Faith and Food Justice: Food Access

This is part two of a short series on faith and food justice. For Part 1, Faith and Food Justice: Are We Asking the Right Questions?, click here.

Even the most well-constructed food systems fail sometimes. In a food crisis, like a family member facing sudden unemployment or a drought causing a regional shortage in supply, we should be prepared to share our bread with the hungry. Persistent hunger, however, is a product of food systems that consistently fail to provide for certain people. To deal with that, we need to ask why people do not have access to food, and to grasp how people have been excluded from those systems. As we look at those underlying causes, we will come to realize that it is not enough to share our food, but that we must also challenge structures that are creating a lack of food access for people. The goal is to have a food system that allows people to have long-term food security, where every family has the ability to put food on the table for themselves at every meal.

Thus, for food justice, we cannot stop the conversation at the point of charity. In fact, relying on charitable donations to overcome these types of systemic failures will not only be unsuccessful, it can actually become detrimental to the broader changes that need to be made. We need to focus instead on the ways that our food system fails, and how we can repair our food system to create long-term, sustainable change.

A good food system involves everyone participating and contributing so that they are truly involved in the system, not simply reliant upon it as recipients of outside assistance. This is why cheap or donated food can actually undermine the development of a local agricultural economy, which is needed to provide food and jobs for the people who live there.  Related to this, agricultural and trade policies can make it difficult or impossible for farmers in lower-income nations to compete with those from richer countries. Subsidies that allow U.S. farming operations to sell their products at well below cost, as well as trade terms that make it easier for them to export their goods to other countries, make it difficult for businesses that have to sell their profits above their actual costs to make a profit. Thus, local food economies - which can produce both food and jobs for a country in a more environmentally sustainable way - are severely hindered.

A good food system also must take into account someone’s ability to actually purchase food. Unemployment and underemployment - where people may have work, but not enough for basic living costs - are constant major contributors to persistent hunger. Access to the food system is contingent upon access to the economic system, and without a job or income, people cannot buy food. Particularly in areas with widespread persistent unemployment and/or low wages that are insufficient for housing, food, and other human needs, food justice requires economic justice.

The quality of what people are able to bring to the table matters also to an equitable food system. Not everything we eat and call food truly sustains us and makes us healthier. Soda, fast food, candy, chips, and other food items may provide calories, but they do not provide nutrition. The inability to get real food - like fresh vegetables and whole grains - has significant consequences on our body's health. What we eat makes a major difference in our quality of life. However, for many people, that type of food is simply out of reach. If you are trying to survive on a very low income, the cheaper alternatives are much easier to come by - that 99 cent burger is the quickest and easiest way to deal with hunger.

But those alternatives are not truly cheaper; their sticker price excludes a wide variety of costs. That includes agricultural subsidies, which are paid for through taxes; environmental costs from industrial operations and from transporting food long distances, which affect all of us but particularly low-income communities; and increased healthcare costs which tax our medical system and also end up affecting everyone. By making unhealthy food artificially cheaper, these aspects of our food system are actually hurting all of us, since we are all making food decisions based on the price we see in front of us, not the real costs to ourselves and to our society. Even when affordable, it may not always be available, particularly in urban minority neighborhoods and rural areas. These areas are often referred to as "food deserts." This does not mean that these communities do not have any type of food available - in fact, urban food deserts often have more fast food restaurants than other communities. What it does mean is that there is a lack of quality food - they have fewer, and inferior, grocery stores where people can buy fresh, affordable produce and other nutritious, healthy food. The result is major negative health impacts on these communities, including higher risks of diabetes, heart disease, and other nutrition-related illnesses.

While the problems may seem overwhelming, there are many organizations that are addressing these problems. For example, The Center for a Livable Future, and particularly the Baltimore Food and Faith Project, are just two of the resources available for people and congregations who want to better understand the full impact of what they eat, the policies that shape those food systems, and how we can create change in those systems. We should be supportive and involved with efforts like East Balitmore’s Apples and Oranges Fresh Market which recently opened with the goal of providing "better food for a better community" in an area that has traditionally been underserved by healthy food outlets.

To eat in the presence of food justice, everyone must be able to put quality nutritious food on their table - and to make that happen, we must ask why our food systems are failing to provide for everyone, and then act to change them. We can change the structures that exclude people from our current food systems, and we can join in and participate with those who are already doing so. When we do, we will actively be bringing hope into the world of that table where all peoples will enjoy a rich feast.

-Steve Holt is an Anglican priest serving the city of Baltimore, as well as a Director of Community Engagement with Citizens Planning and Housing Association (CPHA). He is a former organizer with Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) in Los Angeles, and a 2012 graduate of Fuller Seminary, where he received his Master of Divinity.