In the spotlight

In the spotlight 1

Racism and capitalism

Our modern food system has co-evolved with 30 years of neoliberal globalization that privatized public goods and deregulated all forms of corporate capital, worldwide. This has led to the highest levels of global inequality in history. The staggering social and environmental costs of this transition have hit people of color the hardest, reflected in the record levels of hunger and massive migrations of impoverished farmers in the global South, and the appalling levels of food insecurity, diet-related diseases, unemployment, incarceration, and violence in underserved communities of color in the global North.

The U.S. food movement has emerged in response to the failings of the global food system. Everywhere, people and organizations are working to counteract the externalities inherent to the “corporate food regime.” Understandably, they focus on one or two specific components–such as healthy food access, market niches, urban agriculture, etc.–rather than the system as a whole. But the structures that determine the context of these hopeful alternatives remain solidly under control of the rules and institutions of the corporate food regime.

Neoliberal globalization has also crippled our capacity to respond to the problems in the food system by destroying much of our public sphere. Not only have the health, education, and welfare functions of government been gutted; the social networks within our communities have been weakened, exacerbating the violence, intensifying racial tensions, and deepening cultural divides. People are challenged to confront the problems of hunger, violence, poverty, and climate change in an environment in which social and political institutions have been restructured to serve global markets rather than local communities.

Notably, the food justice movement has stepped up–supported largely by the non-profit sector – to provide services and enhance community agency in our food systems. Consciously or not, in many ways the community food movement, with its hands-on, participatory projects for a fair, sustainable, healthy food system, is rebuilding our public sphere from the ground up. This is simply because it is impossible to do one without reconstructing the other.

But as many organizations have discovered, we can’t rebuild the public sphere without addressing the issues that divide us. For many communities this means addressing racism in the food system. The food movement itself is not immune from the structural injustices that it seeks to overcome. Because of the pervasiveness of white privilege and internalized oppression in our society, racism in the food system can and does resurface within the food movement itself, even when the actors have the best of intentions. Understanding why, where, and how racism manifests itself in the food system, recognizing it within our movement and our organizations and within ourselves, is not extra work for transforming our food system; it is the work.

Understanding how capitalism functions is also the work, because changing the underlying structures of a capitalist food system is inconceivable without knowing how the system functions in the first place. And yet many people trying to change the food system have scant knowledge of its capitalist foundations.

Luckily, this is changing as activists in the food movement dig deeper to fully understand the system behind the problems they confront. Many people in the global South, especially peasants, fishers, and pastoralists, can’t afford not to under- stand the socio-economic forces destroying their livelihoods. Underserved communities of color in the global North–there as the result of recent and historical waves of colonization, dispossession, and exploitation–form the backbone of the food justice movement. Understanding why people of color are twice as likely to suffer from food insecurity and diet-related disease– even though they live in affluent northern democracies–requires an understanding of the inter- section of capitalism and racism.

Activists across the food movement are beginning to realize that the food system
cannot be changed in isolation from the larger economic system. To fully appreciate the magnitude of the challenges we face and what will be needed to bring about a new food system in harmony with people’s needs and the environment, we need to understand and confront the social, economic, and political foundations that created–and maintain–the food system we seek to change.

In the spotlight 2

Reform or transformation?

The global food crisis has pushed the U.S. food movement to a political juncture. A sixth of the world’s population is now hungry–just as a sixth of the U.S. population is “food insecure.” These severe levels of hunger and insecurity share root causes, located in the political economy of a global, corporate food regime.

Because of its political location between reformist calls for food security and radical calls for food sovereignty, food justice is pivotally placed to influence the direction of food-systems change. How issues of race and class are resolved will influence the political direction of the food justice movement’s organizational alliances: toward reform or toward transformation.

Recognizing that today’s industrial food system is unsustainable, the U.S. food movement calls for quality, environmental sustainability, and safety of food as well as for the reaffirmation of environmental values and community relationships associated with halcyon days of a reconstructed agrarian past. These make up what Alkon and Agyeman (2011a) refer to as the “dominant food-movement narrative.” Grounded in the social base of predominantly white, middle-class consumers, this narrative has become an important reference in the mainstream media. However, it also tends to render the food histories and realities of low-income people and people of color invisible.

Community Food Security (the “good food movement”) frames food-system inequities in terms of food production and acquisition rather than structural inequality, resulting in an emphasis on enhancing food skills and alternative means of food access for low-income households, coupled with a Washington D.C.-focused lobbying effort for increased forms of food aid and support for community food systems. The CFS movement strives to mainstream food security into the existing food system.

The food sovereignty movement seeks to dismantle global markets and the monopoly power of corporations at local, national, and international scales, and advocates redistributing and protecting productive assets such as seeds, water, land, and processing and distribution facilities. While anti-hunger and food-security advocates often prefer affordable access to bad food over no food at all, this puts them at odds with food-justice and food-sovereignty groups who distrust these large agrifood corporations (Gottlieb and Joshi 2010, 215).

The Food Justice movement (FJ) overlaps broadly with CFS, but tends to be more progressive than reformist in that it addresses specifically the ways in which people of color in low-incomecommunities are disproportionately and negatively impacted by the industrial food system. Caught between the urgency of access and the imperative of equity, the food-justice movement shifts, overlaps, and bridges with the efforts of the CFS and food-sovereignty movements, attempting to address racism and classism on one hand while trying to fix a broken food system on the other.

While moderate food system reforms–such as increasing food stamps or relocating grocery stores–are certainly needed to help vulnerable communities cope with crises, because they address proximate rather than the root causes of hunger and food insecurity, they will not alter the fundamental balance of power within the food system and in some cases may even reinforce existing, inequitable power relations. Fixing the dysfunctional food system–in any sustainable sense–requires regime change. Food system change will come from powerful and sustained social pressure that forces reformists to roll back neo-liberalism in the food system. Much of this pressure could come from the food movement–if it overcomes its divides.

Solving the food crisis requires dismantling racism and classism in the food system and transforming the food regime. This challenges the food-justice movement to forge alliances that advance equitable and sustainable practices on the ground while mobilizing politically for broad, redistributive structural reforms. This pivotal praxis may yet produce a new, powerful food movement narrative: the narrative of liberation.

Alkon, Alison Hope, and Julian Agyeman. 2011a. Introduction: The food movement as polyculture. In Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability, 1-20. Food, Health, and Environment; series ed. Robert Gottlieb. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Gottlieb, Robert, and Anupama Joshi. 2010. Food Justice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.