Community Food Justice: An Interview with Garrett Broad
We think and write about justice issues a lot here at Nursing Clio: social justice, reproductive justice, criminal justice, and environmental justice, to name just a few. As our blog’s resident food historian, I think a lot about food justice, which aims to promote a fair and equitable food system for all, but most particularly for marginalized communities. I recently had the chance to chat with Garrett Broad, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University, about his 2016 book, More Than Just Food: Food Justice and Community Change. Broad writes that the food justice movement emerged as a response to not only the injustice of the industrial food system, but also that of the alternative food movement, which all too often does little to address racial and economic exploitation in its approach to promoting “good food.”
Although food justice employs some of the same strategies as alternative food — community and school gardens, produce markets, nutrition education — these efforts are situated within more expansive social change efforts led by and for low-income communities of color. These are the communities most profoundly affected by the inequalities embedded within our current system of food production, distribution, consumption, and waste management. Embracing the important premise of the movement, Broad set out to critically examine how food justice actually functions: its limitations and contradictions, as well as its strengths and potential for truly changing the food system.
Emily: I want to start in a somewhat obvious place with the title of your book, More Than Just Food. You also open the book with this rousing quote from former Black Panther Party Chief of Staff, David Hilliard: “We’ve always been involved in food, because food is a very basic necessity, and it’s the stuff that revolutions are made of.”1 What is this “more than” aspect of food justice? How has it been revolutionary in the past, and how can it be moving forward?
Garrett: A good place to start is by examining the lack of revolutionary thought that often permeates contemporary food activism. Too often, efforts to improve health and sustainability in the food system are grounded in what I call a “magic carrot” approach — if only kids could see where their carrots come from, watch it grow from seed, and then eventually harvest and eat that carrot, then almost like magic they will forever be committed to healthy eating. And not only that, their excitement about healthy food will transform the health of their families and communities!
The fact of the matter, of course, is there are no magic carrots. This isolated focus on food and food alone overlooks the structural barriers that children and families face in their desire to lead healthy lives — substandard living conditions, underemployment, racial and gender-based discrimination, to name a few.
Saying our focus should be on more than just food means that we need to understand how food inequity results from broader social inequity, and from there identify how food can be used as an avenue to combat social injustice. This is why the Black Panther Party, as one example, had a variety of food-based community “survival programs,” including an extensive free breakfast for children initiative, both as a way to provide basic nourishment for their people but also as a tool to organize the community. And we can look at a variety of other uprisings throughout global history — from the French Revolution to recent unrest in Venezuela — that have put food at the center but have really been about broader economic and political power struggles.
Emily: At the same time, food justice is about food, specifically, intimately, and directly. Your interviews are full of folks speaking about food as “a vehicle,” “a bridge,” and “a lens” to these “more than just food” aspects of food justice activism. We make similar kinds of claims as food studies scholars too. Why do you study food?
Garrett: Food cuts across so many topics that can otherwise appear disconnected. Addressing the problems of our food system means engaging in conversations about public health, the economy, environment, immigration, our treatment of animals, technological innovation, community, family, and so much more. I don’t think there is necessarily a single way to fix all of these issues at once, but food offers as holistic an entry point as I’ve ever found, and that excites me as both a scholar and an advocate. It’s also quite tangible and generative – everyone has an opinion on food, everyone wants to enjoy good food, everyone wants food to be produced in a way that is fair and ecologically sustainable. There are obviously huge disagreements on what those terms really mean, but food gives us a common starting point that few other issues present.
Emily: To dive further into the book, I appreciated how you place the food justice movement within “the nonprofit industrial complex” and what you call “the age of neoliberalism.” You reveal the ways in which even the most radical of grassroots organizations — including your main case study, Community Services Unlimited, founded as the nonprofit arm of the Southern California Black Panther Party — “still remain deeply embedded in networked relationships that connect them to partners and allies from varied ideological and institutional backgrounds, including members of the very entities that activists hope to undermine or transform.”2 How does historicizing, charting, and analyzing the complex networks that make up and surround these community organizations help to forge a path forward for effective food justice activism?
Garrett: It’s important to remember that there is no purity in activism. We live in an intensely networked society that makes for complicated and sometimes contradictory connections. This is particularly the case when you admit that organizations need money to operate, and that money tends to be concentrated in many of the governmental and corporate entities that have created much of the social injustice activists are working to overturn.
I’ve often seen this uneasy reality glossed over or outright denied by activists, but this approach seems counterproductive to me. Organizations often end up losing their viability because they remain too ideologically committed to a form of pure anti-capitalist activism, or they feel guilty and ashamed when they engage in a partnership or create a program that activist colleagues see as not pure enough.
This is not to say that all concerns about ethics and co-optation should be thrown out the window. But having a more realistic assessment of the networked context allows activist groups to make more informed decisions about what their priorities are, what lines they are not willing to cross, and how they can best advance their goals in a less-than-ideal landscape.
Emily: Lastly, you uniquely identify storytelling as a central aspect of successful food justice work. You address how food justice organizers often deprioritize and struggle with public relations, cultural branding, digital media strategy, and collaboration with TV news outlets. This limits organizations’ ability to amplify their messages, garner visibility and support beyond the local level, and to compete for attention and funding in an increasingly crowded food media space.
At the same time, you charge journalists et al. to resist telling reductionist, surface level, feel good stories and to do the work of reporting food justice activism in all its complexity. What examples have you seen of effective food justice storytelling by food justice organizations themselves and by media outlets that get this storytelling right? What advice would you give writers for how they can cover food justice more effectively and respectfully?
Garrett: I think we still have a long way to go, because journalistic norms about what is newsworthy tend to focus on the sensational at the expense of nuance, and tend to overlook the voices of everyday people in favor of purported experts (like me!). The Minneapolis-based food justice group Appetite For Change produced a great hip-hop video back in 2016 called “Grow Food” that got a lot of play on social media. I think it was successful because you could tell it really emerged from the lives and interests of the young people involved, but it also had a high production value.
In terms of media outlets, Civil Eats and Grist have done a nice job of covering the intersection of food, farming, and labor issues for some time. I appreciate the work of Tamar Haspel in the Washington Post and have been happy to see some good food policy writing in outlets that are not explicitly about food, including some great analysis in the relatively new online magazine Current Affairs. There are also lots of good podcasts worth keeping up with, including The Sporkful and The Racist Sandwich.
My advice to journalists? Beware of stories that are too good to be true, take time to listen to the perspectives of people who have been historically marginalized in the food system, and stay evidence-based.
Emily Contois is Associate Professor of Media Studies at The University of Tulsa. She is the author of Diners, Dudes & Diets: How Gender & Power Collide in Food Media & Culture (2020) and co-editor of Food Instagram: Identity, Influence & Negotiation (2022). She completed her PhD in American Studies at Brown University and holds an MA in American Studies from Brown, an MPH focused in Public Health Nutrition from the University of California, Berkeley, and an MLA in Gastronomy from Boston University.