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Food Insecurity and Food Justice Advocacy in America

Image credit: USDA, Economic Resource Service

By Juliet Porter.

Food justice refers to the holistic, structural perception of the food system which views access to healthy food as a human right and simultaneously addresses obstacles in the way of the right. Directly stemming from the concept of environmental justice, food justice emphasizes the importance of putting disadvantaged and minority groups at the center of the debate.

Various factors contribute to one’s ability to access healthy, fresh foods, many of which are uncontrollable. For example, BIPOC individuals and those in a lower socioeconomic bracket are more likely to reside in food deserts. A food desert refers to a geographical area where residents’ access to affordable, fresh, and healthy food options is severely limited or non-existent due to a lack of grocery stores within a convenient travel distance of one’s home. Lack of personal vehicles and unreliable public transportation exacerbates the issue of food deserts. For instance, according to a report by the Economic Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture prepared for Congress, 2.3 million people, or 2.2% of all US households live more than one mile away from their closest supermarket and also don’t own a car.

Food deserts are the most prevalent in black and brown communities as well as low-income areas, where car ownership is low. Studies have proven that wealthy neighborhoods have as many three times more supermarkets as low income ones do and white neighborhoods have roughly four times the amount of supermarkets as black neighborhoods while grocery stores in black neighborhoods tend to be smaller, offering a selection with minimal variety.

Living in a food desert and being prone to food insecurity is directly correlated with poor health as researchers have established a strong correlation between food insecurity and increased rates of diabetes. In fact, the highest rates of escalation of diabetes have been identified among Native American youth as well as African Americans and Latinos of all age groups. These groups tend to be those that are the most likely to live in food deserts. Those living in food deserts experience food insecurity. It’s estimated that food insecurity is the most prominent in rural communities. While 63% of communities in the U.S. are characterized as rural, these areas are overrepresented in the food insecurity scene with them making up 87% of counties with the highest rates of food insecurity. Data from the US Census Bureau found that approximately 27 million Americans experience food insecurity as of July 2023. Some sources, such as Feeding
America, estimate that this number is even higher, sitting around 34 million Americans.

Image credit: National Public Radio

The food justice scene is rapidly growing as public awareness continues to be raised and more media attention is devoted to the topic largely due to the work of community activists. Earlier this year, in January 2023, Democratic lawmakers discussed eliminating food deserts as a
mechanism to reduce the prevalence of diseases, like diabetes, affecting African Americans. Representative Robin Kelley, a Democrat from Illinois, emphasized how reducing food deserts is likely one of the most effective methods in curbing diet-related illnesses. As the epidemic of food insecurity becomes more publicized, it’s likely that there will be more legislative wins within the upcoming years.

Toxic Tuesdays


Toxic Tuesdays

CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.


Thallium is a metal found in the Earth’s crust and can be obtained by smelting metal compounds. Today, most thallium is used in the production of electronics, especially semiconductors. It is also used for medical imaging and in the production of glass. Thallium contamination of the surrounding environment most commonly results from the smelting process, but it can also happen during transport or improper disposal. Once in the environment, it remains in the air, water, and soil without breaking down. It can enter the food chain because it is absorbed by plants and builds up in fish.

Eating food contaminated with thallium is the most likely way people in the United States would be exposed to it. Ingesting high levels of thallium over a short period of time can lead to symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, and hair loss. It can impair function of the brain, lungs, heart, liver, kidneys, and even lead to death. Little is known about the health effects of ingesting low levels of thallium over a long period of time. People who work in facilities that use thallium or live near waste sites containing thallium can also be exposed by breathing contaminated air or touching contaminated material. Workers exposed to thallium over many years have had nervous system impairments, including numbness in the extremities. Studies on laboratory animals have shown that exposure to high levels of thallium can cause reproductive and developmental defects, but it is not known if this also occurs in people.

Historically, thallium was a common ingredient in rat poisons and insecticides sold in the United States. Recognizing that it is highly toxic, the government banned its use in these consumer products in 1972. In fact, thallium is considered so dangerous that it is no longer produced in the United States. Many other countries also ban or restrict the production of thallium. While these are positive developments to keep people safe, at lease 210 Superfund sites are known to contain thallium, meaning it still poses a danger to people’s health today.

Learn about more toxics