Your Crash Course on Food Justice: A Reading Syllabus

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The coronavirus pandemic and uprisings against racist policing are exposing systemic failures and inequities that plague our daily lives. The food system, from media to agriculture, is not free from those inequities which can play out through disparities in opportunity, compensation and safety nets for the industry’s workers and entrepreneurs.

To better understand the food system and the inequities it is build on, we asked experts including director of San Francisco’s Office of Equity Shakira Simley, director of the Global Justice Program at the Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley Elsadig Elsheikh and Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik and Jocelyn Jackson of the People’s Kitchen Collective for essential reading on food justice and sovereignty. “I always go back to the frame that food justice is racial justice,” wrote Simley in response to our ask. “Food equity is intrinsically linked to our history of genocide, slavery and labor exploitation — thus the immense land debt and reparations owed to Black, Indigenous and communities of color.” 

With that in mind, here’s a digitally accessible and free reading list to get started:

Racial Inequity 

This critical text on white privilege by Peggy McIntosh and how it articulates itself at personal and systemic scales is a good starting point to understand how race functions in America. “For me white privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject,” wrote McIntosh in 1988. “The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy.” Many of the questions the activist and scholar poses can be applied to each corner of the food industry. 
White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

The History of Land and Farming in America

The first place to start when thinking about land in America is the dispossession and killing of Indigenous people in present-day America. The Toronto-based group, 4Rs breaks down the call for “Land Back” and what the movement means. Scholars Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang further explicate in their 2012 paper, Decolonization is not a metaphor

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Shirley Sherrod might be one of the best people to tell the story of farming in America. The former director of Rural Development for the state of Georgia along with her husband and other civil and land rights activists formed the first land trust in the country in 1969. Keeping the land was a constant fight against economic and government forces that played a powerful tandem stripping Black farmers of sovereignty. In an essay earlier this year, Sherrod outlined that struggle which for her began as the daughter of a cotton farmer under the rule of one of the most vicious sheriffs in Georgia. 

The Struggle for the Land: A Story from America’s Black Belt

Vann Newkirk II’s 2019 reported piece, This Land Was Our Land, provides accounts of Black farmers in the South whose land was stripped from them systematically and forcefully. Newkirk enumerates the tremendous dispossession of land and wealth and the ways it was maintained by local and federal policy including the Farm Bill in the piece. “[6 million acres] was lost by black farmers from 1950 to 1969,” he reported. “That’s an average of 820 acres a day—an area the size of New York’s Central Park erased with each sunset.”

This Land Was Our Land

For further reading into the Farm Bill and how it strengthened corporate power in the United States food system, there’s Hossein Ayazi and Esladig Elsheikh’s 2015 thorough report,
Race and Corporate Power in the US Food System: Examining the Farm Bill. 

Labor and Economic 

Labor and exploitation are intrinsic to the history of food production in America and beyond. From visibilizing the labor of agricultural workers to addressing bias in restaurant hiring practices and the legacy of slavery in tipped wages, the following pieces dive into their subjects tying back to the systems they were born out of and currently maintained by. 

Food Media

Food media, though positioned to be critical of the industry it covers, is itself not free of the same inequities articulated in the food system. These pieces examine food media's complicity in upholding the status quo and oppressing Black, Indigenous and other writers of color in its newsrooms.