workers ethically. Purchase from a CSA. Grow your own food in your backyard, front yard, or windowsill. If you have a surplus of food from your own garden, donate some to food pantries near you or Ample Harvest. Start seed saving from farmers market produce you love. Learn about food waste and ways to fight it. Don’t rely on a system that continuously suppresses people and mistreats their workers – by growing your own food, you are not only establishing food security for yourself, but rejecting an abusive food system entirely.
  • Join or start a community garden. Community gardens are wonderful places that allow you, and others, a place to grow your own food. Many members of community gardens don’t have any room to grow food at home (AKA, me), so it offers them a space to do this. It also offers local residents access to fresh food that’s affordable – something residents of food deserts are desperately in need of. By joining one, you’re showing support for locally grown food and the need for community. Community gardens do just that – build community. You get to be a part of something bigger than yourself, make friends, and possibly even make connections that will further you in your food justice journey. For example, my community garden reserves several plots for Project Hospitality, a nonprofit that provides food and nutrition through food pantries and soup kitchens. I really want to volunteer with them when coronavirus clears up more! For info on starting a garden in your community, check out this resource.
  • Vote. Elect officials (both locally and in the primaries – both matter greatly) who speak about and advocate for food justice, along with social justice. Sometimes local elections can matter even more than the primaries because local elections determine who will represent you – your state. And getting someone in there with similar ideals to you will help a lot!
  • Start a seed library – and share it. Have you ever heard of seed saving? It’s so important to preserve seeds because there are hundreds of amazing seed varieties out there. Seed security, overall, is defined as ready access to adequate quantities of quality seed and planting materials of crop varieties. It’s rare to find accessible, acceptable and available quality seeds which leads to problems for farmers and gardeners. By creating a seed library and sharing it with others, you are offering seed security for your local community, which in turn creates food security. Here’s how to start a seed library.
  • Support SNAP. Otherwise known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, SNAP helps low income families get the food they need to create nutritious and healthy meals. Most farmers markets accept SNAP, and this is so important! In 2015 alone, SNAP lifted 4.6 million Americans above the poverty line, including 2 million children and 366,000 seniors. We need to continue to advocate for this. Learn more about SNAP here.
  • Cook for your neighbors. Sometimes, it’s as simple as offering to cook for someone who might not be able to make dinner that night. This is a form of mutual aid. I advise you get to know your neighbors and offer to cook for them if they need it. Sometimes, we could all use a little help. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy either, and you don’t have to be a master chef.
  • Start a Little Free Pantry. A little free pantry is a grassroots, crowdfunded solution to immediate and local need. It helps feed and nourish neighborhoods. Want to make one? Using what you have on hand, build a little structure to house free goods for those in need. Here’s some inspo. By creating a permanent structure, it creates more food security and lets people in your neighborhood contribute to it as well. If you live in an apartment or can’t make it a permanent structure, you can simply put everything out on a small table or in a cardboard box in front of your space for a few hours at a time. This works great for fresh produce as well! Example: Setting out a surplus of cucumbers and tomatoes from your garden.
  • Supporting farm-to-school programs. Children are our future, so we must teach them early on how important it is to grow our own food. So many kids grow up not knowing what a tomato plant even looks like. They’re at a disconnect with their food entirely. Not to mention many kids grow up eating unhealthy meals made from processed foods. Over 20 million low-income kids receive free or reduced cost lunches through the USDA’s federal school lunch program. But more often than not these lunches consist of soggy pizza, tacos, and little to no vegetables. Farm-to-school programs aim to make lunches more sustainable and nutritious. Plus, it’s more appetizing with everything sourced from local farms. This helps drum up business for local farmers while also providing healthy meals to growing kids. Learn more about farm-to-school programs here.
  • Donate to these food justice organizations. They’re all fantastic organizations to support.
    World Central Kitchen – This non-profit responds to natural and man-made disasters by providing meals to those in need. Their Plow to Plate program is a long term commitment to strengthening local food systems and food security throughout the Caribbean and Central America region. During Covid-19 they’ve also been helping restaurants and people in need by employing restaurant staff to cook meals for those in need.
    Soul Fire Farm – This BIPOC centered community farm is committed to ending injustice and racism in the food system. They raise and distribute life-giving food to end food apartheid. They bring diverse communities together to share skills on sustainable agriculture, natural building and environmental justice. They’re training the next generation of activist farmers and strengthening the movement for food sovereignty and community self-determination.
    National Black Food and Justice Alliance – This nonprofit organizes for black food and land by increasing the visibility of visionary Black leadership, advancing black people’s struggle for just and sustainable communities, and building power in food systems and land stewardship. They work towards food sovereignty and the right to control their food, including but not limited to the means of production and distribution.

The fight for food justice doesn’t end there…

These are but a few of the ways we can help disrupt a harmful food system and create a better, more sustainable one. One that serves everyone and discriminates against none. There’s much more work to be done, but this is a good place to start.

I hope you’ve found this article insightful. It’s just a stepping stone though – I highly encourage you to branch out and read more about food justice. It’s such an important topic the sustainability community needs to focus more on. After all, how can someone shop zero waste for their groceries if they don’t even have access to fresh, affordable foods?

Lets make a difference in our community and help create food justice. Lets keep educating ourselves and each other. Because, no one should ever go hungry just because of their skin color.

What is Food Justice + Why Is It Important?

How are you making zero waste more accessible? What are some ways you’re taking action to end food injustice and environmental racism?

For more ways to help the black community right now, check out these 8 black environmentalists you need to follow on Instagram and why environmental racism is a zero waste issue too.

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  1. Great Job! There is a lot of helpful information in this post. Thanks for sharing.
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