What is Food Justice?

This weekend, I attended the Women’s March on Washington. One of the speakers who stood out to me was Kamala Harris, the junior U.S. Senator from California.

A part of her speech that has stayed with me was when she spoke about her response to people who tell her they want to talk about women’s issues. “Folks would come up to me and they would say, ‘Kamala, talk to us about women’s issues,’ and I would say, ‘I am so glad you want to talk about the economy.’ I would say ‘Great, let’s talk about the economy because that is a woman’s issue.’ I say, ‘you want to talk about women’s issues, let’s talk about national security. You want to talk about women’s issues? That’s fantastic, let’s talk about healthcare, education, let’s talk about criminal justice reform, let’s talk about climate change.”

What Harris was touching on was that “women’s issues” is not simply related to one thing; women’s issues are intertwined with every other important issue out there.

Food is the same. Food is not a pretty picture. It is not a great recipe. In fact, food is not just what we eat, it’s the environment, it’s climate change, it’s immigration policy, it’s gender equality, it’s public health, it’s social justice. The list goes on. If we are to approach food justice in a way that truly makes change, then we have to address all of these things.

These thoughts have been swirling in my head for the last few weeks, particularly on food justice; what it is, how we fight for it, etc. Serendipitously, my friend Lisa C. Knisely is teaching a course next month that touches on this intersection of food and justice. Called “Food, Social Identities and Justice,” the course is all about social identities related to food, and what exactly “food justice” is. If you’re in Portland, you can sign up for the course here. But since Knisely is covering some important topics that all of us should be better aware of, she also offered to do a Q&A for those of us who can’t take part.

I hope that it sparks a conversation about food and food justice around your own dinner table.

“Food justice” is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot these days. For you, what does food justice mean?

Well, that is precisely the question I am interested in exploring with students in this course. Before we can ask what food justice is, we need to first go back and think about what we mean when we say justice, because that term has lots of different meanings across time and cultures and between communities and individuals. This is important, because often we think of justice as something political, but the concepts we have of what is just can be deeply informed by our moral or ethical value system and our metaphysical views arising from our spirituality, religion, science, myth, etc. Those beliefs systems can be core to our identities — our sense of who we are and where we come from — and those identities can be something people are often understandably proud of and protective over.

Most of us have a sense of what we think of as just based on our belief systems and identities, but it’s often quite tricky to articulate that sense of justice into a concrete formulation we can talk about with others. For example, one big question is whether justice is something that is created by God, can be discovered in nature, or is purely a collective human creation. While that question might seem pretty far afield from the subject of food and food systems, your intuitive sense about whether justice is divine, natural, or a human creation — even if you’ve never explicitly considered the question before — informs how you think about our human relationship to natural resources, farming, animals, hunger, and on and on.

Why is the fact that about one in nine people in the world go hungry unjust? The majority of us have a feeling that it is pretty unjust, but we still can’t even start to really articulate why we do. At base, I want this class to offer an introduction to some resources for thinking through the question of what “food justice” means to different people and how they become attached to certain ideas about what food justice looks like in practice. I’m not going to answer your question directly, because the truth is I don’t know the answer; I’m still working on figuring out what food justice means when I say it, too. I will say, though, that I do know that my own definition of food justice probably has something important to do with lessening oppressive power systems created and sustained by humans.

What are some other areas of social justice that intersect with food, and how?

Well, I think the end of my answer to the last question starts to get at the answer to this one. One concrete example that comes to mind off the top of my head is that there seems to be a real sense for a lot of people here in Portland that buying and eating local, organic produce is better. But, what does better mean? Does better mean more morally virtuous because you’re making the choice not to contribute to pesticide use and environmental degradation, etc.? How do you square that belief in being morally better with the fact that non-organic produce is cheaper? That starts to sound suspiciously close to an implicit argument that people who can afford organic produce are more morally virtuous or have the capacity for more moral choices. Is that something we want to be a key part of our sense of justice — that the rich have a greater capacity for moral behavior?

I would not want to endorse such a concept of justice, but at the same time I do believe organic produce is better. So, what would have to happen to square my belief that the rich are not somehow more moral than the poor and my belief that organic produce is better (more moral, more just for humans as group)? There are so, so many examples of ethical and political problems like this when we’re talking about food and eating where contradictions about justice sprout up, and there are a lot of ways of thinking about solving these contradictions, too.

Do you think that food is a good lens for us to be looking at other social issues? Is it a good means for us to take action on those issues?

Food is a great way to think about social justice. Food is necessary for human survival, it’s ubiquitous, it’s culturally and personally meaningful, we often have strong emotional attachments to it beyond it’s a biological necessity. Food and water are our most fundamental resources and thinking about how we go about distributing those resources is a really fundamental question of justice and I think that is why we attach so much extra meaning to the production and consumption of food. I mean, we really care about food. Everybody has ideas and beliefs about food and so interrogating those a little deeper can be a really great vehicle for thinking through other social issues.

As far as taking action, I do feel like there can be a kind of sentimental or self-congratulatory rhetoric about the power of food to change the world, because food matters to everyone on earth in one way or another. Extrapolating on my examples above, I think some versions of food justice would say that having only organic produce for sale would be great. But, would we have to also ensure affordable access to that organically grown food to the one in nine people who experience some level of hunger in the world for social justice to really be achieved? Would we at least have to try to ensure access to that organic produce for the food insecure? Or, can I throw my organically grown asparagus shipped in from 3,000 miles away on an airplane to my local grocery store in my cart and feel great about myself and never have to worry about whether the farmer who grew that asparagus has enough to eat or even consider that they exist at all?

If I do think I have some sort of responsibility to the farmer who grew my food, well then that implies a hell of a lot of political action I’m going to potentially need to undertake and there probably isn’t going to be a lot of room left for feeling great about my choice of asparagus, you know? And, maybe I’m even going to have to think twice about whether posting nicely lit photos of my dinner with the hashtag #realfood has anything to do with food justice or moral goodness after all.

The conversation around food, food politics and food justice, has certainly increased in the last few years, but do you feel like we have taken enough action? What do we as individuals need to be doing to ensure a just food system?

We’re back where we started. Asking what we need to do to ensure a just food system is the same question as asking what justice is, I think, and I don’t believe we can just answer that question and then go out and put it in place and then live in utopia happily ever after. There always has to be more asking about what justice is and always more working every day to try to move closer to our answer with the understanding that it can only ever be a receding and provisional thing we’re constantly moving towards without ever reaching. If you want to think about sustainability on a meta level, well that moving towards justice over and over could be one definition of it, right? You’re never finally sustained once and for all — that’s just not how life is. And, you’re never sustained alone, either.

We can’t do anything as individuals to ensure a just food system — we have to help create one with other people as we all sustain a collective vision of justice together. That’s my take, anyway. I’m really interested in hearing what the participants in the course have to say about this question, because their answers will no doubt be different from mine and that’s how we work toward a vision of justice to collectively strive for in the first place.

Thank you Lisa!

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