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Food Justice

Ruth Styles

13th January, 2011

In Food Justice, Robert Gottilieb and Anupama Josh make a compelling case for a more integrated approach to changing the way we eat, says Ruth Styles

Combining critical commentary and detailed research, Food Justice is one part social history to two parts problem solving and it charts the rise of the food justice movement, starting with the release of American journalist Edward R. Morrow’s groundbreaking 1960 documentary, Harvest of Shame.

Morrow’s work uncovered a sort of pseudo-slavery on American farms; where migrant workers – usually African American – were routinely forced to accept substandard pay in tandem with extremely long hours and horrific working conditions. One farmer quoted in the documentary said: ‘we used to own slaves; now we just rent them’. Appearing at a time when a growing awareness of the effect of pesticides on the environment was forcing Americans to reassess they way they ate, Morrow’s documentary triggered dismay and a desire for change, not just in food production methods but in the treatment of workers and access to food in low income communities.

Food justice is, say Gottilieb and Joshi, about ‘what, where and how we eat.’ It’s not just food production and its attendant issues that matter, it’s about access to fresh, healthy food for everyone, food politics and even takes in the way we cook. Unsurprisingly, food justice has many parallels with environmental justice, including concerns about factory farming, intensive fishing and over-reliance on agricultural chemicals. It also advocates localism, particularly when it involves forging closer links between communities and nearby food producers.

An interesting example is provided in the introduction, which discusses the efforts of a group of New Orleans school children campaigning not only for healthier food, decent cutlery and a nicer canteen but also for the use of locally produced food such as shrimp caught by local fishermen – eat your heart out Jamie Oliver. Particularly fascinating though, was Food Justice’s treatment of supermarkets Walmart and Tesco.


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Walmart was skewered. Not only do they source products from unethical suppliers such as IPB and Tyson, they also were among the first in the USA to move food shops out of town and into the suburbs. This has meant that very poor neighbourhoods have had fresh food put literally out of reach, making way for an explosion of fast food chains and liquor stores and creating ‘food deserts’. For Gottilieb and Joshi, this is a perfect example of food injustice: the rich have access to healthy food and drink while the poor have to make do with McDonalds.

Interestingly, while Walmart recieved a heavy dose of criticism, British supermarket chain Tesco received qualified praise, mainly due to its willingness to open stores in food desert areas. Arguably Tesco's embrace of food deserts has more to do with profit than any real sense of social justice but Gottilieb and Joshi deserve applause for their even-handed treatment of a controversial issue.

While their pragmatic and wide-ranging approach to food justice might not be appreciated by environmental purists, the authors' stock of common-sense solutions and genuine concern makes Food Justice an interesting and authoritative read. Their central argument - that the approach to transforming the way we eat needs to be more integrated - is compelling and certainly worth considering. Unfortunately injustices in the way food is produced and consumed won't go away over night. But if, as Food Justice advocates, we work together and focus on community-based initiatives, then we are on the right track.


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