We cannot shop our way to food justice

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The food system is a tool for corporate profits, but it can also be an entry point for recognition of food access as a human right

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by Jaime Hamre
Hampshire Political Writing Workshop

Organic, fair trade, locally-produced, all natural, cage free, cruelty free, eco-friendly. An elaborate array of labels and certifications yanks at the conscience of the American consumer at the grocery store, attempting to convince them that by buying certain products over others, they can do their part to create a more equitable food system.

The idea of the “Green Economy” is to address the environmental and social problems within the food system by creating a more “ethical” economic market alternative to the mainstream corporate market.

While the Green Economy has made some important gains in enlightening consumers to many issues, the creed of “voting with your fork” – of buying change – is inherently undemocratic, distracting the consumer from taking aim at the deeper issues at the root of our broken food system and reinforcing divisions of race and class.

Participation in the Green Economy “is about how much you have to buy or sell,” sociologist Alison Hope Alkon points out in her spot on the political radio program Against the Grain. “Voting with your fork” is only an effective means for hearing the voices of those who can afford the most forks. “The need in a farmers’ market, or in any kind of alternative [Green Economy] food project, is for the producers to be able to make money. So that’s certainly at odds with making the food cheap enough to increase access,” Alkon explains.

As consumers remain convinced that by shopping in a certain way they are doing their part, they are blind to the need to fight the corporatization of our resources in order for good, healthy, “ethically” produced food to be available to everyone.

“The most reliable predictor of obesity in America today is a person’s wealth,” Michael Pollan writes in a New York Times article, explaining that, thanks to the corporate-influenced Farm Bill, the cheapest goods are those which are the most processed, with the longest ingredients lists. Fresh fruits and vegetables (especially those organic and/or locally produced) are usually cost-prohibitive to those in the lowest income brackets.

The contemporary food movement, which champions the Green Economy as a means for change, has predominantly been white, leading to another important downside: the exclusion of a dialogue about how race plays into the broken food system.

In her interview, Alkon explains that the narrative that propels the Green Economy is that of the archetypal small, multi-generational family farmer. She points out that this image is often “deployed without thinking about who has access to being that multi-generational sustainable farmer.” She mentions the many historical legal and political mechanisms, such as slavery, the Bracero program, and USDA discrimination against black farmers, that have “made it so that the multi-generational farmers are almost entirely white at this point.”

The Green Economy has been successful in enlightening American consumers to the struggles of small producers in other countries who are now on the receiving end of the Fair Trade movement. It fails, however, to address the struggles of domestic agricultural producers and laborers, such as the farmworkers of Immokalee, Florida who have had to fight with big names like Trader Joe’s to get fair prices for their tomatoes. Latino and immigrant rights groups Cuéntame and Latino Rebels challenged the obfuscation of this narrative with their parody of the Dodge Ram Farmer Superbowl ad.

Alkon calls for an increased reflexivity of the predominantly white food movement in its language and imagery to be more inclusive and “root out places where race would change the meaning of the story they’re telling.” Wenonah Hauter, director of Food and Water Watch and author of Foodopoly contends in an interview that “solving the crisis will require a complete structural shift, not just personal choice.”

The good news is that many food justice organizations are working not only for food access for all but also to bring marginalized and silenced voices back to the table. One such organization, Phat Beets Produce in Oakland, CA, draws from the legacy of Black Power movement (such as the Black Panthers’ Survival Programs) to link the struggle for food security to the greater struggles for racial justice.

The Food Chain Workers Alliance and the Restaurant Opportunities Center have made gains for the food system laborers “in fields, food processing plants, restaurants and supermarkets [who] are among the lowest paid in the country,” according to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

The food system is currently a tool for corporations to reap profits. However, it can be an entry point for the recognition of food access as a human right framed around a discussion of anti-racism and class consciousness.

So what can you do? While it is still important to directly support local farmers by shopping at farmers’ markets and local businesses, search for the root causes of the injustices within in the food system and support other organizations that make those linkages.

Fight for the true democratization and de-commodification of food, and recognize it as a human right for all.