Updated: Dec 3, 2021
This week on the blog, we want to address just one big question: why? More specifically, why are people hungry in America?
The food justice movement attempts to combat hunger by answering this question.
What is food justice? The food justice movement seeks equal access to nutritious food by addressing the structural causes of poverty, including but not limited to racial inequality, economic inequality, and environmental issues. These factors are inextricably tied to hunger.
Indigenous Food Justice
In this country, people of color have been disproportionately affected by food insecurity. This is not merely a coincidence, but a side effect of hundreds of years of history. American farms themselves are built on stolen Native American land. The 1830 Indian Removal Act removed tens of thousands of people from land their families had lived on for generations, and the Homestead Act redistributed that land to white settlers for free or at a very low cost. The U.S. Government stole the main way that Indigenous people kept their communities fed.
Accessing healthy food is still a challenge for many Native Americans today. They have the highest rate of poverty compared to all other minority groups (25.4%), and 1 out of 4 are food insecure compared to the national average of 1 out of 9.
For Native American food communities, food justice is about re-establishing native culture and the way their people historically grew and made food — something that was destroyed by American colonization. This manifests in a movement called Food Sovereignty. which is about “strengthened Tribal governance of Native lands and stewardship of cultural resources to increase access to traditional foods, as well as strengthening skills for self-reliance including support for home food production.”
If you want to learn more about the Food Sovereignty movement, watch the trailer for Gather, a First Nations documentary about taking back Native American food systems.
Food Worker Justice
Throughout the years, people of color have worked on American farms for little or no pay, including Mexican and Asian farmworkers and enslaved Africans. White Americans continue to benefit from owning nearly all farmland. Research found that from 2012 to 2014, “white people comprised over 97 percent of non-farming landowners, 96 percent of owner-operators, and 86 percent of tenant operators. They also generated 98 percent of all farm-related income from land ownership and 97 percent of the income that comes from operating farms.”
Who actually works on these farms? Currently, Latinx people make up over 80 percent of farm laborers, an underpaid and dangerous profession. In the 1800s, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Mexican people made up most of the workers in western states. By the mid-1900s, “most migrant farmworkers in the west were Mexican, due in large part to the exploitative ‘bracero program,’ which brought thousands of Mexicans to the U.S. from 1941-1964 to undercut domestic wages, break strikes, impede union organizing, and solve World War II labor shortages.”
Latinx people make up 19 percent of America’s population, but they make up 28 percent of the people living in poverty, and are almost twice as likely to face hunger than white individuals.
Migrants from Central and South America have a decades-long history of fighting for food justice. FoodPrint highlights the food justice organizers fighting for farmworkers rights: “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.”
Black Food Justice
White America rose to economic prominence on the back of legalized slavery. Even after the Civil War, Jim Crow laws assured that African Americans would continue to be treated unequally. Former slaves and their descendants worked as sharecroppers, a system not much different than slavery. Sharecropping and many other discriminatory laws and policies made it very difficult for black people to own property in this country, which is a major cause of the current racial wealth gap.
The legacy of these policies is apparent in health statistics: “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.”
The poverty rate in the black community is 18.7% compared to the national average of 10.5%, and the median income for black households is $42,000 per year while the median income for white households is $69,000 per year. The rates of chronic health problems, obesity, and poor mental health are all higher in black communities than in white communities.
Black-led food justice focuses on healing from the trauma of slavery and racism and reconnecting to the land through both urban and rural farming. FoodPrint notes some of the work being done: “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.”
What can you do to help?
You can support food justice organizations led by people of color, learn more about the history of race in our food system, and encourage local farmers and supermarkets to get Food Justice Certification through the Agricultural Justice Project, which upholds high standards for fair treatment of workers and the environment.
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