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Newsletter no 23 - In the Spotlight 2

Monday 14 September 2015, by Manu

Reform or Transformation [1]?

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.