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The Future of the Food Justice Movement

While farmworkers have organized to improve labor conditions in US agriculture, racial injustice in the food system remains.

Things may seem a little out of sorts when one in six Americans — residents of the most affluent country on the planet — don't have enough to eat. (Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout)

The food justice movement — a loose but expansive conglomeration of organizations working to create a more just food system in the United States — has accomplished a great deal over the last 30 years. But can it manage to converge in its diversity and create a countermovement potent enough to transform the current food regime? Or is it too shallow and too spread, destined to disappear in its disjointedness.

Things may seem a little out of sorts when one in six Americans — residents of the most affluent country on the planet — don’t have enough to eat, and when the percentage of hungry people in the United States has gone up 57 percent since the late 1990s. Sprinkle in that little detail about how Black and Latino neighborhoods are often left practically devoid of fresh produce but flooded with fast food restaurants (something that contributes to high rates of obesity, diabetes and thyroid disease), and you might start to question one or two things.

The food justice movement could be that slow-cooked countermovement that we have all been waiting for.

Toss in the fact that many of the 2 million farm laborers who produce US consumers’ fruits and vegetables are not only subjected to brutal labor conditions but also can’t afford to consume the very same food they pick, and you might really start to wonder. And when you top off this gallimaufry with one more slight detail — that there are 1 billion people around the world suffering from malnourishment, a number that hasn’t changed significantly since the 1970s — the inequity of the current food regime becomes pretty clear. It was the food justice movement that first recognized this reality, and it has spent the last 30 years challenging and redressing these inequalities.

The Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast for School Children Program, Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, and the family farming caucuses that swept the United States during the 1980s were early proponents of food justice. And while these original players have been all but subsumed by the passage of time, they have been replaced by hundreds of thousands of farmworkers, urban and rural farmers, activists, consumers and academics who are all working to institute a fairer and more just food system. This effort is what Eric Holt-Giménez, the executive director of Food First, calls “converging in our diversity,” and it is the linchpin of creating a just food system: a system that stresses the right of communities everywhere to produce, distribute and have equal access to healthy food, irrespective of class, gender or ethnicity.

Just when that Rust Cohle-like pessimism seems to have obtruded on our collective consciousness — foregrounded by our failure to engineer any overhaul of the US financial system and scientists’ incredulous predictions on global warming — the food justice movement could be that slow-cooked countermovement that we have all been waiting for. Everyone has some kind of a relationship with food. It is the cornerstone of culture and life, as well as of the capitalist system. If any revolution is going to be successful, this seems like a good place for it to start.

Coalition of Immokalee Workers

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is one of the most prominent and vivacious contemporary agricultural labor movements working within the ambit of food justice. Based out of Immokalee, Florida — a community of primarily Mexican, Guatemalan and Haitian immigrants — the organization over the last 20 years has worked directly with field workers, farm owners and corporations to redress human rights abuses such as wage theft, forced labor, rape and violent assault, which have all been part of the perennial backbone and standard of US agriculture.

“When we started, many residents in the community had just arrived from Guatemala, Haiti and the south of Mexico, where a lot of struggles had happened,” said Lucas Benitez, who described himself as a “child of NAFTA” and is one of the original eight founding members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. “They had a lot of experience in political organizing. We utilized Paolo Freire’s popular education, because popular education is one language that all humans understand.”

“The majority of farmers have never wanted subsidies. They’ve wanted to be paid a fair price.”

Armed with the popular education framework, a methodology “of the people” that encourages nonhierarchical and participatory teaching and learning between people based on their contextual needs, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers began to rally. Its members organized a series of hunger strikes, worker strikes in the fields and a four-year boycott of Taco Bell to pressure farm owners and corporations to the negotiating table. The culmination of this work was the establishment in 2011 of the Fair Food Standards Council, an independent organization that monitors human rights abuses, provides a 24-hour hotline for worker complaints and ensures that those companies touting the Fair Food label abide by the council’s standards — standards negotiated by the farmworkers themselves.

When growers sign on to Fair Food Standards Council and Coalition of Immokalee Workers agreements, they are bound to uphold the rights and wage agreements of workers. If there is a human rights violation or any other breach that contravenes the rights of field laborers, that particular farm loses its right to sell to the big buyers like Walmart, Whole Foods, Subway, Taco Bell, McDonald’s and Subway. These same companies are also legally compelled to buy tomatoes within Florida from growers in compliance with the Fair Food Standards Council.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers “has done a wonderful job over the last 10 years of getting the food movement and consumers in the US to think more about labor and human rights issues,” said Sean Sellers, a senior investigator at the Fair Food Standards Council. “They have required retailers to pay a little bit more for their products so that conditions improve at the bottom of the supply chain. Within the grower community, the more forward-thinking ones see this as the future of things.”

As of now 90 percent of tomato growers in Florida are participating in the arrangement, $20 million have been paid out in premiums to the workers, and the program has expanded to strawberry, tomato and bell pepper operations in seven other states on the East Coast.

“The beachheads have been established,” Sellers said.

Growing Power

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the establishment of a Fair Foods label are revolutionary first steps in transforming labor practices in US agriculture. But both within US cities — especially within Black and Latino neighborhoods — as well as outside cities (most Native American reservations are deemed food deserts, having very little access to healthy food), issues of food insecurity and racial injustice remain severely problematic.

It was with these structural inequalities in mind that Will Allen, later a recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant,” founded Growing Power in 1993. Established with the idea that sustainable and community-based food systems could be utilized to dismantle racism and food insecurity on the North Side of Milwaukee, the organization has proliferated over the last 20 years, spreading not only through Milwaukee but also into Madison and Chicago.

“If you continue to leave the farmers out, you have half a movement.”

The organization — employing locals to administer and coordinate each program — utilizes a series of overlapping and multidisciplinary strategies, including the establishment of urban gardens, farmers’ markets, youth training, leadership building and food policy councils to support local residents in becoming food secure and also offer trainings on the relevant business and farming skills to empower them economically.

“It’s about improving the economic conditions of people so they can do what they want with their resources,” said Erika Allen, the Chicago and national projects director of Growing Power. “If you’re able to grow food, sell it and supplement your income, you then have the ability to enjoy other enrichment experiences with your family. This was what the civil rights movement was about: It was about equal rights and access on a constitutional level to what our counterparts had access to.”

While Coalition of Immokalee Workers and Growing Power are two salient organizations demonstrating the potential of food justice, the movement as a whole remains fragmented — something that hamstrings efforts toward constructing a countermovement potent enough to transform the food regime. This fragmentation becomes particularly prickly around the issue of farm subsidies.

Divided and Conquered

Most family farmers oppose subsidies as a long-term solution to agricultural woes. They — along with a cadre of economists from the University of Tennessee — instead favor a combination of price floors (a baseline number under which the price can’t drop), price ceilings (the converse of price floors) and land set-asides (a policy that leaves a certain acreage of land to fallow). This policy of supply management, which also plays an important role in guarding against unsustainable land use and environmental degradation, was an enduring tenet of US agriculture for most of the 20th century. However, with the passing of the 1996 Farm Bill, this all changed. The result: the full-scale liberalization of US agriculture, the end of price floors, the subsequent plummeting of agricultural commodity prices, vast overproduction of these same commodities, immense environmental degradation and the need to implement subsidies as a way to keep farmers afloat.

Many people within the food justice movement — including some of its most prominent spokespeople, such as Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman — have severely misunderstood and misconstrued the perspective of most farmers as well as the root problems of the subsidy debate. As a result, the movement has unwittingly misled the American public, the mainstream media and itself into believing that subsidies and US farmers are the real enemies. They have engendered a false narrative that pits subsidies and their beneficiaries (farmers) against the movement. The risk now is that by leaving farmers — a vital ally within the food justice movement — outside of the debate, in essence fighting against them, the movement will implode and collapse on itself.

Subsidies are undoubtedly ineffective and counterproductive. They encourage the use of marginal, unproductive land for planting commodity crops, leading to a host of environmental problems; they result in commodity dumping in the global South, putting smallholder farmers out of business, which results in increased poverty and hunger; they have failed to keep American family farms afloat (their central purpose); and they utilize government money that could be invested much more efficiently into programs that ensure the long-term sustainability of US food security and agriculture. Subsidies clearly need to be addressed. However, subsidies cannot be remedied without attending to the free-market policies that have precipitated and sustained their use.

The switch to free-market agricultural policies — something that was encouraged and has been maintained through various World Trade Organization agreements — resulted in a precipitous drop in commodity prices that has negatively affected most farmers around the world, forcing millions off their farms and into poverty. Furthermore, drastic market fluctuations, an ineluctable feature of this liberalized policy, can put millions more into situations of acute food insecurity — something we saw in 2008.

According to Harwood Schaffer, an agricultural economist at the University of Tennessee, “The highest value from a moral point of view is different from the highest value from a market point of view. From a moral point of view, the highest value is to feed people.”

And where farmers were once paid a parity price for their goods — a price that covered the costs of production — they are now paid market prices. These prices are significantly below the costs of production and, as a consequence, have necessitated the use of government subsidies. Farmers are not being paid fair prices for their goods and big agribusinesses are receiving prices far below what they should be paying.

“We’ve basically been divided and conquered by the subsidy issue,” said Brad Wilson, the former treasurer of the National Family Farm Coalition, a farmer himself, and a radical farm justice advocate whose seemingly tireless pursuit of undoing this misunderstanding has resulted in thousands of publications online. “It’s a false issue that divides us, to the advantage of agribusiness. The majority of farmers have never wanted subsidies. They’ve wanted to be paid a fair price.”

And while liberals and conservatives alike vilify farmers and subsidies instead of free-market policies, World Trade Organization conventions and the lack of fair prices for agricultural goods — all of which have had resounding negative impacts on agriculture and hunger in the United States and around the world — corporate agribusiness continues to consolidate monopoly-like control of the agricultural market, benefitting from prices that are way below the costs of production. These are the real, hidden subsidies and unless this issue is repoliticized, any revamping of the agricultural system becomes increasingly untenable.

“The big risk now is that the food justice movement is too wide and too shallow,” Wilson said. “If you continue to leave the farmers out, you have half a movement. And if you continue to misunderstand the issues, you’ll never be successful.”

Denouement or Disintegration?

The work of Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Fair Food Standards Council and Growing Power have not only provided concrete results but also blueprints and models that are being emulated across the United States and internationally, both within and outside of the food movement. Japan is looking to implement Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ model in order to provide a “sweat-free Olympics” in 2020 (i.e. an Olympics whose paraphernalia and other amenities aren’t produced using exploitative or unlawful labor arrangements). And construction workers in Texas are already utilizing the same worker-based enforcement model. Growing Power is pushing the limits of the possible in urban agriculture and racial justice. These are all promising examples of the reach and potential of food justice.

However, changing the food system ultimately requires transforming the capitalist system. The free market has proven time and time again that it is incapable of creating a just food system that can equitably feed the world’s population. And while the food justice movement has been able to right various wrongs, can this movement — which often utilizes the same market-based methods and negotiates with the same corporate entities that caused these same injustices — be successful in catalyzing wide-scale national and international change? Or are these merely temporary Band-Aids while something more revolutionary could take place?

The “Unknown Unknown”

The food sovereignty movement — a movement of peasants, landless people, women farmers and rural youth primarily from the global South and united under the banner of Via Campesina — might have an answer. Food sovereignty proponents advocate for the rights of each country’s people to decide their food system, ensuring that the land and production processes stay in the hands of the people and out of the hands of the corporate sector. The movement has begun to collaborate with the food justice movement and both of these movements have begun to mutually inform each other’s strategies. “This is part of the larger convergence that you would expect within the countermovement,” Holt-Giménez said.

If there is one thing that the food justice movement can and should learn from food sovereignty, it is the importance of including American farmers in the debate; their role as change-makers is indispensable to the success of the food movement. They are the ones who have suffered the most at the hands of agribusiness and liberal economic policy, and they are the ones whose connection to and knowledge of the land can guide us toward a more equitable and sustainable food system.

“We don’t know what this is going to look like. It hasn’t been done before in this way, but we are going to have to learn how to do it,” Holt-Giménez said. “Like the Panthers said: ‘survival pending revolution.’ I think survival pending transformation is what food justice is doing.”

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