For most of the past decade, Americans disenchanted with the nation’s food system have been advised to “vote with their forks.” By filling their shopping carts and tables with organic, locally grown foods—so the conventional wisdom of this food movement goes—conscientious consumers can avoid the ethical and nutritional pitfalls of a flawed industrial system and force it to improve.
But for every shopper eagerly filling a canvas bag with heirloom tomatoes, there are dozens who have neither the money, nor the ability, to participate. The food movement narrative doesn’t speak to the reality of inner-city residents stuck in a “food desert” miles from the nearest supermarket, or farmhands who don’t earn enough to buy the very produce they spend back-breaking hours picking every day. And in that sense, the movement is leaving millions of potential allies behind.
“In order to be voting with your fork, you need to be able to buy the stuff that the food movement would have you buy,” says Julian Agyeman, professor and chair of urban and environmental policy and planning in the School of Arts and Sciences. And while acknowledging that his middle-class status affords him the chance to follow the food movement’s recommendations—“I shop at Whole Foods,” he says without apology—Agyeman has also become a thoughtful critic of the food movement through his scholarship in a field that has come to be known as “food justice.”
Food justice is more than making sure that food is good for your health or produced in a way that’s good for the planet. It’s also about ensuring fair treatment for the workers who produce the food and making certain that high quality, culturally appropriate food is available, regardless of a person’s income, race or ethnicity. The scope of the food justice philosophy is covered in a wide-ranging collection of essays edited by Agyeman and Alison Hope Alkon, a sociologist at the University of the Pacific, called Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class and Sustainability (MIT Press, 2011).
“One of the reasons I got really interested in the topic of food justice is that a lot of my scholarship is on social justice and sustainability,” says Agyeman, who began his career with training in geography and botany. He has also published on the subject of environmental justice. “To me, it seems food is a great place to start our discussion.”
In Cultivating Food Justice, “we try to focus on the difference between nutritional approaches to food and cultural approaches to food,” Agyeman says. “Food justice is not just about provisioning of nutritionally appropriate food, but about maintaining the cultural significance of food.”
For instance, Central American immigrants who used traditional Mayan farming techniques in a South Central Los Angeles community garden were not just growing corn, beans and squash, but maintaining their culinary heritage. (Tellingly, the farm, which is pictured in the book, was later abolished when the land was sold for big-box retail development.)
The concept of food justice is similar to the more well-established idea of environmental justice—“the well-substantiated claim that low-income people and people of color bear a disproportionate share of the burden of environmental degradation,” Agyeman and Alkon write. Inner cities, for example, are often blighted by air pollution from highways located by densely populated apartments, a phenomenon not found in spread-out suburban neighborhoods.
As a movement, food justice “has begun to take root between the cracks in busted sidewalks in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the United States,” they write. One of the first, and now among the largest, of the food-justice organizations, Milwaukee’s Growing Power, consists of a working urban farm that employs upwards of 65 people and educates city residents about sustainable community food systems.
The nonprofit known as Just Food, begun in 1995 in New York, has helped start more than 100 community-supported agriculture (CSA) groups, trains people to run community gardens and farmers’ markets and helps supply food pantries with fresh produce, among other things.
This may not sound very different from the priorities of the food movement that Agyeman and other authors in Cultivating Food Justice criticize. Fresh kale? Just-picked beets? What’s not to like?
Where the food movement falls short, they argue, is in several of its basic assumptions, which are largely based on race and class. Specifically, the movement has very much limited itself to mostly white, middle-class people talking to other mostly white, middle-class people (“a monoculture of PLUs—people like us,” Agyeman told a group of Tufts undergraduates recently).
An example: the romanticizing of an agrarian past and the concept of agriculture as, essentially, recreation. Helping dig potatoes at your CSA might bring back pleasant memories of days with grandpa on the family farm—but not so much if your grandpa was a sharecropper or a migrant worker.
One essay in the book recounts the experiences of a college student working with urban teens who were sent on a field trip to pick fruit. “The director of the youth program had said it would be a good idea for the youth to ‘get their hands dirty’… [but the African-American youth] … resented the expectation to work not only for free, but also for white farmers,” writes contributor Julie Guthman, an associate professor at UC-Santa Cruz, in a piece titled “‘If They Only Knew’: The Unbearable Whiteness of Alternative Food.”
Likewise, Agyeman questions the implications of the “eat local” mantra, another pillar of the food movement. (Locavore, defined as “one who eats local food,” was even named the 2007 “word of the year” by the Oxford English Dictionary.)
Taking on Pollan
“Yes, sadly, we are disconnecting from nature, and we are disconnecting from the seasons as well,” Agyeman laments. “When I was a kid in the early ’60s in Britain, we didn’t get food out of season. If you were eating a strawberry, it meant it was summer; it was Wimbledon.
“But,” he continues, “I have issues with the dogma of the local food movement that says ‘eat only what should be grown locally.’ That’s a real problem in that it precludes immigrants from getting culturally appropriate foods. I can understand why people say that, but one thing the local food movement has got to come to terms with is that it cannot be prescriptive. We can’t say we should only support, or not support, certain kinds of foods.”
In other words, the Jamaican family that wants the fresh leafy green known as callaloo and the Brazilian cook seeking manioc root in Boston shouldn’t be told to re-engineer their recipes to accommodate spinach or pumpkin.
And while “eat local” seems to be unassailable from an environmental perspective, Agyeman reminds us that “food miles”—the distance food must travel from its point of origin to the point where it’s eaten—shouldn’t be the only measure of “greenness.”
When Tesco, the giant British supermarket chain, decided to source its products from as close by as possible, it seemed obvious to choose tomatoes grown in Holland, rather than those from Spain. But Dutch tomatoes are grown in greenhouses, requiring considerable amounts of energy; Spanish tomatoes, by and large, grow in the sun.
And what about the economic and social disruption to the Kenyan farmers who had been supplying Tesco with produce, specifically because the British company cultivated them as suppliers? “There are a lot of social-justice implications here as well,” Agyeman says.
Nowhere does Agyeman poke at a sacred cow more than in his criticism of Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food Rules, and arguably the writer most responsible for popularizing the food movement. Agyeman raised a ripple of nervous laughter from the Tufts undergraduates when he took Pollan to task during his recent presentation. “We all love Michael,” he says. “But Pollan really doesn’t get it.”
In Food Rules, for example, Pollan tells readers, “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”
Agyeman says he understands Pollan’s good intentions to steer people away from processed foods, but the advice “belies the fact that for some people in this country, their great-grandmothers were slaves and were given scraps off tables. Some great-grandmothers’ food was demonized and marginalized. It just amazes me that a man as intelligent as Pollan came out with such a statement, in the sense that he’s alienating a lot of people by saying that.”
In overlooking the millions of people whose histories and present-day realities are absent in its rhetoric, Agyeman says, the food movement is incomplete. Using the concept of food justice, he argues, could mobilize far more people and achieve more significant results.
“I’m not trying to embarrass the largely elite food movement,” he says. “But I think there is a huge movement waiting to happen around this broader notion of food. The food movement cannot possibly change the practice of agribusiness without using the concept of food justice.
“As I do emphasize in the book, the intent is not to drive a wedge in the food movement. The aim of the book is to look through many different lenses at food as a cultural issue and see ways that a bigger movement, a more powerful movement, can be realized if we take the cues.”
Helene Ragovin can be reached at email@example.com.