I recently overheard a conversation that got me thinking about the issue of food justice:
“ Mom, Look! Strawberries are on sale ! Can we get some, PLEEEZE!!!!??”
“Oh, Honey, of course we can. You’re home from school — We can have whatever You want. Do You know why those strawberries are on sale? It’s because the weather didn’t cooperate in Florida and their harvest was delayed until the same time as California’s strawberry harvest. That means there were too many strawberries coming ripe at the same time and so the farmers, who worked so hard to grow those berries, had to sell them for way less than they should have. So, while we get a great deal on berries for dessert tonight, the farmers who grew them won’t make enough money to pay their bills.”
“Yeah, we studied a little about how farmers make money last semester. I’ve always thought food should be free, so everyone can eat healthy. When we touched on it in school, I realized how complicated it is.”
What does Food Justice mean to You? How do You feel when You hear those words? It’s confusing, if You really think about it, that’s for sure. The Community Alliance for Global Justice defines it this way: “Food justice is everyone having enough to eat; healthy food for our children; food that doesn’t contain harmful things that we don’t know about ; freedom t o grow our own food; ability to buy food directly from farmers; fair wages for those who grow, cook and work with food”
People’s Grocery (www.peoplesgrocery.org) a group devoted to food justice has a mission statement that includes these words: “We want t o change t he way the food system works. We believe everyone should have access to healthy food, regardless of income. We call this “food justice”—the belief that healthy food is a human right. The food system is failing to provide low income people with the healthy foods they need to thrive. It is also failing to create good jobs and support local food businesses.”
And there’s the crux of the problem—How do we compensate those peopl e who gr ow, pr ocess, deliver, distribute and sell our food in a manner worthy of the value of the work they do, and still get food to people who live on a low income? It seems like a person who provides us with the third most necessary thing for survival (only air and water are more important), deserves to make a good living. I mean, have You ever tried to grow organic broccoli? Or lettuce? Or cherries? Not easy. Growing food is labor intensive and weather dependent. One surprise freeze in May, one hailstorm in April, and whoops —no cherries this year….
Or, have You ever worked in a field at harvest time? Picking broccoli or lettuce from our own gardens is a joy. Harvesting 200 acres of it, loading it into crates, hauling those crates to the truck, that’s not easy. That’s back-breaking. Yet we want and even expect our food to be cheap. So the giant farm owners bring in people who will work for very low wages. Cheap food? Somebody’s got to do the work.
We love to live in cities, large and small. We love to walk to our neighborhood café and grocer and theatre. We like to get onto our bikes or into our cars and visit our friends who live just on the other side of town. All those activities, consolidated into one place make for a lot less land for growing food.
Urban Gardens are part of the solution, as are CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture: like a small co-op where you get produce weekly from a local farmer.). Growing at least part of our own food is a very empowering thing to do. If You’re not the gardening type, try this easy one – Plant a blueberry bush in a sunny part of your yard. Blueberry bushes are wonderfully tolerant of people without green thumbs. They thrive on our acid soil. They tolerate our temperatures and over watering in the winter and under watering in the summer. The bush You plant this spring won’t give You berries for a couple of years, but that’s really okay. You can pretty much just forget about it until You notice the neighborhood kids sneaking into your yard to pick the supersweets. (Okay, water it couple of times in the heat of the summer.)
What about those foods that we can’t grow ourselves. Either because of temperature, growing season, land availability or just plain difficulty. Bread, for example. The chances of even the best urban garden growing enough wheat or rye or oats to have enough to process into flour to make more than just a few loaves of (amazingly delicious) bread are pretty slim. Some things we absolutely can’t do ourselves.
So where does the justice come into play for those foods? The farmer who grows the wheat, the processor who turns it into flour and the baker who arises at 2 am to make our daily bread all deserve to be compensated for their work.
Yet, until we recognize the difference between farmers and processors that produce food that’s good for our bodies and those that produce food that isn’t good for us, we won’t have food justice. Those artificial ingredients that make food immune to decay also make the nutrients unavailable to our bodies. Those poisons sprayed onto our food and fed to the roots of our food make their way into our bodies as, yep, poison.
Until we recognize that less processed food gives us more bang for our buck—and puts more of our money into the hands of the farmers—we won’t have food justice. There’s more nutrition in a single fresh ripe organic strawberry than there is in a box of strawberry pop tarts. Not more calories, but more nutrients.
In 1929 we spent nearly 25% of our disposable personal income on food. In 2008 we spent about 9%. Our food isn’t as nutritious and we complain more (or so they say) about the cost of it. This according to the USDA.
Maybe good food is a right, just like clean air and clean water and health care and education. One big difference, though, is that not even the richest person can breathe clean air in a city or drink clean water straight from a lowland river here in the US. But the more money a person has the better the food they can afford, the better the education and medical care they can get. So how do we level the playing field without resorting to socialist tactics, which never really work anyway?
Here’s one of my ideas for a solution: Let’s teach kids and all of us who live in the city, how to grow our own food. Turn every vacant lot, every lawn, every streamside into garden land. Teach kids when they’re young how much better a potato tastes than potato chips, how much sweeter a strawberry is than strawberry twist “licorice”. Take our power back from the global food-processing machine. It’s not interested in feeding us. It’s interested in making money. It’s time for a food revolution!!
We can grow more of our own food. We can spend more time and buy more locally grown organic foods. We can join a CSA (http://www.localharvest.org/csa/). Those are all real means of attaining food justice. Revolutionary, even….
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