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Breaking Down Silos to Pursue Food Justice

Updated: Dec 16, 2020


Since COVID-19 disrupted just about every aspect of food distribution, many people in the food space are talking about how we can emerge from the pandemic with new food systems that center justice. If we want to work toward this vision, we must understand the history, structures, and systems that have created the current status quo where one in four children in the United States face hunger and where Black and brown communities experience hunger at disproportionately higher rates.


“Our global food system is a paradox of abundance and injustice,” said Devita Davison, executive director of FoodLab Detroit, during a keynote address delivered October 6 to a gathering of a community of practice focused on increasing access and consumption of healthy foods, particularly for communities that have faced systemic barriers to accessing and consuming healthy food. The community currently includes 35 organizations across the U.S., working in various areas of nutrition education, benefits enrollment, and food distribution. The Walmart Foundation is funding the community to provide a space for practitioners across the sector to share learning and promising practices and identify opportunities for collective action.

Davison pointed out that in her hometown of Detroit, 40 percent of youth are overweight, 35 percent of people in Detroit live closer to a fast-food restaurant than a grocer, and these challenges disproportionately impact Black residents.


“Hunger is treated as a charity issue, but in fact it’s not a charity issue. It’s an issue of justice,” Davison said. To drill further into this point, Davison challenged the term “food desert,” which is often used to describe neighborhoods that don’t offer access to fresh and healthy foods through grocery stores, farmers markets, or other means.


A desert is a natural phenomenon, so “the desert metaphor is inappropriate for conditions deliberately created by people. It takes attention away from the injustice that is happening in these neighborhoods,” Davison said, referencing injustices such as redlining and other policy decisions that have created inequities in housing, public transportation, and other factors that connect to people’s ability to access and consume healthy foods and disproportionately impacts people of color. A more accurate term, Davison says, is food apartheid, because the decisions that led us to the current reality were deliberate and intentional.


Jose Oliva, campaigns director for HEAL Food Alliance, agrees. “The food system is not broken. It is intentionally set up to help some people succeed and some people fail,” Oliva said during another session at the community of practice convening.


In her vision for what an alternative system could be, Davison talks about a food system with a triple bottom line—one that prioritizes not only profits, but also people and the planet.


An intersectional approach

Achieving justice in the food movement will require actors across the current system to work in entirely new ways. In its work to create a vision of equitable food systems, the HEAL Food Alliance spoke with more than 50 organizations from various parts of the food system, including rural and urban farmers, fisherfolk, farm and food chain workers, rural and urban communities, scientists, public health advocates, environmentalists, and Indigenous groups.


“Each of these sectors was siloed,” Oliva said. “We were trying to create some connective tissue amongst the various sectors across the food justice movement. We wanted to make sure people saw each other.”


HEAL Food Alliance used the input from these diverse stakeholders to create a 10-point platform that offers a vision for equitable food systems that nourish people’s health, local economies, and the environment. Each of the 10 planks of the platform offers solutions that, together, will move us toward the vision.


In addition to breaking down silos within the food system, achieving food justice will require those within the food movement to work with allies from other movements, such as organizations pushing for economic or environmental justice.


“For the food movement to succeed we have to challenge other injustices,” Davison said. “We can engage in changing the injustices of the food system by being in allyship with social movement efforts outside of the food movement. We need to be in community with people who are marginalized and work in their movements as well.”


Patterns to disrupt

In addition to breaking down silos to work in allyship with other sectors within the food movement and other movements, achieving food justice will require breaking long-held, detrimental patterns, policies, and practices. During the community of practice convening, representatives of organizations focused on food access and nutrition education brainstormed patterns that need to be broken and new solutions that could take their place and help build a new system that centers justice. In their conversations, they envisioned a future where policies center people over profits, relationships that are collaborative rather than competitive, and there are no silos between policymakers, practitioners, and people.


Participants named broad policy changes that are needed, including paying workers a living wage, increasing the federal benefit amount, and changing how schools receive funding so they are funded equitably. They also named practices they could adopt at an organizational level. These included things like centering community in the design of programs, ensuring organizations’ leadership is representative of the communities they serve, and changing how large organizations partner with community-based organizations so that community-based organizations are in the lead.


Learn more

The images below summarize the conversations that happened at the community of practice convening, inspired by Devita Davison’s keynote session and the HEAL Platform for REAL Food. Watch Devita Davison’s keynote session here. See the HEAL Platform for Real Food here.



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