The Soul of Food Justice

Response to S. Margot Finn’s “Food Injustice”

In 2004, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, who would go on to found the Breakthrough Institute, released their essay “The Death of Environmentalism.” Based on interviews with 25 leaders in the environmental movement, the polemic argued for a strategic shift away from narrow, single-issue notions of the environment and toward a focus on hopeful visions, values, and strategies. As an example of what this would look like in practice, the authors suggested linking environmental and labor goals through economic investment into green, ecomodernist technical solutions.

Not surprisingly, the Breakthrough Institute’s website includes excerpts from high-profile positive reviews, most notably Nicholas Kristof’s writing in the New York Times and Bill McKibben’s appraisal on But there have been prominent detractors as well. Along with eight of his colleagues, Michel Gelobter, a social entrepreneur and activist, penned a response entitled “The Soul of Environmentalism,”Michel Gelobter, Michael Dorsey, Leslie Fields, et al., The Soul of Environmentalism: Rediscovering Transformational Politics in the 21st Century (Oakland, CA: Redefining Progress, 2005).which critiqued the essay’s authors for focusing too much on large national organizations and ignoring the lived experiences of environmental justice activists, mainly people of color, who were focused largely on grassroots campaigns and already linked to broad progressive visions of civil and human rights.

Last summer, S. Margot Finn, a lecturer at the University of Michigan, published an essay on this site that, despite its more concise title, immediately brought to mind “The Death of Food Justice” because it parallels Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s perspective. Both pieces critique social movements without engaging with the grassroots forces at their center — an especially glaring omission when middle-class and white writers analyze struggles led by low-income people and people of color. In some ways, “The Death of Environmentalism” is more defensible in this regard, as it is grounded in an understanding of the largest and best-funded environmental organizations, even if it ignored the kind of diverse groundswells that have produced contemporary struggles for climate justice. But Finn’s piece is based on little more than a brief reading of a few organizational websites. It’s couched in her own expertise on critical nutrition, which I very much respect, but attempts to chide the food justice movement without having deep knowledge of the debates and shifts within it. Like “The Death of Environmentalism,” it feels as if, to borrow Gertrude Stein’s famous phrase, there is “no there there.” The grassroots activists at the heart of these struggles are hard-pressed to recognize themselves, their strategies, and their goals in these assessments.

Although my own experience as a sociologist does not match the lifelong activism of the authors of “The Soul of Environmentalism,” I have been studying and writing about food justice for the past 15 years. I have observed and analyzed various aspects of the movement as it has found its footing in the American consciousness and shifted and broadened its approach. This essay, then, parallels “Soul in its attempt to push back, from a perspective grounded in grassroots activism.

To begin (perhaps by coincidence), Finn cites the same definition of food justice that I used in the introduction to my 2011 coedited collection Cultivating Food Justice, which was one of the first attempts to document and reflect on the movement’s work. This definition, authored by New York’s Just Food, fuses support for local production with increased food access for low-income communities. But over time, that definition of food justice has evolved and expanded to animate campaigns and cultural understandings of how inequalities — including those of race, class, gender, and sexuality — are implicated in and reproduced by our food system. Indeed, there is a direct parallel here with environmental justice activism, which traces its earliest roots to the struggles of Black and brown communities against toxic waste dumping in the 1980sRobert Bullard, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, And Environmental Quality, 3rd ed New York: Routledge, 2000).but has widened to address the inequalities wrought by our myriad and intersecting environmental crises and to ensure that the needs and visions of frontline communities are foregrounded in struggles for change. Witness today’s climate justice movement as evidence of the broadening scope and resonance of the environmental justice approach.

Food justice similarly began as an effort to accomplish distributive justice, as marginalized communities argued for a larger piece of the proverbial (in this case, local and organic) pie. But the movement has expanded into a broader conversation about what kind of pie we want to eat to begin with. My current working definition comes from Rasheed Hislop, a food justice activist in New York City and my former graduate student, who describes it as “the struggle against racism, exploitation and oppression taking place within the food system that addresses inequality’s root causes both within and beyond the food chain.” The food justice movement includes efforts to increase food access but also campaigns to improve worker pay and conditions throughout the food system, and cultural and entrepreneurial efforts to raise up the food traditions of communities of color.

Perhaps the most problematic part of Finn’s essay is when, following her narrow definition, she expounds on the shortcomings of the food justice movement in practice. Finn writes that “there’s never been much difference between what ‘food justice’ and ‘alternative food’ efforts look like on the ground, which is almost always uncritical boosterism about community gardens, farmers markets, and subscription vegetable boxes. The main difference is that when branded as ‘food justice,’ such markets might give people double the dollar value for their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits if they shop at this inconvenient, once-a-week produce vending system where you can’t buy paper towels or toothpaste.”

First, this passage flippantly writes off the benefits of programs that low-income communities and communities of color have often struggled to launch and maintain, despite the fact that white and wealthier communities reap disproportionate amounts of funding and positive publicity for the same sorts of work.Kristin Reynolds and Nevin Cohen, Beyond the Kale: Urban Agriculture and Social Justice Activism in New York City (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2016).Indeed, part of what is so problematic about Finn’s essay is that it criticizes food justice activists (read: low-income people and people of color) for wanting the same sorts of programs that the alternative food movement (read: white and middle-class or affluent people) has long been praised for creating. In this particular tome, the alternative food movement escapes Finn’s critical eye, though in her defense, she has offered this appraisal elsewhere. It seems that perhaps Finn has failed to understand the differences between the alternative food and food justice movements. This might be somewhat understandable, as there are overlaps as well as deep divisions, but one would expect someone writing with authority on a social movement to know more about its boundaries, its histories, and the future it works to imagine.

Perhaps more importantly, no one who has spent significant time with food justice organizers would characterize them as uncritical boosters, nor would they argue that the main difference between food justice and alternative food projects is the matching of food assistance dollars. (In my opinion, this matching represents an important scaling up and a successful demand for government support.) My own research has found that the key distinction between food justice and alternative food projects is that the former is guided by and helps to promote a deep and critical understanding of institutional racism.Alison Alkon, Black, White, and Green: Farmers Markets, Race, and the Green Economy (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2012).At the predominantly Black farmers market I studied in West Oakland, this understanding cohered through discussions of the racism endured by Black farmers, the processes of racialized urban (under)development that devastated vibrant Black communities, and support for those who have experienced microaggressions in alternative food and other spaces. Monica White’s recent book Freedom Farmers further illuminates the essential role of food activism in Black freedom movements past and present, additionally evidencing the centrality of anti-racism ideology to food justice struggles. Monica White, Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016).This is true beyond Black communities as well: indigenous food justice activists foreground discussions of sovereignty in their work to reclaim native foodways,Devon Mihesuah and Elizabeth Hoover, Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States: Restoring Cultural Knowledge, Protecting Environments, and Regaining Health (Norman, OK: Oklahoma University Press, 2019).while Latinx and Asian farmers and chefs have become prominent critics of cultural appropriation.Soleil Ho’s food writing is an excellent example of this, as laid out in her 2016 essay: “Craving the Other: One Woman’s Beef with Cultural Appropriation and Cuisine,” works expand beyond those of the alternative food movement, and indeed, beyond efforts to increase food access, by beginning to imagine a food system that is environmentally sustainable as well as socially and racially just. Moreover, far from being uncritical boosters, the food justice activists I have had the pleasure to work with are constantly expanding their perspectives and looking for ways to broaden and deepen their critiques of racism and other inequalities within and beyond the food system. Their work is deeply transformative: they draw on their own histories and identities to envision a world in which food can be a vehicle toward a notion of cultural health that is less about nutrition and more about a holistic approach to living. This is another reason that Finn’s critiques seem so off base.

Finn spends the bulk of her essay attempting to debunk much of the conventional wisdom about food and health in order to argue that food justice activists should not attempt to increase access to local and fresh foods in their communities. Low-income people do not, she argues, have higher average body mass indexes (BMI) than more affluent individuals and do not eat, again on average, more fast food. Perhaps most surprising (at least to me) is her claim that increased fruit and vegetable consumption has minimal if any benefits for our health. Though there are studies that support her assertion (and really, any assertion), this runs so counter to the most basic claims of nutrition science and common sense that it is hard to believe. Finn and others have long viewed nutrition as a cultural artifact, which makes some sense given widely shifting changes in dietary advice. But even if nutritional standards are relative, Finn writes that even the Harvard School of Public Health has wrongly interpreted the data. Why does she believe that food justice activists should account for her controversial point of view?

When my undergraduate students do research, I often tell them (over and over again) that they can only make the arguments that they can support with evidence. Finn provides data that much of what the American public believes about food, class, and health is erroneous. These claims should be evaluated by experts in nutrition, which I am not. But she also makes an argument about what the food justice movement does and does not do that fails to provide evidence that the movement is limited in the way she claims.

Finn ends her piece with a variety of suggestions that she believes might ensure a more capacious notion of food justice. These include criminal justice reform, better wages and working conditions, and universal health care. But she fails to realize that there are food justice organizations that have long been engaged in these struggles. In doing so, they have broadened popular and scholarly understandings of what food justice is and what it is for.

The Black Lives Matter movement, for example, while best known for its outcry against police murders of unarmed African Americans, includes several food- and agriculture-based demands in its 2016 “Vision for Black Lives.”The Movement for Black Lives, A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom, and Justice (Movement for Black Lives Policy Platform, 2016), involve increased access to healthy food, support for Black agriculture, protection for farmworkers, and an end to the privatization of prison labor and services, including farmwork and food processing. In addition, groups such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, and the Food Chain Workers Alliance have organized on behalf of workers throughout the food chain, many of whom are immigrants, for improved wages and working conditions. Key to their work have been strategic campaigns that aim to mobilize food activists, ensuring that any attempt to transform the food system into one that is sustainable and racially just attends to the needs and lived experiences of those who grow, pick, process, and serve our food. Incidentally, Darden Restaurants, Inc. ⁠— which owns Olive Garden, a chain Finn described avoiding for years in favor of “fresh, local, organic” food, values she later discredits — is a staunch opponent of campaigns to improve restaurant workers’ wages and conditions. So perhaps she has found a reason for her resistance to the chain after all.

Finn’s critique of food justice envisions the movement as something of a monoculture comprising solely support for alternative food projects. From my perspective, however, it is more accurately described as a polyculture in which these projects are joined by state and local food policy work, support for workers’ and immigrants’ rights, opposition to mass incarceration, efforts to resist gentrification, campaigns to create livable public spaces, and many other elements of a broad, progressive field that is connected to food. Each of these crops is nurtured in the soils of racial justice, intersectional feminism, and regard for communities’ lives, needs, and visions. This is the field in which food justice can be nurtured and grow.