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A case for Food Justice

Ask a friend to describe healthy food and you’re likely to get a quick response centered on fresh whole foods, minimal preservatives and chemical processing, organic certification, local sourcing, balanced eating, any one of the innumerable diets out there, and a host of other concepts. Ask your friend to discuss sustainable food and key phrases might be organic (again), local (again), soil fertility, water use, food miles, carbon footprint, pesticide free, and so on. Ask the same friend to define “food justice” and you’ll likely be met by puzzled looks, silence, or a few halting words about fair trade or farm worker rights. Indeed, conversations about the movement for “good” food have historically been dominated by individual concerns like personal health, variety, and taste. Broader concerns that enter the discussion have generally been focused on the environment: use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, erosion, deforestation to accommodate agriculture, and the fossil fuel use of modern food systems.

This dual focus on the natural world and individual health is not surprising; the environmental movement as a whole has demonstrated the same tendency for decades, with organizations dedicated to everything from rainforest conservation to banning carcinogenic chemicals from consumer products. Only recently has the term “environmental justice” started percolating into the public consciousness. The efforts of organizations like the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment and the Indigenous Environmental Network have raised awareness of issues such as hazardous waste dumping on tribal lands and air pollution caused by coalplants in low-income neighborhoods. Perhaps even more than environmental justice, food justice is a movement still laboring on the outskirts of the mainstream and struggling for broader recognition and understanding.

In January’s Reader, feature writer Dawn Matlak discussed the complicated psychology surrounding the ostensibly simple act of eating. Wendell Berry describes eating as “an agricultural act.” Michael Pollan says it’s “a political act.” We live in a globally interconnected world where individual food choices can have both deeply personal and far-ranging ramifications. Economic and trade policies indelibly shape and are shaped by the collective choices of entire populations. In this context then, what is food justice? As I’ve hinted, it’s not an easy question to answer. Underlying almost every question we have about healthiness or sustainability is a related question about justice. Is this broccoli locally grown? Was it harvested by workers who are paid fairly and treated well? How far does this milk travel from farm to store? Is fresh dairy and produce readily accessible to low-income residents who are dependent on public transportation? Is this farmers’ market vendor certified organic? Do agricultural policies disadvantage organic producers and producers of fruits and vegetables and make these foods less affordable? A quick internet search for definitions of food justice reveals a wide range. Food justice involves healthy food for all; culturally appropriate food options; care for land, workers, and animals; and food sovereignty, among other things. Recognizing that no single definition will suffice, perhaps the most complete, concise description of food justice I’ve found is supplied by Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi, authors of Food Justice. “Food justice seeks to ensure that the benefits and risks of where, what, and how food is grown, produced, transported, distributed, accessed and eaten are shared fairly. Food justice represents a transformation of the current food system, including but not limited to eliminating disparities and inequities.”

“Benefits and risks…,” taken together they constitute the true costs (a much more comprehensive measure than food prices) of our food system. The ability to judge whether or not they are shared fairly requires first the ability to identify them. The most obvious benefit of food would seem to be sustenance and nutrition: fuel of sufficient quantity and quality for living a healthy, active life. Economic development and jobs created by the food system are another benefit. Enriching ecosystems through wise agriculture, supporting rich and varied cultural traditions, strengthening families and building community—these are all benefits of a just food system. Of course it takes little effort to imagine the converse. Diseases caused by food, low-wage and exploitative jobs with miserable working conditions, failing ecosystems, etc. populate the “risks” column in this discussion. As Gottlieb and Joshi state,food justice requires not just sharing the benefits and mitigating the risks, but doing so equitably.

So what does the food justice situation look like here at home? A comprehensive study is beyond the scope of this article, so I will focus on access to healthy food, probably the most frequently discussed aspect of food justice. Access could be understood simply as having a grocery store, farmers’ market, or other food supplier within a certain distance of one’s home. There is, of course, more to it, with the question of access answered better as a range than as a yes or no. Do I have access if the nearest food outlet is a corner store selling primarily convenience packaged foods that are highly processed and minimally nutritious? Do I have access if the nearest grocery store sells at a premium only specialty packaged goods and organic produce (the question of why organic products are more expensive than their conventional counterparts is the subject of an entire article by itself) that are beyond my budget? What if I am dependent on public transportation and the nearest food supplier requires an hour or longer round trip by bus? Or if there is a farmers’ market just blocks away but the market isn’t equipped to accept EBT or SNAP benefits? If I can drive to the store and afford fresh produce but have no idea how to compose and prepare a healthy meal? These sorts of questions reveal the challenge of both measuring and increasing access.

The most recent USDA data shows approximately 5% of low income (household income below 200% of federal poverty threshold given family size) people in Dane County as having low access to a grocery store (no stores within one mile). The state as a whole has roughly the same figure. Low percentages perhaps, but using 2010 Census data, this is roughly 285,000 people in the state and nearly 23,000 in Dane County alone. Using another measure, during 2008-2010, approximately one of every eight households and one of every five children in the state experienced food insecurity—meaning they were unable to acquire sufficient quantity, quality, and/or variety of food—at some point during the year. Again, that’s 20% of Wisconsin’s children! This household food insecurity rate represents a 40% increase over the preceding 10 years. As I mentioned, food justice means more than access alone, but the former simply cannot exist without the latter. It seems obvious that food security is intimately connected to economic security. Stagnating wages for low- and middle-class workers, rising healthcare costs, the economic downturn that began in 2008, and the home mortgage crisis have undoubtedly all contributed to a rise in food insecurity. Traditionally federal support, particularly the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, has been an important source of food for families that are struggling economically. It makes sense, therefore, that between 2008-2012, the percentage of Wisconsin’s population participating in this program nearly doubled. The fact that food insecurity rose substantially over the same time period, however, suggests that this assistance was not sufficient to meet the challenges economically vulnerable families faced in obtaining adequate food. Moreover, while the number of farmers’ markets—an important source of fresh produce for many Wisconsin families—has increased dramatically over the last several years, only 45 of the more than 280 farmers’ markets in the state are equipped to process SNAP benefits. The cuts to SNAP documented in recent Reader articles leave benefits at $1.40 per meal per person for a family of four. The USDA’s Thrifty Meal Plan (TFP) set the cost of a meal in 2013 at $1.75 per person, and USDA’s own nationwide consumption survey showed that, even with this 25% cushion over the SNAP benefit, only a third of households managed to obtain even 80% of the Recommended Daily Allowances for 11 nutrients. Calling it the “Nutritionally Inadequate Meal Plan” would probably stir the political pot a bit, but that is indeed the stark reality facing families with this level of resources available for food. In a particularly cruel twist, the glaringly inadequate TFP is the primary determinant of SNAP benefit levels.

The consequences of inadequate access to healthy food extend beyond hunger and malnutrition, though these are grave concerns in and of themselves. If food security is dependent on economic security, and economic security is strongly correlated with educational success, what additional disadvantages do food-insecure children face? We know intuitively that it’s harder to concentrate on an empty stomach, that poor nutrition limits brain function. Research has shown that hungry children are more likely to repeat a grade, come to school late, or miss school altogether. A lack of protein can cause young children to be lethargic and withdrawn, blood sugar swings caused by missed meals or junk food consumption can cause dizziness and mental confusion, and low Omega-3 intake is associated with learning disabilities, poor memory, and low IQ among other things. I’m certainly not saying that X number of students don’t graduate or get jobs because they don’t consume enough flax seed. It seems clear, though, that hunger and poor nutrition negatively impact educational success, endangering eventual economic security and potentially perpetuating the initial problem of limited access to healthy food.
What about risks not just to the individual, but to their communities and to society at large? Higher rates of food insecurity are associated with an increase in obesity and diabetes, and a decline in overall health. According to the Wisconsin Medical Journal, nationally, “medical costs associated with treating preventable obesity-related diseases are estimated to increase by $48 billion to $66 billion per year, and the loss in economic productivity could be between $390 billion and $580 billion annually by 2030.” Bringing it closer to home, those costs translate to people missing and/or losing work because of diet related health complications. Economic (and food) insecurity anyone?

Lack of access to healthy foods, perhaps a central component of food injustice, is a serious problem that seems to be growing worse despite an increase of organic food production across the country, a proliferation of farmers’ markets, and existing supports like SNAP. What can or should be done to reverse this trend? Awareness and understanding of the problem are a necessary first step. Information like that provided by the Wisconsin Food Security Project will help policy makers and service providers alike identify food justice risks in their communities. At the policy level, the City of Madison established the Madison Food Policy Council in late 2012 with an agenda that includes making nutritious food more available to low-income residents, encouraging community gardens, and reducing both food deserts and food swamps (areas with a high density of convenience stores and fast food restaurants, but low density of fresh food outlets). The Council sprang out of a four-week project titled Madison Meet and Eat, which successfully brought Meadowood neighborhood residents together around affordable fresh food and community activities. The underlying hope is that by increasing access to healthy foods, neighborhoods will be strengthened. In late 2013 the Council launched and recently finished accepting applications for its inaugural SEED grant cycle. The grants reward up to $10,000 to any project designed to improve the local food system and the Council is encouraging applications from projects aimed at improving access to healthy foods. While a state-level food policy council has not yet been established in Wisconsin, over a dozen other states have councils proposing policy initiatives like farm-to-school programs, local purchasing mandates, and food assistance for low-income households.

Outside of government, a host of organizations are working on food justice issues. Last year the United Way of Dane County, the Community Action Coalition of South Central Wisconsin, and the Goodman Foundation released the “Healthy Food for All Children Community Plan.” As you might guess, the plan’s goal is “To increase access to and consumption of healthy food for all children in Dane County... in order to decrease the number of food insecure children by 50 percent... by 2023.”  It points out that there are many existing efforts to bring affordable healthy food to Madison households. Lack of systemic coordination, however—particularly between groups that focus on food quality and sustainability and groups that focus on distributing food to low-income families—leads to inefficiency and slows down the rate of positive change in our community. The plan focuses on three strategies for accomplishing its goal. The first is to increase access to healthy food. Noting that participation in SNAP in Dane County is only at 75% of eligible beneficiaries, the plan aims to increase participation in SNAP and other benefit programs as well as improving access to and use of food pantries. The second strategy focuses on neighborhood and community capacity to support healthy food choices. In practice this means promoting local markets and community gardens, as well as community kitchen space—like the newly opened FEED Kitchens on Madison’s north side—where residents can learn food preparation and processing techniques and potentially form small businesses. The plan’s final strategy stresses the integration of healthy food options at schools and afterschool centers with comprehensive health education. REAP Food Group’s Farm to School program has developed several innovative approaches to addressing exactly those areas. With the Chef in the Classroom program and the Cooking Local in the Classroom manual, students develop skills in preparing seasonal local food. REAP educators (including local farmers) provide classroom instruction on how and where the students’ food was grown. Finally, the snack program provides healthy, affordable, locally sourced fruit and veggie snacks to area schools. Just across the neighborhood from Willy East, The Goodman Center tackles these issues with a nutrition program, a food pantry, and an alternative education program called Seed to Table that helps high school students earn credit while learning skills in the agricultural and food service fields.

Food co-ops are sometimes perceived as expensive and exclusive institutions, but here at the Willy Street Co-op, we recognize our potential to support and spread food justice and strive to do just that. The Access discount is designed to improve, well, access (surprise!) for low-income shoppers by providing alternative payment plans for purchasing a Fair Share of equity as well as offering purchase discounts for people in financial need. Trainings for staff and classes for Owners highlight food justice issues in our community and across the globe. The Community Reinvestment Fund, seeded with unclaimed and abandoned equity monies, awards thousands of dollars every year to community development projects, many of which focus on food justice issues. Last year’s supported projects, for example, included an initiative to employ local youth in creating and maintaining gardens, new community and school gardens, health literacy education for English language learners, and expansion of the “Just Dining” guide addressing employment standards for restaurant workers in Madison. And of course, through the Community CHIP partnership with Community Shares of Wisconsin, Co-op Owners can support a wide range of area non-profit organizations, several of which work to make our food system more just.

Food justice challenges us to broaden our understanding of and our work toward “good” food. To questions of personal and environmental health, it adds questions of community and societal health. It recognizes that production of healthy food options is meaningless without expanding access—geographical, educational, and economic—to those options. Like other forms of justice, it requires the involvement of the public sector and private enterprise, of individuals and organizations. Food justice encompasses many factors and it would be easy to throw up our hands with an overwhelmed sigh of “I don’t need another problem to worry about.” As with many complex issues, though, perhaps the most accessible way to learn more and contribute to positive change is locally. Hopefully this discussion has highlighted some opportunities to develop a more just food system right here in Madison.

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