Towards a Just & Sustainable Food System:
Re-connecting People & Causes

Kathy Lawrence, Just Food

For me, as a budding food-systems activist, the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development held a simple and powerful truth: environmental, economic and social justice problems are inextricably linked - as are their solutions. As I and many others have worked to put that truth into practice around food-system issues, the linkage that we have consistently found most difficult is that between sustainable agriculture and anti-hunger work.  

We find that people and groups who should be natural allies have tended rather to see themselves in separate camps: one looks at the dramatic decline in numbers of farms and farmers, the rapid monopolization of our capacity to produce, process and distribute food, and its attendant environmental and economic destruction; the other focuses on the shocking increase in hunger and demand for emergency food, the severe cuts in government aid at all levels, and the tremendous social and personal devastation wrought by poverty and indifference. For decades these groups have used different tools of analysis and different language to describe their problems; their solutions and successes have been defined in very different ways. 

Yet despite these apparent conflicts, the food access, farming sector and ecological crises we face in the United States and throughout the world share a root cause: a global political and economic system that drives inequity, exploitation, overproduction, waste and poverty.  And those of us dedicated to eradicating these ills also share a common cause.  

We share a desire for justice and healthy communities living in harmony with each other and with nature.  We share a vision of a society where everyone is well-fed, where all have access to fulfilling livelihoods, and where our living and working environments are clean and safe.  Perhaps most fundamentally, we share the need to eat and a dependence on the processes of sun, soil, air, water, and human ingenuity that produce the food we need to survive. 

We also agree on many basic issues.  I think we all agree there is currently plenty of food and production capacity for everyone to eat quite well. What hunger and malnutrition in the U.S. reflect is a lack of jobs and safety nets that provide people with the money or public benefits to buy the food they need. 

 And many, though not all, agree that we continue to lose farms not because farmers are poor managers who deserve to go under, but rather as a direct result of decades-long policies centered on "cheap food" and the government and industry push (through programs, subsidies and subsidized market clout) for farms to "get big or get out".  We certainly agree that we would all be better off if we had more jobs that provide meaningful work, living wages and a multiplier effect that circulates dollars in local economies to create and sustain even more jobs.

Still, recognizing this vast common ground is easier than finding practical ways of working together today, tomorrow and next month. [For too long we have used divisive language and identified ourselves not by our goals but by our approaches: cheap food vs. fair prices, productivity (or basic needs) vs. environmental protection, urban vs. rural, global vs. local, charity vs. self-reliance.  To get past these false dichotomies, I believe we must go back to our common goals.]  

We must [also] begin to ask ourselves the right kinds of questions.  Instead of asking, "How can we make food as cheap as possible so poorer people can afford it?" or "How can we get consumers to pay more for the food they buy?", we can help each other frame a different set of questions. "What kind of food system do we want to create and invest in?", "How can we promote the production of high quality food and the ability of all people to either grow, buy or barter for it?", "How can we ensure that farmers and others working throughout the food system make wages adequate to live, work and retire with dignity and respect."  "How can we create more high quality local food-system jobs?" ["How can we ensure that productive land is preserved and that new farmers will want to farm it sustainably for generations to come?".]

Throughout the country, diverse groups have asked these questions and begun to re-connect the severed links in our economic, social and environmental webs in small ways: a community garden grows fresh organic vegetables for a nearby soup kitchen; a food bank secures land and hires a farmer to produce food for their programs;  a community-supported agriculture (CSA) group creates a guaranteed market for a farmer and access to quality food for low-income members; a welfare-to-work training program links with farmers, chefs and local food businesses to create jobs.

  In relation to the huge food-system problems we face, the number of people involved and volume of food produced through such ventures is small.  But the overall impact is large and will continue to grow, because these are empowering steps toward re-defining our problems, our solutions and what is possible.

The next challenge is how to "scale-up"; how to involve many more people, farms and institutions to create a mainstream food system that really works.  Unless we want to re-build the entire food system from scratch, our first step should be to identify resources, programs and policies that can be re-oriented for far greater effect.

For example, the documented successes of the Market Nutrition Program, which joins the interests of local farmers and low-income communities, should be adapted and applied to other programs.  Many government and private agencies would be much more efficient and effective if their nutrition and food access goals were linked to farm, environmental, economic development objectives.

  Imagine the dramatic impact on diets, health,  local economies and employment if all government agencies procured as locally as possible; if all school breakfast and lunch and other meals programs purchased fresh, flavorful foods from regional farmers; if  regional farm groups coordinated gleaning efforts to eliminate the waste of nutritious food and emergency food providers directed their food purchases to regional farmers.

While there is tremendous gain in re-directing existing current polices and purchasing decisions, some systems will need to be rebuilt.   Agribusiness consolidation has resulted in a "dumbbell effect" - with many small and medium-sized struggling farms on one end, many ill-served individual consumers on the other end, and a tiny number of huge and growing food conglomerates in the middle making their profit by squeezing whatever they can out of both "ends" and pitting one against the other.

   "Consumers" need food and jobs and farmers produce food and jobs, but these natural allies can't bypass the middle and come together until we re-establish regional food processing and distribution systems.  This would be the multiplier effect in action: farmers' need for markets, distribution channels, labor and paying customers translated into enhanced employment and food access through local trucking, processing, marketing and distribution networks. 

The potential to create jobs around localized food systems should not be underestimated.  A shift back to smaller-scale, regionally-focused food processing in the Northeast region, for example, could improve farmers' bottom line, ensure greater access year-round to regionally-produced foods and begin to bring back the more than 4 million food processing jobs that we've lost in this region since 1954.

While re-assembling the scattered pieces of our food system, we also share the simple joys and healing power of food.  From a child's delight in watching a seed grow into a fruitful plant to the satisfaction of sharing a sumptuous harvest feast with friends and neighbors, we are creating powerful, positive ways to reconnect with each other and the earth.