The term “food justice” refers to the social justice work of those who seek to find reasons for food insecurity and help to find ways of providing equal access to adequately nutritious food for people of all races and classes. Often our communities, particularly in poor urban areas, have many people who cannot afford healthy food, don’t have access to it in their local neighborhoods, or do not have the knowledge or the ability to grow their own. A “food desert” refers specifically to an area where there is simply no healthy food available. There may be plenty of fast food restaurants and party stores, or even very basic supermarkets, but access to food that would provide a healthy diet is hard to come by or may be prohibitively expensive. A food desert can also mean a lack of knowledge about healthy food or a deficiency of the financial means to acquire it. This type of food desert has also been more appropriately named a food swamp, due to fact that there are healthy options available, but due to marketing and a lack of nutritional education, people often make unhealthy food choices.
We live in a time and place in our world where food is plentiful, yet food-like substances are much more prevalent, convenient, and readily available. It takes time, effort, and knowledge to prepare healthy meals, and many people often choose convenience over nutrition, but will end up paying with their health rather than their pocketbooks. Many in our country have few choices as to where they can even obtain their food, and may lack the transportation needed to get to a grocery store and often have a very limited income. A large portion of the people who live these situations reside in impoverished areas, in both urban and rural settings. Although there are typically larger concentrations of people living in cities, those who live in the country may also struggle to find access to nutritious foods.
The logistical problem with the existence of food deserts in urban areas is not so much an issue of finding places that sell food items, but rather gaining access to stores that sell food at a reasonable price. Many of us have had the experience of searching for a place to find a snack while traveling, or during a visit to an unfamiliar place. Even in the smallest cities, one can find a convenience store every five or six blocks, and most gas stations sell quite a variety of processed, packaged food items. With these types of food choices, there is little to no nutrition to be gained; only empty calories, preservatives, and excessive amounts of salt and fat. These types of foods may satisfy your taste buds, but your digestive system, your heart, and brain will probably suffer. Today, there isn’t even much supervision over the 10,000 or so food additives that are “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA, which mostly relies on the word of food manufacturers to ensure safety.
Many of the chemicals and food additives that are used to extend the shelf life of convenience foods may have serious detrimental effects on the human body, and may contribute to a variety of health issues, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even cancer. Recent studies in the field of nutrigenomics have revealed that there’s an important interaction between diet and genomic expression, which has much to do with how our cells respond in the environments we provide for them, both within and without. We are finding more and more that we really should Let food by thy medicine, and medicine be thy food, as Hippocrates proposed so very long ago.
With the prevalence of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and a growing number of other various degenerative diseases and genetic disorders that many are plagued with today, it is imperative that we examine and reconsider the foods we are purchasing. For the millions who live in food deserts or food swamps, this will be no easy task. Many are still unaware that the quick and easy food choices they make are seriously affecting their overall health and well-being. This is where those who are concerned about food justice can help make a difference. We can help establish, promote, and expand upon community gardens where we live. We can grow food in backyard gardens and share produce with neighbors, help educate others about how our food choices affect overall health, and work to bring better food options into communities where healthy options may be scarce and convenience foods are more heavily marketed.
Furthermore, as we progress more and more toward the full legalization of marijuana and hemp in our country, we can work toward and hope that people of all economic classes will soon be able to grow these plants for medicinal use, nutrition, and entrepreneurial opportunities. Anyone with even a small amount of land could cultivate hemp to use the seeds for food, and could even process the stalks to use for fiber and paper, if grown in large enough quantities. Though even if grown in small amounts, the hemp seed provides a sufficient source of protein for vegetarians, and provides all of the essential fatty and amino acids necessary for the body’s various cellular and genomic functions. So, let’s work together for the cause of food justice, and a more complete social, nutritional and economic justice for all!