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Bridging good food and good jobs: From secession to confrontation within alternative food movement politics



Much of the alternative food movement is predicated on a prefigurative politics of building alternatives to the conventional agrifood system, with only a smaller segment invested in a politics of confrontation with that very same system. In the context of actually existing agrifood relations, this raises a number of concerns. First, the movement often ignores challenging race and class inequality within the agrifood system in favor of realizing environmental sustainability and supporting small farmers. Second, corporate agribusinesses often co-opt the movement's consumer-centric and health-centric framings to legitimate low-wage big-box retail development in low-income urban communities. Third, the movement does not always recognize how low-income urban communities are developing language and tactics to shape local economic development. In this article, we investigate new alliances between alternative food organizations and labor organizations that use confrontational politics to demand greater food justice and economic justice in the conventional agrifood system. Specifically, we focus on struggles against Wal-Mart in New York City and Los Angeles and the discourse of ''Good Food, Good Jobs,'' which is used to build alliances between alternative food activists and labor activists working to address the root causes of food insecurity and food deserts. We find that at the core of the Good Food, Good Jobs discourse is a politics committed to increasing the power and health of food chain workers, and more broadly, the communities within which they live, by rejecting the tradeoff between food and jobs, which empowers working class people to shape the development of their communities.
Bridging good food and good jobs: From secession to confrontation
within alternative food movement politics
Justin Sean Myers
, Joshua Sbicca
Marist College, Department of Sociology and Social Work, Poughkeepsie, NY 12601, USA
Colorado State University, Department of Sociology, Fort Collins, CO 80523, USA
article info
Article history:
Received 1 July 2014
Received in revised form 2 February 2015
Alternative food movement
Food chain worker
Food desert
Food justice
Labor movement
Much of the alternative food movement is predicated on a prefigurative politics of building alternatives to
the conventional agrifood system, with only a smaller segment invested in a politics of confrontation
with that very same system. In the context of actually existing agrifood relations, this raises a number
of concerns. First, the movement often ignores challenging race and class inequality within the agrifood
system in favor of realizing environmental sustainability and supporting small farmers. Second, corporate
agribusinesses often co-opt the movement’s consumer-centric and health-centric framings to legitimate
low-wage big-box retail development in low-income urban communities. Third, the movement does not
always recognize how low-income urban communities are developing language and tactics to shape local
economic development. In this article, we investigate new alliances between alternative food organiza-
tions and labor organizations that use confrontational politics to demand greater food justice and
economic justice in the conventional agrifood system. Specifically, we focus on struggles against
Wal-Mart in New York City and Los Angeles and the discourse of ‘‘Good Food, Good Jobs,’’ which is used
to build alliances between alternative food activists and labor activists working to address the root causes
of food insecurity and food deserts. We find that at the core of the Good Food, Good Jobs discourse is a
politics committed to increasing the power and health of food chain workers, and more broadly, the
communities within which they live, by rejecting the tradeoff between food and jobs, which empowers
working class people to shape the development of their communities.
Ó2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Introduction: beyond just good food
Over the last decade popular buzzwords in much of the United
States (US) alternative food movement (AFM) have been ‘‘buy
local,’’ ‘‘go organic,’’ and ‘‘support local farmers.’’ If you have read
a food magazine or attended a food event odds are you have come
across articles, shirts, stickers, or pins that put you on notice:
‘‘Meet Your Farmer,’’ ‘‘Know Your Farmer,’’ ‘‘Every Family Needs
a Farmer.’’ The USDA has even launched a ‘‘Know Your Farmer,
Know Your Food’’ campaign. While this cultural diffusion gets
people to think about where their food comes from and who grows
their food, this discursive and strategic preference is also problem-
atic because it reinforces the long-term bias within US culture
toward the White yeoman farmer, and ignores the reality that most
food chain workers are Black and Latino/a wageworkers in the sec-
tors of production, processing, and retail (Allen and Sachs, 1992;
Allen, 2004; Alkon and Agyeman, 2011; Alkon and McCullen,
2011; Liu and Apollon, 2011). Moreover, the working conditions
and pay for these food chain workers are generally the worst, not
just within the agrifood system, but the overall economy (Food
Chain Workers Alliance, 2012).
These problems are not addressed through a farmer-centric pol-
itics; in fact, they are intensified through the economic logics and
spaces that emerge within the AFM (Alkon and McCullen, 2011;
Guthman, 2011; Alkon, 2012). By prioritizing local smallholder
agriculture, environmental sustainability, and an economic model
of paying more for food the loudest voices in the AFM promote a
niche market rooted in affluent, often White, consumers voting
with their forks (Slocum, 2007; Guthman, 2008a, 2008b; Alkon,
2012). This foregrounds a prefigurative politics of flight, exodus,
or counter power that invests the resources of the AFM into
constructing new standalone local agrifood systems, which prefer-
ences secession from rather than direct confrontation with the con-
ventional agrifood system (Kloppenburg et al., 1996; Allen, 2004;
Lyson, 2004). Such a politics often reinforces a neoliberal con-
sumer-based social change model and marginalizes the voices of
0016-7185/Ó2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Corresponding author.
E-mail addresses: (J.S. Myers),
(J. Sbicca).
Geoforum 61 (2015) 17–26
Contents lists available at ScienceDirect
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those in the movement fighting the structural conditions of the
conventional agrifood system. In doing so, the AFM has generally
ignored the working conditions and livelihoods of food chain work-
ers in the urban centers where the AFM is most prevalent.
This oversight becomes particularly salient in the conflict over
how best to combat food deserts, areas where activists and policy
makers deem fresh, healthy, and affordable food hard to come by, if
not altogether absent. The AFM often posits farmers markets, com-
munity supported agriculture (CSA), urban agriculture, and corner
store conversions as the solution, while Wal-Mart and Michelle
Obama put forth big-box discount stores and low-wage capitalism
as the solution. In either of these cases, the overwhelming focus is
on supply side dynamics rather than demand side problems, which
translates into efforts to create spaces of consumption where food
can be brought to the poor instead of combating the economic
inequality and poverty that creates food insecurity and food
deserts in the first place. In doing so, both the AFM and Wal-Mart
merely address the symptoms of poverty, food insecurity, and food
deserts, and ignore a root factor, lack of good jobs.
This article documents two examples of new AFM alliances
between food and labor activists that challenge race and class
inequalities within the conventional agrifood system, specifically
the lack of good jobs. The first is based in New York City (NYC)
and the second occurs in Los Angeles (LA). These new coalitions
are not focused on prefigurative or stand-alone alternatives, but
on improving the conditions of work within the conventional agri-
food system, and are brought together by the discursive frame of
‘‘Good Food, Good Jobs’’ (GFGJ), which unites notions of food jus-
tice and economic justice. Through an analysis of the GFGJ dis-
course in NYC and LA we document a more confrontational food
politics than those epitomized by the slogans of buying local and
eating healthy, one that seeks to prevent Wal-Mart from locating
in low-income urban communities in favor of higher wage union-
ized grocery stores.
Alongside documenting the emergence of such alliances, the
discourse and organizing device of GFGJ offers both theoretical
and practical insights into a food politics that strives for economic
security, social mobility, and public health. First, by linking eco-
nomic insecurity to poor food and poor health the discourse strate-
gically undermines Wal-Mart’s urban development strategy that
exploits the public health crisis of diet-related diseases to address
its economic growth crisis. The discourse thereby rejects the
neoliberal consumer health framework used by Wal-Mart, which
states that lower prices, instead of better jobs, is the best way to
address food insecurity and food deserts. It also rejects the implicit
assumption of Wal-Mart that low-income communities have to
choose between good food and good jobs rather than being able
to have both.
Second, GFGJ pushes against a model of social change that pri-
vileges secession. On their own, environmental and health centric
discourses limit and concede many important structural battles
on the ground that prefigurative solutions are preferable and suffi-
cient. In avoiding the concerns of non-farmer food chain workers,
there is a missed opportunity to build a broader based movement
around matters of class and race inequities, worker rights, and con-
trol over the production, appropriation, and distribution of the
social surplus. Additionally, the thin labor analysis in much of
the AFM is a factor in why Wal-Mart’s healthwashing
has such a
ready pull; local food advocates have primed consumers to focus
on good food and good health and ignore labor rights issues.
Third, activist’s notion and practice of GFGJ pushes scholars to
consider the growth and transformation of the AFM through new
alliances operating inside and outside conventional agrifood sys-
tems. If the AFM is invested in systemically improving the living
conditions of communities that face poverty and diet-related dis-
eases then it is important to challenge the actors that structure
food environments and the distribution of wealth. This requires
attending to confrontational forms of politics reflected in cross-
movement alliances that include all food chain workers, emphasize
labor rights, and prioritize economic justice.
Tension between secessionist and confrontational politics in
the alternative food movement
Over the past few decades, industrial agriculture has been
subject to critique by a growing and networked group of farmers,
environmentalists, consumers, and activists (Friedmann, 1993;
Feenstra, 1997; Allen, 2004; Qazi and Selfa, 2005). This broad-
based movement takes many different names: civic agriculture,
slow food, food sovereignty, and food and environmental justice
(Lyson, 2004; Shiva, 2005; Gottlieb and Joshi, 2010; Petrini,
2010; Wittman et al., 2010). We refer to these interconnected acti-
vists and organizations as the alternative food movement. Despite
differences, there are common themes that bind the AFM together.
In short, the AFM claims that corporate industrial agriculture
harms the planet, farmers, democracy, and our bodies. It does so
by degrading ecosystems, denying smaller agricultural producers
the capacity to make a living, concentrating control of the agrifood
system into the hands of a small number of corporations, and giv-
ing consumers diet-related diseases.
Overall, the dominant political logic within the US AFM
incorporates components of civic agriculture, locavorism, and slow
food, and reflects a secessionist wing of the movement that is
pro-farmer, pro-sustainability, pro-good food, and consumer and
market centric. The primary concern of this wing is the negative
effects that emerge from the alienation of the food producer and
consumer from each other and the land; a problem whose solution
is said to require the relocalization and repersonalization of food
production and consumption (Kloppenburg Jr. et al., 1996;Allen,
2004; Qazi and Selfa, 2005; Hinrichs and Lyson, 2007).
The catchword for this relocalization process is the ‘‘foodshed,’’
which embeds food relations ‘‘socially, economically, ethically,
and particular places’’ (Kloppenburg Jr. et al.,
1996: 38). Ecologically, localizing food with smaller biodiverse
farms will embed food production in local ecosystems and improve
the sustainability and resilience of agrifood systems. Economically,
such farms can use direct retailing like farmers markets, CSAs, and
farm to school and restaurant programs to capture more of the food
dollar. By moving toward a lower volume higher price model rooted
in biodiversity small farmers are able to become ecologically as well
as economically sustainable. Politically, local food rooted in an eco-
nomically independent middle-class of small farmers is presumed
to recreate ‘‘civic capital’’ and community relations. With this
comes increased democracy at the town level as inequality in
employment, income, and power is minimized through preventing
the polarization of economic and political structures into wage-la-
borers and corporations. Physiologically, local food that is minimal-
ly processed is claimed to be higher in nutrients and lower in the
salts, sugars, fats, and oils of many processed foods found in grocery
stores and fast food restaurants. Consequently, local food is health-
ier food and can reduce the prevalence of diet-related disease.
To realize these goals, advocates often call for the AFM to work
from interstitial food spaces in the hopes of developing emergent
transformations. This requires AFMs, as ‘‘movements of self
protection,’’ to prioritize the dual processes of ‘‘secession’’ and
‘‘succession’’ (Kloppenburg Jr. et al., 1996: 37). The principle of
We use this term to refer to the practice of using health in order to mask socially
or environmentally problematic practices. While health advocates will use this term
to refer to misleading food labeling practices (e.g. ‘‘all natural’’), we want to highlight
how ‘‘healthy’’ food hides labor exploitation.
18 J.S. Myers, J. Sbicca / Geoforum 61 (2015) 17–26
secession is based on producers ‘‘disengage[ing] from the existing
food system’’ and creating alternatives to the conventional system,
such as those mentioned previously (Kloppenburg Jr. et al., 1996:
38). Secession helps set the foundation of the foodshed. The second
process, succession, requires consumers to reallocate their
commitments and resources away from the conventional agrifood
system and toward alternatives. That is, it preferences supply side
solutions to problems within the conventional agrifood system. For
ease of use, we refer to this dual process as secessionist politics.
Despite its prominence, the secessionist politics of the domi-
nant wing of the AFM is not the only political logic in the move-
ment. The AFM is riveted by tensions between a secessionist
wing that privileges prefigurative actions, avoids engaging the
state, and focuses on voting with one’s dollar and a confrontational
wing that seeks systemic change within the conventional agrifood
system, emphasizes the positive regulatory power of the state (e.g.
through leveraging some of the 200 US food policy councils), and
prioritizes labor rights and economic justice (Goodman and
Dupuis, 2002; Johnston, 2008; McClintock, 2014; Sbicca, 2014).
This confrontational wing has raised several critiques of the seces-
sionist wing, based on the limits that such a model places on:
building political power, challenging corporate control of the agri-
food system, and developing progressive demand side solutions.
First, food localization projects do not always reduce inequality
but may actually reaffirm or intensify inequalities (Hinrichs, 2003;
Winter, 2003; Dupuis and Goodman, 2005; Qazi and Selfa, 2005).
This is not due just to insider/outsider dynamics and how these
dynamics are classed, raced, and gendered; the AFM’s economic
model of paying more for food may prevent the participation of
lower income communities (Hinrichs, 2003; Slocum, 2006, 2007;
Alkon and McCullen, 2011).
Second, the AFM’s motto of ‘‘voting with your fork’’ has pro-
duced a missionary politics of ‘‘bringing good food to others.’’ In
these food projects middle and upper class White outsiders
emphasize making proper food choices through nutrition educa-
tion programs while opening a few farm stands and farmers mar-
kets in lower income communities (Guthman, 2008a, 2008b,
2011). The consumer orientation behind such projects creates
solutions based on a lack of education, despite evidence that price
points and limited disposable income are key barriers to consump-
tion of local produce (USDA, 2001; Briggs et al., 2010; Alkon et al.,
2013). Lower income families already pay a higher percentage of
their income on ‘‘food at home’’ than do middle and upper income
families (Goldstein and Vo, 2012). Expecting them to pay more for
food without increasing their income contributes to a regressive
economic and food politics.
Third, AFM practices predicated on secessionist politics often
operate alongside conventional food spaces in a non-antagonistic
manner and even face the prospect of co-optation. Despite the
growth of the AFM, the conventional agrifood system is larger,
more powerful, and more concentrated than ever before
(Howard, 2009; McMichael, 2011). This is increasingly apparent
with the conventionalization and industrialization of organic food
(Allen and Kovach, 2000; Delind, 2000; Guthman, 2004; Howard,
2009; Johnston et al., 2009). Therefore, while the AFM has devel-
oped strong networks to create new supply chains, these networks
tend not to prioritize building broad based coalitions that can chal-
lenge the existing political and economic forces shaping the con-
ventional agrifood system.
Fourth, small farmers, environmental sustainability, and good
food consumerism are privileged over economic justice and labor
oriented politics that focus on the conditions of food chain workers
(Harrison, 2011; McMillan, 2012; Holmes, 2013; Jayaraman, 2013;
Gray, 2014). Relatedly, millions of conventional food chain workers
lose a powerful political ally that could help advance a fair food
ethic for more than just farmworkers (Jayaraman, 2013; Gray,
2014). In short, a consumer-based political logic that avoids chal-
lenging corporations or the state at the point of labor overlooks
the important role conventional food chain workers play in con-
necting ecological, economic, political, and physiological critiques
of industrial agriculture.
Advocates of a confrontational political logic seek to recenter
the AFM on how to change the structures of the conventional
agrifood system to realize environmental sustainability and social
justice. This more confrontational wing seeks state-based reforms
that shape food labor conditions, demand side approaches that
make it easier for consumers to eat healthy and sustainable food,
and structural changes that ensure the long-term sustainability
of agricultural practices. These activists often push for labor rights,
seek to ban pesticides, aim to remove genetically modified seeds or
label the products containing such ingredients, and/or ensure pub-
lic policy maintains food safety (Gottlieb and Joshi, 2010; Nestle,
2010; Schurman and Munro, 2010; Harrison, 2011).
In what follows, we focus on food activists who confront the
state and Wal-Mart over the issues of economic inequality, food
deserts, and labor exploitation. In their eyes, an AFM that privileges
local food and small-farmers and ignores urban food chain workers
misses an important opportunity to bridge a range of concerns that
can improve conditions within the conventional agrifood system
while building support for alternative agrifood systems.
Data for this article comes from two separate projects with
overlapping interests and methods. While the contexts in NYC
and LA vary, they are both major metropolitan areas with sig-
nificant racial and ethnic diversity, large working class and work-
ing poor populations, historically strong labor movements, and
more recently, influential alternative food movements. They are
also both key urban markets for Wal-Mart’s growth strategy and
in each city there have been pitched political battles over the siting
of Wal-Mart stores, which offers insights into more labor based
confrontational discourses and tactics in the AFM.
The first author’s data on Wal-Mart in NYC emerges from
ethnography, in-depth semi-structured interviews, and archival
materials. For over two years, he spent three to four days a week
as a volunteer at the food justice organization East New York
Farms! (ENYF!) and a community gardener at Hands and Heart
Garden in East New York. He assisted ENYF! staff, youth, and
community gardeners in the planting, growing, and harvesting of
produce from urban farms and community gardens as well as its
sale at the ENYF! farmers market and farm stand. He also par-
ticipated in monthly meetings for the organization as well as the
garden, served as a facilitator for garden meetings, and attended
monthly skill-based workshops and town hall meetings. Alongside
the fieldnotes derived from these experiences, he conducted 10
interviews, lasting between one to four hours, with ENYF! staff
and community gardeners. He also collected archival materials
including internal documents of ENYF!, reports from civil society
organizations, and electronically accessible newspapers.
The second author’s data on United Food and Commercial
Workers 770 (UFCW 770) and struggles over Wal-Mart in LA also
comes from ethnography, in-depth semi-structured interviews,
and archival sources. He spent three months as an intern with
UFCW 770, during which time he also had regular interaction with
Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA) and Los Angeles Alliance for a
New Economy (LAANE).
Over the course of 20–40 hours a week, he
undertook administrative office duties such as developing maps and
FCWA is an alliance made up of organizations fighting to improve food chain
worker livelihoods. LAANE is an organization working to improve the economic
security of working class people throughout LA.
J.S. Myers, J. Sbicca / Geoforum 61 (2015) 17–26 19
surveys, calling strategic community partners to participate in var-
ious demonstrations, assisting with preparation for meetings with
community activists and business owners, visiting workplaces, and
participating in union and alliance protests. In addition to fieldnotes
that recorded day-to-day operations and conversations, 19 inter-
views, lasting one to two hours were conducted with union leader-
ship, organizers, and key strategic partners. Last, he collected and
analyzed archival sources to reconstruct and verify relevant histo-
ries. These include internal records and documents, virtual materials
such as Facebook postings, media coverage such as newspapers, and
non-profit and government reports.
Background: Wal-Mart’s food desert challenge to unionized
There are many different organizations and interests working to
end food deserts, but one of the most visible is Wal-Mart. Although
it did not begin in grocery retailing, Wal-Mart has made significant
inroads into the industry since the 1990s. Today, the company is
the single largest purchaser of US agricultural products and a little
over half of its sales come from groceries (Food and Water Watch,
2012). Wal-Mart is also the biggest customer of Dean Foods,
General Mills, Kraft Foods, and Tyson Foods. In 29 domestic mar-
kets Wal-Mart controls 50% of grocery sales, while nationally the
company controls about 33% of the grocery market; its closest
competitors, Kroger, Safeway, and SuperValu, each control four to
nine percent (Lichtenstein, 2010).
Although the social and economic effects of Wal-Mart are
mixed (Bonanno and Goetz, 2012), public perception backed by
an increasing number of studies suggests that the company con-
tributes to driving down the living standards of millions of people
globally. These processes have been particularly apparent within
the grocery retail sector (Wood, 2013). Grocery retail has long
served as one of the few sectors where people without a college
degree can earn livable wages, receive a range of benefits, and
work in a safe environment. One reason for this is the historic pow-
er of unions to expand and maintain union density through the
growth and decline of US manufacturing (Vidal and Kusnet,
For instance, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW),
which primarily represents grocery retail workers, is the second
largest private sector union in the US. However, the entry of Wal-
Mart into grocery retailing has forced major supermarket chains in
low-income areas – most of which are unionized like Kroger – to
reduce prices and employment, which sometimes leads to exit
(Ellickson and Grieco, 2013). At the same time, the entry of Wal-Mart
can decrease retail employment levels and reduce wages and bene-
fits (Artz and Stone, 2006; Neumark et al., 2008). Wal-Mart’s union-
ized supermarket competitors have used this shifting landscape to
seek concessions from workers in order to stay in business, partially
because their economic performance diminishes with the entrance
of supercenters (Volpe, 2014). One of the overall impacts for workers
is that as Wal-Mart has increased market share, union membership
levels have not kept pace with core industry leaders, and their bar-
gaining power has weakened (Hurd, 2008). In short, Wal-Mart is a
direct threat to unionized grocery retail workers and shifts the food
work landscape for working class communities away from middle
class mobility.
Despite the negative consequences of the ‘‘Wal-Mart effect,’’ it
is precisely its purchasing power, market saturation, and logistical
networks that are being leveraged by Wal-Mart and Michelle Oba-
ma and framed as an asset that can eliminate food deserts and
counter the public health crisis of diet-related disease (Obama,
2011; Wal-Mart, 2011a, 2011b).
Wal-Mart has stated that it will
open or expand between 275 and 300 stores serving over 800,000
people in food deserts by 2016 (Wal-Mart, 2011b). This expansion
is on top of the company’s claim that it has already opened 218
stores in food deserts since 2007, which would take the total from
2007 to 2016 to over 490 stores serving 1.3 million people. Propo-
nents argue that healthy, and to a degree, organic food, can become
affordable through Wal-Mart’s economic model premised on low
prices, low wages, high product turnover, and high volume sales.
Contradictorily, the entry of Wal-Mart into communities is associat-
ed with increases in poverty (Goetz and Swaminathan, 2006), which
is the condition under which many scholars contend food deserts are
produced in the first place (Walker et al., 2010).
Wal-Mart’s diagnosis – that food deserts are unhealthy spaces
in need of big box stores – reflects a broader neoliberal corporate
strategy to convince the public that solving these problems
requires the expansion of corporate consumption spaces rather
than equitable economic development (Ken, 2014). The major
problem with the Wal-Mart/Obama framing is that it is a cover
for a necessary act of market expansion for a company struggling
with economic stagnation (Holt-Giménez, 2011). From the 1960s
through today, Wal-Mart’s growth has occurred primarily in rural
and suburban areas that have started to reach the limits of market
saturation: same-store sales have declined for nine straight quar-
ters, from 2009 to the second quarter of 2011, and for all four quar-
ters during 2013. Anticipating this growth problem, Wal-Mart
started looking in the early 2000s to expand into urban areas.
Yet, since these urban areas are also traditionally the home of
unions, Democrats, and liberals who are often opposed to
Wal-Mart, the company has sought to use the language of combat-
ing food deserts to break down these barriers to growth
(Holt-Giménez, 2011).
Wal-Mart’s efforts have not gone without notice though; they
have been met in many instances with contestation by alternative
food organizations, labor unions, city officials, community groups,
and small business organizations. These groups have championed
an alternative logic to Wal-Mart’s supply-side economic model
and anti-labor practices. In contrast to a stand-alone healthy food
discourse, which is usually associated with secessionist strategies,
a diverse set of activists and organizations in NYC and LA have
articulated the discourse of ‘‘Good Food, Good Jobs’’ to support a
confrontational politics that unites food, environmental, health,
and labor concerns around the notion of economic and food justice.
There will be no Wal-Mart plantations, for there are no slaves,
in East New York, Brooklyn
East New York is located in the easternmost section of
North-Central Brooklyn. Home to more than 183,000 people, the
community is 51% Black, 39% Latino, 2% White, with a large num-
ber of the Black and Latino/a residents identifying as Caribbean
(NYCDP, 2012). It is also a low-income community struggling with
poverty, unemployment, and crime due to a legacy of redlining,
urban renewal, and planned shrinkage (Posner, 1977; Eisenberg,
1999; Pritchett, 2003; Thabit, 2005). In East New York municipal
disinvestment and white flight entailed grocery store flight and
real estate redlining became de facto food redlining. Access to
and affordability of fresh healthy produce emerged as a problem
because the community either contained bodegas that sold no pro-
duce at all, was dominated by fast food restaurants, lacked grocery
stores, or had a few grocery stores that primarily sold expired,
There has still been a slow decline in union density in grocery retail, from 34% in
1983 to 17% in 2011 (Volpe, 2014).
That food causes obesity (e.g. food deserts/food swamps) is highly contested (cf.
Guthman, 2011).
20 J.S. Myers, J. Sbicca / Geoforum 61 (2015) 17–26
moldy, and spoiled foods (Pratt Planning Studio, 1996; Gecan,
2002, 2003; NYCDCP, 2010).
East New Yorkers were not content with this situation though
and have sought out access to fresh and affordable produce
through protesting existing stores, shopping outside the communi-
ty, and growing their own produce in backyard and community
gardens (Gecan, 2002, 2003; Thabit, 2005; NYCDCP, 2010). They
have also supported the city’s efforts to create healthy bodegas,
green street vendors, and use financial and zoning incentives to
lure grocery stores and supermarkets back to their neighborhoods.
Yet when rumors began to circulate that Wal-Mart was targeting
East New York, community residents aligned with politicians,
unions, community organizers, and small businesses to prevent
such an occurrence based on notions of racial and economic justice,
in spite of the fact that Wal-Mart would bring fresh affordable pro-
duce to the community.
For these groups, addressing food deserts
means more than just access to produce.
Two outspoken critics of Wal-Mart were City Council speaker
Christine Quinn (D – Manhattan) and City Council member Charles
Barron (D – East New York). At a rally supported by the UFCW and
led by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union
(RWDSU), Christine Quinn stated her opposition to a company with
a history of racial and sexual discrimination, low wages, and
employee reliance on public subsidies,
Wal-Mart’s corporate philosophy...runs counter to the core
values of New York City...Now we...need to get more retail
establishments, particularly those that sell supermarket food
good for people...[b]ut...we [a]re clear about the types of
supermarket jobs we wan[t] and that we wan[t] them to be
assets to the community...That simply is not Wal-Mart
(Lombardi, 2010).
Mr. Barron has used less diplomatic language when speaking about
Wal-Mart, calling the company a ‘‘roving plantation’’ that is not
welcome because ‘‘there are no slaves in East New York’’ (Stewart,
2011). He has also publicly critiqued the Wal-Mart/Obama alliance
for using the public health crisis of diet-related disease to reinforce
low-wage development models in Black communities,
[F]ar too often when you travel through low-income communi-
ties like ours you see McDonalds and fast food. This fast food is
killing us...creating obesity and diabetes...when you walk
around, get off the subway, all you see is fast food...Michelle
Obama might be right about food but she is wrong about
Wal-Mart. We want jobs and work that allows you to unionize,
have a pension, a living wage, there is nothing better than a liv-
ing wage.
In order to stop more low-wage development in East New York, Mr.
Barron has tried, with the aid of his wife, Assemblywoman Inez
Barron (D – East New York), to block Wal-Mart’s entrance by pre-
venting a land sale between the city and Related Companies, whose
Gateway Center complex would have Wal-Mart as an anchor store
(Tracy, 2010). Because the City Council has no official power to
block who Related Companies leases space to and since the city
already approved the shopping mall project one of the major plays
left – besides community organizing to create a pro-union anti-
Wal-Mart climate – has been to refuse to allow the land transfer
to occur.
Alongside politicians, unions have played a particularly impor-
tant role in organizing to keep NYC Wal-Mart free. The International
President of the UFCW, Joe Hansen, emphasized that good jobs are
fundamental to creating access to and affordability of good food,
[T]he First Lady’s commitment to addressing childhood obesity
in the U.S. is laudable...But with income disparity between the
rich and the poor at more extreme levels than during the Great
Depression, Wal-Mart must be held accountable for...[it] is
more responsible than any other private employer in our coun-
try for creating poverty-level jobs that leave workers unable to
purchase healthy food or provide a good life for their families
(UFCW, 2011).
In NYC, this has meant UFCW Local 1500 working with the NYC
affiliate of Jobs with Justice to launch the Good Food, Good Jobs
A central part of this campaign involved working with
the Mayor, the City Council Speaker, the Department of City Plan-
ning, and a coalition of community groups to create the Food Retail
Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) initiative that provides financ-
ing and zoning incentives to expand grocery stores and supermar-
kets in underserved communities. Speaker Quinn has reaffirmed
UFCW’s claims that the FRESH initiative cannot solely be a good
health campaign, but should also be an economic justice project
where food can be strategically employed to create good jobs, ‘‘We
talk a lot about getting people food, so they can feed their families.
Now let’s use food to get people jobs, so they can afford to feed their
families’’ (Quinn, 2009).
Another group pushing back against Wal-Mart is Wal-Mart Free
NYC, a coalition of unions, community based organizations, faith-
based organizations, elected officials, and small businesses. Bertha
Lewis, who works for the coalition and previously worked with the
Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN),
was vehement in her opposition to Wal-Mart’s entrance into the
city based on wanting good jobs, not just any job,
Their strategy now is urban expansion, which is code word for
black and brown neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods, places
that they believe are not as powerful politically, that have high
unemployment and poverty, so that they can come in and be a
predatory retailer. For years, a red line was drawn around these
neighborhoods, and they didn’t have access to credit. It’s almost
the same language now. It’s ‘‘Aww, you don’t have access to fresh
food’’ and ‘‘Aww, you don’t have access to affordable goods. Let
Wal-Mart help you.’’ It’s a cynical race-based ploy...we’re not
here for a Wal-Mart plantation. There was full employment on
plantations, but we’re not going to do that here (Scola, 2012).
In addition to political officials, unions, and economic justice
organizations, the food justice organization East New York Farms!
(ENYF!) has supported efforts to prevent Wal-Mart from locating a
mere two miles from their network of urban farms and community
gardens. While ENYF! politics are focused on building an alterna-
tive agrifood system through local sustainable agriculture and
community-led economic development they also form alliances
with organizations working to transform the conventional agrifood
system and improve conditions for food chain workers. Most
recently, workers at the local grocery store Farm Country and orga-
nizers for New York Communities for Change (NYCC) used their
space in a successful campaign for back wages and unionization.
Sarita Daftary, the project director of ENYF!, does not believe that
Wal-Mart has much of a positive role to play,
This capacity of Wal-Mart was tacitly supported by Mayor Bloomberg but he used
little political capital to ensure Wal-Mart moved into East New York. Given high
unemployment rates and lack of grocery stores in the community, local politicians
and religious and community leaders met with Wal-Mart in closed-door meetings in
an attempt to ensure local hiring and above average wages. While not all community
residents were anti-Wal-Mart they were worried about local economic impacts and
whether Wal-Mart jobs would be pathways out of poverty.
Jobs for Justice is a national network of local organizations that utilize grassroots
organizing to realize workers’ rights, economic justice, and democracy.
NYCC is a coalition of organizations across New York City and Long Island that use
direct action, legislative advocacy, and community organizing to fight for social and
economic justice for low and moderate income communities.
J.S. Myers, J. Sbicca / Geoforum 61 (2015) 17–26 21
[R]ight now it’s really hard for me to think of a way that
Wal-Mart could be reformed to be part of the food justice move-
ment...[which emphasizes] people having ownership and deci-
sion making power...[A] giant like Wal-Mart is always going to
stick it to producers...and that’s why they want to be so big
because they can set their price. So that’s never going to be
compatible with a just food system. And then the way they treat
their workers, which is also connected to their size. That they
can just dominate the employment market...and do what they
want with wages.
Despite Wal-Mart’s deep pockets and savvy marketing cam-
paigns their effort to locate in East New York ended in defeat,
reminiscent of the company’s failed attempts to enter Queens
and Staten Island in the mid-2000s.
Pro Wal-Mart consumers were
not organized and sympathetic politicians were generally unengaged
in shaping the public image of Wal-Mart, often working behind the
scenes instead. Accordingly, Wal-Mart was largely left alone to run a
campaign with no local roots and a Mayor who was unwilling to act
to guarantee their success. The fact that the Wal-Mart Mexico brib-
ery scandal broke during these pitched battles further hindered the
company’s success. Community and union mobilizations, vocal City
Council opposition, and the anti-Wal-Mart declarations of the 2014
Democratic mayoral candidates all created roadblocks, that, for the
time being, are insurmountable. In a city with a long history of immi-
grant rights and union organizing, immigrant entrepreneurialism,
and welfare state politics, Wal-Mart’s big-box, low-wage, low price
discourse was too anachronistic. In a city with the highest rates of
inequality in the US, the promise of cheap products eventually rang
hollow, as people understood you need a good job in order to put
good food on the table.
Rather than Wal-Mart, a unionized ShopRite supermarket will
anchor the Gateway Center II complex, the largest suburban style
shopping mall in NYC. The store will be 90,000 square feet, three
times the square footage of all the existing grocery store space in
East New York, and employ 300 full-time and part-time workers
who will have better wages, health care, and pension benefits than
Wal-Mart employees (Massey, 2011). Consequently, unlike Wal-
Mart, ShopRite was framed as an ‘‘asset to our local community’’
(Herman, 2012) by Joy Simmons, Charles Barron’s chief of staff,
praised by Speaker Quinn as ‘‘a company with a history of respon-
sible business practices’’ (Rogers, 2012), and applauded by Brook-
lyn Borough President Marty Markowitz for ‘‘creat[ing] union
jobs at a time when we need them the most’’ (Collins, 2012). For
all involved, combating food deserts meant good jobs, for only
through living wages could people obtain access to the good life,
which included good food.
Offering Los Angeles Wal-Muerto Kale does not substitute for
good jobs that combat poverty
Los Angeles is the largest of 88 cities in Los Angeles County, and
embodies the metropolitan area’s racially diverse and economical-
ly stratified character. The city is largely Latino/a (47.9%) with size-
able White (28%) and Asian (13.9%) communities, although the
Black community has halved over the last thirty years to 8.5%.
While the overall poverty level is 20.2%, it is higher for Blacks
(24.9%) and Latino/as (25.4%) and tends to vary widely by
In neighborhoods that lack well paying, secure jobs,
there also tends to be fewer healthy and affordable food options and
higher rates of diet related health problems (Bassford et al., 2010;
Blue Ribbon Commission, 2008). This grocery deficit persists in many
low-income communities of color despite efforts to bring in union-
ized grocery retailers and hundreds of millions of dollars of unmet
demand for good food (Shaffer, 2002; Social Compact Inc., 2008).
This exists due to land use development patterns in LA favoring sub-
urbanization and auto-centric transportation, White only restrictive
covenants and redlining leading to residential segregation, and the
flight of supermarkets to the suburbs (Shaffer, 2002). Exacerbating
access to good food is an inability to afford it in part because of a
decline in union density and labor standards in the LA grocery retail
sector as Wal-Mart and non-union specialty and ethnic chains began
infiltrating LA County throughout the 2000s.
This follows broader
California trends associated with store closures in major chains like
Albertsons, unionized chains choosing not to reinvest available cash
in wages and benefits, and the rapid growth of partially unionized
Costco (Jayaraman and FLRC, 2014).
Confrontation with these realities needs to be understood in the
context of the watershed 20-week grocery retail strike in 2003, and
the subsequent unsuccessful battle to keep Wal-Mart out of China-
town. The 2003 strike pitted UFCW’s 70,000 Southern California
members directly against Albertson’s, Ralphs, and Vons and indi-
rectly against Wal-Mart, as the grocery chains used the threat of
Wal-Mart to justify reducing wages and benefits, particularly after
Wal-Mart announced in 2002 that it would build 40 Supercenters
in California by 2008 (Cleeland and Vrana, 2005). Workers ended
up losing the strike, but UFCW and its allies rebounded over the
next decade by expanding their organizing strategies and alliances
as well as challenging Wal-Mart directly. As a result, the UFCW
won back its 2003 loses in later contract negotiations. Moreover,
with the exception of one Wal-Mart in Baldwin Hills, the company
has been largely unsuccessful in its attempts to enter LA until it
opened a Neighborhood Market (a smaller retail format) in the
central neighborhood of Chinatown in 2013.
The nature of these multipronged struggles reveals the compli-
cations of bridging concerns about poverty, healthy food access,
and the rights of communities to direct economic development.
Nevertheless, given the specter of Wal-Mart, a network of resis-
tance expanded after the 2003 strike to include alternative food,
community based, public health, and religious organizations, as
well as politicians and artists. Reflecting such shifts in the AFM,
Joann Lo, Executive Director of FCWA and Vice President of the
LA Food Policy Council’s (LAFPC) Leadership Board contends,
More and more food workers are organizing to demand better
wages and working conditions and better food. Supporting their
campaigns is one way to join in on collective action. All people
in the food system – whether consumers, producers, or workers
– should be able to afford good, healthy food.
[BTFB, 2014]
Such a framing binds those who care about food justice and eco-
nomic justice.
Just like in East New York, activists worried that Wal-Mart
would harm union members and increase overall poverty levels
in members’ communities. Jae, an organizer and political operative
for UFCW 770, believes there is a corrosive impact when Wal-Mart
locates in economically marginalized communities, ‘‘It affects the
entire food system...It’s almost like a silent killer, the race to the
bottom. If it takes on these communities, it will slowly affect
others.’’ The UFCW strike provided an added boost to a big box
ordinance proposal by Councilmembers Eric Garcetti (D – 13th Dis-
trict) and Ed Reyes (D – 1st District) to stave off a local race to the
Wal-Mart contributed ‘‘donations’’ to environmental organizations and youth job
programs in the hopes of winning support from city council members and city
Statistics come from the US Census Bureau from either the 2010 Census or the
2007–2011 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates.
This mirrors California trends. Non-union market growth between 2006 and 2013
is 48% for discount, 35% for natural/organic/gourmet, 11% for Latino, and just 6% for
traditional (Jayaraman and FLRC, 2014).
22 J.S. Myers, J. Sbicca / Geoforum 61 (2015) 17–26
bottom. Garcetti claims one reason for the ordinance is that Wal-
Mart’s low-wage labor model requires state subsidies,
They’re a Goliath, but we’re a Goliath, too, and we want to send
them a message. We don’t believe their business model is good
for the kind of economic development that we want in the
places where we need it most. And we want people to realize
that the 10 cents they may save on a jar of pickles could mean
paying another $5 in taxes for all the extra visits to local emer-
gency rooms.
[Sanchez, 2004]
The ordinance passed in 2004 requires big box stores over 100,000
feet with more than 10% of their floor space selling non-taxable
merchandise (i.e. most groceries) to undergo economic impact
reports and public comments and hearings. Such initiatives
strengthen local democracy by requiring community input into
local development proposals. Although Wal-Mart has opened in
other cities with similar requirements, the intensity of the strike
and the ordinance represent widespread opposition to weakening
grocery labor standards, as well as the power of UFCW 770 and
its allies to restrict the company’s entrance into LA, at least in its
supercenter format.
While Wal-Mart was stymied for many years, it exploited the
‘‘use by right’’ clause in local zoning laws to enter Chinatown, a
robust immigrant enclave. Instead of going through the required
review process to build a Supercenter, Wal-Mart avoided extensive
government review for a Neighborhood Market by simply taking
over a building already zoned for such uses. An array of activists
once again mobilized. Although they convinced the City Council
to pass unanimously an emergency ordinance to prevent any per-
mits for ‘‘new formula retail uses,’’ right before the vote opponents
learned that a last minute permit was issued to Wal-Mart the pre-
vious afternoon. With the suspicious timing of events, labor acti-
vists such as Diego, an organizer with UFCW 770, conclude, ‘‘That
kind of power is only ushered from the Mayor’s office.’’ On the
day of this vote, a representative for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa
avoided commenting on the Wal-Mart decision, stating the mayor
supports ‘‘bringing fresh and healthy grocery options to all of Los
Angeles’’ (Zahniser, 2012).
This event set into motion renewed efforts to take back the lan-
guage of food deserts and decenter its conflation with consumer
access by demanding community rights to good jobs because such
jobs make acquiring good food possible. Jill, a communications
specialist for the advocacy organization LAANE argues,
A lot of times food and worker’s rights become separated...[I]f
you say to a worker, ‘‘You are not going to get more than $8 an
hour and no health benefits,’’ those people are going to be able
to barely afford to put food on their own table, yet they will still
be surrounded by it at work...If a company really wants to set
up there, they shouldn’t be adverse to the community being
taken care of on a very basic level...[H]aving grocery stores
with good jobs is part of the solution.
Such issues were also linked to culturally relevant economic devel-
opment. With many locally run full-scale grocery stores and smaller
markets already in the neighborhood, activists from the Chinatown
Community for Equitable Development and their political allies
were concerned that Wal-Mart would lead to their closure. As US
Representative Judy Chu (D – 32nd District) said at a pre-Chinatown
protest press conference, ‘‘Because Walmart is able to get its low
prices and sell its cake for $1.99, [nearby] businesses will go out
of business’’ (Katz, 2012). Issues of poverty and equitable develop-
ment resonate deeply for Representative Chu and others with
family who benefited from this immigrant enclave’s autonomous
business climate.
Despite the widespread and vocal opposition to Wal-Mart,
opponents were unable to prevent the Neighborhood Market from
opening. One reason for this was opposition by Councilmembers
Jan Perry (D – 9th District) and Bernard Parks (D – 8th District).
Unlike representatives in similar historically Black neighborhoods
lacking many grocery stores, such as East New York, they wanted
any food and jobs rather than no food and jobs. They refrained from
voting in a last ditch effort to issue a temporary building permit
restriction, votes that would have halted Wal-Mart. These chal-
lenges in bridging good food and good jobs arise despite communi-
ty dissatisfaction with Wal-Mart. As Girshriela Green, a Wal-Mart
associate explains, ‘‘We’re still dependent on welfare, food stamps,
and we work. Yet, we still don’t make ends meet...They sell
dreams that’s not real’’ (Katz, 2012).
Such contradictions present activists with the opportunity to
build more broad-based organizing strategies for equitable eco-
nomic development in LA, attempts made easier by a discourse
that bridges good food and good jobs. At a June 2014 special brief-
ing and discussion of a report commissioned by UFCW’s Western
States Council on the state of California’s grocery retail sector,
attendees included anti-hunger, food justice, housing rights, labor
and public health advocates, as well as academics, grocery workers
and politicians. John Grant, a longtime labor leader in UFCW 770,
summed up the desire of these interested parties and allies for a
‘‘comprehensive solution.’’ He went on to say, ‘‘It is not enough
to say, ‘No’ [to low-wage grocers]...[T]hat does not solve the prob-
lem of communities lacking access to food...It doesn’t make a
damn bit of difference how much kale is in that brick and mor-
tar...people aren’t going to be able to buy it.’’ Ultimately, there
was recognition that alliances need to organize continually around
how poverty creates public health problems. As Clare Fox, the
Director of Policy & Innovation at the LAFPC, stated, it is important
to ‘‘relate a living wage job to improvements in public health out-
comes.’’ While not a direct result of a GFGJ discourse, recent victo-
ries such as the food procurement policy adopted by the city of LA
and by LA Unified School District reflect a more confrontational
political logic predicated on building trust and deeper AFM net-
works. The policy mandates that institutions adopt the Good Food
Purchasing Pledge to increase local food purchases that meet high
animal welfare, environmental, labor, and nutritional standards.
This creates new opportunities to increase the number of local food
producers and good jobs in more conventional sectors of the local
agrifood system, which incentivizes supporting good employers
and increasing access to healthy food.
Discussion and conclusion: producing spaces of hope through
the politics of good food, good jobs
The US AFM has long privileged environmental sustainability,
saving small farmers, and eating healthy food through a consumer
centric politics that elevates nutrition education and paying more
for local food. This politics has generally emphasized a prefigura-
tive politics of secession from rather than confrontation with the
conventional agrifood system. Additionally, this secessionist poli-
tics has generally ignored or deemphasized broader social and eco-
nomic justice concerns within the alternative and conventional
agrifood systems, particularly those of food chain workers and
lower income urban consumers in food deserts.
The politics of GFGJ aims to address this weakness within the
AFM by changing the framework through which people see the
symptoms and causes of food deserts, and lower income commu-
nities in general. Additionally, a GFGJ approach opens up space
for new alliances within the AFM as well as political tactics and
strategies used to address food deserts. Reflecting such shifts, acti-
vists in NYC and LA have worked together to reorient food desert
J.S. Myers, J. Sbicca / Geoforum 61 (2015) 17–26 23
discourse away from the supply side dynamics of low prices or
simply creating healthy food spaces toward a demand side dynam-
ic of living wages. In doing so, they underscore that the root causes
of food deserts are tied to the structure of the economy in low-in-
come communities, that of bad jobs or no jobs. While not discount-
ing the creative food acquisition strategies of low-income
urbanites, the GFGJ approach responds to findings that the major
barrier to healthy food is cost (Alkon et al., 2013). The solution to
increasing access to good food for low-income communities is cre-
ating good jobs that will provide upward class mobility. A grocery
store in and of itself does not end food deserts, the type of grocery
store matters. Living wage jobs are an important component to
solving both the economic problem of poverty and the public
health problem of diet-related disease.
The GFGJ discourse, in linking food justice and economic justice,
is a bridge that enables coalition building between diverse organi-
zations and activists desiring greater voice and power in communi-
ty level and citywide development. It represents a creative politics
of possibility that breaks down barriers in the AFM and opens up
‘‘spaces of hope’’ (Harvey, 2000) to push for systemic solutions
and alternatives to problems within the conventional agrifood sys-
tem. Such a discourse illuminates the recognition by those facing
many intersecting problems that more comprehensive solutions
require what Alkon (2012) refers to as a ‘‘cross-pollination’’
between social justice and sustainability and what Cole and
Foster (2001) call a ‘‘transformative politics’’ that empowers previ-
ously marginalized communities. Relatedly, the discourse can be
seen to represent one of a variety of what Carolan (2011) calls
‘‘rainbow evolutions,’’ which are more adaptive and resilient local-
ly contextualized solutions. Additionally, the discourse elevates
more confrontational political logics within the AFM. This is espe-
cially relevant in light of food justice scholarship that places eco-
nomic justice at the heart of AFM struggles (Gottlieb and Joshi,
2010; Harrison, 2011) and calls by scholars for greater attention
to the instances where those concerned with food justice ally with
workers to advance economic justice (Alkon and Agyeman, 2011).
In short, GFGJ pushes the farmer-centric and supply side consumer
orientation of much AFM activism and scholarly analysis to include
urban food chain workers and demand side labor solutions.
Framing the solution to conditions of food and economic inse-
curity in low-income urban communities through a comprehen-
sive lens rejects strategies that would divide communities and
social movements. By demanding good food and good jobs, acti-
vists positively frame the desire for food justice and economic jus-
tice. In turn, this helps regenerate and expand the AFM through a
politics that supports alternatives as long as there is comparable
confrontation with powerful political and economic forces. There
is a place for a prefigurative politics of secession, but without
strategies to redirect value produced by workers and without
engagement in the political arena, the opportunity for creating
agrifood systems that offer good food and good jobs for all seems
unlikely. The practice of creating socially just and sustainable food-
sheds benefits from bridging consumer and labor politics in alter-
native and conventional food supply chains.
The message behind GFGJ is that combating poverty and diet-
related disease does not require free markets and trickle-down
economics. It requires that communities have power over how
markets operate, because this will allow the value produced by
workers to be redistributed from corporations, Wall Street, and
the elite toward workers. In turn, workers will use that captured
value to afford housing, preventative healthcare, and good food,
send their children to college, take sick days, and enjoy vacations.
In doing so, the GFGJ discourse mirrors and gains support from a
strong push at local, state, and federal levels to increase the mini-
mum wage, which is emblematic of a vibrant economic justice
movement challenging neoliberal development models. Take for
instance the fact that the new mayors of LA (Eric Garcetti – D)
and NYC (Bill de Blasio – D) are both publically opposed to Wal-
Mart and for increasing the citywide minimum wage.
Despite the emergence of the GFGJ discourse and its possi-
bilities for transforming the way we understand food deserts and
the alliances and politics of the AFM, there are several external
and internal barriers to the discourse. Externally, food activists
deploying GFGJ must combat the allure of ‘‘any job is better than
no job.’’ As seen in LA, communities suffering from poverty, unem-
ployment, and food insecurity often lack the political and economic
leverage to hold out or struggle for living wage jobs. This power
dynamic threatens the ability of a GFGJ discourse to realize justice
for workers and create the conditions for community-wide upward
mobility. Moreover, it is precisely the dependency and vul-
nerability of marginalized communities that Wal-Mart capitalizes
on with its proposals to quench the hunger of food deserts through
low prices. In this sense, activists demanding good food and good
jobs face uphill battles against corporate-state growth-coalition
dynamics, as seen in the case of both Mayor Villaraigosa and Mayor
Bloomberg tacitly supporting, and Michelle Obama explicitly sup-
porting, Wal-Mart development in the name of improving public
Internally, campaigns for GFGJ might benefit from moving
beyond mere bread and butter interests to encompass a holistic
labor, food, and ecological politics. Doing so could help GFGJ
become the discourse grounding vibrant blue-green coalitions.
We have shown how the GFGJ discourse builds power by bringing
together coalitions of different activists and organizations because
it does not focus on a single issue, which means that its politics
reach beyond fragmented and siloed AFM sectors. While the con-
cept is inherently multifaceted and open, and has the possibility
to link together a wide range of issues, such as living wages, work-
place safety, food safety, public health, and environmental degra-
dation, questions remain.
First, will campaigns for GFGJ expand to include who decides
not only workplace conditions but also a company’s sourcing
requirements (e.g. local, organic, small-farmers, living wages for
farmworkers)? If the discourse only encompasses negotiating labor
contracts in terms of wages and benefits, and specifically for gro-
cery store workers, then campaigns for GFGJ might have less of a
substantive effect on the structure and sustainability of food pro-
duction. Rather than merely leveraging good food for labor, acti-
vists would need to leverage the power of labor for
sustainability. Given the current framing and implementation of
GFGJ we have yet to see a robust confrontational politics that tries
to reshape grocery store sourcing dynamics according to labor and
environmental standards.
Second, rather than merely uniting grocery store unions and
urban AFM organizations, will GFGJ be broadened to bring together
grocery store unions, farmworker, food processor, environmental
justice, and immigrant rights organizations? Such alliances could
significantly shape working conditions within the conventional
agrifood system and revive a progressive and social justice orient-
ed community-based unionism. In targeting only one point of the
conventional agrifood chain GFGJ is limited, in scope and therefore
its abilities to combat poverty and inequality. So far, our cases
reveal the use of GFGJ by only a limited set of workers and commu-
nities deserving of economic justice.
Third, can a GFGJ discourse be used to increase reflexivity with-
in the AFM regarding its own labor practices? Currently, many
small family farms rely on undocumented immigrant labor while
urban agriculture experiments rely on volunteer labor and both
operate on slim profit margins that make the work economically
precarious. Yet, much of this free or underpaid labor is made
invisible through a politics that privileges local food grown by
small farmers. While campaigns for GFGJ are encouraging AFM
24 J.S. Myers, J. Sbicca / Geoforum 61 (2015) 17–26
organizations to realize economic justice within the conventional
agrifood system, will the same organizations expand the GFGJ dis-
course to work for economic justice within the alternative agrifood
system? Given the often precarious economic dynamics that shape
small-scale farming and the health and environmental reasons for
why consumers buy local or organic, trying to fuse local food with
just food for all food chain workers has had limited gains.
Despite these barriers, with the emergence of GFGJ campaigns,
the Real Food Challenge at colleges and universities, and the Fair
Food Program of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, among
others, it appears that there is a renaissance in labor oriented con-
frontational political logics within the AFM unseen since the 1960s
and the United Farmworkers Union. Will any of this have lasting
impacts? Time will tell, but in the meantime, there is a need for
further investigation into the potential transformation of the
AFM by documenting, theorizing, and probing the political poten-
tial of these new confrontation based alliances and their pursuit of
more healthy and fair agrifood systems.
Both authors would like to thank all our participants for sharing
their stories, struggles, and hopes. We would also like to thank the
anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments and sugges-
tions. Obviously, any oversights or mistakes are our own.
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26 J.S. Myers, J. Sbicca / Geoforum 61 (2015) 17–26
... Just as Minkoff-Zern (2017) and others argue that labor and workers' rights must be given more attention within movements and campaigns for sustainable food systems, I argue that incarcerated persons and carceral food systems must be included in our conceptualizing of food systems and food justice. Food movements have been criticized for their focus on "good food" politics and environmental and health concerns related to food, as well as for highlighting alternatives rather than directly confronting sources of oppression and exploitation within the dominant food system (Alkon and Guthman 2017; Holt-Gimenez 2017; Levkoe and Wilson 2019; Myers and Sbicca 2015;Sbicca 2018). Recognizing the injustices occurring within carceral food systems as a food movement issue and part of the struggle to transform our food systems represents one way for the food movement to engage in a deeper acknowledgment of the structural inequalities in the food system and build solidarity with other social movements. ...
Full-text available
Centering the perspectives and lived experiences of incarcerated persons, this article considers the ways food is used as a tool and site of contestation and possibility within federal prisons in Canada. Focusing specifically on the implementation of and resistance to the Food Services Modernization Initiative, I explore food as “contested terrain” within carceral systems, making visible a range of tactics of resistance employed by incarcerated persons, from testimonials and official complaints to direct collective action. In analyzing these actions and narratives, I reflect on the importance of both food justice and prisoner justice to transforming carceral food systems and call for greater acknowledgment of carceral food systems within food movement discourses and campaigns.
... However, the price of food is only one aspect of its accessibility. The underlying political, economic and historical factors that frame food security debates have been downplayed in the discourse but are vital in fully understanding the crisis and its potential solutions (Myers and Sbicca, 2015). ...
... Firstly, literature highlights the need to consider inequitable power relations between food system actors, which in many cases perpetuate poverty and impact the already vulnerable (Clapp, 2016;DeFries et al., 2017;Van der Ploeg, 2010). Such inequitable power relations stretch throughout the food system and have major effects on livelihoods worldwide Myers and Sbicca, 2015;Patel and McMichael, 2016;Thompson and Scoones, 2009). Various conditions are put forth to address or even correct these inequities: such as, providing equitable access to knowledge and technologies with respect to food system practices (Duru et al., 2015;Koohafkan et al., 2012;Wigboldus et al., 2016;Wright et al., 2016), equitable access to natural resources, such as marine (Crona et al., 2015;Daw et al., 2015) and land resources (Borras et al., 2011;Cotula, 2012); but also, the opening up of decision-making and governance processes to include voices often silenced (Duncan, 2015;Tengö et al., 2017). ...
Full-text available
Growing acknowledgement that food systems require transformation, demands comprehensive sustainability assessments that can support decision-making and sustainability governance. To do so, assessment frameworks must be able to make trade-offs and synergies visible and allow for inclusive negotiation on food system outcomes relevant to diverse food system actors. This paper reviews literature and frameworks and builds on stakeholder input to present a Sustainability Compass made up of a comprehensive set of metrics for food system assessments. The Compass defines sustainability scores for four societal goals, underpinned by areas of concern. We demonstrate proof of concept of the operationalization of the approach and its metrics. The Sustainability Compass is able to generate comprehensive food system insights that enables reflexive evaluation and multi-actor negotiation for policy making.
... Firstly, literature highlights the need to consider inequitable power relations between food system actors, which in many cases perpetuate poverty and impact the already vulnerable (Clapp, 2016;DeFries et al., 2017;Van der Ploeg, 2010). Such inequitable power relations stretch throughout the food system and have major effects on livelihoods worldwide (Biggs et al., 2015;Myers and Sbicca, 2015;Patel and McMichael, 2016;Scoones, 2009). Various conditions are put forth to address or even correct these inequities: such as, providing equitable access to knowledge and technologies with respect to food system practices (Duru et al., 2015;Koohafkan et al., 2012;Wigboldus et al., 2016;Wright et al., 2016), equitable access to natural resources, such as marine (Crona et al., 2015;Daw et al., 2015) and land resources (Borras et al., 2011;Cotula, 2012); but also, the opening up of decisionmaking and governance processes to include voices often silenced (Duncan, 2015;Tengö et al., 2017). ...
The growing acknowledgement that food systems require transformation has led to a call for comprehensive sustainability assessments to support decision-making. For frameworks to serve sustainability governance, they must show the trade-offs and unintended consequences that might result from policy decisions across key goals relevant to food system actors. This paper reviews existing literature and frameworks and builds on stakeholder input to present a sustainability compass with associated metrics for food system assessments. The compass defines sustainability scores for four societal goals, underpinned by areas of concern. The operationalisation approach for assessment balances policy-usability, system complexity and comprehensiveness, while providing actionable insights. It concludes by outlining additional challenges for research to continue development of food system frameworks that support sustainability governance.
African American foodways have historically shared many of the same imperatives prized by writers, experts, and pundits concerned with making food systems more sustainable—namely, encouraging farm-to-table food distribution networks, using “natural” or low-impact agricultural methods, and inspiring scratch cooking with local, fresh ingredients. Contemporary writing about sustainable food and agriculture in the United States locates the origins of this movement in Europe and northern California. In this article, we challenge this conceptualization by presenting what we call the “food imaginaries” of three key historical figures: George Washington Carver, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Edna Lewis. These imaginaries not only reflect the knowledge constructions of a social group and map future possibilities through foodways but also challenge damaging narratives about African American food histories, particularly across the south. We find that these imaginaries envision food as a pathway to freedom, autonomy, pleasure, and joy, and tell greater stories of how “organic” and “natural” falters when imagined outside of Blackness. These imaginaries, we argue, are central to American agricultural and political histories, and have important implications for sustainability and food justice movements in the United States.
Food Justice – as a movement and scholarly literature – has necessarily argued for examinations of power and discrimination within food systems. However, much food justice literature has not fully examined the legislative process nor attended to its own anti-fat biases. This paper examines produce prescription programs (PPPs), focusing on key informant interviews with PPP organizers across the United States alongside participant observation at West Virginia PPPs. It argues that PPPs – and recent federal legislation which institutionalizes them – are based on prescribed conceptions of a “healthy body.” The paper considers how incentivization, a focus on chronic diet-related disease, concerns around risk, and the use of biometrics fall within the “weight-centered paradigm” of public health interventions. It ends with a brief consideration of legislation and policies that focus on structural concerns around food and health.
In the 1960s-70s, Japan’s teikei movement, also referred to as Japanese community supported agriculture (CSA), emerged as a response to a period marred with multiple food scandals and environmental injustices and resulted in direct partnerships between consumers and organic farmers. Although this movement peaked in the 1990s just as the concept of alternative food networks (AFNs) gained popularity in western countries, little is known about what has happened to teikei today. This paper analyzes how teikei exemplifies diverse economies and explores how the possibilities of noncapitalist economic practice currently exist compared to the founding movement principles. Through case studies of two teikei groups in the Kansai region of Japan that transitioned their leadership to younger generations, I assess how changes made by current generations allow teikei to adapt to challenges that have long plagued the movement, such as the decline of volunteer labor provided by housewives. Drawing on a diverse economies approach, I argue that, despite current members’ detachment from strong activist identities, they sustain their organizations through part-time work, community building, and institutionalizing volunteer labor. The successes and struggles of current teikei groups provide insight into how AFNs seeking to build alternative economies can overcome difficulties that emerge from actualizing diverse economies.
In this article we explore the results of a research collaboration between an undergraduate class focused on labor in the food system and the nonprofit organization, Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United. Students were trained as interviewers and collected surveys with restaurant workers in the upstate New York region as part of ROC United’s ongoing effort to eliminate the subminimum wage for tipped workers in New York State. We argue that this model of research partnerships with community based organizations is one crucial means by which Food Studies instructors can encourage students’ shift from a purely-consumer to worker perspective in the classroom and study of the US food system.
While the food justice movement was initially asso¬ciated with increasing availability of fresh produce in low-income communities of color through insti¬tutions such as farmers markets, scholars have cri¬tiqued this as imposing a right way of eating. Food justice scholarship has moved away from a focus on healthy eating toward a focus on community economic development, as food enterprises can stimulate job creation. This paper investigates the dual goals of the food justice movement through a case study in San Diego. While food justice has moved beyond promoting a love of produce and is increasingly oriented toward good jobs, for the urban gardeners in this study, the movement is still a lot about vegetables. They see food as medicine, and note the health benefits of moving toward a plant-based diet. Yet, they are reluctant to push this way of eating on others, as they do not want to come across as elitist. Instead, they spread aware¬ness that plant-based diets are an African tradition that should not just be associated with rich white folks. Rather than leading with nutrition, they lead with tradition, taste, and buying Black. To encour¬age consumption of vegetables, they aim to in¬crease the supply of prepared food options in the community, and to market dishes as delicious rather than healthy, all the while supporting Black food entrepreneurs. When selling produce direct to the consumer through farmers markets does not achieve their vision of promoting health or sup¬porting livelihoods, they re-imagine a strategy of promoting food justice through a neighborhood food supply chain.
Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies provides an intimate examination of the everyday lives and suffering of Mexican migrants in our contemporary food system. An anthropologist and MD in the mold of Paul Farmer and Didier Fassin, Holmes shows how market forces, anti-immigrant sentiment, and racism undermine health and health care. Holmes's material is visceral and powerful. He trekked with his companions illegally through the desert into Arizona and was jailed with them before they were deported. He lived with indigenous families in the mountains of Oaxaca and in farm labor camps in the U.S., planted and harvested corn, picked strawberries, and accompanied sick workers to clinics and hospitals. This "embodied anthropology" deepens our theoretical understanding of the ways in which social inequalities and suffering come to be perceived as normal and natural in society and in health care.
Food and agriculture are in the news daily. Stories in the media highlight issues of abundance, deprivation, pleasure, risk, health, community, and identity. Remaking the North American Food System examines the resurgence of interest in rebuilding the links between agricultural production and food consumption as a way to overcome some of the negative implications of industrial and globalizing trends in the food and agricultural system. Written by a diverse group of scholars and practitioners, the chapters in this volume describe the many efforts throughout North America to craft and sustain alternative food systems that can improve social, economic, environmental, and health outcomes. With examples from Puerto Rico to Oregon to Quebec, this volume offers a broad North American perspective attuned to trends toward globalization at the level of markets and governance and shows how globalization affects the specific localities. The contributors make the case that food can no longer be taken for granted or viewed in isolation. Rather, food should be considered in its connection to community vitality, cultural survival, economic development, social justice, environmental quality, ecological integrity, and human health.
People of color are often limited to low-wage jobs in the food industry, especially recent and undocumented immigrants who find seasonal work harvesting crops in the fields. Food chain workers suffer low wages and exploitative conditions. Further, many lack access to healthy food and are food insecure. This paper explores the universe of workers that populate the food chain, from seed to table, and maps the race, class, and gender of food workers. This is a baseline from which the food justice movement can dream of a new supply chain, one that sustains and nourishes its labor, as well as its consumers.