Everyone eats: Beginning to understand social justice and community food systems

The work of community food systems must reach broadly and tackle problems of access with authenticity and a concern for social justice.

Community food systems is a broad term that encompasses how food is distributed throughout a community. Community food systems also includes an understanding of how that local food does or does not reach local people. There is a recognition that everyone requires nutritious food to thrive –Everyone eats.

The work of social justice and equity is to examine how power – Specifically how things like institutional and structural racism, as well as patriarchal systems, impact institutional decisions regarding resources, opportunities, and access in our society and the food system.

According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s publication “Embracing Equity,” structural racism “is the racial bias across institutions and society. It describes the cumulative and compounding effects of an array of factors that systematically privilege white people and disadvantage people of color.” The same publication defines institutional racism as “racial inequity within institutions and systems of power, such as places of employment, government agencies and social services.”

The work of community food systems can be observed in each community through many different food-focused institutions, businesses and individuals. This can include: Farmers markets, farm-to-institution efforts, local food culture, and charitable organizations that work to serve food insecure populations.

Grocery stores, corner stores, soup kitchens, food pantries, congregate meals at local churches, Meals on Wheels and many other programs are also part of the food system in your community. Local farms are a very important part of the community food system that can be taken for granted.

Many communities have a food policy council that usually consists of a collaborative committee focused on overcoming food access and availability challenges for vulnerable people in the community. Each community chooses the mission of their food policy council and often bring together public health advocates, farmers and agriculture advocates, charitable organizations like food banks and emergency food providers, and representatives of institutions that serve meals including schools or hospitals. Any of these institutions may examine their work in more depth through a social justice lens.

When a social justice lens is brought to our understanding of the food system, we may begin question why certain communities like Flint have experienced the loss of 6 grocery stores between 2013 and 2015. It may also lead to the understanding that poverty is concentrated in both urban and rural areas and that food access is challenged in both of these types of communities, while more affluent suburban communities have grocery stores competing for their dollars. Often models of food provision to vulnerable people in communities – Homeless people, low income families, seniors - Are focused on helping people but may not engage with those groups in creating solutions.

If you want to learn more about this join the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge being hosted by Food Solutions, New England on April 9-29. The program will engage participants in understanding how  race and racism impact individuals and systems. According to their website, “The challenge is designed to create dedicated time and space to build more effective social justice habits, particularly those dealing with issues of race, power, privilege, and leadership.” The training will look at how this impacts the food system and working to dismantle the structures that reinforce racism.

Members of the Community Food Systems team of Michigan State University Extension and their colleagues in the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems are also engaging in a series of educational seminars and learning opportunities to challenge our understanding of race and racism. 

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