"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." — MLK
by Alicia Harvie
Traeger Di Pietro
We love good food. But what makes food good? For most, qualities like taste, freshness, nutrition or seasonality are essential. Others consider where the food came from, whether it was grown responsibly or if the animal was treated ethically.
Rarely, do we consider whether our food is just.
Food justice addresses power and the socioeconomic context of food production and distribution. And while America has made some notable progress in putting good food back on the plate, we still have a ways to go before just food is the norm.
For starters, racism is an unfortunate reality in our food system. Though the social fabric of America was indelibly transformed by sit-ins, integration, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the 24th Amendment, discrimination is still stuck in institutional cogwheels.
Such is the case with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its troubled history with African-American farmers.
While federal policies said otherwise, racial bias has been common in the halls of local USDA offices around the country, particularly in the South. In the decades following major civil rights victories, thousands of black farmers went out of business, in part, because they were unfairly denied USDA loans, crop insurance, or disaster payments. It is a controversial issue that some believed an unspoken push to grab black-owned land—much of it allocated after the Civil War—was at play.
A harsh light was cast on this phenomenon in Pigford v. Vilsack, a class-action lawsuit brought against the USDA by Timothy Pigford and 400 other African-American farmers. The lawsuit ended in 1999 with a settlement, and to date almost $1 billion has been awarded to farmers who faced discrimination between 1983 and 1997.
Nevertheless, the case is far from closed. About 70,000 farmers missed the deadline for filing claims. Some argued the notice program was defective, and others blamed their attorneys for mismanagement. In the 2008 Farm Bill, Congress approved a rehearing for farmers to have their claims reconsidered. The final decision of the case, called Pigford II, is currently being considered. It is believed over $1 billion will be awarded for farmers or former farmers awaiting compensation.
Food justice doesn’t only concern African-American farmers.
American farmworkers are still fighting a decades-old battle over their human rights. While labor laws protect the majority of American workers, the agricultural sector is largely exempt from them. This has left farmworkers with dangerous and grueling working conditions, low pay, and few avenues to attain fairness.
In the 1960s and 70s, Cesar Chavez brought the plight of migrant farmworkers to the fore, founding the United Farm Workers and launching boycotts and strikes that garnered better wages. American farmworkers still face a treacherous livelihood.
Workers in California’s fruit and vegetable sector, for example, are far more likely to endure cancer and medical complications from pesticide exposure than the general populace. In pork processing plants across the South, workers lose limbs from cutting lines that run at unsafe paces, face retaliation and threats if they seek bargaining rights through a union, and live in squalor.
Important efforts are underway to address these wrongs. In Immokalee, Florida, an epicenter of agricultural production and home to the state’s largest farmworker community, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has displayed remarkable ingenuity in securing better wages. When the group of Latino, Mayan Indian, and Haitian workers fi rst demanded fair wages, their bosses, generally farmers, insisted they faced price pressure from their buyers and that the margins were too small. CIW started studying the supply chains of the crops they harvested, tomatoes and citrus. They discovered that the real price-setters were retailers, chains like Taco Bell and Burger King who purchased enormous amounts of produce and are able to drive prices down at the farm level.
So CIW launched the Campaign for Fair Food, demanding a penny-per-pound more for the tomatoes they picked and better working conditions. Their story is remarkable—through tenacity and unity, they won a major victory in 2005 when Yum Brands, which owns Taco Bell and other fast-food chains, agreed to pay a penny-per-pound more for the tomatoes they buy, in addition to creating market incentives for farms that offer better working conditions for workers, a new code of conduct for the industry, and strong monitoring and transparency mechanisms. Not long after, McDonalds and Burger King agreed to similar conditions.
There are, of course, other injustices that pervade our food system. But these campaigns—both the Campaign for Fair Food and Pigford—demonstrate the unstoppable power of collective action. With growing awareness and e ort, just food can be a reality for everyone.