Is Food Justice the Way out of Poverty?

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Is Food Justice the way out of poverty? That is a question I have thought about more and more as I get into the Food Justice Movement; can it be the key to get folks in lower-income communities out of poor economic situations and help them be less at risk for diabetes and obesity. Through my work at the Rural Coalition and my work with Rooted In Community I have gained many firsthand encounters as well as through my research.

First let’s look at what poverty is then what Food Justice is and how they go together. Poverty is a condition where people’s basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter are not being met. Poverty is generally of two types: (1) Absolute poverty is synonymous with destitution and occurs when people cannot obtain adequate resources (measured in terms of calories or nutrition) to support a minimum level of physical health. Absolute poverty means about the same everywhere, and can be eradicated as demonstrated by some countries. (2) Relative poverty occurs when people do not enjoy a certain minimum level of living standards as determined by a government (and enjoyed by the bulk of the population) that vary from country to country, sometimes within the same country. Relative poverty occurs everywhere, is said to be increasing, and may never be eradicated. In this case we are talking about Absolute Poverty.

Now Food Justice is communities exercising their right to grow, sell, and eat healthy food. Healthy food is fresh, nutritious, affordable, culturally-appropriate, and grown locally with care for the well-being of the land, workers, and animals. In other words the right to garden/farm and grow healthy food while caring about Mother Earth, the workers, animals, sustainability and other important issues like GMOs and pesticides.

In a lot of low-income communities as you might imagine most people don’t have the resources to grow or even think of it as an option to feed their families. These communities are mostly filled with POC (people of color) with an abundance of liquor stores and fast food restaurants on every corner and are lacking in gardens, farmers markets and healthy grocery stores like Whole Foods. Then you have those communities that do have farmers markets and Whole Foods but there very far and would cost the people money they don’t have on bus fare, and the groceries.

Sadly this epidemic has been happening to POC since the beginning of European exploration in many native lands like Hawaii, Alaska, Australia/ New Zealand, Africa, Central and South America and our own country. The Europeans come over take the native people’s land that they used to farm or garden and grow their own food away then put these people in poverty by putting them in reservations, ghettos and or on the street where most of them end up working two or three poorly paying jobs so they rely on fatty fast food places, liquor stores and Wal-Mart to feed their families because there food is fast and cheap. Their child then grows up obese or with childhood diabetes and there’s a likely chance the parents have it too. Then they have high medical bills that they can’t pay off and the sad cycle continues. So what is the solution to these pressing problems before more of these communities die from high-blood pressure, diabetes and/or obesity?

Through my research I came across this article written by a Queer Person of Color (QPOC) Toi Scott about the need for black and brown people of color having a say in the food movement. They say that although they’re making policies with what they think is helping the communities of color it’s widely done without the input of those people who live there. Toi says that POC need to start going back to the old ways as a community and cooking with each other, getting payed to grow food and starting black and brown owned co-ops. They say it may seem like a hard thing to do when most of this people are struggling but can be done as there are many people and organizations already doing it. Toi Scott says we already have the answers to our problems.

In Hawaii a big push back movement is happing against all the big agribusiness using the islands as their breeding ground for GMOs and other pesticide plants. The Hawaiians say that all food struggles are connected as we are all victims of a corrupt food system that exploits people. They say the GMO companies come to Hawaii for their year-round growing season and stay because they see them as an exploitable community after the sugar plantation left. They had to adjust when the plantations left after 150 years and GMOs moved in. “They came because, despite our enlightened state motto — Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ‘Aina i ka Pono (the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness) — we allow them to get away with doing things that they wouldn’t be allowed to do in many other places.” Residents of Kauai don’t have the right to know what is happing on their agricultural land nor how this affects their air, soil and water. In 2012 a bill went out to get the right for Kauai residents to have pesticide disclosure and set up a buffer zone between them spraying and the residential areas. According to (undocumented) industry claims agribusiness jobs account for 2% of jobs on the island. They bring in cheap labor from other countries and make it harder for the locals to get work. In the end Hawaii feels it is up to them to help solve their problems in the food system like, making state lands available and affordable for real farmers, upholding the public trust doctrine in water law, workers’ cooperatives, research and subsidy support for sustainable regional food systems, food hubs for cooperative processing and distribution, supporting soil and water remediation, state ag parks, food assistance programs, local food procurement policies, waste reduction and recycling programs, stronger labor protections, and regulations that prohibit pollution of the finite resources we depend upon. They feel these steps must be taken on a global scale to take back our food system.

On the Alaskan front similar things are happening as well. Alaskan fishing and hunting rights are being taken away fast and furiously and have been in jeopardy since outsiders took over the Last Frontier. In October 2012, many Alaskan Natives rallied in downtown Anchorage to protest for their natural right to live off the land. “I’m here to fire you up,” said Lee Stephan, tribal council president of the Native Village of Eklutna, who was the first speaker at the rally. “We as Native people, we got to do something.” He stated that when Alaskans managed their own food so many years ago there was no food shortage and salaam was abundant. Only under “white man’s law” he says have numbers dwindled and Natives lost opportunity to fish. Some supporters at the rally carried signs suggesting a constitutional amendment be considered that specifically grants Native subsistence rights. Speakers and supporters were clear about their plan of attack. They’ve had enough of feeling like they’re the first ones denied access when resources are short, and they’re prepared to relentlessly express their views to state and federal politicians.”Hunting and fishing is a God-given and spiritual right that cannot be denied. It is not negotiable,” said speaker Randy Mayo of Stevens Village.

I also recently watched a very interesting TED Talk on building community gardens in South Central LA. In the video Ron Finley talks about coming from South Central LA where there is an abundance of liquor stores, fast food places and not a community garden in site making it a food desert. So he decided to take the stretch of grass above his side walk and start planting and made a garden. He said a lady and her daughter came up one night admiring his garden due to the lack, of in other parts of the city. After a while he said the city got on his tail about planting there. So he moved to a local homeless shelter and had a great experience there. Finley said he is big on getting youth to start and work on gardens to help them stay out of trouble and sustain themselves and their families. “Make a shovel your weapon of choice”

In another bit of my research I read is an article about a former K-8th grade principal at an African centered school in Detroit, Michigan. Malik Yakini recently founded the Detroit Black Community Food Security which, works to build self-reliance, food security, and justice in Detroit’s Black community. He speaks highly on race in the food system as it still impacts people in all major institutions in America. He also talks about local ownership being important. In 2008, the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network started the Ujamaa Food Co-op Buying Club, a monthly buying club offering healthy food, supplements, and household items at discounted prices. Yakini says what keeps him going in this work is knowing that we have the capacity to transform ourselves and our communities. “My spirituality compels me to strive for truth, balance, harmony and justice.”

With all these wonderful programs being put into place in low-income communities why are we as a nation still very high on the obesity scale and there being more health related deaths then texting and drunk driving combined each year? As much as the communities try to wake each other up and help solve their own problems to get out of poverty it all comes down to the people high up controlling this country i.e. the government. They have such a stake hold in these communities (even down to the local level) that it can be what seems impossible to get any real change as most of the politician don’t really care what happens to Joe Schmo from the New York Projects or Joe Red Feather from the Lakota Reservation in South Dakota.
According to an article on Devex online most of the world’s chronically hungry people are rural and live in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Most other societies are faced with people being overfeed and overweight leading us to look at the malnutrition of too little food and too much food that is spreading globally. The other issues not widely talked about in the American food system are poverty and powerlessness; however these problems are confined to other countries. In 2012, the United States spent $78 million on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for over 46 million Americans.

Devex goes on to say that the approach to solving malnutrition is still using technology to help solve the food shortage instead of promoting social, legal, economic, and cultural innovations. “Current food production patterns grew out of the recent history of European imperialism and colonialism, and the development of capitalism to date.” The modern hunger that shape today’s food system are for markets, for profits, for market power, and technologies. Looking ahead, we have to overcome malnourishment in the context of four major threats to people’s wellbeing in this century: climate destabilization, marginalization of the poorest, competition over resources and militarization. Devex ends their article with the fact that the shift needs to happen beyond the food system it needs to happen to the economic system where equity needs to plays a central role.

The government controls our food system everyday and tells us what we can and cannot eat. But do these same people advocate for the little person? Every five years the government puts out the Farm Bill in which everyone thinks they can get their piece of the pie inside. The Farm Bill is an omnibus, multi-year piece of authorizing legislation that governs an array of agricultural and food programs. I learned a lot about the Farm Bill when I was working at the Rural Coalition (a non-profit in Washington, DC that does agriculture policy and helps small farmers make relations with the USDA) as we tried to get the small and beginning farmers, farm workers, family farms, ranchers, farmers of color and the many issues that went along with them like SNAP and laws on specialty crops into the bill. We also looked at other legislation when it came to the right of the workers like the Voting Rights Act and getting Immigration rights for Farm workers. It was great to know that a few of the laws that we wanted in the Farm Bill made it into this year’s bill but a lot of our request were dismissed. A lot of the time it can seem from the outside that the government is doing good things on behalf of our communities but in reality they could care less.

They can even make a group of people seem vicious that only wanted to help their communities and their children. A recent article I read on the Black Panther Party paints them in a different light then most people are used to. The Black Panthers were a black power group large in the 1960s-1970s and known to be militaristic and communist like. What most people don’t know about them is they were big in the Food Justice Movement as they started the program Free Breakfast for School Programs in Oakland schools in 1969. This program was a real threat to the government so they had to be shut down but, “by doing this,” says Oakland-based journalist and hip hop historian Davey D, the Panthers “made themselves attractive to the community.”
It was also nice to read that Davey D has taken what he learned from the Panthers to help the Oakland communities today. Davey D and others use hip-hop to get the message across that juicing and healthy eating is a good thing. He says it can be difficult at times though due to ethnic agriculture corporations and non profits supporting big agribusiness not being supportive to the little guy, but he has a lot of faith in this generation. “Fast food joints and Monsanto may be Goliath, but, like the Panthers, today’s food justice activists aren’t afraid of a fight.”

Another interesting factor in food justice being able to help outdo poverty is the Woman, Infant and Children (WIC) program that a lot of mothers rely on like food stamps to help feed their families. This is given to mothers with children 5 years old and under who are at nutritional risk. This can seem like a plus in the struggle as the children are being fed. But what are the kids fed? One of my former co-workers has a 2 year old and 1 year old and she went to the store last weekend to get some groceries for her family and for a party we were going to. She got all her groceries (which were organic) brought them to the cashier (being this is her first time using WIC) she showed them her WIC card and they said sorry she had to put everything back. She could only get store brand items and things chock full of GMOs and High Fructose Corn Syrup. I heard this and thought that was crazy. How are these government handouts really helping these families when all there doing is making them at risk for diabetes at a very young age?

Then a few years ago the Rural Coalition had a summer summit in Oklahoma where they brought together farmers, youth, farm workers, ect to come voice their concerns and tell their stories. One of the stories came from a farmer who told us where are bananas are coming from. He said they come from Cameroon and many places in South and Central America and the government comes and makes sure the bananas are sprayed with pesticides so that they don’t age until they reach the US. Then once they are here they are green in the store but rot really fast once you get them home. All the really bad bananas they are left over they get the locals to eat them and it makes them all sick. Then with a lot of the poor Mayan communities in central America they would spray the bananas and a lot of the spray would catch on to the workers giving them diseases.

Of course in this world where all these terrible things are happing to our food and people and you think where are you to turn an organization like Rooted In Community (RIC) (a youth food justice organizations that empowers youth leadership and education) come up and there is hope and its like that little ray of sunshine in the cloudy skies. Through Rooted In Community I have met many different youths from these communities making changes. Many of them work for non-profits who have youth led garden projects who are learning how to grow their own food that they can then take back to their families. They are also learning business skills when they work at the farmers market and are taking cooking classes to learn how to turn those vegetables and fruits they just grew in to their dinner. A lot of these youth I meet are also interested in how sustainable growing is, and also how the land and people are being affected by our current food system. The youth also learn about policy, advocacy, leadership and direct action.

This can also lead into college and universities. “Young food movement activists may be idealistic but we are not flower children.” That is what this article is all about, cooperative restaurants on college campuses. Yoni Landau wrote this blog post about young people in the food movement being good with business, money and networking. He is the co-founder of CoFED (The Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive) and, after launching a successful campaign to prevent the first fast food chain from opening at UC Berkeley, he helped raise over $120,000 for a cooperative alternative, the Berkeley Student Food Collective. When he transferred to the University of Northern New Mexico and met Jeff Ethan Genauer who through CoFED built a student run café on campus. La Tiendita or the “little store” sells healthy local breakfast and lunch and employment for 5 students and this is also happening at different state colleges across the country. “Our generation of food movement leaders gets how complex the food system is–and we are committed to addressing the whole, messy picture.” A lot of these projects he says tackle the hard issues that most “foodies” would rather ignore like class, race, workers rights and corporate control. The Northern New Mexico is doing well and is thinking of making a second and converting the other cafes on campus.

So through my many different articles and personal experiences and stories I’ve heard I feel that Food Justice can be a big way out of poverty. For starters if these communities grow their own foods then they don’t have to pay for fast food or groceries with the money that they don’t have which can eliminate high doctor bills as they would be eating much healthier and would be at less risk for diabetes and obesity. Then if they work at the farmers market or POC co-op in the neighborhood or on campus they can learn business and leadership skills and be able to make some money for their families. The people in these communities have been sitting by blinded by the government’s “help” (or lack thereof) for long enough. They’re starting to wake up and see the light and are not going to sit back and be idle no more.

Websites I’ve Used:






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