What is Food Justice to you?

In 2014, just a few months after I returned to the U.K. from Hong Kong I wrote the following:

Food Justice, for me is not just access to healthy and affordable food, but also to food that is culturally appropriate. It is food that is produced in a manner that does not transfer the burden of injustice onto someone else (e.g. the farmer or the worker who produces the food or the person who sells it to me). There is an excellent TEDx video of LaDonna Redmond, where she discusses Food Justice from a US perspective in a similar way.  It is worth a watch.

Food justice is also, for me, the opportunity to grow ones own food if that is what is wanted. Though my tomatoes never seem to ripen and my lettuces often are eaten by slugs, the fact that I can and do eat produce from my garden and at the same time don’t have to depend upon my garden to feed myself is a something that should be a right. But these acts are so often a privilege–a privilege of knowledge, wealth, and access to space and time.

At the time I was trying to shift my research focus back to the U.K. I was also trying to think through what everyday food insecurity might look like and also consider what everyday practices of Food Justice might look like. These are key themes that underpin my work. These ideas inform my FoodLadders research and shape my thinking about the FreshStreet project. Its an issue I struggle with in my work on surplus food and its redistribution to communities.

Let me elaborate.

There are some positives if surplus is distributed in the right way. It can act as a catalyst for diversifying diets and for populating foodscapes with fresh and healthy food. It can be a resource for connecting people and re-building the social infrastructure of communities. It can spark innovations that are social, economic or both. Because the cost of this food is reduced, not necessarily because of quality, community organisations can use it. This enables them to divert money to other needs and it gets people in the door. There are some fantastic examples of how this is working in the U.K. today, for example Levanshulme Inspire and Edlington Community Organisation, but also many many others.

But, there are also issues. Sometimes surplus isn’t great quality. Mostly this is down to those who are giving this food seeing the community sector as a good way to dispose of waste so they pass it on. Or because of resentments held by low-paid commercial workers having to do ‘extra work’ to pass this food on to people they see as undeserving when they are also struggling. There can be too much bread and not enough of the other things people want. There is also the question of whether surplus can solve ‘food poverty’.

It is my view that surplus on its own does not solve issues of poverty. To solve poverty we need a safety net that works for those who are struggling, whether that struggle arises from low income or from ill health or incapacity. This safety net includes an adequate income, public housing, free health care, a transportation system that works, affordable child care, a guarantee there will be electricity and gas in the home. We need employment conditions that provide a real living wage, sufficient hours, training opportunities so that jobs are not a dead end, and pensions that provide in old age. We need national policy to change so that people are not forced to choose between putting the heating on or eating. These policy shifts would put emergency food need back into its box of being something that is short lived and quickly overcome.

While we need these national level policies, I remain convinced that the many food-based projects supporting communities by working beyond emergency support are also needed, because of the positives I mentioned above and the fact that they enable self-determination and collective self-organisation.

For all our sake and for future generations we should do all we can to reduce surplus from arising in the first place. But as I’ve explained elsewhere, because there are so many moving parts in the system that gets our food to us we will always have some surplus food. We always have had periods of feast and famine. Given this, we need good mechanisms and systems that ensure when food becomes surplus, it feeds people first, before going to anaerobic digestion or landfill.

There are no simple solutions to moving food that is as yet not a product, or when what is on the inside of the pack does not match what is on the outside, or doesn’t work in the machinery, or requires extra labour and cost to extract from the field. We are an inventive species, however and if our values are directed toward finding a solution one will be forthcoming.

To me this search for finding solutions that don’t waste, are multi scaled, don’t produce dependancies, but also provide a helping hand is Food Justice, what is it to you?