How to bring Food Justice on the menu in Urban Food Futures?

Report by Yannick Overzee

Over the next decades, how can we grow & eat food that is healthy, planet-proof and just? Sustainable food practitioners and food systems scholars face tough dilemmas: do we spare nature with intensive food production in designated areas, or do we share the benefits and duties of food production through local food chains? While we are worried about the desertification of arable land, how do we also keep fighting the food deserts forming in our towns and cities? And why is attention to future food systems often so focused on the middle class and the Northern Hemisphere?

How to bring Food Justice on the menu in Urban Food Futures?

These were the questions we discussed during our interactive online event on food justice, which began with presentations from two researchers in the field of food futures: Professor Julian Agyeman and Aniek Hebinck. The two laid out the challenges underlying the current food system, upon which Professor Julian Agyeman built to stress the vital importance of bringing in questions of racism in the food system, with notable North American examples.  To enable the active and democratic participation of the 55 participants, we employed a ‘chat storm’ facilitation strategy in which participants effectively self-facilitate the discussion; In this format, participants nominate the questions they would like to have discussed by the speakers. This way, participants decide what issues are talked about and what direction the conversation takes.

Some highlights from the conversation:

#1 We cannot separate hunger from racist urban planning

Redlined districts in the United States—zones marked as unsuited for investment by city planners, often demarcating areas with large proportions of marginalised population groups—are also among the most food impoverished and food insecure; they are areas where food deserts—areas lacking adequate access to nutritious food—are most common. Hence, food justice can only be achieved by acknowledging and tackling the oppressive legacies of urban planning. But where planning policies have largely contributed to this problem, they can now also hold the key to bettering the situation. That is if politicians dare to be bold enough to commit to their constituencies’ right to food, as in the case of Boston under Mayor Michelle Wu.

#2 ‘Local’ food is a matter of interpretation

The Alternative Food Movement advocates for the production and consumption of ‘local food’ as a way to reconnect with the sustainability of food production. However, local food means different things to different people; It’s the heirloom seeds brought with migration, Maryland farmers growing “African crops” for Washington DC diplomats and staff. It’s the supply of multicultural foods at local ‘Asian’ markets. Reducing the narrative to a narrow interpretation of localism fails to acknowledge the translocal nature of the wants and needs of the people embedded in food systems. 

#3 The future of food is still under construction

The current food system has its flaws including harmful impacts on climate change and social justice. In the acknowledgement of these problems, different stakeholders envision different solutions to tackle them. Yet not all solutions manage to address all flaws and shortcomings—they are no silver bullets. Neither, however, do they represent silver-bullet solutions; In the plurality of approaches to a more just and sustainable future food system lies the opportunity to rebuild it and revise it from the ground up. It’s important to envision what a just future food system would look like to devise pathways for the food systems’ overhaul.

Resources from the webinar

About the organizers

The JUSTRA Cities Network project of the Vital Cities & Citizens (VCC) initiative in collaboration with the Dutch Research Institute for Transitions (DRIFT). 

About the Author

Yannick Overzee is working as a research assistant for the Vital Cities & Citizens initiative on the Just Sustainability Transitions in Cities Network (JUSTRA Cities Network) research project. He holds a MSc in Cultural Anthropology: Sustainable Citizenship at Utrecht University and is currently pursuing his MSc in Industrial Ecology at the Technical University Delft and Leiden University. His research interests include urban agroecology, food justice, social movements, and sustainability transitions.

More information

Vital Cities and Citizens 

With the Erasmus Initiative Vital Cities and Citizens (VCC) Erasmus University Rotterdam wants to help improve the quality of life in cities. In vital cities, the population can achieve their life goals through education, useful work and participation in public life. The vital city is a platform for creativity and diversity, a safe meeting place for different social groups. The researchers involved focus on one of the four sub-themes: 

  • Inclusive Cities and Diversity 
  • Resilient Cities and People 
  • Smart Cities and Communities  
  • Sustainable and Just Cities 

VCC is a collaboration between Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences (ESSB), Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication (ESHCC) and International Institute of Social Studies (ISS). 

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