Food Justice: Setting the Table for Everyone

Food Justice, as a term, has been loosely used by many in the alternative food movement, though its meaning is slippery depending on how it is used or more precisely how it is practiced. For this reason there are some in the alternative food movement grappling with the usage of food justice in describing our work. The article below, written for the Global Educators of BC Publication (, was just such an attempt for me to better understand my food security practice.

Ian Marcuse

2013 was perhaps the year that food justice concerns attained a mainstream Canadian discussion following the damming report on our food security situation by the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Mr. Olivier de Schutter. His report revealed deep levels of food insecurity in Canada, particularly in the North and in Aboriginal and Inuit communities where up to 70% of the population are unable to access nutritious, affordable food, and quite sadly within a country with great wealth. The full report can be viewed at:

Still others, such as Graham Riches from the University of British Columbia have been writing for decades about the food in/security issue in Canada. In his 1986 prescient book, Food Banks and the Welfare Crisis, Riches documents the proliferation of emergency food services in Canada, arguing that food banks represent the collapse of the social safety net and the rise of neoliberal austerity. Food banks are now institutionalized, replacing government assistance programs with charity.

Food insecurity here in Canada largely comes down to income security. Lack of work or adequate wages and other social programs have resulted in many Canadians unable to purchase enough nutritious food with food insecurity growing or persisting in every Canadian province and some 4 million Canadians currently experiencing some level of food insecurity. Particularly troubling is that of the majority of food insecure households (61.1%) were reliant on wages or salaries from employment according to the most recent Household Food Insecurity in Canada (2013) report by PROOF.

In response, recent discussions and efforts are now pointing the way towards a new food justice understanding defined by Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshias in their book Food Justice as “representing a transformation of the current food system, including but not limited to eliminating disparities and inequities”. This is a necessary refocusing that creates new opportunities for a deeper analysis of structural inequality in the food system and connection of the food movement to broader social movements.

This is encouraging because the narrower food localization interest that has dominated much public food discourse the last decade has largely emphasized new forms of production based on the re-emergence of smaller scale ecologically sustainable farming practices and exchange, including direct consumer to farmer exchange such as farmer’s markets or cooperatives. This is an important condition towards transforming our food system from highly commoditized and unsustainable systems dependent on capital intensive inputs and exploitative social and economic relationships, but these alternative agricultural systems still grapple with complex issues of equity perhaps most visible at the supermarket where quality nutritious food is still unaffordable for many people. We also see in these new food systems an assumption that localized production and distribution will ensure better working conditions while the conversation about labour rights and inequality is often ignored, though less so these days as in the case of farm worker rights which are now included in most food policy discussions.

Awareness of food justice is currently at a high. Here in Vancouver we have a newish Food Strategy (2013) that lays out a coordinated and comprehensive approach “in the development of a just and sustainable food system for Vancouver”. This is an important step towards incorporating food justice in a food systems change strategy. As a part of this Strategy for example are a number of community food organizations that work to build food security at the local level and who espouse food justice principals such as food equity and access to healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate foods for those most vulnerable in our communities. Community food programs such as community gardens, bulk buy groups, pocket markets, food workshops, community meal programs, community kitchens and the like are assumed to advance food justice. While such programs do improve the food access for many struggling households, arguably, like food banks, they may be regarded as a temporary solution only. So what then constitutes food justice practice?

Kirsten Cadieux’s and Rachel Slocum’s article What Does it Mean to Do Food Justice? describe four key points of intervention necessary in transforming food systems. These include: inequity, exchange, land and labour. Through a systematic identification of such existing areas of exploitation and inequality can we then begin to put food justice into practice.

An example that illustrates well a transformative food justice practice is the work of the US organization Growing Food and Justice Initiative (GFJI) “aimed at dismantling racism and empowering low-income and communities of color through sustainable and local agriculture”. Their work is foremost validated through an ant-racist framework recognizing relations of power and privilege as they confront race and class inequity. GFJI also provides leadership, training and empowerment supporting communities of color to engage in food system policy and advocacy (systems change) and more directly by creating meaningful employment opportunities in the food and agricultural sector for these communities through non-exploitative mechanisms of cooperation, equitable land access with sound environmental practices, and fair working relations valuing all labour.

The Growing Food and Justice Initiative illustrates the importance of engagement and empowerment of those communities most affected by food insecurity, giving them a strong voice to address systemic inequality and relations of power while also creating opportunities for direct control over one’s livelihood and food situation. This is transformative work that is rebuilding a new alternative food system based on dignity and communal self-reliance. Furthermore such work is linked to the broader social justice movement.

While many food organizations are struggling to keep up with the growing demands that austerity is creating and doing their best to get healthy food into household cupboards, we still need a deeper level of engagement and leadership in decision-making and policy work inclusive of those communities most affected by food insecurity if we are to achieve true food justice. This will probably only come about through collaboration outside of the food sector and since food connects all of us, there is considerable opportunity for greater impact when we connect the food movement to these other social justice movements – environmental, , Aboriginal, feminist among others to address power and inequality. Such is a food justice practice that moves beyond basic program delivery but rather demands of us a much deeper challenge to the current neo-liberal and corporate domination of our food system.

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