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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.


Millions of Pounds of Produce Go to Waste

It has been nearly two months since the Trump Administration advised families to work from home and avoid eating at restaurants to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In effect, the demand for food at food banks is growing, while the supply of produce on farms is decreasing and mostly going to waste. Produce suppliers for restaurants no longer have a place to ship their commodity and the cost of harvesting, storing, and packaging excess food for banks is too much for farmers to take on. Producers have now pointed fingers at the USDA for their slow response in providing relief packages for farms and are concerned that it might be too little too late for some producers. Read More.

Backyard Talk

Environmental Concerns Not Relevant to U.S. Dietary Recommendations, Says Obama Administration

By: Dylan Lenzen

According to the Obama Administration, concerns over the environment are irrelevant to one’s diet. This comes as secretary Vilsack of the Department of Agriculture and secretary Burwell of Health and Human Services decide not to include a section regarding sustainability in the soon-to-be-released dietary guidelines, despite a recommendation from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) earlier this year.

DGAC’s Elements of a Sustainable Diet:


The DGAC made the recommendation to include sustainable diets due to pressure from multiple environmental and public health groups and the realization that American diets have an enormous impact on environmental outcomes. According to the DGAC, sustainability must be addressed in order to ensure that future generations of Americans have access to healthy food.

The inclusion of sustainability into the dietary guidelines would have been a step in the right direction in linking the food on our tables to the health of the land, people, communities, and systems that produced it. The DGAC ultimately concluded that, “a diet higher in plant-based foods…and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet.”

The news that these sustainability recommendations will not be included in actual guidelines comes despite overwhelming support expressed in the almost 29,000 public comments on the DGAC’s report.

This is only a recent example of the federal government’s failure to create a more socially and environmentally just food system. As Michael Pollan discusses in his recent call for a National Food Policy, the federal government addresses the issues surrounding food and agriculture in a “piecemeal” fashion. “Diet-related chronic disease, food safety, marketing to children, labor conditions, wages for farm and food-chain workers, immigration, water and air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, and support for farmers…are overseen by eight different federal agencies,” writes Pollan. The recent decision to excise sustainability from the dietary guidelines is the perfect example of this. It is hard to imagine creating sustainable food systems, if our dietary recommendations do not link the food we eat to issues such as climate change and the contamination of rural communities.

Is it really beyond the scope of U.S. dietary guidelines to mention that consuming great amounts of meat leads to greater greenhouse gas emissions than a plant-based diet, especially as the effects of climate change are increasingly realized? Is it also wrong to recommend purchasing foods that are produced locally, organically, and by farm workers paid a living wage, leading to not only healthier planet, but healthier communities as well. It appears that health of U.S. consumers and communities stand to benefit from better awareness of the implications of their dietary choices.

Read the Recommendations of the DGAC