What is Environmental Justice? And What Does Food Have to Do With It?

Fight for $15 in Chicago: May 15, 2014.

In a time of inequity and social tension, many ask, what is environmental justice? And what does food have to do with it?

Ask Elsie Herring, a North Carolina resident who gets sick because her house is right beside a hog factory farm teeming with manure. "You can smell the odor inside. The feces, the ammonia - all that stuff - we have to breathe it in, because we have to breathe."

Ask Tanya Fields, a mother from The Bronx who has a child with food allergies and whose family lacks access to healthy, affordable food in her neighborhood. "The absurdity of living in the poorest congressional district in the nation next to the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center, the largest in the world, and not being able to reap its financial benefits or access the quality products that travel in and out of it was mind boggling. I couldn't fathom how it was okay that my child suffering from asthma, caused in large part by the 16,000 truck trips through our area every day, was acceptable."

Ask Paul Brown, a Mississippian and former Tyson Foods chicken grower about the unfair and risky contract system into which he was forced by the industry. "I thought, 'What could I do that I could do myself and control my own destiny?' I thought it was the chicken business."

In a wide variety of ways, all three people have experienced some form of injustice. As commonly understood, environmental justice includes the fair distribution of environmental benefits and downsides. In Defining Environmental Justice, author David Schlosberg explains that while fair distribution is at the core, there's a wider conception of environmental justice that's regularly overlooked. As Schlosberg writes:

In essence, many contemporary theories of justice refer to a standpoint that is broader than just how things are distributed. This standpoint includes our intuitions and theories about recognition, participation, and the way people function--they also relate as much to groups as to individuals.

In other words, environmental justice is more than the mere equitable distribution of material good and bad - like halting pollution next to a low-income neighborhood - it also requires the recognition and decision-making participation of those impacted. What impedes fairness and equal participation is a power imbalance that can grow out of racism, poverty, employer-employee relationships and other social structures. Even though people have the right to live in a pollution-free environment, for instance, that right can't be assumed because not everyone can defend themselves from decisions made by more powerful entities, like companies and governments.

Not only do people suffer on a material basis, but the injustice increases the pain by stripping away dignity from those who already feel the squeeze. Grassroots-level social movements are the primary vehicle for galvanizing those harmed and spurring legal action, lobbying and public demonstrations.

These injustices aren't just abstractions, but are the reality for many people. This often extends to how food is produced and what food people eat. That's why food movement luminaries led by Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman and others recently wrote that the energy from the food movement needs to be directed towards making democracy work and ending inequality in the food system. Here are three ways in which food is wrapped up in environmental justice.

Community Impacts

Elsie Herring and her family are members of one of the many minority communities in North Carolina that have been beset by public health problems caused by manure pollution from factory farms sited in areas that are disproportionately African American. The nonprofits Waterkeeper and Environmental Working Group documented the water, land and air contamination caused by these factory farms, proving that minority communities in North Carolina face undue burdens. Just recently, EPA wrote a letter of concern to the state government saying that it has have been negligent in protecting minority communities from adverse public health impacts.

In these cases and countless others, inequalities in the food system mirror larger inequalities in American society and cry out for more justice, not less.

Even through fighting a factory farm facility is hard, victory is possible for the little guy, as illustrated by a recent case in Illinois where a rural community forced a giant 20,000-hog operation to withdraw its proposal. To be sure, the Illinois residents had more power than most being that they were primarily white and had in their ranks members of the local political and social establishment. Nonetheless, the fight against nuisance neighbors like factory farms depends on a community joining together in solidarity to accomplish their goals.

Food Access

Tanya Fields realized that just because she was raising a family as an African American mother in a low-income neighborhood in the Bronx didn't mean that she and her community shouldn't have access to fresh, healthy food. Fields took it upon herself to start the Blk Projek and create a community garden that grows produce sold to the community at reasonable prices, ingeniously marketed in a converted school bus. The operation also involves community members by providing training and work opportunities that weren't there before.

In this way, Fields demonstrates that inequality in food access relies not only on good food-sourcing, but also community involvement in decision-making. This is true for many people around the nation, such as Native American communities that have lost their traditional food and agricultural practices, thus removing good health (and job opportunities) from daily life. Restoration of food sovereignty is a growing movement on Native American reservations and communities, a principle which underlies food access concerns for all those excluded from the food system. It must be mentioned that food benefits for low-income people in the food stamp program (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP]) frequently have decisions made for them with little to no input from the people themselves. This only deepens food inequality for people that need more connection to the decisions that affect them.

Food Labor Chain

Paul Brown believed that entering a chicken-growing contract with Tyson Foods was a respectable way to be his own boss and provide a good life for his family. He quickly found that was untrue. The unfair contract subjected him to a host of restrictions that advantaged the company at his expense, quite literally. From the chicken house structures to what to feed the chickens to how precisely to raise them, Brown didn't have any autonomy over his operation and went into debt. His contract gave him all the downside risks while Tyson gained most of the upside profit.

Brown escaped from the contract as soon as he could, but many people in the food labor chain don't have that ability. From field workers to food line processors to fast-food servers, people are often beholden to their employees and the paycheck they get, even if they are being treated poorly. Many are standing up for a better work environment and higher wages. Examples of successful action abound, from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers that brought farm laborers better conditions and pay, to the Fight for $15 movement, which has gotten elected officials to raise wages in low-wage food service jobs. It also puts consumers on notice that they contribute to lower wages and poorer conditions through their buying decisions.

In these cases and countless others, inequalities in the food system mirror larger inequalities in American society and cry out for more justice, not less. While we all like cheap food and endless selection, we must also understand that our current food system reflects injustice, and we all have a role to play in changing it for the better.