Inequities in the Food System

F2S2Through 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 local 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.

*Disclaimer: The views of the resources below are not necessarily the views of those in the FFED 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.


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 beginning educational tools to dismantle it.

Racism/white privilege in the food system

Impacts of Racism in the Food System, from Center for Environmental Food Systems at North Carolina State University.

A Reading List for Learning About Anti-Black Racism and Food, from Epicurious (2020).

Building the Case for Racial Equity in the Food System, Center for Social Inclusion (2014) offers a great overview of how the food system 'works for some, but fails for too many of us'. Not only does it highlight inequities in the food system, but it also lays out some steps to reach an equitable food system.

Racial Inequity in the Food System (2019) is a blog post from the National Young Farmers Coalition. The writers offer some thoughts and resources for reckoning with white supremacy and working towards racial justice as farmers and organizers. Links to additional resources are available at the end of the post.

Racial Equity in the Farm Bill, an NSAC blog post series which explores how the next Farm Bill can advance racial equity in food and agriculture. The first post discusses the historical context and foundations for racial inequities with the food system. The second post speaks to some of the present-day issues that farmers of color and farm/food advocates face, as well as the policies that USDA has put into place to amend its wrongdoing. The third post propose some solutions and examine what institutional changes are needed to achieve greater racial equity in the 2018 Farm Bill and beyond.

The Farm Bill Report: Corporate Power and Structural Racialization in the US Food System, The Haas Institute (2016) is a more detailed analyses of how the Farm Bill had historically favored corporate control over marginalized communities.  

An Annotated Bibliography on Structural Racism Present in the U.S. Food System: Fifth Edition - MSU Center for Regional Food Systems (2015). The bibliography is an extensive overview of the current research on structural racism in the food system. The Center released a fifth edition in December of 2017. 

Food First works "to end the injustices that cause hunger through research, education and action.  On their website, you will find A TON of resources on food justice and equity in the food system, including a series on Black Agrarianism.

Beyond Access: What the Movement for Black Lives’ Policy Says About Food, a ‘Vision for Black Lives’ centers and amplifies the voices of Black food justice organizers from across the country by J. Ama Mantey.

Structural Racialization and Food Insecurity in the United States report by the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society.

Leaders of Color Discuss Structural Racism and White Privilege in the Food System, by Civil Eats.  Raj Patel is one of the leaders featured who shares this powerful message: "What I miss in the U.S. food movement is an urgent sense of history. History about the soil on which local food is grown. About the blood of first nations and slaves in that soil. About the legacy of settler colonialism that lets some folk obsess over kale while those harvesting it can’t afford to buy it. Local food tastes great but won’t end white supremacy. It’s high time we talked about white supremacy and used that language. It may be uncomfortable, but can anyone reasonably expect a discussion about power, colonialism, and race to be anything except uncomfortable? We need the admission before the healing can begin."

Walking the Path towards Community Ownership: Lessons from the D.C. Food System: People with lived experience of food insecurity are routinely excluded in the planning and execution of programs and policies intended to “serve” them. This webinar explores “Community In-reach” and “Community In-roads” as strategies for shifting power into the hands of people of color and low income residents, while building pathways for community ownership of food programs and policies. DC Greens staff also share lessons the organization has learned about incorporating community ownership principles and practices into internal operations.

Journal articles:

To the American food justice movements: A critique that is also an offering by Marcelo Felipe Garzo Montalvo is one of 24 articles you can find available for free in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Systems summer 2015 edition - Collected Commentaries on Race and Ethnicity.

The Unbearable Whiteness of Milk: Food Oppression and the USDA by Andrea Freeman; after reading the aforementioned you may appreciate reading about recent efforts to dismantle some discrimination at the USDA in the article, The Man Working to Bring Equality to the Food System.

What does it mean to do food justice? by Kirsten Valentine Cadieux and Rachel Slocum. This journal article provides a literature review and history of the terms food insecurity, food justice, and food sovereignty - and discusses how both scholars, practitioners, and the social movements have put these terms into practice. It highlights four characteristics for doing food justice.


The Color of Food: Stories of Race, Resilience and Farming by Natasha Bowens

Weighing In by Julie Guthman

Cultivating Food Justice, edited by Alison Hope Alkon and Julian Agyeman


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)

Ricardo Salvador's Keynote speech at the 2016 Farm to School conference, "Making the case for a more just food system".

School Lunch Politics by Susan Levine (Book)

Why So Many Rich Kids Come to Enjoy the Taste of Healthier Foods, The Atlantic

Find data and tools to measure the depth of inequities on the National Equity Atlas. If you need help or advice navigating the Atlas, please contact us.

Gender in the Food System

Cultivating Gender Justice backgrounder series from Food First. "In this series, we seek to uncover the structural foundations of sexism in the food system and highlight the ways people, communities, organizations, and social movements are dismantling the attitudes, institutions, and structures that hold patriarchy in place."

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.

The Hands That Feed Us, Challenges and Opportunities for Workers Along the Food Chain, report by the Food Chain Workers Alliance (2012) This report is a comprehensive review of food system workers in the U.S.A. Facts that jumped out at us: food system workers represent 15% of the US's entire workforce, and "More than 86 percent of workers surveyed reported earning low or poverty wages. Ironically, food workers face higher levels of food insecurity, or the inability to afford to eat, than the rest of the U.S. workforce. In fact, food system workers use food stamps at double the rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce."

Teens of the Tobacco Fields, Human Rights Watch (2015)

There are many resources on equity in the US 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 restaurants, 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.


  • "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)


  • 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.'


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 based on 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 systemic 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."
  • Promoting equity in local food systems through Cooperative Extension. How can we apply equity and anti-racism principles to our food system work? In answer to this question, this webinar recording provides three examples from the Cooperative Extension System of efforts to promote equity and undo racism in local food systems. These examples from North Carolina, Michigan, and Pennsylvania offer a range of experiences and strategies.
  • 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.
  • Can Diversity Extend to Ways of Knowing? Engaging Cross-Cultural Paradigms. Journal of Extension article exploring three cross-cultural academic project examples that involves participants with defined agendas who bring diverse indigenous knowledge to issues of food, medicine, and health, knowledge generally considered to lie beyond the "research base" of 1862 land-grant institutions. In the process, the gate-keeping function of the "research-base" is challenged and examined through a cultural lens. We found this article to have relevant themes related to community food system conversations of who is defining what healthy foods and diets are, for example.

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 community members, who often don’t have a voice or vote in food system development, you can begin to work together to create positive where everyone can benefit from local food systems development.

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.