Fresh Produce, Clean Water, and Social Justice: How are They Connected?

Increasingly, the ability to easily obtain fresh produce and clean water is becoming somewhat of a privilege, rather than a given, in highly rural and urban areas, as the recent high-profile stories in Flint, Michigan, and Cannonball, North Dakota, demonstrate. I’m not just thinking of these kinds of extreme cases, of course, but also of the prevalence of food deserts and food stamp dependence among the working poor. When a lack of availability is coupled with people’s shopping and eating habits, however, it becomes a more complicated issue. In fact, Heather Gilligan argues, the issue runs deeper than that—toward the bigger issue of working class poverty, itself.

Rather than bite off more than we can proverbially chew, though, let’s consider the possibilities of systemic change and how things like access to fresh food can at least make available the option of changing one’s eating habits. Take, for example, the buy local movement, which has been greatly influenced by the local food movement. In fact, its momentum seems to be tied, in part, to the popularity of downtown farmer’s markets. Fortunately, this trend toward farm-to-table dining incorporating fresh, local produce has extended to hospital cafeterias, many of which have updated their menus to include more healthy options like whole fruit, salads, fresh-roasted vegetables and whole grains.

An essential part of social justice includes access to nutritious food like fresh produce, and the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation aspires to shake up the power structures in the areas of food production and distribution, as well as increase the representation of historically unrepresented groups in agriculture. The Global Justice Ecology Project suggests, in fact, that “The sustainable practices of these peoples and communities [the Global South] should be seen as offering the real solutions to climate change,” instead of solutions based on capitalist markets.

Obviously, this solution goes contrary to the dominant capitalist system privileging goods and services, above all else. However, the importance of reversing our priorities is imperative to making progress, in terms of sustainability. Case Western Reserve University cites Annie Muldoon in noting that “Attempts to improve social conditions may be lost if society itself lacks clean air, drinkable water and adequate food. It is quickly becoming evident that the groups who are most immediately and profoundly affected by environmental destruction are those who face multiple systems of oppression.” It is clear, when considering these factors, that social justice and sustainability are inevitably linked.

This connection is evident in some of the most prominent news stories of this last year. For example, many of the veterans who supported the Standing Rock Sioux encampment are now going to Flint, Michigan, to protest the high levels of lead contamination in the water supply there, arguing that the core issue—clean water—is connected. So what is linking these two communities? One answer is the socio-economic factor: that is, both communities are made up of a majority of working-class people of color who may sometimes struggle to make ends meet.

In a study published in Agriculture and Agricultural Science Procedia, Patrizia Longo points out the two main approaches to addressing food security: the environmental approach, which seeks to establish a sustainable food system; and the social justice approach, which aims to eliminate poverty. In it, she argues that a dual approach is most effective, and she gives the example of the Urban Farmers, an organization in Lafayette, California, that attempts to counter poverty and encourage sustainability via a community-development approach. This is why sustainability is now being seen as a social justice issue: because the two causes are inextricably connected; without environmental structures in place that allow for local, community food production, people are inevitably less able to access food because they must rely on outside sources to provide that food for them.

Thankfully, there is hope, as a result of the work that some cities have been doing to increase access to fresh food and produce. In Chicago, for example, food justice activists have opened food co-ops in neighborhoods without grocery stores—offering cooking and nutrition classes, as well, in order to help encourage local residents to make healthier food choices. And in Los Angeles, the City Council prohibited the opening of any new fast food restaurants in South L.A., an area widely considered a food desert; this action helped bring the first new fully-stocked grocery store in a decade to the area.

There’s also the work of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative and the related Partnership for a Healthier America, which has focused on the obesity crisis among youth, helping to provide more safe places to play and clean water to drink. These issues are connected, although they may not seem like it, on first glance. However, because the majority of health issues like diabetes and cardiovascular disease exist in areas with the highest rates of poverty, it’s important to establish healthy habits early in life by encouraging children to participate in regular exercise and daily physical activity.

Additionally, the National Farm to School Network (NFSN) works to bring local food sourcing and food and agriculture education into public schools. According to American Progress, the USDA reports there were 221 farm-to-school grants in 2015, and money invested in the program stimulates local economic activity, as well. Ashley Blackwell concludes, in the above report, that “Given the scope of food insecurity in households across the nation, it is critical to implement the initiatives and policies necessary to create a more equitable and sustainable food system.”

We can each take an active role in supporting policies that help local family farms and agriculture, in our communities, as well as work to educate ourselves about growing fresh produce in our own backyards and in community gardens. We must also keep abreast of legislative bills that support living wages for working families, rather than funding subsidies for big agriculture to grow more mass-produced corn and soy. Though these issues may feel insurmountable, we can also do a small part by sourcing produce from local farmers and CSAs, as well as local restaurants and grocery stores that buy from local farmers and ranchers. The expression, “Think globally, act locally,” definitely applies, here.

Image Source: Jack Thurston

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