Magazine article Canadian Dimension

Social Justice Deficits in the Local Food Movement: Local Food and Low-Income Realities

Magazine article Canadian Dimension

Social Justice Deficits in the Local Food Movement: Local Food and Low-Income Realities

Article excerpt

ALTERNATIVE FOOD MOVEMENTS have politicized food by drawing greater attention to the individual food choices that we, as consumers make, and by showing how those choices affect the environment in which we live. The increasingly popular hundred-mile diet is perhaps as far as you can get from Atkins or South Beach. Unconcerned with the number of calories, carbs or grams of fat, it instead focuses on where the food is grown. The local food movement has been described as "part fashion, part market niche, part social movement." It argues that the current global food system is one that externalizes the costs of industrialized agriculture and places the environmental degradation and resulting social injustices squarely on the shoulders of the globe's citizens. This burden has brought with it the realization that there is indeed a very high cost to cheap food.

The global food system

The global food system operates according to a model of industrialization. Industrial farming is highly dependent on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, requires large amounts of irrigation water, and necessitates major transportation systems. Critics observe that such a model is highly unsustainable from an environmental standpoint and has simultaneously created a world rife with hunger and obesity. Unequal access to government subsidies similarly characterizes the global food system. Subsidies take various forms, however, it is the disproportionate subsidization of the largest agriculture producers and food production firms that concerns proponents of the local food movement. These subsidies give the Lie to claims of greater efficiency for industrial farming.

Among the concerns driving the local food movement are food safety, the ecological impact of chemical use and genetically modified crops, the undemocratic nature of the global food system and the adverse impact on human health.

Local food systems

In opposition to the global food system, alternative food movements have proposed a "re-localization" of food production and consumption. Local alternatives include farmers' markets, community supported agriculture (CSA), food co-ops and other cooperative distribution and delivery programs. They combine one form or another of direct markets in which consumer and producer engage in face-to-face buying and selling, omitting the middleman. Direct marketing is seen as facilitating greater control over the food system by both farmer and consumer because farmers are involved in each stage of the production process and remain accountable to consumers who increasingly demand to know exactly how and where their food was grown. While direct marketing systems are credited with creating local jobs, reducing environmental degradation, protecting farmland from urbanization, fostering community relations and strengthening connections between farmers and consumers, we have to ask how accessible these alternative food systems are to the poor.

Class-based diet?

The goals of direct food systems are laudable, but a food system cannot be truly sustainable if everyone, particularly those who most desperately need healthy and nutritious foods, cannot access it. Nutrient-dense foods associated with better overall health cost more per kilocalorie (kcal) than highly processed foods linked to diet-related illness.


Research indicates that direct market consumers are predominantly affluent, educated individuals of European-American background. There have been efforts to increase low-income participation in community supported agriculture programs (CSAs) through financial subsidies, but in some cases this has attracted low-income educated professionals rather than working class people or the traditionally poor people towards whom such efforts were directed. Access to CSAs may prove particularly difficult for low-income individuals because CSAs require shareholders pay up front for a share of the harvest at the beginning of the season-something that is difficult to do if you are hying paycheque to paycheque. …

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