St James's addresses food justice with Life Together Fellow, Meredith Wade

What is Food Justice? A Brief History

Hunger has been characterized a number of different ways by government institutions, social movements, and those who have experienced it. Among politicians, scholars, and activists, terms like “food security,” and “food justice” capture critically unique aspects of hunger. These differences are not merely semantic: the language we use to describe hunger reflects our underlying assumptions about how it works, and how we should address it.

A food security framework, popular among food banks and other direct-service programs, is built on the notion of “undernourishment,” or the lack of sufficient food. When this terminology emerged in post-World War II America, “nourishment” was measured in terms of emergent nutritional science that assumed a monolithic population with static nutritional needs. Government programs and humanitarian efforts in the Cold War era compiled survey data on malnutrition, characterizing hunger as a national epidemic. A 1968 Citizens’ Board of Inquiry produced a report called Hunger, U.S.A. that urged the federal government to expand federal food assistance programs and distribute food stamps to qualified individuals at no cost. Though they may not have used the phrase “food security,” the orchestrators behind Hunger, U.S.A. described hunger as a question of having “enough” food, and suggested that the solution was to make more food available to those who experienced undernourishment.

Though food security allowed researchers and politicians to conceptualize hunger as a national problem, this model did not press very far into malnourishment’s deeper systemic causes. As sociologist and food scholar Raj Patel notes, “if governments aim merely for food security as a policy goal, the politically difficult questions of inequality in power that produced food insecurity would be ignored.”

Where food security lets governments off the hook for addressing structural disempowerment, food justice is built on the idea that disenfranchisement and malnourishment are inextricable. The concept of food justice is an outgrowth of the environmental justice movement of the 1960s and 1970s, wherein sociologist Robert Bullard drew national attention to the disproportionate environmental burdens shouldered by people of color in the U.S. Bullard produced the first comprehensive documentation of environmental racism in 1979, when he published a study on municipal waste facilities in Houston neighborhoods. Bullard’s study found that dumps, incinerators, and landfills were overwhelmingly placed in predominantly black neighborhoods in Houston. Bullard went on to trace the secondary effects of environmental injustices across the American South, identifying unreasonably high cancer risks among the populations he studied. Bullard drew clear, data-driven links between exposure to environmental hazards, race, socioeconomic status, and bodily health.

Food justice advocates expanded Bullard’s environmental justice framework to address inequalities in access to food, as well as the consequent health risks. The food justice movement named lack of access to supermarkets and grocery stores as a secondary impact of post-WWII housing and lending discrimination, also known as redlining. The pioneering voices of environmental justice argued that the white flight of the mid-20th century led to disinvestment from neighborhoods occupied primarily by people of color, and subsequently, a stark inequity in the distribution of environmental health risks. Food justice advocates applied this line of thinking specifically to food and nutrition, arguing that the absence of a variety of affordable, nutritious, and culturally appropriate food choices in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods led to significantly higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer.

The first food justice activists explicitly grounded their movements in an understanding of inequity and uneven power relations across race, class, and gender. The food justice movement was the first to explicitly describe the global food system as a racial project, that enforces and constructs racial hierarchies. Food justice activists, then, seek to resist these inequalities from the root rather than just treating hunger as a symptom. Food justice movements in the United States existed even before they bore this particular name: the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast for Children is often cited in food scholarship as an early example of food justice. The Black Panther Party, on the rise at a time when black children went hungry at three times the rate of white children, identified racialized hunger as an instance of state violence. In keeping with their core practice of self-defense, they introduced the Free Breakfast for Children, alongside other food distribution programs for adults, as a strategy of radical self-preservation. Because the Panthers centered an understanding of hunger as an outgrowth of institutionalized racism, their food access efforts embodied the core values of food justice.

Food justice takes hunger to be an outgrowth of inequality, and seeks to fill bellies by giving those who experience hunger more control over their diet while addressing the race, gender, and class injustice responsible for their lack of food. Recognizing the structural causes of hunger - rather than treating the symptom alone - is critical to living out God’s love in the world. Join us after church on November 12th and 19th to further explore the idea of food justice, and how Christ calls us to practice food ministry!



Citizens’ Board of Inquiry into Hunger and Malnutrition in the United States. Hunger, U.S.A. Boston: Beacon Press, 1968.

Julian Agyeman and Alison Hope Alkon, Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011).

Julian Agyeman, Robert Doyle Bullard, and Bob Evans, Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003)

Raj Patel, “Food Sovereignty: Power, Gender, and the Right to Food,” PLOS Medicine 9, no. 6 (June 2012)

Robert Doyle Bullard, “Solid Waste Sites and the Black Houston Community,” Sociological Inquiry 53, no. 2 (April 1983).