Inequities in the Food System

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Through our work, we have recognized the challenges that many Iowans face when it comes to accessing, collaborating, and participating in inclusive local food systems. A critique of local food systems work is that it often perpetuates the same inequalities and leaves out the same voices as the industrial food system. People who cannot afford to “buy local” or organic may be excluded. New programs created in local food systems may perpetuate norms, ethics, and customs that are defined by the dominant population, ignoring rather than addressing the disenfranchisement of marginalized people in our food system. Recognizing, acknowledging, and addressing the systemic inequities and oppression in our communities that occur on the basis of income, race, gender, age, immigration status, and other social identities is an essential step in building a democratic, equitable, and resilient food system for all Iowans.  

We encourage local food practitioners to think broadly and critically about how their work can begin to address these systemic issues. How programs such as food hubs, farmers’ markets, farm-to-school initiatives, and producer assistance are implemented can have a major impact on whether they include and support or marginalize people. The following definitions and resources can help support food system practitioners begin and continue to learn more about cycles of oppression and structural racism in our communities, and — more specifically — within food systems. This list is by no means exhaustive or all-encompassing, but rather serves as a starting place. If you have resources you have found helpful, please share them with us so we can include them for others to benefit from, too: email suggestions to Caitlin Szymanski, szy@iastate.edu.  

*Disclaimer: The views of the resources below are not necessarily the views of those in the Local Foods Program or Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, but rather resources that members of our team have found useful in helping us think critically about our work.


Helpful Definitions

Click below to find definitions of frequently used terms in food equity resources. We recognize that the following words and definitions are fluid and can hold a spectrum of meaning. It is our intention that the following represent a common starting place for defining these words.


Resources

Navigate through the different tabs to find resources related to each topic.

"The [food] system serves well for those that have economic power. The [food] system does not work well those who do not have economic power, and it doesn't care, it wasn't designed to serve those purposes". Ricardo Salvador (watch his full speech at the 2016 Farm to School Conference)
Local foods appeal to many of us because of the potential it has for improving nutrition and supporting family farms. But it has the potential of being so much more: food can be a strategic organizing tool and a critical conversation starter. The term "Food Justice" has been used a lot recently, and is defined by the Social Justice Learning Institute (SJLI) as “ensuring that individuals, families and communities have access to healthy, high quality, low cost, locally grown, culturally relevant and nutritious food from the seed to the plate.” The SJLI argues that increasing access to healthy food is only helpful if it is paired with a commitment to equitable economic development across the food supply chain. In this section you will find resources that highlight our food system's structural racism, as well as tools to dismantle it.

Racism/White Privilege in the food system

Journal articles:

Books:

Media:

  • The Racist Sandwich podcast. Listen to show hosts Soleil Ho and Zahir Janmohamed as they talk to other Portland chefs about what is it like to be a chef of color in America's whitest city.
  • Good Food Talk webinar series put forth by NAFSN.

Children and school lunches

For the first time in recent history, a majority (over 51 percent) of the schoolchildren attending the nation’s public schools come from-low income families. Data shows that health disparities that take an unfair toll on children of color and children growing up in low-income households. For many organizations, working with school children is an entry point to reach across all races and socioeconomic statuses. Organizations like FoodCorps guides their strategy around understanding of the correlation between race, socioeconomic status and health outcomes for America’s children. (this paragraph was heavily inspired by FoodCorps statement on equity)

Food System Workers

When we talk about local foods, we often focus on consumers and farmers and forget about everyone in between. Food system workers are a crucial from production (farm labor), to processing (slaughterhouses) and distribution, and represent 15% of the U.S. workforce. The "local food movement" is based on the idea that a local food system is inherently more just: we need to make sure that is the case for everyone along the food supply chain.

There are many resources on equity in the U.S. food system (see previous tab), but few are focused on Iowa food systems: this gap is a call to action to all of us engaged in the Iowa food system!

Iowa is known for growing more corn and raising more hogs than any other state: common narratives here center around "Feeding the World". This leads us to forget about the very real hunger issue: one in eight Iowans often goes hungry, and 42 percent of public K-12 students in Iowa are eligible for free and/or reduced lunch (National Equity Atlas, 2015).

In our farmer-centered narratives around food systems in Iowa, we also forget about the other people that help get food on our table, namely farm labor, food manufacturing plant workers, folks working in restauration, etc. In Iowa in 2014, food and beverage manufacturing's 52,071 jobs (not including farm workers) represented 24.0 percent of Iowa’s manufacturing payroll employment and 3.4 percent of its total employment. Animal slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants employed over 26,000 people in 2014 (find data here).

Groups and organizations

  • Iowa Workforce Development Seasonal and Migrant Farmworkers program
  • Center for Worker Justice. The center "unites low-wage workers in Eastern Iowa across race and immigration status to achieve social and economic justice through education, organizing, direct services and community alliances". Although not centered around food system workers, data shows that a large number of low-wage jobs are in the food system.

Articles

  • "Somos Del Campo." Latino/a gardeners and farmers in two rural communities of Iowa. A Community Capitals Framework approach. Graduate Thesis by Diego Thompson, Iowa State University. For his research, Thompson studied Latino/a beginning farmers and gardeners in Denison and Marshalltown. The conclusion of his thesis includes recommendations for future programming and research, including:
    • Considering the following elements while constructing future educational spaces:
      • Recognizing the educational and agricultural experience that Latinos/as bring from their home countries
      • Take into account motivations and aspirations they have for engaging in farming and gardening
      • Involve experienced local farmers as instructors and the active participation of the gardeners and beginning farmers in their own education
      • Learn about Latin-American cultures regarding agriculture and food
      • Create awareness of the differential political power that Anglos and Latino immigrants currently have in rural communities

"If you have come to help me because you feel called to help me, please go away… But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, please stay and let’s work together."  - Lilla Watson, Aboriginal Activist

Concepts

Books/Articles (note: the last three books are specifically useful for white audiences)

Media

  • On the Media, (podcast) often talks about structural inequalities in our society, including for example this episode that talks about the myth and realities surrounding the notion of being able to 'pick yourself up by your own bootstraps,' (starts at 39:12) and this episode which talks about microaggressions on college campuses (starts at 11:17).
  • Code Switch, (podcast) NPR
  • Our National Conversation About Conversations About Race, (podcast) Anna Holmes, Baratunde Thurston, Raquel Cepeda and Tanner Colby.
  • Colorlines, is a daily news site where 'race matters, featuring award-winning investigative reporting and news analysis.'

Tools

Trainings and conferences

Civility and anti-bullying resource list prepared by Extension staff nationwide (Nov. 2016).

Currently, people of color make up about 12 percent of Iowa's population; by 2040 this percentage is expected to increase to about 25 percent. With this growing diversity in population, Iowa has also seen an increase in racial inequities as it pertains to economic, social, educational, and environmental indicators. Learn more about these current racial disparities by visiting the National Equity Atlas or view an overview of inequities in Iowa put together in 2016 by a team member here. Reversing the trends of rising inequality in Iowa and ensuring that everyone can prosper with dignity and free from oppression are critical to building a strong economy and communities for all Iowans in the decades to come.  In this section you will find resources specific to learning more about racial inequities in Iowa as well as trainings and events offered in Iowa.

Trainings, Courses, and Events

News and Articles

At Iowa State University Extension and Outreach the Agriculture and Natural Resources (ANR) division currently reaches and supports thousands of people each year.  Now imagine if not only ANR, but all of ISU Extension and Outreach and all land-grant university Extension programs across the country were to make explicitly one of their core values and goals to dismantle interpersonal and structural racism in our communities? When systematic inequities are dismantled we will all thrive, have greater economic prosperity, and more easily fulfill the other goals of our Extension organizations.  Cooperative Extension has the potential to be a powerful, positive change agent for this purpose -- by acknowledging and correcting our current and past history of structural racism within our own institutions, including systematically excluding relevant programming to certain parts of our populations, we could then move to applying an equity lens to all our programs of work.  In this section you will find resources and articles from people working for Cooperative Extension that share ideas and reflections for how to begin to do just this.

  • Thinking ‘Outside the Box’ for Justice-Centered Food Security Work: Considerations for Cooperative Extension.
    "However, conference discussions did lead to recommendations for moving forward including: Flipping our accountability structure by allowing those we serve to evaluate our work; Examining our history; Involving more youth; Seeing ourselves as community organizers; Changing our funding structures to pay our collaborators; and partner with larger social justice campaigns (i.e. living wage campaign). What is encouraging is that these questions align well with current research in the field of food justice.  Also, Levkoe (2011) and Passidomo (2014) provide convincing arguments for “moving beyond food” to connect with broader social justice issues that address the root causes of food insecurity."
  • Race, ethnicity, and the promise of “good food” for Michigan: A three-voice commentary.  A commentary that offers three perspectives from a land-grant university (campus staff, field extension staff, and graduate student), outlining structural racism in the local food movement, identifying the potential promise of the Michigan Good Food Charter to address racial equity issues in the food system, and suggesting tools that land-grant university food system researchers and educators can use to begin to understand structural racism.
  • eXtension hosted trainers from The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond who led attendees through “Undoing Racism in Our Food Security” Work”
    • Read a post about the training.  
  • Structural Racism and Food Inequity.
    "This webinar will discuss the past, current and future work at NC A&T State University as a part of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) to address food systems inequities. The discussion will cover our history of youth work and community engagement in eastern North Carolina as well as statewide efforts and national engagement with organizations like the Inter-Institutional Network for Food and Agricultural Sustainability (INFAS) and the Center for Social Inclusion (CSI) as well as the WK Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) to build shared language, a shared analysis and frame for food equity using race as a lens."
  • Implementing Equity in our Food Systems Work: Considerations for Cooperative Extension.
    "According to the National Equity Atlas, in 1980, America was 80% white. By 2044, the U.S. will be comprised of a majority people of color, the segment of our country that has historically been most limited in access to resources and opportunity (National Equity Atlas, 2014). The longevity of Extension deeply depends on our obligation to sustaining that mission as it relates to the shifting landscape of our country. The commitment to addressing structural racism in the food system along with the successful model of LGU partnership through CEFS, NCA&TSU is poised to anchor genuine relationship building, centering the communities we serve to develop long-term solutions that will transform systemic conditions."
  • Are you or your org guilty of Trickle-Down Community Engagement? from Nonprofit With Balls
  • Find general resources about anti-bullying, anti-racism, and diversity programming put forth by other land grant university Extension groups from one of our blog posts here.  These resources could be incorporated into any local food system programming.

Where do I go from here?

Many of us are striving to make a difference in our communities, yet, as highlighted in the resources above, we may be unaware of systems of inequity at play that turn the best of intentions into ineffective or even harmful outcomes for some. When defining your food system and the changes you are hoping to see, it is vital to create an inclusive space that considers the realities of institutional and structural racism and your community’s own history and diversity (including class, age, race, class, gender, sexual identity, religion, and other social identifiers). Education and engagement with a wide range of people in your community about their needs, vision, and connection to the food system is a great next step. By having these conversations and becoming an ally (amplifying their voices and words, not speaking for or over them!) to marginalized people in your community, who often don’t have a voice or vote in food system development, you can begin to work together to create positive systemic change for the community as a whole.

It is also important to note that dismantling racism in our local and broader food system will be a long and difficult process that will require participation by all of us. More than ever it is important that food system work is not done in a silo, but rather in partnership with allies working for equitable education, affordable housing, accessible healthcare, sustainable local economies, fair labor standards and workers’ rights, equitable transportation, and beyond, as these systems are all bound to one another, just as all of our humanity is.

Interested in continuing this conversation in your own community? Contact Caitlin Szymanski (szy@iastate.edu) about support for facilitating a conversation around equity, structural racism, and justice in the your food system and learning how to apply an “equity lens” to the work you do.