The role of local food in food justice

Farmers selling fruits at a local market in Vietnam. Photo by Shutterstock.

Jorie Malsch and Cecilia Tortajada

UNRAVEL | July 5, 2022

Our global food system is increasingly causing devastating social and environmental impacts. A disproportionate number of populations face under-nourishment, over-nourishment and obesity, while some have far fewer struggles with nutrition. Meanwhile, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the agri-food industry are racking up at exponential rates. As of 2019, 17 billion tonnes, or 31% of worldwide anthropogenic GHGs originated from agri-food systems, up by 16% from 1990. These emissions seem even more superfluous and unnecessary as the food system is still failing to feed everyone equally. This information comes with the realisation that, by 2050, our global food system will be responsible for feeding almost 10 billion individuals.

How is food security compromised?

This big rethink is increasingly presenting itself in the form of a rise in awareness of the nuanced ways in which the food system impacts society and the environment. When certain societies are unequally impacted by various aspects of the food system, that is known as food injustice, and food justice is the movement to achieve greater access to healthy, affordable and culturally significant and appropriate food for everyone. Food justice also aims to address the disparities within the food system, as those most directly affected and disadvantaged by the food system are often from lower income areas and communities of colour, and those responsible for destructive effects are typically from more economically developed countries (MEDCs) and areas. For example, the countries ranking in the top 10 on the global food security index are majorly Westernised, MEDCs while the bottom 10 are considered less economically developed countries (LEDCs). In the US, food security, the state of having dependable access to affordable and healthy food, was found to be lowest in households with income below the poverty line, single-parent households and Black and Hispanic households. This accurately exemplifies food injustice because it demonstrates the inequalities in access to food based on race and income.

Food security and access to healthy foods are increasingly becoming dependent on one’s economic standing, rather than the fact that we all simply need nutrition to maintain our quality of life. Food injustices are seen along the food system from production to consumption. Worldwide, roughly 820 million people struggle with hunger and 650 million adults cope with obesity. The largest share of undernourished people is centralised in southern Asia, which is also home to roughly 75% of all overweight children, due to the absence of sufficient access to healthy food. In Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy, both food self-sufficiency and import dependency are at risk, and high rates of malnutrition are seen in young children as a result of extreme lack of diverse nutrition.

Local food to achieve food justice

In order to achieve global food justice, multinational and multifaceted solutions are needed. Until then, there is a growing interest in individual and community-level diet change which has become expressed through initiatives like local food. Local food is the movement which aims to incorporate mainly food from nearby, although the definition is loose and highly dependent on where one lives.

Local food celebrates the processes and methods used to produce food, and the sense of place that is enhanced through eating food that was grown nearby. Local eating used to be our only option, before the globalisation of the food system. The Industrial Revolution spurred speedy technological innovation and eventually, previously distant foods were now available at nearby supermarkets. While local food is becoming more popular in Western countries for good reasons, many Indigenous peoples have carried out their lifestyles this way for centuries and their techniques and behaviours can inform our future actions to attain food justice. In mainstream circles, Indigenous ways of life are sometimes seen as a reversal or backtracking of societal advancements. These practices have proven to increase population health, encourage biodiversity and feed everyone.

Fishing locally, taking advantage of native plants and produce over imported goods and subsistence farming are examples of methods employed by peoples on Pohnpei in Micronesia. In India, common traditional food practises are naturally better for the environment. Pickling and sun drying foods are methods which avoid the use of refrigeration and the generation of food waste. From production and harvesting in Micronesia to consumption and disposal in India, traditional, indigenous methods can be learned by all for the benefit of the environment. That is not to say we should dismantle the entire globalisation of the food system that we have today, but rather re-examine practises used by earlier civilisations and how they can replace commercial practises that ultimately lead to environmental degradation and food inequality.

Farmers remain at the heart of food justice

One of the main ways local food has been practised throughout human history is through the development of farmers’ markets. Farmers’ markets really exemplify the main environmental and social benefits of local food. These markets directly connect the producer to the consumer, a connection which has faded in the recent past with the hastening of our lifestyles and food systems. This addresses a key aspect of food justice, as often in lower income areas, unhealthy foods are cheaper and more available than nutritious alternatives, leading to malnourishment. Farmers’ markets are bursting with potential to address food system disparities, and can bring about effective, community-level change through the advocation of equal access to healthy products.

Not only do farmers’ markets provide access to affordable healthy food, but they facilitate social environments where community members can interact and learn from farmers and from each other. Relatedly, community-supported agriculture (CSA) furthers this relationship, by binding community members and farmers in a relationship that goes beyond financial support; enthusiasts are encouraged to get involved in farming and local distribution and share in the benefits and risks of farming as well. CSA is known to improve quality of life, community relationships and advance local economies. For lower income areas, these benefits are extremely valuable.

Achieving food justice can be significantly aided by a transition back into local foods, supporting growers, connecting with fellow community members, and re-establishing roots and sense of place. Food is an experience, a cultural celebration, and an instrument of unity, allowing us to learn from our growers, our environment, and our neighbours. Local food lifestyles allow for increased cultural representation and the decolonisation of food practises. Ultimately, local food has an important role to play in food justice, from growth methods to access and distribution.

Jorie Malsch, Graduating student at the University of Glasgow. Cecilia Tortajada, Professor in practice, School of Interdisciplinary Studies, University of Glasgow UK, and Adjunct senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

This article was published by UNREVEL, July 5, 2022.