Food Justice: A Primer

Food Justice: A Primer, edited by Saryta Rodríguez condenses a wide-angle view of ethical considerations surrounding the production and distribution of food into a concise collection of essays that is richly informative and thoroughly persuasive. This 239-page paperback covers a large range of topics, historical and contemporary. Each section is united by the common thread of undertaking the study “through a vegan praxis.” In other words, viewing non-human animals as deserving the same rights and dignity as people, when identifying the problematics of agriculture and proposing solutions. But this perspective should not be misunderstood as a narrowly defined scope through which to examine the topic. Rather, it is necessarily at the core of the issue and this book’s focus brings that reality to the forefront.

As the arguments put forward in each of the pieces show, food justice is not just about food; it is interconnected with many areas of life, such as how we work, our attitudes toward others, and how we perceive the world around us and affect it with our actions (or inactions). An essay by Lilia Trenkova draws bold parallels between racism as a driving force behind colonialism and neo-colonialism and speciesism—the idea that humans are superior to other animals and by extension, all manner of cruelty may be excused—as the widely unchallenged belief responsible for the inhumane treatment of animals, including their use as food. These parallels follow through their resulting effects on inequitable food supply. Just as the mercantile practices of colonial and neo-colonial countries squeeze the economies and drain resources from less developed countries, the (mis)use of land for animal agriculture significantly reduces the maximum amount of food that can be produced, and applies upward pressure on prices, thereby artificially limiting resources and increasing food costs. In another essay, Saryta Rodríguez points to data that show that cows used for beef consume twenty-five times more food than they produce. Conditions for farm workers are also netted in this equation of systemic superiority, as Trenkova dissects how racist attitudes baked into the North American Free Trade Agreement created second tier system, where laborers in Mexico and immigrants in the U.S. are not afforded the same basic rights that many American workers take for granted.

Land use is also addressed in other contexts throughout. The book’s introduction briefly describes some notable land rights campaigns including the formation of Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) in 1984 and Palestine’s Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) in 1986. The UAWC is referenced as an example of a group that fights for food sovereignty, which is under the umbrella of food justice and pertains to a peoples’ ability to choose how their food is produced, distributed, and consumed. The MST is a movement that settled people to work on unused land and was able to make legal claims on much of that land through a part of Brazil’s constitution enshrining land as serving a public function.

Among the essays, the book also includes an interview by Saryta Rodríguez with Gustavo Oliviera, a spokesperson for Occupy the Farm, which comprised of a couple hundred activist farmers who took over an unused plot of land belonging to the University of California, Berkeley that had been slated for commercial development. It is an inspiring story of grass-roots direct action that demonstrates that anyone can take part in effecting change.

Rodríguez aptly curates an enormous depth of information and perspective in this slim volume making for a well-paced read that is small enough to carry on the go. After reading this compelling compendium, one cannot ignore that achieving food justice depends on recognizing that animal agriculture is unsustainable. Therefore, the notion that a complete and internally consistent understanding of food justice has as much to do with issues of equitable supply and distribution as workers’ rights and animal rights should not be a revolutionary one.


Dale Classen is a Brooklyn-based musician and sound designer. Dale performs with the band Grim All Day and lives with two cats, Sonny and Toad. He graduated from Stony Brook University with a B.A. in psychology.

Dr. Harper’s New Book, “Scars,” Brings Intersectional Theory to Life

I recently had the pleasure of reading Dr. Breeze Harper’s new fiction publication, Scars: A Black Lesbian Experience in Rural White New England and feel confident recommending the book for newcomers to intersectional theory, undergraduate students studying feminism, critical race, and other social justice issues, and seasoned advocates and scholars who might enjoy a fictional break that speaks to their interests. A trigger warning is in order because, as the title warns, Scars deals with many uncomfortable topics and visceral experiences, including racism, domestic violence, child molestation, and rape.

Although the concepts that shape the book are acute, Scars is an engaging read that both entertains and educates. The main character, Savannah (Savi), is a young college student that we can all look up to. As a poor white girl from Appalachia, I sat mostly silent in the classroom, absorbing what I was taught without question.  So, for me, Savi instantly becomes a hero of critical thinking as she challenges the white male normativity of the privileged world around her. She courageously speaks out against post-racial ideologies and the micro-aggressions of her more privileged peers, even when her friends and classmates resist. Savi is a little radical, and I love it.

Harper

Dr. Breeze Harper

But Savi isn’t a perfect superhero. She is certainly human, facing many structural barriers due to her race, class, and sexual orientation. Brave in some situations, she is scared and vulnerable in others. Her experience with racial slurs as a small child is heartbreaking. Her terrifying experience with a sexually aggressive customer alone in the gas station where she works brings chills. Her debilitating concern for her mother’s health and the constant burden of bills and cold temperatures reminds readers of the stark realities of difference in America.

There is also something to be said of the tension Savi faces in experiencing oppression. At times she is scrappy and outspoken, tackling challenges head on. Oftentimes, however, confrontation is pushed onto her and she feels quite helpless. We see this when she is engaged by her white male classmate who seeks Savi’s counsel in understanding his privilege, but we also see it with her struggle to come to grips with her lesbianism and the pressure to “come out” before she feels ready. Rarely does she feel comfortable admitting weakness and accepting help.

The book’s primary strength relies in its ability to carefully tackle the intricacies of oppression. Her best friend, who is hearing disabled, often engages his male privilege and abuses their friendship with near constant pressure for a relationship, seemingly unable to understand that no means no. Savi herself faces a considerable level of structural oppression, but she comes to recognize that she also maintains some degree of privilege as a human and as a Westerner. She learns that Coca-Cola is responsible for serious social and environmental injustices, but doesn’t want to give it up, so she creates rationalizations. Though she is lactose-intolerant, she continues to eat animal flesh and balks at the thought of giving up McDonald’s.

CocaColaInjusticeNone of the characters are perfect in understanding oppression; everyone is still learning. We see this in Savi’s heavy use of sexist and disableist language, the fetishization of animal bodies as food by most of the characters, and her vegan friend’s wool clothing. Oppression is never straight forward, and Scars helps readers to navigate these complicated concepts and relationships.

When all is said and done, Scars is not a doom-and-gloom story. Harper is careful to point out bright spots, altruism, and room for hope. There are characters that are willing to learn, and many individuals seek to disrupt violence in any way they can. Although there are definitely hierarchies of privilege, no character lives unburdened from some sort of systemic barrier or personal tragedy. Everyone has scars, but everyone has the potential to heal.

 


Corey Lee WrennDr. Wrenn is Lecturer of Sociology and past Director of Gender Studies (2016-2018) with Monmouth University. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology with Colorado State University in 2016. She received her M.S. in Sociology in 2008 and her B.A. in Political Science in 2005, both from Virginia Tech. She was awarded Exemplary Diversity Scholar, 2016 by the University of Michigan’s National Center for Institutional Diversity. She served as council member with the American Sociological Association’s Animals & Society section (2013-2016) and was elected Chair in 2018. She serves as Book Review Editor to Society & Animals and has contributed to the Human-Animal Studies Images and Cinema blogs for the Animals and Society Institute. She has been published in several peer-reviewed academic journals including the Journal of Gender Studies, Feminist Media Studies, Disability & Society, Food, Culture & Society, and Society & Animals. In July 2013, she founded the Vegan Feminist Network, an academic-activist project engaging intersectional social justice praxis. She is the author of A Rational Approach to Animal Rights: Extensions in Abolitionist Theory (Palgrave MacMillan 2016).