Book Review: Food Justice

What's wrong with our food system—and how can we fix it?
Food Justice

Food Justice
by Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi
The MIT Press, 2010, 304 pages, $27.95
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Eight million shopping carts were abandoned on the streets and sidewalks of Southern California in 2007. The shopping carts—used by shoppers without access to a car, public transit or other means to carry their heavy groceries home—symbolize one of the food injustices faced by Americans every year.

The emerging food justice movement, chronicled by Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi in Food Justice, seeks to attain “equity and fairness in relation to food system impacts and a different, more just, and sustainable way for food to be grown, produced, made accessible, and eaten.” The food justice movement can be loosely defined as farmers, farmworkers, gardeners, and anyone who is working to develop alternative ways to grow, produce, and distribute food.

With such an expansive subject as the basis for Food Justice, no topic is too small (vending machines in schools) or company too large (Wal-Mart) to be tackled by Gottlieb and Joshi. The book takes a sweeping look at our food system through a food justice lens. The first section of the book is a history lesson, examining how food is grown, produced, transported, distributed, and eaten in the United States and other parts of the world. The second section is a guidebook, recounting organizational and political initiatives that have challenged the food system successfully and offering pointed advice to food justice groups.

Husking corn, photo by Leslie M. Friend
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Filled with the creative vernacular of the food justice movement, the book explores problems such as food deserts, grocery gaps, and food swamps (areas without affordable fresh food); globesity (the global obesity epidemic); and malbouffe (“bad food” stripped of taste, health, and cultural or geographical identity). But for each problem Food Justice identifies, it offers a solution: farmers’ markets, community gardens, and CSAs; food sovereignty (each country’s right to maintain and develop basic foods); and terroir (a concept that links food to both its growing practices and cultural associations).

Though optimistic about the fledgling movement’s potential, the authors also point out some of the obstacles that the food justice movement must overcome, such as the debate about whether to address inequities in the food system or to work for system change, and how to facilitate linkage of groups and issues.

Though it is still a work in progress, the food justice movement has the potential to help restructure our food system, starting from the most local of levels. Consider the Rethinkers, a group of middle school students in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, who were able to advocate successfully for more local, healthy fare in school cafeterias across the city. The rest of the country may not be ready to fall in line behind these forward-thinking middle schoolers, but Food Justice offers the anecdotes and advice for those ready to do so.


  • It all begins with food: How to restore the health and wealth of inner-city communities.

  • Video: In West Oakland, a community cooperative is providing an alternative to fast food and packaged snacks.

  • Will Allen’s farm offers fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, and a taste of the delicious possibilities of farming the urban food deserts.
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