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.