More Than Just Food: Food Justice and Community Change

More Than Just Food: Food Justice and Community Change

by Garrett Broad

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The industrial food system has created a crisis in the United States that is characterized by abundant food for privileged citizens and “food deserts” for the historically marginalized. In response, food justice activists based in low-income communities of color have developed community-based solutions, arguing that activities like urban agriculture, nutrition education, and food-related social enterprises can drive systemic social change. Focusing on the work of several food justice groups—including Community Services Unlimited, a South Los Angeles organization founded as the nonprofit arm of the Southern California Black Panther Party—More Than Just Food explores the possibilities and limitations of the community-based approach, offering a networked examination of the food justice movement in the age of the nonprofit industrial complex.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520962569
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 02/09/2016
Series: California Studies in Food and Culture , #60
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 296
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Garrett M. Broad is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University.

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More Than Just Food

Food Justice and Community Change

By Garrett M. Broad, Darra Goldstein


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96256-9


Networks, Narratives, and Community Action

From the #Occupy movement to the Arab Spring, from the #BlackLivesMatter protests to the Spanish Indignados, the last several years have seen a host of high-profile mass demonstrations take shape in cities and towns across the United States and around the world. "By sharing sorrow and hope in the free public space of the Internet, by connecting to each other, and by envisioning projects from multiple sources of being," social theorist Manuel Castells described, "individuals formed networks, regardless of their personal views or organizational attachments. They came together" (2). Scholars and activists have pointed to several common qualities across these twenty-first century mobilizations: they have been leaderless and horizontal in nature; they have been spontaneously linked by networked technologies and social media platforms like Twitter; and they have leveraged digital tools to occupy public space in the name of populist revolution, be it the overthrow of neoliberal global financial systems, the upending of oppressive governments, or the deconstruction of racist regimes of policing.

This book, however, is not about these spontaneous mass demonstrations. Not because I deem them unimportant or because I consider their concerns and organizing practices to be disconnected from those of the food justice movement. Quite the contrary, food justice activism actually intersects in substantive ways with these mass protest movements — their actions are similarly rooted in anger toward corporate and government failure, digital technologies play a central role in shaping their respective coordination strategies, and the transformation of public space is fundamental to their missions. Still, More Than Just Food does not focus on spontaneous mass mobilization because years of observation and participation in food justice organizing has shown me that this is simply not where the energy of the movement has been centered. Instead, the practitioners I have encountered have maintained a focus on the slow and steady of work of promoting food justice through the development of programs at the level of the local community — building farms and gardens, developing youth education and job training initiatives, and creating social enterprises that bring good food into neighborhoods (most often their own) that have lacked healthy and affordable options for decades.

Community Services Unlimited (CSU), based in South Los Angeles, offers as an operative example of this community-focused approach. The food injustice faced by the local residents with whom the organization collaborates is the product of decades and centuries of systemic discrimination and disinvestment on local, national, and international scales. Today, through a host of networked partnerships and shared funding sources, as well as through common narratives and shared visions of food system transformation, CSU considers its work to be part of a larger movement for food justice. It is linked to a number of other operations engaged in this field of activism — including the Social Justice Learning Institute in nearby Inglewood, California; Growing Power in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network in Michigan; and even partners in Oaxaca, Mexico, and as far as Johannesburg, South Africa. As I will explore in greater detail in chapter 2, these initiatives have emerged not only in response to the failures of the contemporary food system but also in response to an inadequate alternative food movement, one that has done an insufficient job of incorporating the needs and knowledge of residents and leaders from low-income neighborhoods and communities of color into its agenda. Importantly, these food justice groups have all been bound by a common assumption that, even though many of the challenges they face are shaped by global economic and political forces, community-based food projects offer a unique and viable entry point to build an effective form of resistance. The food justice activists highlighted in this book, therefore, have not turned toward mass protest mobilization as a primary prong of their agenda but rather cultivated a strategy of building local nonprofit organizations to bolster community-based capacity and effect sustainable change.

How is it — in an age of globalized injustice and digital tools for mass communication — that community-based strategies of organizing such as this have continued to persist? With a review of relevant theory and practice related to the dynamics of neoliberalism, networked social movements, and community organizing, this chapter works to contextualize this very question. With this review in place, I then introduce a set of working principles for sustainable change in the domain of community-based food justice. These evidence-based criteria are intended to provide a framework for evaluating both the efficacy and limitations of food-related initiatives in the modern age. The chapter continues with a discussion of the communication ecology perspective, which has guided my research process, as I argue that ethnographic attention to the networked action and narrative practices of community-based organizations allows for an in-depth understanding of their change-making capacity. The chapters that follow then apply this research approach and use these evaluative criteria to investigate the power, possibility, and constraints of food justice organizing today, documenting the hybridity of community-based food justice work in the globalized, digital age.


The twenty-first century is understood as a novel historical conjuncture, one rife with both crisis and opportunity. The international community undoubtedly faces a set of intersecting, boundary-crossing, and existential risks related to health, the environment, and the economy. Concurrently, global society and the tools of digital technology have been highlighted as central to tackling these crises, as they provide the necessary networking power to promote social change and empower social movements on national and international scales.

While many scholars and practitioners interested in the dynamics of social change have understandably focused their attention on macro-level social movements and protests in recent years, others have actually called for an increased focus on the local community as a site where the challenges and risks of global society are experienced and addressed. In providing a rationale for his focus on the way a neighborhood affects the health of its population, for instance, the distinguished social scientist Robert Sampson has argued that "macrolevel processes are lived locally and experienced on the ground in everyday life" (62). Similarly, scholars such as Sandra Ball-Rokeach and Lewis Friedland have suggested that, within the context of twenty-first century global society, the local community remains a privileged site for analyzing real-world communicative activity and the machinations of democratic life and civic engagement. Along with a host of colleagues, these and other researchers have urged scholars to take a multilevel and ecological approach to the study of social change, recognizing that macro-level forces — like major media systems, government policy, and global economics — both shape and are reshaped by community-level factors, including community-based organizations, local media storytellers, and individuals, in their networks of interpersonal connections.

Throughout Western democracies in the last several decades, the scholarly interest in community action has been energized by the proliferation of community-based nonprofit organizations committed to improving the health and well-being of residents at the local level. In the United States, of course, the tradition of localized voluntary and civic associations has deep roots. Chronicled by the likes of the French dignitary Alexis de Tocqueville in the early part of the nineteenth century, Americans have long looked to the Jeffersonian principles of self-governance and the model of New England town hall meetings as examples of community self-sufficiency and its merits. This commitment has persisted over time, and while the early twentieth century was characterized by massive, albeit unevenly distributed, national investments through New Deal social programs, decision-makers in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century have increasingly placed faith in a combination of market forces and decentralized social policy in order to engender prosperity, with community-based actors playing a major role in this process.

Social theorist Michel Foucault referred to this decentralizing strategy as "governance at a distance," a primary political philosophy at the heart of what he termed neoliberal governmentality. Today, most of us take for granted the notion that a government will be interested in — and actively devote resources to — promoting the health and well-being of its population. Yet, as Foucault explained, it was not until the nineteenth century that these "biopolitical" concerns emerged as central to the art of government. Around this time, nations began to draw upon vast amounts of newly available biostatistical data — birth rates, causes of mortality, environmental impacts, and the like — and started to use this information to monitor, regulate, and influence the health behavior of various social groups. Yet in the era of the post-welfare state, during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, national governments in Western democracies rolled back their emphasis on centralization and direct biopolitical intervention, favoring instead a neoliberal strategy that delegated administrative power to lower levels of local and community-based action. As theorist Nikolas Rose explained, in this contemporary context, potential solutions to biopolitical risks are indeed championed by major political institutions and macro-level nongovernmental organizations, but the solutions they proffer are most often administered through indirect means. In other words, biopolitical interventions intended to advance health, equity, or sustainability are rarely carried out primarily by any central state institution but are rather designed and managed by organizations and individuals that operate at the level of the geographic or cultural community.

The next chapter of this book will explore in significant depth the ascendance of this type of biopolitical community-based programming in the domain of food justice. But to provide a preliminary example of how this has taken shape, consider the fact that, in recent years, federal officials in the US government have become concerned that low-income Americans do not eat enough fruits and vegetables to be healthy. As one potential solution to this problem, the federal department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has looked for ways to improve access to fresh produce in low-income communities. Rather than creating and deploying a centralized and uniform national food access plan, however, the HHS has funded coalitions of organizations and researchers that create food access programs that are specific to their own local contexts. In 2011, for instance, CSU was awarded nearly $200,000 in grant funds from HHS to bolster its produce distribution social enterprise in South Los Angeles. "Expanding this program will further increase access to high quality, affordable produce, support local farmers, and improve local corner markets," the project description read. Since funded organizations are required to evaluate the impacts of their interventions through a variety of research strategies, in the years to come, HHS will be able to analyze the results from its numerous investments with several key questions in mind: Which local programs were most successful at encouraging low-income residents to eat more healthy foods? Which programs proved to be the most cost-effective? How should these findings influence the future funding, research, and policymaking priorities of both the government and businesses? This is neoliberal governmentality in action.

In the United States and elsewhere, the last half-century has seen the governmental philosophy of neoliberalism come to fruition through the deployment of policies and programs that promote its ideals in government, business, and civil society. Importantly, my use of the theoretical term neoliberalism here should not to be confused with the colloquial term liberal, which is commonly employed in American political parlance to refer to social progressives or simply the Democratic Party. Instead, neoliberalism is used to describe an influential political and economic philosophy of the modern age that encourages the marketization of social life, a movement toward widespread privatization, and a cultural commitment to decentralized and individualized self-sufficiency. In the eyes of scholar Wendy Brown, neoliberal rationality involves "extending and disseminating market values to all institutions and social action, even as the market itself remains a distinctive player" (7, emphasis in original). Policymaking in this context is characterized by an assumption that individuals are always calculating, rational actors — members of the species homo economicus — whose entrepreneurial abilities and decision-making capacities make them wholly responsible for their station in life.

Those who espouse a neoliberal philosophy argue that their laissez-faire form of government is the ultimate expression of freedom and liberty, as it grants faith in individuals and on-the-ground nongovernmental institutions to make the most prudent decisions that will ultimately optimize well-being among the broader population. Such a claim is harshly rebuffed by critics of neoliberalism, including scholar David Harvey, who has argued that "the freedoms it embodies reflect the interests of private property owners, businesses, multinational corporations, and financial capital" (7). Authors who write in this critical vein have little optimism that the values of neoliberalism have any value at all, and they suggest that there is little possibility for social justice and social change unless neoliberal capitalism itself is destroyed.

While sympathetic to the thrust of these critical arguments, in my estimation, theorists such as Brown and Harvey at times lean toward an overdetermined and suffocating interpretation of neoliberalism. That is to say, they exhibit a tendency to overemphasize the totalizing influence of neoliberalism's market-based logic on individuals and communities, while overzealously dismissing the capacity for social justice activism to endure from within this landscape. It is for this reason that, throughout this book, I consciously refer to the broader political and economic era in which we reside not simply as neoliberalism but as the age of neoliberalism, a minor rephrasing that I believe maintains space for alternative forms of resistance and a level of optimism regarding potential social justice advocacy. In this context, the neoliberal values described above certainly play a central role in shaping our social and economic lives and, quite often, in marginalizing struggles for social justice. Still, neoliberalism remains subsumed within a broader context that actually motivates oppositional modes of philosophy and practice. For those with a stake in social justice, then, it means that although activist efforts will be inherently constructed in constant conversation with neoliberalism, they need not be fully determined by neoliberal ideology.

As evidence of how this landscape takes shape, recent decades have seen policy and cultural shifts that incentivize not only the individual initiative and self-regulation most often associated with neoliberal logic but also efforts that advance community-based economic development, localized service provision, and community organizing. What urban theorist Jennifer Wolch termed a "shadow state" of voluntary service organizations and community-based nonprofit groups has burgeoned. These efforts are funded largely by public money from the government, in combination with the endowments of major foundations, donor support, and, increasingly, revenue production derived from nonprofit social enterprises. As Nikolas Rose has explained, in this context, "society is to be regenerated, and social justice to be maximized, through the building of responsible communities, prepared to invest in themselves. And in the name of community, a whole variety of groups and forces make their demands, wage their campaigns, stand up for their rights and enact their resistances" (136).


Excerpted from More Than Just Food by Garrett M. Broad, Darra Goldstein. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations Acknowledgments
Introduction: Food Justice and Community Change
1 • Networks, Narratives, and Community Action
2 • Food Systems, Food Movements, Food Justice
3 • In a Community Like This
4 • The Youth Food Justice Movement
5 • From the Black Panthers to the USDA
6 • Competing Visions and the Food Justice Brand
Appendix: A Note on Theory and Method

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