The conditions in Benton Harbor, Michigan—high unemployment, huge numbers living below the poverty line, enormous health problems related to obesity and weight gain even as many residents go hungry at different times during the month, and poor access to fresh, affordable, and healthy food—represent some of the most severe forms of social, economic, and food-related forms of injustice. But the problems in this one community are not unique. The economic downturn of 2008-2009 further highlighted and exacerbated these problems and called for a more systemic and radical approach to economic, social, and food sector changes.

One of the most significant forms of innovation and change resides in the food sector, led by groups that have embraced the cause of what they are calling “food justice.” These include groups like the Holyoke, Massachusetts Nuestras Raices organization that links inner city community gardens, environmental justice organizing, and a community economic development approach; the Philadelphia-based group The Food Trust, which helped pull together a major statewide policy initiative to increase the ability of inner city food stores to provide fresh and healthy food throughout the state; or the National Farm to School Network ( which is helping transform school food environments in thousands of school districts, including in low income schools where the new fresh, local, and healthy food in school cafeterias has been a breakthrough in changing community food environments. Such food justice groups have begun to identify alternatives to the dominant food system and have positioned themselves as a force for social change in the U.S. and throughout the world. The interpretation of food justice, to be sure, can be complex and nuanced, but it is also a simple and direct concept—justice for all in the food system, whether producers, farmworkers, processors, workers, eaters, or communities. It is also about a respect for the systems that support how and where our food is grown—an ethic of place regarding the land, the air, the water, the plants, the animals, and the environment. The groups that embrace food justice vary in agendas, constituencies, and focus, but all share a commitment to equity and fairness in relation to food system impacts and seek a different, more just, and sustainable way for food to be grown, produced, made accessible, and eaten.

Food justice is both a local and a global idea, from the right to food to support of local food systems. It emphasizes the importance of a community value rather than a commodity value to food. And it provides an important new dimension to alternative food advocacy by helping it answer accusations about being just a niche approach. It does this by arguing that alternatives can and should be inclusive and system-wide while also focusing directly on the profound disparities and injustices of the food system. Through these arguments, food justice has been able to influence the different segments of the food movement, whether the local and community food groups, the slow food approach, sustainable agriculture, or anti-hunger strategies. At the same time, food justice becomes an important entry point for other social movements and social justice groups who have come to realize that food is embedded in the issues and experiences that they seek to address, whether at the work place, with housing, transportation, the environment, or in the communities in which we live.

This vision—and organizing strategy—can be seen in everyday initiatives, including in the growing of food in the places near where we live, work, play… and eat.


Robert Gottlieb

Robert Gottlieb is the Director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute (UEPI) at Occidental College in Los Angeles. His book Food Justice, coauthored with Anupama Joshi, will be released in...

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *