Tag Archives: food security

Prison abolition meets food justice

In her article, “Radical Farmers Use Fresh Food to Fight Racial Injustice and the New Jim Crow,” Leah Penniman draws connections between the incarceration of black people, police violence, and the systematic use of hunger and malnutrition as a weapon wielded against black communities, pointing to the importance of food and land:

If we are to create a society that values black life, we cannot ignore the role of food and land. I believe that black people’s collective experience with slavery and sharecropping has created an aversion to the land and a sense that the land itself is an oppressor. The truth is that without good land and good food we cannot be truly free. The Freedom Food Alliance represents one important voice among many insisting that the senseless deaths of our black brothers and sisters by all forms of violence—police shooting, diet-related illness, economic marginalization—must end.

Penniman shows how these connections are being made by grassroots organizations that link the fight for food justice with the fight against the prison-industrial-complex and the new Jim Crow.  Penniman profiles folks like Jalal Sabur of the Freedom Food Alliance, a prison abolitionist who helped connect farmers, prisoners, and their families together in networks of self-reliance and resistance.

I won’t bother summarizing or excerpting more: read the article!  It’s short, accessible, and shows how these groups are drawing lessons and inspiration from past movements, and bringing together struggles and alternatives that often remain separate.

thaw presents “Food Not Bombs”

A short interview with a long-time “Food Not Bombs” organizer, explaining the significance of FNB as a global movement. FNB chapters cook food and serve it for free on a regular basis. As Luke explains, FNB is dangerous to the dominant order, because it’s a constant reminder that people could be sharing with each other to get what they need, rather than consuming and relying on the corporate death machine. FNB has been around for 30 years, and has now spread to hundreds of cities worldwide.

Growing Food and Justice: Dismantling Racism through Sustainable Food Systems

Morales, Alfonso. “Growing Food and Justice: Dismantling Racism Through Sustainable Food Systems.” In Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability, 149–176. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011.

This article explores food justice in communities of colour, focusing on the emergence Growing Food and Justice Initiative (GFJI), a coalition of groups working on antiracist food justice.  In addition the article begins by placing food justice in historical context of industrial food, racialized suburbanization (white flight) and its implications for food deserts, the medicalization/individualization of food, and the emergence of community food security–which gave rise to the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) in 1995.  He situates food justice as an antiracist response to community food security, driven by people of colour.  He sees this as building on the work of community food security and its ‘systems-focused thinking’ that addresses roots of food insecurity.  By the same token, he suggests that the antiracist GFJI–spearheaded by communities of colour–complemented the CFSC.

The CFSC is “the dominant private, nonprofit organization in the field of CFS” (community food security), (152) and he suggests that it has had important impacts on federal policy (153).  It exists in “dynamic tension” with the GFJI, which works “to promote individual and organizational empowerment through training, networking, and creating a supportive community” (156).  In terms of both farmers and eaters, people of colour are some of the most marginalized (158).  By taking an explicitly racialized approach, then, the food justice movement helps avoid the colorblindness of the food movement (158).

He discusses a conference held by the GFJI which linked the problems faced by poor households (hunger, lack of access to good food, obesity) with the problems of farmers (low farm-gage prices, consolidation, overseas competition).  He reads presenters as engaging in three types of work, broadly: identifying/combating racism, advocacy for immigrant farmers and other communities of colour, and “reimagining the participation of immigrants, indigenous peoples and other communities of colour within the food system” (160).

He presents three detailed case studies of organizations that presented their work in the conference: 1: organization working with disadvantaged Hmong farmers to coordinate training, improve access to markets, and securing land and other resources (160-1). 2: An Indigenous organization working to reintroduce traditional farming and food prep.  Morales reads the presenter as extending a critique of institutional racism and the democratization of the food system (163). 3: A rural organization working with Latino immigrants to help train and support new and economically viable farming operations (165-6).  Through this process, the new farmers “trade their identity as labour for an entrepreneurial identity” (166).

Morales admits that different places and contexts are unique, but insists that “food security and food justice are woven together by individuals and organizations who recognize a problem, reconstruct it as an opportunity, and organize around it while at the same time empowering communities in agricultural production, healthier consumption, local politics, and economic self-determination.  A vision of self-sustaining, independent, yet interdependent community and local economic activity etches itself in different ways in distinct communities, not so much as resistance to industrial agriculture, but more toward establishing resilient and sustainable communities” (169).

In his conclusion, he suggests directions for future research.  First, three kinds of work: immigrant farmer/processor, food distribution systems, and small grocery/corner stores.

He also calls for applied research to “discover and advance policy objectives related to the antiracist and economic objectives espoused by GFJI and its participant organizations” (170).

He is interested in unerstanding “the organizational and institutional elements of the GFJI” as well: knowledge diffusion, growth and change, how members pursue antiracism.  He also asks how the antiracist framework of the GFJI articulates itself in relation to other frameworks of food-systems thinking: “industrial food, urban agriculture, sustainable and local food, community gardens–each has its history, ideas, and particular practices.  Each is also associated with values we often think of as incommensurate, I would argue for research that uncovers comparability in these practices and fosters dialogue among the practitioners” (171).  He also calls for research on “community formation, political activism, and approaches to leveraging food-based economic development in marginazlied communities” and the need to “understand the variety of activities taking place to shape policy to enhance the chances for economic political, and social success”(171).


Morales is clearly more than an academic–he’s in conversation with organizations and people working on food justice, and he sees his research as a way to continue the conversations going on.  The brief contexutalization of the GFJI not only within food justice, but within the institutional racism of the industrial food system.

Like most other articles in this book, it only goes back to the early 20th century.  More specifically, it says nothing about colonialism and the emergence of property relations, despite (brief) descriptions of a indigenous food sovereignty project.  More generally, there’s no discussion of the political economy of land, except for food deserts: land prices and property vanishes as an important way to think about farming and access to land, for example.

Finally, Morales repeatedly emphasizes policy as a major focus for research, action, and a way to assess the impacts and success of food justice movement.  No doubt policy is important, but he seems to neglect other, more grassroots impacts.  Furthermore, there’s no mention of actual tensions between policy objectives and horizontal, grassroots community-building.  Although he points to tensions between the CFSC and GFJI, this seems like a missed opportunity to consider broader (or other) tensions between non-profits and more grassroots coalitions (especially in terms of antiracism).  What are the unintended (and often regressive, racist, and destructive) impacts of policies–even policies that have been fought for by food advocates (such as those discussed by Guthman)?  How might new regulations, incentives, or grant programs create new problems–such as competition and professionalization–that have led to critiques of the NGO-industial-complex?  Are there places and people who are self-consciously side-stepping these problems by doing horizontal grassroots modes of intervention in the food system?

Farmworker Food Insecurity and the Production of Hunger in California – Sandy Brown and Christy Getz

From Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability

This article situates food (in)security of California farmworkers in the context of capitalist agribusiness, migrant and/or undocumented workers, underdevelopment, disciplining of labour, and other political economic factors.  The authors argue that food security is often measured without explaining what gives rise to it, so they try to do both: the article discusses a study conducted by the authors to measure food insecurity among farmworkers in California, and then they contextualize this data with the above political economic analysis and history.  The original research is comprised of their empirical survey, alongside ethnographic studies of farmworkers conducted by one of the authors.  Their work on political economy and structural factors (I think) is largely drawn from secondary sources.  They argue that food (in)security is “a lens for understanding broader processes of exploitation and inequality under capitalism” (140).  But in a way they’re making the opposite (or at least complementary) argument; that you need to understand capitalism to get food security: “understanding food security also necessitates consideration of the relationship between activities of the state, inclduing national governments’ immigration laws, labor regulations, and social policies, and the international trade regimes that have privileged transnational corporate interests over smallholder agriculture” (140).  Food security (or food and farming in general) is one piece of capitalism, and it can be a useful and compelling way to map out capitalist relations and dynamics in concrete and understandable ways.

Their central argument is that “the central dynamic shaping labor relations and workers’ livelihood struggles has been the development of a regime of agrarian accumulation based on capital-intensive production and the persistent devaluation of agricultural labor” (123).  They locate gaps in the lit on food security, and follow Julie Guthman in arguing that many academics and popular writers have “overlooked the role of hired labor in agrifood production, preferring to celebrate all forms of resistance to the conventional food system and to promote agrarian visions of small-scale family farms” (126).  They cite critics of “voluntarist” conceptions of the food security movement that privileges DIY and “eschews structural critiques” (126).  They bring in food sovereignty and criticize it on similar terms: “in practice the food sovereignty movement has focused much more heavily on small farmer issues while sidestepping issues of wage labour” (127).

Measuring food security: they highlight some of the limitations of measurement themselves.  Measuring food security can easily elide broader processes “of food production, distribution, and governance” and there’s a danger that individuals/households as the unit of measure will become the dominant unit of analysis, missing political economic structures (128-9).  The data reveals, unsurprisingly, that lots of farmworkers are food insecure and hungry: 34% food insecure and 11% food insecure with hunger (130).  The sample is of farmworkers in Fresno, which the authors admit is not necessarily representative of California as a whole, despite efforts to capture a broad sample (128).  Undocumented workers and migrant workers both tend to be less food secure (131).

Explaining/contextualizing: the remainder of the paper (133 onwards) contextualizes this food security and explains how it came to be.  They try to explain “the development of the contemporary agrarian social order” which “relies on the consistent devaluation of farm labour to fuel capital accumulation” (133).  This isn’t just about class, but also about race: a racialized immigrant workforce (which faces criminalization and repression) serves the interests of agribusiness because it’s harder for them to organize for better wages or working conditions (137).

Immigration policy has functioned to manage flow of labour and produce a racialized other to scapegoat, from Chinese Exclusion Acts to internment of Japanese workers to mass deportation of Mexican immigrants during the Dust Bowl era (136)–no sources cited here unfortunately.  Immigration is driven in large part by austerity and privatization of agriculture in Mexico; NAFTA and other neoliberal reforms have shifted financial support from small-scale subsistence farming to production of cash crops for agro-export (138).

These developments, they argue, “gave rise to the inernational food security movement, and ultimately to the food sovereignty movement” (139).  Or at least they help us understand the problems these movements are responding to.

They discuss some offorts by the United Farm Workers Union (UFW) and their winning of the passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which created new opportunities for farmworkers’ collective action, but was pretty effectively stymied by agribusiness strategies, who sourced labour through third parties, made modest improvements in order to undermine demands, and retaliated against unions and organizing attempts (135).  This is one of the only instances of resistance or organizing that they discuss in the article; the rest is mostly a focus on structural factors.

This article clearly explains the structural factors affecting food security; however, they are somewhat dismissive of food sovereignty when they could develop a more nuanced connection to it.  They also don’t leave a lot of room for the agency of farmworkers (what they actually do) save for a short bit on remittances and a brief discussion of the United Farm Worker Union (which implies that it’s not really effective anymore anyway).  They tend to do the typical academic thing of boxing in food sovereignty as doing this but not doing that in order to advance their argument, rather than actually thinking about how food sovereignty might be doing something in relation to political economy and ‘structural factors’ as well, for example.  By suggesting that food sovereignty misses wage labour and focuses on ‘small farmer issues’ they are eliding the connections they make themselves analytically: that the destruction of small subsistence farms in Mexico is part of the production of a precarious, racialized, disciplined wage labour workforce in the U.S.  By the same token, creating and sustaining subsistence could help mitigate the proletarianization of farmers, which they locate as a central problem.