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Reprinted from: Kate Meals, Nurturing the Seeds of Food Justice: Unearthing the Impact of Institutionalized Racism on Access to Healthy Food in Urban African-american Communities, 15 Scholar: St. Mary's Law Review on Race and Social Justice 97 (2012) (266 Footnotes)
“For now I ask no more than the justice of eating.”
- Pablo Neruda
On November 7, 2011, the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HRD) raided and destroyed the Morning Glory Community Garden, which served as a community-based solution to the lack of healthy, accessible food in the South Bronx since 2009. Prior to the raid, the garden collective had been working to raise four hundred dollars towards creating their own community supported agriculture program, which would provide affordable and healthy food to participants in the South Bronx.
Elliot Liu, a member of the Morning Glory garden group, stated that the first indication of the city's plans to destroy the garden came when gardeners arrived to find a padlocked gate surrounding the lot, complete with a “no trespassing” sign. Liu and others who tend to and use the community space were surprised since the city had many opportunities to inform the group of its plans in a less confrontational manner. When the Morning Glory gardeners attempted to appeal to Community Board 1 for support in a meeting with the city housing department, District Manager Cedric Loftin informed them that the city had plans to use the garden land to build apartments, that the residents who had gathered and planted vegetables on the land did so improperly, and that the gardeners entered into “somewhere where they [had] no right to be.” In 2002, New York's mayor and attorney general reached an agreement to preserve approximately five hundred community gardens and construct apartments on others. Two hundred gardens were left without full protection, and community garden activists reported that in several cases, “protected” gardens were destroyed in violation of the agreement. In 2004, the city of New York evicted and sold three community gardens in the South Bronx. At the time, garden advocates “sued, rallied, and planned possible defense[s] via occupations and lock downs.” Ultimately, the community was forced into a compromise that resulted in a loss of 28,000 square feet of green space.
When the garden preservation agreement expired in 2012 New York's mayor replaced it with a new set of rules. Community and public health activists responded with mixed reactions, including some who wanted to ensure the gardens would not be turned over to developers. Community members explained the importance of the gardens to low-income communities and communities of color. One member of the community captured the sentiment with the following:
[c]ommunity gardening is a way to fight the systemic injustice of poverty and other forms of structural oppression[.] Most of the gardens are in poor areas of the city, with much higher rates of asthma and lower rates of open space equity. From an indigenous/community perspective, gardens offer a way for our community to heal itself . . . .
In an area such as the South Bronx, which is the reported home of the most severe hunger problems in the United States, community gardens can be integral to survival. There, obesity rates are also some of the nation's highest. While the simultaneous existence of extreme hunger and obesity may suggest a paradox, hunger and nutrition experts explain that “[these] plagues [are] often seen in the same households, even the same person: the hungriest people in America today, statistically speaking, may well be not sickly skinny, but excessively fat.” Significantly, the Bronx is also one of the most diverse areas in the country. According to the 2011 Census, the population is 43.3 percent African-American and 53.8 percent Latino. The South Bronx faces many challenges due to structural racism, creating a situation in which “the food insecurity study is hardly the first statistical measure in which the Bronx lands on the top--or, in reality, the bottom.” The crisis in the South Bronx is representative of the hunger and food access limitations that impact communities of color throughout the country. Institutionalized racism operates on multiple structural levels simultaneously; thus, an urban community of color that lacks healthy food will likely also face housing inequalities, health disparities, substandard education, and overrepresentation in the criminal justice system, as well as a lack of structural power to alter these injustices. An anti-racist analysis of hunger is necessary to contextualize the power dynamics and structures responsible for food inequality.
Focusing on food justice and institutionalized racism within the United States, this Comment deconstructs systemic causes of food insecurity, “food deserts,” and “food swamps,” and examines policy and community-based solutions to these inadequacies. Section II provides background on hunger in the United States. Section III seeks to explain the U.S. government's position on the right to food. Section IV examines the roots of food inequality in the urban United States. Section IV explores urban agriculture as a solution to lack of access to healthy food. Section V covers the institutional barriers to addressing the urban food crisis. Finally, Section VI discusses solutions proposed by proponents of food justice, such as utilizing urban agriculture, zoning, and incentives to correct some of the various food injustice caused, local government, corporate and industrial systems.
A major reason our food system is so damaged--so dominated by corporate interests, rife with unhealthy products, and unbalanced by unequal access--is that we too often fail to consider food a social good or to understand that growing, selling, and eating food is by its nature a meaningful social act. What we eat is far more than a pile of commodities. Not only is food's essential job to nourish our bodies, but it can also serve as a creator of quality livelihoods, a locus of community engagement and cohesion, and an engine of citizen empowerment and education.
In recent decades, globalization and exponential population growth have pushed the boundaries of “economic, social, and ecological sustainability,” threatening global food security. In our modern age, rife with technological advances designed to make food production and distribution less labor intensive, widespread hunger and malnutrition diminish the “health and well-being of millions of people around the world.” Despite the fact that it is fundamental to human survival, adequate access to food is often regarded as if it were a privilege, rather than a “basic human right.” As the food crisis rages on, urban areas in advanced industrialized countries such as the United States are becoming concentrated zones of hunger and malnutrition, despite the fact that the U.S. food supply is plentiful enough to feed every person in the country almost twice over, even accounting for exports. In the United States today approximately thirty million people are unable to buy sufficient “food to maintain good health.”
A. Who are the Hungry?
Although our country's food system crisis impacts the entire nation, people of color bear a disproportionate brunt of its harm. While this Comment pays particular attention to the present and historical structures impacting African-American communities, inequality in the production, acquisition, and quality of food affects communities of color throughout the entire United States. Research indicates that obesity, food security, and “food deserts” most negatively and disproportionately impact people of color and low-income individuals.
Nationwide, 38.1 million people, or 12.4 percent of the population, identify as African-American (or Black). When compared with the U.S. population as whole, African-Americans experience “hunger, poverty, unemployment, and income disparity” at disproportionate levels. In 2010, rates of food insecurity in African-American households were higher than the national average, at 25.1 percent. In 2008, 27.2 percent of African-American families had difficulty getting enough to eat, compared with 11.6 percent in Caucasian households overall.
Disparities in food consumption equate to disparities in health. A recent study found that proximity to grocery stores was associated with lower rates of obesity. Healthier food is generally less available and more expensive in urban African-American neighborhoods. One study found that African-Americas are almost four times more likely to live in food deserts than Whites. In general, the role of racism as an “organizing process in the food system” is evidenced by people of colors' disproportionate lack of access to healthy food, unbalanced likelihood to lose their farms, and overrepresentation in the agricultural labor and food processing industries.
Over the past decade, the United States has seen a dramatic increase in awareness of the state of our food supply, urban agriculture, and nutrition. Often missing from these discussions, however, is an understanding of food oppression's structural causes. Instead, the focus typically lies on personal responsibility and the need to bring in outside information to educate communities deemed to be suffering from hunger and health problems. Because many people who work to address food access are outsiders to urban communities of color, “many community organizations remain unaware or closed to the ways racism works in the food system.” Such food organizations often overlook the histories of institutionalized racism when proposing “solutions” or goals such as self-sufficiency. Funding needs often demand allegiance to organizations outside of the community and thus do not challenge the power structures that create racial disparities.
Throughout the United States, many low-income communities and communities of color face a daily food crisis. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 17.2 million households were “food insecure” in 2010, and struggled to acquire adequate food due to lack of financial resources. In addition to facing food insecurity, urban areas often exist in what are commonly called “food deserts” or grocery gaps, locales in which there are no grocery stores or other opportunities to purchase fresh, healthy food, which typically co-exist with “food swamps,” areas which have a high prevalence of unhealthy food options, such as fast food and convenience stores. In a 2009 report to Congress, the USDA also found that “higher levels of racial segregation and greater income inequality” define urban areas. The USDA also found that close to six percent of all U.S. households lacked access to obtain the food they “wanted or needed,” and over half of these households also lacked sufficient financial resources for food.
Research conducted in California illustrates these findings. In Los Angeles, a research study by Occidental College found upper-income areas had approximately three times as many supermarkets per capita as did low-income zip codes, and majority Caucasian zip codes had 3.17 times as many supermarkets than majority African-American zip codes. West Oakland, an area whose population numbers 30,000 and is 77 percent African-American, is home to fifty-three liquor stores, thirteen fast food retailers, and zero grocery stores. Even when there are grocery stores in urban communities of color, the produce is often of a lower quality and higher price than that of suburban supermarkets.
Racial justice scholar Andrea Freeman asserts that the damage done by lack of access to healthy food has a “pronounced and extreme effect on low-income people of color” which “represents a form of structural oppression that activists must incorporate into a struggle for racial and economic justice.” Structural food oppression undermines the well-being and very survival of low-income, urban communities of color. Since the food we consume so directly impacts our health, the negative impacts of lack of adequate nutrition and the stress of hunger permeate all other aspects of life. As expressed by one scholar, “[h]ealth is fundamental to every aspect of life,” and “without health, a student cannot do well in school; a worker cannot hold a job, much less excel at one; a family member cannot be an effective parent or spouse. Health crises and the staggering costs they impose are critical underlying causes of poverty, homelessness and bankruptcy. People of color who live in racially segregated neighborhoods are exposed to greater health risks. African-Americans confined to segregated areas have historically experienced rising mortality rates due to overcrowding leading to disease and drug use. These forms of structural racism are shaped heavily by government policies.
Such policies include providing public assistance that is insufficient to cover the cost of fresh food, drawing resources and services out of the cities, zoning and incentive policies that favor corporations over community-based businesses and urban farming, and government subsidies that facilitate saturation of urban communities and schools with fast food. This government-sponsored racial inequality tends to be obscured by the “distinction between public and private spheres of action and is perpetuated by the myth of personal choice, even where a lack of options and resources severely limits the ability to exercise choice.”
In addition, marketing analysis used to determine where businesses choose to locate their stores systematically undervalues inner-city neighborhoods. Marketing firms generally rely on national data counts such as the U.S. Census, which often fail to accurately count city residents, especially people of color. One study of a mostly African-American and Latino area of Washington, D.C. undercounted the area residents by 55 percent. Market studies also generally use average household income rather than at total area income to determine an area's purchasing power, and thus underestimate available dollars within dense urban areas.
In the United States, policy discussions about food insecurity often ignore the histories of institutionalized racism that have caused widespread hunger and poverty, and instead tend to place the blame on the struggling communities. These discussions also often overlook a particular “relativistic quality that has wormed its way into our food system over the past ten years.” As lower-income areas begin to make small improvements in access to healthy food, such as the addition of a grocery store or the slightly improved reach of the food stamp program, higher-income communities, by comparison, “leap ahead” with increases in their purchase of local and organic foods. The result is that, “as trends in consumption associated with lifestyle and health expand one class's universe of choice and perceived health benefits, a lower, less privileged class barely catches up to where the other class was in the last decade.” Without an effective intervention, this gap is likely to continue its expansion.
B. Enter Food Justice: A Community Movement for Change
The food justice movement, which includes a wide variety of communities, organizations, and scholars, has emerged as a response to inequality in the food system. Described as the movement to address food oppression, the food justice analysis embraces the concept that every person has a right to healthy and safe food, and that any risks or benefits related to food should be distributed fairly.
Central to food justice is adequate access to food, an issue advocated by the “community food security movement,” and an understanding of food systems and environments. Achieving food justice requires “grow[[ing], sell[ing] and eat[ing] healthy food.” Healthy food is generally defined as food that is “fresh, nutritious, affordable, culturally-appropriate and grown locally with care for the well-being of the land, workers and animals.”
Employing a working definition of food justice helps focus us on our society's inherent “hierarchies of power” which, 1) create the structural inequalities inherent in environmental and food injustice; and 2) provide the circumstances within which advocates must direct potential policy or legal solutions. Significantly, even when lack of access to healthy food is identified as a major social problem in a particular area, policy is generally not implemented to address it, and when discussions do occur, the proposed solution is often within the private sector.
The scope of food justice includes an analysis of how food is produced, how far it travels, and how it is distributed. This analysis addresses the impact of the food system on farm workers, farmers, people of color, and people living in poverty. By exposing the reality of communities of color and low-income communities (and the ecosystems, environments, and public health of these groups), the food justice movement illuminates the ways in which power and privilege impact our relationship to food. By interweaving discourses of food security, health, social justice, and an equitable environment, food justice organizations “explicitly rais[e] awareness about the complex interconnectivity of the uneven distribution of resources. . .the health of. . .citizens, and their ability to produce and access food.”
III. No Right to Food in the United States?
“The idea of freedom is inspiring. But what does it mean? If you are free in a political sense but have no food, what's that? The freedom to starve?” - Angela Davis
“I am the people, humble, hungry, mean--Hungry yet today despite the dream.” - Langston Hughes
The United States urban food crisis and food justice movement exists within the context of our government's position on the right to access of adequate food. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, all people have the right to a standard of living sufficient for “health and well-being” including, “food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age, or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his [or her] control.” Although the United States is a signatory to the UDHR, its policy and practices do not reflect a guaranteed right to food. Although government programs exist to promote adequate access to food, they are situated within a “deep ideological resistance to economic rights” within the United States. Furthermore, “[t]he U.S. government has consistently expressed its opposition to the idea of the right to food.” In 1996, for example, the United States interpreted the concluding document of the World Food Summit by characterizing its understanding of the right to safe and nutritious food to mean only that “governments should not interfere with the effective opportunity or ability of their citizens to obtain safe and nutritious food.” This interpretation indicates recognition of the obligation to respect, or “not interfere with people's efforts to provide for themselves,” but not to protect, facilitate, or provide food. However, as we will see, the United States does not comply even with its own interpretation of the World Food Summit's language. Although the “food status” of many Americans is good, there is generally no right to adequate food. Indeed, U.S. federal law does not recognize a right to adequate food. The Supreme Court has never acknowledged an “explicit right to eat certain foods” or a right to food period.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is tasked with protecting and promoting the health of the American people. Recently, the agency asserted that there is no right to health or freedom of food. In response to a lawsuit by the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund (FTCLDF), the FDA stated that there is “no fundamental right to choose your food or freedom to contract for it.” The FDA has also stated that there is no right to freedom of food or right to bodily and physical health. Although the plaintiffs in this lawsuit were cow farmers in the sustainable food movement, the FDA's findings have disturbing implications as a statement on the general ability of communities to assert their right to choose healthy food or to obtain food in general.
IV. Urban Communities
White people are so scared of [B]lack people
they bulldoze out to the country and put up houses on little loop-dee-loop streets and while [America] gets its heart cut right out of its chest the [B]erlin [W]all still runs down main street separating east side from west and nothing is stirring, not even a mouse in the boarded-up stores and the broken-down houses. . . And I'm wondering what it will take for my city to rise first we admit our mistakes then we open our eyes the ghosts of old buildings are haunting parking lots in the city of good neighbors that history forgot. -Ani Difranco,” Subdivision”
A. White Flight: A Brief History of Segregation and Ghettoization
While our national narrative portrays racial segregation as a closed chapter of an unenlightened past, in reality “segregation continues to characterize the present lives of many minorities in America.” Segregation is a key component of contemporary, on-going urban poverty. Housing segregation and economic inequality continue to keep the country from moving towards “true racial equality.” The areas of the country most overtly defined by the segregation, the legacy of slavery, sharecropping, Jim Crow laws, and restrictive housing covenants experience the greatest food struggles today. According to a study conducted by the Food Action Research Center, the Southeast has the country's highest rate of food hardship overall with 21.1 percent. In stark contrast, the same study found rates of food hardship in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic to be one-third lower.
Racial segregation did not always characterize U.S. cities in the way it does today. As African-Americans began moving north following World War I and II, federal and local governments began intentionally creating racial segregation through various public projects such as urban renewal, public improvement, and public housing programs, causing the “picture of the urban ghetto . . . to develop.” Local governments adopted racial segregation as a de facto policy. Whites began pouring out of the urban areas and into suburbia in a widespread pattern termed “White flight.” Industry began leaving the urban areas in favor of cheap land and tax incentives. Zoning ordinances, designed to facilitate segregation, separated blocks by race, and restrictive covenants allowed for legally backed racial discrimination and segregation. Urban decay and ghettoization are the clear “result of deliberate housing policies of the federal, state and local governments.”
Historically, the federal government has emerged various policies to create and maintain racial segregation. Since its creation, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) perpetuated discrimination as the “protector of all [W]hite neighborhoods.” The FHA employed “redlining,” a discriminatory practice that diverted mortgage funds away from urban, African-American neighborhoods, and toward borrowers in White, middle-class neighborhoods. From 1930 to 1950, three-fifths of all homes purchased in the United States were backed by the FHA, yet “less than two percent of the FHA loans were made to non-White home buyers.” Federal interstate highway and urban renewal programs further segregated neighborhoods and consumed urban land using eminent domain. The cumulative effect of these policies has made the federal government the “most influential in creating and maintaining residential segregation.” In 1968, the Civil Rights Act made discrimination in housing rentals and sales illegal, but “subtle and explicit” housing discrimination continues.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) continues to promulgate and maintain intentionally racist policies, which in turn, ensure the continued segregation of urban communities. Courts have found HUD liable for overtly racist policies in Section Eight administration, selection of public housing sites, and tenant housing procedures. Laws designed to prevent such discrimination have failed to prevent housing inequality, and do not address its underlying structural causes.
B. Grocery Stores Leave Urban Areas
Food retail in the United States had been “gradually changing since the first arrival of chain grocery stores” before World War I and chain supermarkets after World War II. As the middle class flocked to suburbia, a depressed urban economy made it difficult to keep supermarkets or other businesses in the area. Malls, promising one-stop shopping and huge parking lots began opening closer to the suburbs. By 1960, over 65 percent of food was purchased at supermarkets, and by 1975 corporations owned the same percentage of the entire food retail market. This new food structure pulled money away from urban areas and directed it to the corporate headquarters. At the same time, access to food became directly tied to locations of supermarkets. By the 1980s and 1990s, superstores, such as Costco (which can only be reached by automobile) had taken charge of food retail, leaving the inner cities few options for food shopping. Once shopping options became limited, liquor stores began to serve as a main source of food in urban areas. The food for sale in these corner stores is typically processed (fresh fruits and vegetables are not available), and is generally more expensive than what could be found in a supermarket. As businesses left the cities, low-income urban real estate became devalued. This divestment created a landscape such as Detroit's, where flight from urban areas left over 30,000 acres vacant.
1. Transportation Barriers
“Food deserts” or grocery gaps can also be understood as a transportation gap. When the post-World War II supermarket expansion corresponded with the increase in use of the automobile, the need for customer parking drove most supermarket construction to the suburbs, where large, inexpensive tracts of land were readily available. Perplexingly, most urban light rail systems were not planned to reach grocery stores despite the relatively small number of cars in urban areas compared to the suburbs. Attempts to solve this oversight, or to address the connection between lack of transportation and access to food has been largely “absent from any transportation policy or food retail management planning.” The federal Transportation Bill for example, neglects to include “food distribution or food access considerations in the various projects and subsidies” created by the legislation. In addition, studies documenting inequality in access to transportation have found that 19 percent of African-Americans and 13.7 percent of Latinos lack access to cars, compared with only 4.6 percent of Whites.
2. Complexity of the Grocery Gap
At first glance, it may seem that the lack of access to fresh, healthy food in low-income communities would be easily resolved by the addition of supermarkets into these areas. However, the grocery stores that have either remained in or returned to low-income areas tend to contribute to the problem by “offering and often prominently displaying highly processed foods, candy, snacks and sodas.” Additionally, as food retail becomes increasingly globalized, grocery stores are able to determine “long-distance supply chains and product selections . . .” This scenario has stripped supermarkets of local and culturally responsive food.
C. Fast Food
In urban areas, fast food has become the most affordable and accessible source of food. According to a study of the fast food industry, African-American communities have 2.4 fast food establishments per square mile, whereas White neighborhoods have only 1.5 per square mile. Additionally, fast food marketing targets youth of color at significantly higher rates than White youth; African-American youth are exposed to 50 percent more fast food advertising than their White peers. As one food scholar described the problem:
A junk food jungle sprouted up from the barren stretches of the fresh food desert throughout poor neighborhoods in post-industrial America, capitalizing on the niche left by the retreat of groceries and supermarkets and a demand for food that was easily accessible, convenient, and cheap, sending the incidence of diabetes and obesity skyrocketing.
1. Government Support for Fast Food
The fast food industry exploits the same market forces that drive healthy food out of urban communities. It also utilizes its massive resources to lobby the government for “subsidies, exemptions, and other perks.” In turn, the government cooperates with the fast food industry by creating artificially low prices, allowing the industry to infiltrate public schools, and distributing misleading health information. Fast food's corporate share is not merely a product of free-market capitalism; the U.S. government heavily subsidizes the industry. The prices are kept artificially low (by three times the actual cost) by using government subsidies for animal feed, sugar, oils, and large farms that produce fast food's crops.
a. The USDA and Fast Food
For over a century the U.S. government has been telling people what they should and should not eat. The history of this advice reflects the most current information on topics including “agriculture, food product development, and international trade, as well as in science and medicine.” Many people assume that the USDA promulgates the food pyramid with the best interests of the American people in mind, but history tells us otherwise. Even when it became apparent that Americans would benefit from eating less of certain types of food, the official recommendations on food intake did not change because “advice to eat less [of certain foods or food categories] . . . runs counter to the interests of food producers.” Contemporary information on healthy eating runs counter to the food industry's interests, and this causes a great deal of confusion about how and what to eat. In fact, “dietary advice issued by the government has never been based purely on considerations of public health.” Clearly, the public's interest in accurate dietary and nutritional advice takes a backseat to the food and agricultural industries' influence on national food policy.
These USDA practices impose disproportionate levels of harm on African-American communities, which are also a common target of fast-food's marketing. The USDA's nutrition guidelines have been accused of being racially biased, as the guidelines place emphasis on meat and dairy products, foods that are leading contributors to diseases commonly found in the African-American community. These foods are also heavily used by the fast food industry.
V. Urban Gardens: A Community Solution to the Urban Food Crisis?
A. History of Urban Gardening in the United States
Despite a history of urban agriculture as a viable method of feeding communities, the United States has generally regarded urban gardening as a recreational activity, a way to build community, or a way to green the cities. Working class American urbanites, however, have long used urban gardening as “a source of food security in lean times.” Garden programs serving schools, prisons, and “at-risk” youth have existed for many years, and public health experts acknowledge the role of gardening to promote nutrition, socialization, and healthy development. In the 1890s and 1930s, urban gardening was used to address unemployment, and during World Wars I and II, “victory” gardens were used to protect against food shortages.
In the late 1960s urban agriculture began spreading in the wake of urban riots over segregation and police brutality. After the riots, thousands of empty lots lay unoccupied where buildings had previously stood. Many of the destroyed buildings had been food stores, and when there was no financial support to bring the stores back, communities began planting gardens in these abandoned lots. Most African-Americans in the cities had migrated from the South, so they used their knowledge of agriculture to grow urban vegetables. Now, fifty years later, thirty cities have urban-farming projects, and there are 10,000 community gardens in the United States. New York City alone has an impressive 600 city gardens, involving over 20,000 residents.
B. Contemporary Urban Agriculture
Today, community gardens represent a vital source of food for low-income African-American communities and other communities of color. The typical urban garden produces approximately 540 pounds of food a year. These gardens, such as the Morning Glory in the South Bronx, also create an avenue for people to work together, generate income, educate youth about healthy eating, and build community, and are one of the most promising sources of urban revival. Some food justice advocates call this garden-driven revival “civic agriculture,” noting that “[w]hile the American food and agriculture system follows a decades-old path of industrialization and globalization, a counter trend toward localizing some agriculture and food production has appeared,” which is “tightly linked to a community's social and economic development.” While civic agriculture, does not currently represent an economic challenge to the conventional agriculture and food industry. . .it does include some innovative ways to produce, process, and distribute food. And it represents a sustainable alternative to the socially, economically, and environmentally destructive practices that have come to be associated with conventional agriculture . . . . [It] brings together production and consumption activities within communities and offers consumers real alternatives to the commodities produced, processed, and marketed by large agribusiness firms.
However, so long as vacant land used for community gardens is under a city's control, and zoning regulations are used to keep empty lots from being farmed, “urban agriculture efforts. . .will continue to be ephemeral.” For now, community gardens only stand a chance of achieving longevity through long-term leases or community land ownership. Policy proposals include creating zoning regulations that encourage urban gardening, and offering incentives and assistance to improve corner stores to stock local, sustainably grown produce.
1. Critiques of Urban Agriculture
While food justice has a great deal of support as a concept, the movement has been the target of some practical and theoretical challenges. Some critics have asserted that food justice projects, such as urban gardens are “neoliberal in nature, emphasizing entrepreneurialism and self-betterment while filling gaps left by the rolling back of the state.” They argue that individuals are taking up the slack left by “neoliberal roll-back of state services” and transferring the responsibilities of the state to individuals, “creating self-disciplining ‘neoliberal citizen subjects.”’ Some also claim that “well-intentioned but overzealous” advocates of urban gardening might see it as a cure-all solution to all urban struggles. Perhaps most threatening to urban communities is the potential for urban agriculture to “manifest as a colonial relationship where [W]hite organizations end up telling communities of color what to do” as they impose their “external values or visions onto participating communities.” Others have worried that urban pollution is likely to make vegetables grown in our city's gardens unfit for consumption, or that the urban gardens simply are not capable of producing sufficient amounts or varieties of food. Although many well-intended suggestions offered from outside of urban communities of color involve a goal of self-sufficiency, these solutions require access to the means, via business ownership or employment, to overcome the systemic blockades to full economic participation in society. Despite these important critiques of urban agriculture, “applying this type of fine-grained post-structural analysis wholesale to UA [urban agriculture] programs may overlook their potentially revolutionary power.”
VI. Institutional Barriers to Urban Land Use
A. Municipal Intervention
The permanence of urban gardens is consistently in question. Often, rather than repeal or rewrite restrictive zoning ordinances to allow for urban agriculture, cities prefer to grant informal permission to community groups to create gardens on vacant lots. This structure is problematic because community groups have no legal recourse when the city decides to use the land for another purpose. In New York City Environmental Justice Alliance v. Giuliani, plaintiffs argued that “community gardens are highly beneficial to minority communities and that the elimination of gardens would therefore have an adverse impact on some aspects of the lives of the neighborhood residents.” Rejecting testimony that there were other available parcels suitable for development that would be less harmful to communities of color, the court held that the harm from eliminating the community garden was justified by the city's plan to “build new housing and foster urban renewal.” Here, as in the case of the Morning Glory Community Garden, the city prioritized other types of land use over urban agriculture. Community gardeners seeking to secure land sometimes achieve this goal thorough the use of intermediaries, such as land trusts to clear title, or through typically impracticable measures such as adverse possession or implied dedication.
B. Land Grabs
Land grabs are “large-scale acquisition of agricultural, range, and forest lands by outside interests.” These acquisitions are occurring throughout the world, mainly in Africa and other parts of the “Global South.” Many tend to think of land grabs as happening mostly in developing countries, but it is happening in the United States with increasing frequency. Corporations in the United States are currently engaged in urban land grabs under the guise of eradicating the “food deserts.” The global recession is forcing food retailers, seeking profits in untapped markets, to focus on low-income urban communities.
The poor and hungry do not benefit from these large-scale land acquisitions. According to one researcher, “[l]and grabs, which aim at 20 percent profits for investors, are all about financial speculation.” Accordingly, “this is why land grabbing is completely incompatible with food security; food production--or any other legitimate economic activity--can only bring profits of 3-5 percent. Land grabbing simply enhances the commodification of agriculture whose sole purpose is the over-remuneration of speculation capital.” These land grabs take money out of the community and put it into the hands of corporations. Recent government incentives to offer healthy food are providing large entitlements to corporate grocers, such as Wal-Mart to open stores in the inner city.
Global corporations, such as Wal-Mart and Kroger, see an opportunity to “capture public entitlements” by stating an intention to address the “food desert” problem. These urban land grabs, however, “contradict the food justice movement's vision for a just, sustainable, and democratic food system,” and they do not take history into account. History reminds us that many of the same corporations have previously opened stores in our nation's low-income, inner cities and then abandoned them, taking community resources out of the community with them. One such situation occurred in West Oakland, when the grocer Foods Co. entered the community, acquired land, opened a store, and closed its doors soon after, taking with it funding and local investment. Even though funding initiatives, such as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Healthy Food Financing, are intended to support local food projects in practice, large corporations are beating out food justice advocates because they have the necessary capital to set up their stores quickly. Since there is no system in place to favor community-owned food projects, corporations are displacing local economies with the new urban land grab trend. While the corporate stores might meet some food access needs, this undemocratic development process will likely reduce green space, decrease community investment in urban areas, and further decrease food autonomy.
VII. Potential Solutions
As previously discussed, food justice can be understood as a quest to transform the ways in which food is grown, accessed, transported, and eaten. These components of food justice are often compartmentalized, which makes it difficult to piece together the full scope of the problem. A “political-economic critique” of the food system is helpful in addressing the sense of fragmentation, as it maps the extreme changes in our food system that have occurred over the past sixty years, including:
• The marginalization of small-scale primary producers and processors;
• Loss of rural ways of life;
• Horizontal and vertical integration, consolidation, and monopolization in the food industry and agriculture;
• Manipulation of food and its packaging to increase profit; and
• Alienation of food consumers from food producers and from the food that they eat, including the “de-skilling,” or the loss of people's abilities to grow and prepare food.
Food justice advocates are actively at work in each of these areas. One approach to transforming our food system consists of efforts to work through governmental components, such as the Food and Drug Administration and the court system. As discussed previously, this approach has often been less than successful for advocates of food justice and food autonomy. However, cities should be encouraged to be proactive about addressing food access, by implementing increased transportation to food retail and launching intra-department collaborations. For example, the New York City's mayor's office and departments of economic development, health, housing and planning collaborated to create several programs aimed at increasing food access. When instituting any program or initiative, however, it is critical to involve community members of affected areas at every step of the process and clearly understand who is likely to benefit or be harmed from any policy changes.
Corporate intervention has the potential to also play a role in increasing access to food. Food justice advocates are generally opposed to this approach because ultimately it strips resources from urban areas. Instead, advocates tend to favor public incentives that would provide healthy, affordable food and keep the food dollars local through community-based urban farming, farmers' markets, co-ops, community supported agriculture, and community processing businesses and retail. Community-based, democratic food options would build “economic resilience” in urban areas while “addressing the deeper, structural causes of hunger.”
Some proponents of urban agriculture enlist assistance of land trusts to acquire garden land and hold it in perpetuity, thus ensuring its protection from development. Community land trusts offer an appealing haven for community gardens and hope for the future. Community land trusts are non-profit organizations that safeguard land and ensure it is used in a way that benefits the greater community. There are currently over two hundred community land trusts operating throughout the United States, and many hold land that is used for community gardens. Some gardens slated for demolition or sale are preserved through land trusts, such as the Bronx Land Trust, which is home to eighteen community gardens saved from sale in 1999.
Additionally, zoning laws dictate the ways in which land may be used. As discussed previously, zoning is tied to a legacy of intentional segregation and devaluation of the country's urban areas. Presently, many cities are grappling with creative ways to use modern-day zoning to correct urban decay and discrimination. Cities enjoy a great deal of discretion in structuring their zoning policies. Zoning plans related to food access are necessarily unique to each city's particular assets and needs. Most U.S. cities employ “use-based” zoning laws, which divide land into separate districts, such as commercial, residential, multi- or mixed use, and industrial. Use or development of land is based on its specific designation, and if an area is not specifically zoned for urban agriculture, such as a community garden, it is unprotected from being forced to shut down. Starting with the goal of maintaining existing urban agriculture and establishing new sites, cities have the power to structure zoning policies to promote urban agriculture on appropriate public and private land. These regulations should include community gardens, urban farms, and farmer's markets. In addition, some food justice proponents are calling for cities to zone out fast food. South Los Angeles has taken the lead in this radical policy, by declaring a moratorium on new fast food locations in 2008.
Advocates of food justice can also urge local governments to provide incentives to retailers to sell locally grown food. The New York Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) Program, which was created to promote grocery stores in underserved areas by using financial and zoning incentives, provides a useful example. This model could be improved by efforts to reduce prices for healthy food and take cultural food preferences into account.
In order to support healthy urban development, corporate land grabs in food deserts must be prevented. Federal loans offered to local businesses to sell healthy food help would achieve this goal and keep resources in the community. The HOPE collaborative in Oakland, California is an example of an effort to increase local ownership of food retail. Reverend Jeffrey, a racial justice and food activist in Seattle, Washington, makes a key point about urban farmer's markets. He states:
Inner-city people are not going to the farmers markets. It's not because they're not interested. Some of it is because of prices, but mostly it's because they are not community-owned. The issue of community ownership, the idea that this is ours and that the money spent will circulate to help us, is a real issue. So what we do. . .is have food stands that are run by neighborhood people. They're in front of churches, and people know that they're run by members of the community. In this way, we're bringing food directly to the people in a way that gives them ownership, so they purchase the food. I think that's the missing link. Inner-city people are tired of others creating things for them and expecting them to participate with no direct benefit.
Our food systems form a complex web of corporate actions, government regulations, and human needs. Addressing the barriers discussed in this Comment, requires “a fundamental commitment to social justice,” without which “the estimated 1-2 percent of Americans who eat organic food will be indistinguishable from the 1-2 percent who control almost all of this country's wealth and power.” Our nation's history of discriminatory zoning and other racist government policies has created segregation, inequality in food access, and urban decay. Intentional zoning practices, local community investment, as well as federal, state, and local governments are all key pieces of the food access puzzle. In order to be effective, comprehensive change must include a combination of community-based solutions and elimination of racism from the structural levels of our food system. Addressing institutionalized racism in our food system is imperative, and will require changes to the structures that hold food inequalities in place.
Importantly, there is a distinction between fulfilling one's need for food and fulfilling one's human right to food. When people do not have the opportunity to “influence what and how they are fed. . .their right to adequate food is not being met, even if they get all the nutrients their bodies need.” The right to food reflects President Franklin Roosevelt's declaration that ‘freedom from want’ is one of four fundamental freedoms in our nation's original understanding of universal human rights. When it comes to universal human rights, all people, “must have some institutionalized remedies available to them” that they can access when they feel that they are being treated unjustly.
Food justice has the capacity to reorient the food movement towards addressing inequities while seeking to transform the food system as a whole. Additionally, “[f]ood justice is integrated into other social justice movements, such as those concerned with community economic development, the environment, housing, or transportation.” If this integration does not take place within the context of a clear understanding of historical and present-day institutionalized racism, we will be unable to build an inclusive, successful coalition that makes the changes needed to achieve equality on all levels. Hopefully, however, as we come to understand the following sentiment, stated by Justo Gonzalez, we will continue implementing community-supported solutions and institutional changes:
The first thing we must do is realize that, more often than not, hunger is a political problem. ‘Politics,’ in the strictest sense, is the manner in which humans divide and distribute power and resources. People are not hungry in this country and elsewhere because they don't know how to raise food or are lazy . . . . They are hungry because they have no access to power, and therefore no access to food.
. The author wishes to recognize the immutable impact that White privilege has on her viewpoints and analysis of any issue, and the reality that the imbalanced power dynamics between people of color activists and White anti-racists often reinforces the operation of White supremacy even within the movement to eradicate racism. She would also like to acknowledge the generations of racial justice activists whose brave work paves the way for this discussion about food justice. Analysis of systemic racism, such as appears in this comment, was forged by people of color who have been engaged in the struggle for liberation for centuries.