From sustainable agriculture to social justice in just two words

(Photo credit: Chicago Now)

As a graduate student studying food justice at a university with deep historical ties to the field of agricultural education (Michigan State University was the United States first land-grant university and served as the prototype for the entire land-grant system), I have encountered a wide range of opinions and reactions to the idea of racism actively existing within our food system. This past fall, I suggested that racism in the food system should serve as a topic of discussion in an introductory course for my graduate program. After finishing what I believed to be a thoughtful ten-minute presentation to my class about why I think this topic is important and relevant in our field of study, I received several discouraging comments from my classmates. One classmate in particular seemed exceptionally bothered by my presentation and approached me after class to explain to me why she thinks my logic is off because: “clearly this isn’t about racism, it’s about poverty.”

I believe that there is much to be said about the politics behind why my white classmate was particularly “bothered” by my discussion of racism and the subsequent implication of her identity in this system of inequality. There is also much to be said about the silence that filled the classroom after my presentation was over. As a white woman, I have experienced and will continue to experience moments of discomfort and shame when talking and thinking about racism as it relates to my work as a graduate student. But as an individual committed to building a more just and fair food system, I believe that the conversation needs to happen.

As Malik Yakini, the director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network recently said in his keynote address at a food democracy conference in Lansing Michigan, “we can never get past racism if we choose not to address it.” It is with this understanding that I choose to continue engaging in these conversations with my fellow learners, no matter how uncomfortable the conversation may be. I believe that if we can agree that food and agriculture never exist outside of social systems, but instead within a specific social and historical context, then it will become possible to view food as a lens for social justice.

(Photo credit: Community Alliance for Global Justice)

So, I am sharing my presentation about why I think racism in the food system is an issue worthy of discussion, with the hope that at the very least it will encourage more conversation about the role racism plays in the ever-growing sustainable agriculture movement we see today.


Within the sustainable agriculture movement, racism is not often cited as a barrier to success. Lack of access to healthy, fresh food is often viewed as the product of poor economic conditions or the industrialization of the American agricultural system, which has left local food systems fragmented in its wake. Yet these conditions embody just two pieces of the big broken food system puzzle. Recently, ‘food insecurity’ has risen to the forefront of the sustainable agriculture movement as a pressing problem and concern for many urban American communities. But what exactly is ‘food insecurity,’ and what does this term have to do with racism? The structure of the industrialized food system in the United States remains largely obscured from public view, which makes it even more difficult to see where the pervasive hand of racism plays its part. So in an effort to gain some clarity from maze of farmers markets, supermarkets and Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, I’ll attempt to break down some of the “buzzwords” floating around in the sustainable agriculture movement and try to point to at least one place where racism is situated within this system.

Food security is defined as the ability of a community or an individual to have access to affordable, nutritious and culturally appropriate food at all times. This definition implies that the lack of access to affordable, nutritious and culturally appropriate food can also be described as food insecurity, whether on an individual or community level. Food insecurity can only be measured if it occurs within well-defined geographical boundaries; hence, following suit with this cartographic rendering of the food system, a food insecure area within these boundaries is called a food desert.

(Photo credit: Slow Food USA)

Food deserts are typically described as areas where geographic and/or economic barriers prevent access to affordable, nutritious food. Yet this definition of food deserts renders the notion of race insignificant in relation to space and place. Instead, it emphasizes economic conditions alone and fails to account for the historic role of racism in shaping urban spaces and the production of racialized urban geographies.

Consequentially, what is often missing from the discussion of food insecurity, is an acknowledgement that in the United States, an individual’s ability to access to healthy food is shaped not only by their economic ability to purchase it, but also by the “historical processes through which race has come to affect who lives where and who has access to what kind of services” (Alkon et al. 2009). In other words, food deserts are linked to the racialized geographies of urban spaces, and food insecurity in communities of color exist as the product of these historical processes.

Unfortunately, the sustainable agriculture movement as a whole has continued to focus heavily on the environmental benefits of organic, locally grown food, and has “often ignored the role of race in structuring agriculture in the United States. Although the term sustainability includes both ecological protection and social justice by definition, sustainable agriculture activists have primarily aligned themselves with the environmental rather than environmental justice movement” (Alkon et al. 2009). The consequences of this can be seen in a local, sustainable, fresh food movement that fails to acknowledge its responsibility in addressing the root causes of hunger, poverty and oppression, and instead just aims to treat the symptoms of a broken food system.

In working towards a more sustainable food system, it is vital that all people involved in this movement work to connect, symbolically and literally, the sustainable agriculture movement to a larger struggle for freedom, justice and equality. I believe that the concept of food justice has the power to do this by addressing and confronting issues that have been previously overlooked by the sustainable agriculture movement. By serving as a bridge that links sustainable agriculture to social justice, the food justice movement illuminates the path towards cultivating change and creating a more equitable and just food system.

(Reference: Alkon, Alison Hope and Kari Marie Norgaard. “Breaking the Food Chains: An Investigation of Food Justice Activism.”)