Immigration, Food Justice and the Fierce Urgency of Now

By Julian Agyeman, Alison Alkon and Sydney Giacalone

Food justice recognises that one’s experience of the food system is determined by and is inseparable from one’s class, race, gender, cultural background, and age. The concept of food justice both complicates and makes possible the potential for food to be used as a novel lens into environmentalism, justice, race, and cultural identity.

In a recent OpEd in the Boston Globe entitled “Trump Spills the Beans on Who Grows Americans’ Food”, we described how the new administration’s immigration policies can create an opportunity for dialog about the intersections between immigration, agriculture and food. Around 2 million of the people who plant our crops and pick our fruit are undocumented, accounting for fully 50 to 70 percent of total US farm workers. Others are food chain workers in food production, distribution and restaurants. Our food system is implicated in many of what Omi and Winant (1994) call racial projects, political and economic undertakings through which racial hierarchies are established and racialised subjectivities are created. The administration’s plans for tightening Federal immigration laws, act as racial projects in that they define who is a legitimate subject deserving of workplace protections, and who is regarded as an alien “other”.

The crucial point is not that Trump’s policies would devastate a functioning agricultural industry; instead, they would expose it as a thoroughly exploitative labour system that industry insiders and successive government leaders alike have quietly supported.

With the administration’s goal of increased deportations, research studies have emerged in the past months trying to answer a question which was rarely discussed during the campaigns: how will a Trump presidency impact our agriculture and food system, including the price we pay to feed ourselves? While an important question, discussion of these interlinked policy arenas must go deeper than immediate price impacts. The crucial point is not that Trump’s policies would devastate a functioning agricultural industry; instead, they would expose it as a thoroughly exploitative labour system that industry insiders and successive government leaders alike have quietly supported. We should not be surprised at the impacts Trump’s immigration policies could have on our food given the way our nation has built its food system.

Prices today are artificially low because our use of underpaid, overworked, unprotected labour has subsidised our food system, resulting in cheap food at the cost of precarity: human suffering, invisibilisation, and marginalisation. Key conservative constituencies in the farming and restaurant industries are already finding themselves fighting against the president’s policies, igniting debates unlike those we traditionally see between the right and left. In focussing on this vulnerable population, Trump may have unintentionally forced a national conversation around immigration and food justice and perhaps even forged unlikely political alliances.

Prices today are artificially low because our use of underpaid, overworked, unprotected labour has subsidised our food system, resulting in cheap food at the cost of precarity: human suffering, invisibilisation, and marginalisation.

It’s a conversation our nation has avoided for far too long, and we may just have a golden opportunity in today’s political climate, with a coming together of resistance against discriminatory, racist, and xenophobic policies. What does it really mean to grapple with how food – and all the stories food entails – intersects in our nation’s history, and what does this story mean when entering our nation’s new political era? Put more simply – why could food be an important gateway into these intersectional conversations? 

Food has entered the political and popular conscience of our nation in the past several decades, most notably through the work of writers like Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, Eric Schlosser and Marion Nestle and movies such as Supersize Me and Fed Up. The work of this growing alternative or sustainable food movement generally focusses on building resistance to large scale, high chemical and energy input, monocultural farming and create support for smaller scale, local, sustainably cultivated and low-processed foods. This popular, dominant narrative encourages participation toward a sustainable food movement by supporting an individualist, green consumerist philosophy, a “vote with your fork” to change the status quo of the food system.

Because this strategy is disproportionately available to those with the wealth, education and time to make use of alternative food systems, replete with their farmer’s markets and community supported agriculture, the food justice movement arose to highlight the ways that low-income communities and communities of colour are both disproportionately harmed by industrial food systems and underrepresented in the alternative food movement. To Pollan’s assertion that to eat healthfully and sustainably in the 21st century, one should stay clear from “anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food,” the food justice advocate asks “Who’s great-grandmother?” (Alkon and Agyeman 2011: 3).

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Julian Agyeman PhD FRSA FRGS (left) is a Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University in Medford, MA. Alison Alkon PhD (centre)is Associate Professor of Sociology at The University of The Pacific, in Stockton, CA. Sydney Giacalone (right)is a senior studying food justice through anthropology and environmental studies, at Tufts University in Medford, MA.

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