New School News

Kristin Reynolds, Chair of the Food Studies program, discusses the need for a more holistic approach to fixing issues of inequity in our food system and what individuals can do to support this crucial work
Kristin Reynolds, Chair of the Food Studies program, discusses the need for a more holistic approach to fixing issues of inequity in our food system and what individuals can do to support this crucial work

The Need for Food Access, Security and Justice

During the fall and winter months, we often hear about holiday food drives, volunteer opportunities serving meals to people in need, and other efforts to assist families facing food insecurity. While providing much needed support, these programs only address one portion of the issues that are the cause of structural inequities in our food system. Kristin Reynolds, Chair of the Food Studies program at the Schools of Public Engagement, discusses how the food justice movement is taking a more holistic approach to fix challenging issues of inequity in our food system and what individuals can do to support this crucial work.

What is Food Justice?

Food justice is a concept and related movement that considers the social and political roots of inequities in the food system. It holds that these structural issues must be addressed to solve problems such as disparate access to healthy food and exploitative or unfair labor practices. Similar to the environmental justice movement, many food justice activists and scholars insist that people of color and working-class people—often those most marginalized from food system decision-making and mainstream economies—should lead initiatives to realize food justice in their own communities if they desire to do so.

Importantly, food justice extends beyond a focus on food access to address sociopolitical structures, including racism and economic inequality, that give rise to many, often intersecting inequities in the food system. During the COVID-19 pandemic we’ve been hearing more about the poor working conditions and workplace protections provided to workers in food retail, meat packing plants, restaurants, food delivery, and other sectors. These jobs are often low paid, and, as a result, food workers often also experience food insecurity. People of color tend to be over-represented as workers in these types of jobs. Food justice recognizes and tries to address these interrelated dynamics.

What are some of the major issues around food justice that we see in New York?

In New York City, two of the major food justice issues include what farmer and food justice leader Karen Washington has called “food apartheid,” the racialized access to fresh, healthy, culturally relevant, and affordable food. This term, rather than “food desert,” recognizes that in many places predominantly Black and Brown communities experience higher rates of food insecurity, and that is not only a question of availability of food, but of grocery store siting, gentrification, racialized income and wealth disparity. These are all experienced more significantly in communities of color that are low income.

Another issue is about land access for agriculture, and this pertains to both the city and New York State. In NYC, there are over 1200 community gardens, nearly 500 school gardens, dozens of community farms, and a growing number of for-profit, controlled environment agriculture businesses (such as those using soil-less hydroponics). Over more than 40 years, there has been ephemeral support from the city in terms of land access for community gardens and farms, and efforts to stabilize land access for urban agriculture now include those working in the controlled environment agriculture sector. Mayor-elect Eric Adams has been vocal about his vision of urban agriculture as an economic engine for the city, and we will see how this plays out under the new administration.

What are some books you recommend that will help us understand this pressing issue?

Some recent books that can provide a deeper understanding of these issues are:

Black Food Matters: Racial Justice in the Wake of Food Justice
Hanna Garth and Ashanté M. Reese (editors)
University of Minnesota Press, 2020

Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States: Restoring Cultural Knowledge, Protecting Environments, and Regaining Health
Devon A. Mihesuah and Elizabeth Hoover (editors)
University of Oklahoma Press, 2019

Feeding the Crisis: Care and Abandonment in America’s Food Safety Net
Maggie Dickinson
University of California Press, 2019

Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement
Monica M. White
UNC Press Books, 2018

Beyond the Kale: Urban Agriculture and Social Justice Activism in New York City
Kristin Reynolds and Nevin Cohen
University of Georgia Press, 2016

Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability
Alison Hope Alkon and Julian Agyeman (editors)
MIT Press, 2011

How does The New School’s Food Studies program address food justice?

The Food Studies program explores the connections between the production, distribution, and consumption of food and politics, history, culture, and the environment through our curriculum, faculty research and policy engagement, and public events.

Currently we offer courses like Social Justice in the Sustainable Food System; Feasting Your Eyes: Food and Film, and Introduction to Food Studies through our associate and bachelor degree programs. We’re also in process of developing courses for the general public available through The New School’s Continuing and Professional Education adult courses and programs.

Each semester, we host an event series that is organized around a guiding theme. This past fall, we held three online panels during the semester on the theme of “Food and the Public.”

The most recent event in the series, In the Struggle: A Conversation on Industrial Agribusiness, Politics, and Activist Scholarship, discussed agricultural justice and policy issues in New York with panelists from New York State government, academia, and community-based organizations.

Our spring 2022 series “Critical Food Studies and Social Justice” will have events focused on food entrepreneurship and social justice; food justice and sustainability; and understanding food and environmental justice through music, among others. For more information, please check the University events calendar or email us at foodstudies@newschool.edu.

What are some of the ways people can support food security and food justice year-round?

Donating to food banks, food drives, and serving food are important ways that people can help provide emergency food to those in need. Without these resources, the level of food insecurity would surely be even higher than it is. However, the food justice movement suggests that we can also go further.

I work with many community-based food justice organizations, and what I hear consistently is that funding is often a major barrier to groups being able to support and expand their important work. Many groups hold fundraisers to raise larger sums, but many also accept donations of any size on their websites and/or through crowd-source campaigns. This is another way that those who can afford to do so might support on-the-ground food justice work.

Some groups that are accepting online donations include:

Food Chain Workers Alliance, a coalition of worker-based organizations who work together to build a more sustainable food system that respects workers’ rights, based on the principles of social, environmental and racial justice, in which everyone has access to healthy and affordable food.

Rock Steady Farm, a queer owned and operated cooperative vegetable farm rooted in social justice, food access and farmer training.

Corbin Hill Food Project, which works to supply fresh food to those who need it most through the distribution of local, farm fresh food to communities throughout New York City.

Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, a hybrid model land trust reimagining land access as well as conservation and stewardship of communities and ecosystems with the goal of manifesting a community vision that uplifts global Indigenous, Black, and POC relationships with land, skills, and lifeways.

Farm School NYC, which trains local residents in urban agriculture in order to build self-reliant communities and inspire positive local action around food access and social, economic, and racial justice issues.

Educating oneself about food inequity and food justice is another way that anyone can get engaged. This needn’t be formal learning (though certainly can include this!), but can come from reading books or online media such as Civil Eats. This is a relatively accessible way to learn without asking time from often under-resourced organizations.

Finally, as city, state, and national agricultural and food policy proposals continue to engage with questions of equity in our food system, learning about these policies and voting is another action that many of us can take. 

There are many ways that people can support food justice throughout the year, and these are a few to consider!

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