Food Desert Dispatches: Building a Just Food System for the First Time

The United States food justice movement has many facets spanning the issues of production and consumption.  It has been a movement that has at least tried to demonstrate the importance of developing a food system that is sustainable economically and environmentally, and is still socially just.

Open letters to the Obama administration have tried to articulate the importance of the agricultural food systems.  Many of these letters have made excellent points. Most have called for a reformed food system that returns value to the small producer, asserts that food should be produced closer to home, and focuses on developing more access to healthy food for under-served people.

These are all worthy requests.  But the undertone of some of these open letters seems to support a kind of Manifest Destiny, right to the land framework. It is this kind of frame that gives rise to what seems to be an elitist view of the food system.  Perhaps unintentional, the historical frame of the letters seems exclusionary.  Contemporary thought in the food movement has made it abundantly clear that the current system is broken, even though most Americans cannot describe or define “the food system” in concrete terms. The activists that are aware of the scale of the food and agricultural problem often lack the cultural understanding to help others reach a similar conclusion. Too many times, those who are listening hear a list of what cannot be done and how they should change with no context given as to how changes impact their lives.

It is interesting to reflect: when exactly did the food system brake down?  To answer this question, one would have to think about a time when the food system was on track. It is a safe bet that an examination of the past 40 years will not revel a food system that was healthy or robust. For example, during this time we were introduced to high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). The rise in usage of HFCS has been correlated with the rise in obesity rates. The correlation between HFCS in processed or manufactured food and the increase in chronic diet related diseases in the broader populations have disproportionately impacted communities of color.

At the heart of the food system are the lives of communities of color.

Victimization and genocide have underscored the development of the food system: Native Americans were slaughtered for their land and attempts to enslave them and make them work the land proved futile. The need for cheap labor to work in the developing agricultural plantation systems ushered in an era of slavery — the trafficking of Africans to the Americas. Today a modern form of slavery exists still, where immigrants are the cheap labor needed to make sure tomatoes are picked.

The new narrative must acknowledge that it is impossible for activist of color to fully embrace a food justice movement that does not acknowledge him or her.  A system entrenched in food injustice cannot be transformed without recognizing the component that created that system.

What is needed is a new and vibrant food system, one that has at its core equity and justice. It will take all of us to create a vibrant, strong, economically viable environmentally sound and socially just food system.

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