Structural Roots of Food System Inequalities

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Intensive industrial farming methods depleted soil nutrients to feed a rapidly increasing urban population and various war efforts, which simultaneously led to topsoil erosion.

The sociologist Eric Olin Wright offers a valuable framework to evaluate social alternatives to institutions that perpetuate oppression and inequity, namely, whether they “would eliminate, or at least significantly mitigate, the harms and injustices identified in the diagnosis and critique.” One way to determine how social justice commitments can expand food politics is to link problems in the food system to their economic, political, and social roots. This relationship helps to illuminate how the analyses and strategies of relevant social movements historically motivate the contemporary practice of food justice. Driving this dialectic is the generative relationship between inequality and the problem-solving ethic of food justice activism. Strategically speaking, such an examination can account for whether emergent food justice goals are, in Wright’s language, “desirable,” “viable,” and “achievable.” The first step is to diagnose and critique the most salient social forces driving an identified problem.

The production of food in the United States includes a history of oppression, dating from the plantation economy of the South to the expansion and settlement of the West reliant on subsequent waves of Chinese, Japanese, and Latinx immigrant agricultural labor. Farmworkers are historically at the social margins, but so too are workers in meatpacking and food-processing facilities. As the muckraker Upton Sinclair famously wrote, “Here is a population, low-class and mostly foreign, hanging always on the verge of starvation and dependent for its opportunities of life upon the whim of men every bit as brutal and unscrupulous as the old-time slave drivers; under such circumstances, immorality is exactly as inevitable, and as prevalent, as it is under the system of chattel slavery.” The mistreatment of workers also takes place in food retail. For example, restaurant workers “behind the kitchen door” experience poor pay, racial and gender discrimination, few benefits, and low job security.  There are currently over twenty million workers in the food system, most earning low or poverty wages and more likely than workers in other industries to be receiving social welfare such as food stamps. In particular, people of color and women are more likely to earn lower wages and hold fewer management opportunities than their white and male counter- parts. These food-chain jobs are in some of the most dangerous industries in the United States, especially farming and food processing, which are overwhelmingly performed by a Latinx and undocumented workforce.

There are also many structural problems at the point of consumption. Traditional foodways have been lost or disrupted, many communities lack access to healthy food, and these same communities have been inundated with local food initiatives that tend to benefit white people more than people of color. As public health reformers are quick to point out, low- income, black, and Latinx communities are most likely to suffer from diet-related diseases such as obesity. Perhaps one of the unintended con- sequences of ensuing interventions is an overly deterministic view of who is more likely to be “fat.” The social stigma emanates from a public and many health-care professionals who blame individuals for making “bad” eating choices. Such stigmatization, coupled with social constructions equating thinness and beauty, obfuscate the structural forces of capital- ism and neoliberal policies that produce these health problems. After World War II, fast-food corporations proliferated rapidly and were quick to lobby political elites to avoid any policies that might educate the consumer on the nutritional quality of their food. While consumers can now access an incredible variety of food, access to the highest-quality food remains stratified along class, gender, and racial lines. In cities such as Oakland, as white people moved to the suburbs and set up racial covenants, and redlining in neighborhoods with large black populations prevented economic development, disinvestment in food retail in black neighborhoods reduced access to healthy food options. These trends reflect the capitalist political economy of the food system and institution- ally racist development patterns, which produce cheap food at the cost of equity and human health.

Problems furthermore proliferate in the food system in terms of the domination of nature. While this is important insofar as humans harm nonhuman species, it also reveals something about contemporary social relations. Murray Bookchin argues that “all ecological problems are social problems,” because “dominating nature stems from the domination of human by human [due to] . . . institutionalized systems of coercion, command, and obedience. “The fact of social hierarchy suggests that those with greater environmental privilege can protect themselves from the environmental problems they are most responsible for creating.  As the environmental justice movement has clearly shown, those marginalized by race, ethnicity, nationality, class, and gender disproportionately experience environmental problems. This is similarly the case at all stages in the food system.

Industrialization of the food system in the United States perpetuates peak oil, peak phosphorus, virtual water, pesticide toxicity, dead zones, genetically modified organisms, biofuels, and global warming. For example, pesticide dependency leads to the contamination of fresh water supplies, the death of domestic animals, degradation of fisheries, and collapse of vital bee colonies, which grows worse as pests become more resistant and necessitate greater pesticide application.  Agriculture and food corporations profit not only from environmental degradation but upon the exploited labor that the system relies. To reiterate, humans dominate each other as a prerequisite to dominating nature. Low-paid precarious labor is the shaky foundation the food system is built on to deliver cheap (i.e., environmentally destructive) food. Such problems are rooted historically in the expansion of capitalism and urbanization, which set off a series of ecological rifts alienating humans from each other and from the natural environment.

As rapidly industrializing economies force farmers into cities, leaving agricultural livelihoods for factory jobs to fuel a growing consumer economy, the soil nutrient cycle collapses; food waste is often not reintegrated back into soils, and because more food has to be exported to cities, fertilizers are imported from elsewhere.  One of the best examples illustrating this process is the Dust Bowl. Intensive industrial farming methods depleted soil nutrients to feed a rapidly increasing urban population and various war efforts, which simultaneously led to topsoil erosion. Humans dominating each other in the form of the expanding power of capitalists over wage laborers and the violence of war drove agricultural practices that compromised ecological integrity.  Consumption of more food nutrients in the cities (and trenches) exceeded what was recycled back into the soil on farms. Entire grassland ecosystems in the Great Plains were devastated, in turn contributing to the displacement of over half a million poor people.

Conjunctures in the food system originate from colonialism, capitalism, and institutional racism and continue to refract their problems through the human need for sustenance. Together, the current production, consumption, and ecological conjunctures set the terrain of social struggle. The forces of opposition, in this case, the food movement, are responding in many ways. While each conjuncture suggests unique responses — there are obvious differences between preventing labor exploitation and environmental degradation — a common ideological, political, and semantic vantage point displays unified opposition. As the history of those strands of food politics most germane to my cases suggests, food justice holds the potential to be that unifying force.

Social Movement Legacies and the Evolution of Food Politics

The food movement has started to prioritize addressing structural inequalities in the food system. On Food Day 2015, the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, in conjunction with the Equity Summit hosted by a nationally recognized nonprofit called PolicyLink, decided on the theme “Food Equity in Action.” The renowned Angela Glover Blackwell gave a keynote in which she advocated, “Equity is a superior growth model.” She meant this not just in terms of economic justice, but in the sense that an equity-focused food politics helps communities to bridge social boundaries such as race, while respecting the needs and traditions of each group. On the other side of the country, the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group held its annual conference in Saratoga Springs, New York, whose theme was “Putting MOVE in the Movement!” In addition to keynotes, there were workshops and discussion groups dedicated to what it means to build a food movement, antiracism in food movement activism, and food labor organizing. The description of the event linked the legacies of prior movements and social justice to the food movement: “Civil rights, labor, women’s rights–the movements that transformed our world can give us insight on ways to accelerate food systems change. What can we learn from leaders past and present? How can we better organize our work, our networks, our message, our media? Learn and strategize with hundreds of attendees . . . as we work to build a movement and realize the change we want to see.”  These food movement convergences recognize the diffusion of social movements over time and reflect how food justice can encompass a wide variety of social justice politics.

Social movements inform future mobilization in terms of the identification of problems and the discourses and strategies used by activists. Three of the most influential social movements that reverberate in the food politics in my cases are the organic farming movement, the farm- worker and food worker movements, and the black power movement. With respect to a deeper historical timeline, the seminal agrarian populist movements offered frameworks for food and farming activists concerned with social inequalities. Most important, all these social movements aspired to widespread social change. Because they were embedded in larger structures of power and networks of support often well beyond their immediate loci of activity, their impacts still resonate. Yet most historical accounts of contemporary food politics only focus on those movements that influenced “alternative” food politics. In other words, the hippie, self-help, health food, and back-to-the-land movements, all of which were part of the counterculture movements in the 1960s and 1970s, serve as the historical foundation. Yet this overlooks previous food and farming-based social movements and fails to account for how other conjunctures and insurrectionary movements such as the black power movement would influence food justice activism.

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Reprinted with Permission from Food Justice Now and Published by University of Minnesota Press.

Copyright 2018 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota.

  • Updated on Jul 1, 2021
  • Originally Published on Nov 3, 2020
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