Racial justice protestors in coronavirus masks cross the Brooklyn bridge carrying signs remembering George Floyd.

Food Justice Series

Share Our Strength - the organization behind the No Kid Hungry campaign - hosts an ongoing speaking series that examines the roots and evolution of the food justice movement and its connection to race and class, health, education and the environment.

What is Food Justice?

Food is an essential element of equity. Not having adequate access to food can harm the health, opportunities and development of entire communities. But through food, people can reclaim their sense of dignity by defining who they are and creating community around a plate of food.

Food justice is better defined by the stories of people that for generations have lived it. Representatives from indigenous groups, the Black community and many more have shared the stories of resistance and resiliency in our Conversations on Food Justice.

You'll find here a recap of all these conversations. We hope they inspire a continuation of a work that is not finished. Today, 1 in 6 kids is living with hunger in the U.S. Food justice needs to advance to reach a future in which no kid will have to experience hunger.

The Radical Origins of the Food Justice Movement

First Installment

“I believe in the power of the people,” said Ericka Huggins.

The human rights activist, educator, Black Panther leader and former political prisoner was one of the first speakers of Conversations on Food Justice.

Devita Davison & Ericka Huggins

For Huggins, the power of the people was what drove the Black Panther Party to start what inspired the National Breakfast Program, an essential part of the fight against childhood hunger in the United States today.

Huggins discussed the history of the food justice movement with Devita Davison, executive director at FoodLab Detroit, an organization supporting independently-owned food businesses, who are exploring models that create a more equitable and sustainable environment. The conversation was moderated by Norbert L. Wilson, professor of food economics and community at Duke University’s Divinity School.  

They highlighted the importance of history to inform current realities and the work societies have to do today. The conversation started with acknowledgements of the ancestral lands where the speakers were located and the legacy that slavery has had over the three Black speakers.

Davison highlighted the Greenwood Food Blockade in the early 1960’s, in which the Board of Supervisors of Leflore County, Miss. stopped winter food assistance to Black sharecroppers, including Davison’s parents, to repress their right to vote. 

“We cannot free ourselves until we feed ourselves,” she concluded. 

Devita Davison quote

Around that time, Huggins and the Black Panther Party went to communities, asking them what they needed.

“‘Our babies are hungry,’” they told her. “‘They go to school, but they don’t have nutritious meals because we live in conditions of poverty and can’t provide what they need.’” 

The Party started a revolutionary program to feed all kids who needed food by providing free breakfast at schools. The program was so successful that it inspired the federal government to start today’s National Breakfast Program.

But those conditions of inequity persist today.

Davison drew a strong connection between how hunger and the coronavirus disproportionately affect Blacks in Michigan today, where Blacks represent 13% of the state’s population but 40% of people infected and killed by the pandemic. It’s a trend that holds true for people of color nationally, as we noted in our report, The Longest Summer.  

Still, Huggins and Davison are hopeful.  

“Restoring justice means, where there has been inequity, where there has been a continuous stream of violence meted out to one people, we need to think about what we can do together and individually to shift it,” Huggins said.  

This was the first of a series of conversations, that as explained by Share Our Strength’s Elliott Gaskins, highlight the connection of food justice and anti-hunger work. “One without the other one,” Gaskins said, “won’t lead to the systemic change that will be essential to eradicate the hunger crisis.” 

Stay tuned for updates about the next Conversation on Food Justice, and please stay with us in the fight to ensure all kids get the food they need. We’re committed to breaking down any and all systemic inequalities that stand between a hungry child and healthy meal. 

Gaskins closed the conversation by quoting Martin Luther King, Jr., “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?'”

Food Justice and Racial Justice

Second Installment

The second installment of the Conversations on Food Justice Series focused on hunger as a racial equity issue. 

Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree moderated the event, which featured Dr. John B. King Jr., the president and CEO of the Education Trust and former secretary of education, and former Maryland Congresswoman Donna Edwards. 

[Read the After Action Report]

Here are five key takeaways from the conversation:

We Must Make Systemic Change to Solve Hunger

Both King and Congresswoman Edwards drew a direct line between slavery, Jim Crow and the disproportionate rates of hunger among people of color today. They argued that transformational change needs to happen at the government level, as they see many federal and programs as designed to actually keep people from accessing them through. 

Congresswoman Edwards shared her experience being unable to receive help in a moment of economic hardship because she worked full time. Congresswoman Pingree talked about some states failing to effectively implement the Pandemic-EBT Program – which offered temporary emergency nutritional funds loaded on EBT cards for children who normally receive free or reduced-price lunches in school.

They offered ideas for practical solutions like extra EBT assistance in the summer similar to Pandemic-EBT, universal school lunches for kids, and encouraging leaders to listen to families.

King noted that it’s going to take all of us to achieve lasting change. “We have to move from performative wokeness to policy wokeness,” he said, asking people to go beyond putting a Black Lives Matter sign on the yard and encouraging them to vote for equitable policies.

Stigmatization Causes Hunger

Former Congresswoman Edwards shared her own personal story about receiving food assistance in the past, and the shame that came with it. “I would come home from my job, take off my suit that I had to wear to work, put on jeans and a t-shirt and a baseball cap and go around to different food banks in order to avoid just being seen.”

The story highlighted how we need to move past demonizing people who need help. The ongoing pandemic has increased the number of people collecting meals at food distribution centers, and for many it is the first time doing it.

“Let’s change the narrative on how we think about them. Think of them, not as individuals who need help, because we’ve all needed help in one form or another,” Elliot Gaskins, a managing director at Share Our Strength concluded. “Let’s think of them as the resilient, determined and extraordinary individuals that they are.”

Healthy Food is Essential for Ending Hunger

Pingree noted that we must move past people just getting enough calories and, instead, think about the ability to access healthy food

They explored the historical origins of unhealthy eating and its connection to slave diets and federal policymakers choosing not to focus on healthy foods. “The irony is we think that that’s somehow saving us money, but actually, if you look at the health consequences, it’s costing us money,” King argued. 

But too many low-income families live in food deserts where there are simply no supermarkets with fresh produce and foods nearby, making healthy food all but impossible to find.

Hunger Doesn’t Stop in College

Congresswoman Edwards emphasized that many college students are not hungry because they are trying to save money for a concert. Many experience economic hardship, and of those that do, 20% are parents. With the cost of college increasing, and assistance like Pell grants covering only 28% of the overall costs, too many college students are turning to food banks or simply going hungry.

Calling for policies to protect these students, King noted the negative educational impacts, saying, “Think about how hard it is to be focused when you are desperately hungry. Or how much of your mental energy, if you’re a parent, is going into thinking about how I am going to get food for my kids?”

We Can’t Forget 2020

2020 has been a year that has exposed inequities and pushed us to have advance serious conversations about systemic racism and the steps to fight it. The speakers expressed that we cannot turn the page.

“My fear is that 2020 has been such a bad year that all of us want to put it in the rearview mirror, but we really can’t afford to do that when it comes to hunger,” said Congresswoman Edwards.

Food Justice and Health

Third Installment

The third installment explored the devastating effect of structural racism on the health of the Black community.

Dr. J. Nadine Gracia, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Trust for America’s Health, moderated the conversation between Chef Tamearra Dyson, owner of Souley Vegan LLC, and Dr. Frederick Douglass Opie, professor of history and foodways at Babson College.

Speakers: Dr. Nadine Gracia, Dr. Frederick Douglass Opie and Chef Tamearra Dyson

Here are three major takeaways from the insightful and stirring event:

We Need to Understand Our History

Both speakers looked at history for lessons and inspiration. 

Dr. Opie explained how lack of access to healthy food had been used as a tool of oppression against the Black community throughout history. 

“It is interesting to think that one of the most offensive things someone could do to you is deny you a place at the table,” he said. 

In particular, he called out how slaves had to worry constantly about accessing food, while slavery in the Americas largely existed because of the demand for sugar. Still today, he said, the sugar industry disproportionately targets Black individuals in their marketing, and diabetes runs rampant in communities of color.

Dr. Opie and Dyson also focused on how food had been an essential tool for the Black community to resist oppression. They pointed out the ingenuity of slaves to grow their own food, the restaurant sit-ins during segregation and the Black Panther Movement creating the model for the National Breakfast Program.

Dyson drew on personal experiences to highlight the impact of structural racism in her health and how she used food as a tool of empowerment. 

Her mom would work hard to bring healthy food to the table, but sometimes there was not enough. As a young girl, Dyson would sneak into the kitchen and eat unhealthy food when she felt stressed out about the economic challenges they faced, which were tied to systemic racism. 

After working in the medical field and seeing the effects of unhealthy diets in her community, Dyson took a leap of faith to open a vegan restaurant. She started with no savings or experience, and today she shares healthy affordable and traditionally-rooted food with her community. 

Human Connection Should Become a Priority

Similar to Dyson’s experience as a young child, the speakers highlighted the vicious cycle of economic hardship, stress and health issues.

“I don’t think it’s any revolutionary information to say that, when people are stressed out, they often cope by drinking. They cope by eating,” Dr. Opie said. 

Still, he highlighted how most people of color live in food apartheid, communities with no supermarkets or reliable public transportation to reach them.

Both speakers agreed communities needed to come together to take care of each other. Dr. Opie proposed using the efficient canvassing system — where people go door to door promoting a particular candidate — to offer help to the community.

“We need to check in to make sure our neighbors are okay,” Dyson added.

Education is Essential to Fight Structural Racism

Dyson explained how Black individuals often feel they are undeserving without understanding the systems that keep them oppressed and the tools that can help them.

“We lack information, therefore we lack access to the solutions,” she said. “You don’t have to be a victim of your circumstance.”

Similarly, Dr. Opie made calls for the importance of learning history and becoming food literate to understand how food affects us.

Moderator Dr. Garcia closed the conversation asking participants what made them hopeful. 

The three speakers, who all mentor young students, answered they saw hope in the curiosity and sense of community of new generations. For them, education was the key to uprooting systemic racism.

“What gives me hope is what I see as the growing recognition and the growing sense of ownership that we all have a role to play in creating a more equitable and just society. And that it certainly relates to hunger and food insecurity,” Dr. Opie concluded. 

Food Justice for Native Peoples

Fourth Installment

The fourth installment of the Conversations on Food Justice Series explored the importance of food in the fight for justice for Native American communities.

Speakers included Sanjay Rawal, award winning filmmaker and director of the film Gather, Nephi Craig, executive chef of Cafe Gozhoo, food activist and member of the White Mountain Apache tribe, and Sam Schimmel, youth climate activist and member of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council. The conversation was moderated by Nikki Pitre, executive director at the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute. 

Here we present three takeaways from this insightful conversation:

Food is a Path to Sovereignty

Speakers highlighted the importance of food in creating community growth and reclaiming the culture of Native communities. For them, food has memory. It can either connect you to your roots or create trauma. They spoke about how native people received commodity foods, like spam and canned fish, as a band-aid whenever they couldn’t access their traditional meals, and the trauma associated with it.

Chef Craig and Schimmel have taken food as a path of connection to their communities and generating growth. 

Schimmel launched Operation Drop Fish, an initiative to support Native families affected by COVID-19 in Alaska. When delivering fish to remote communities, he was able to connect to his community and support their representation by assisting them with the completion of the census.

For Craig, who is featured in Rawal’s movie Gather, food has been a lifelong passion. He grew uneasy at the fact that Native food was never represented in any of his culinary training. He connected with elders in his community to learn more about their traditional foods, which had a transformative effect on him, and he decided to focus not on creating Native meals for the world to see, but rather creating them for Native communities themselves.

“It has been the Native food that has been my most powerful educator,” he shared. “It was not academia that brought me to mental health, decolonization, indigeneity, health disparities and creating pathways.” 

Food Sovereignty is Intrinsically Connected to the Protection of the Land

Rawal, who migrated from South Asia, shared his experience as a non-native and an immigrant. “There’s very few of us migrants that have an understanding of what it means to be connected to this land. There’s a sentiment of ‘if something bad happens I can move’.”

However, he argued that for Native people, land has an essential connection to their spiritual and cultural identity that they didn’t have a choice.

Schimmel echoed the sentiment of the importance of land for Native culture. He mentioned that climate change had significantly affected hunting and fishing in Alaska, which are essential for sustaining Native culture and food security in his community. The impact had created significant mental health effects in these communities.

“The food insecurities in Alaska are ones that are incredibly real and incredibly impactful.” He shared, “the impact of an empty refrigerator on a child’s mind is detrimental on their ability to learn and grow. Until you have food, water, and shelter, you can’t pursue any other needs. We’re just trying to get the bare minimum. A lot of our time is spent on that instead of pursuing community growth.”

Schimmel argued that the Western way of land management ignored a lot of the cultural practices that supported a healthy environment in which Native communities can develop.

Native People Need Support, Not Saviorism

Speakers ended the conversation with a call to support Native groups. 

They said the best way to support is to ask these communities what they need instead of focusing on creating solutions that come from the top down. There are thousands of efforts by youth and community organizations already doing great work in terms of sovereignty and protection of the land.

Rawal advised people to look up Native tribes in their local area, and to your own privilege and power to support them, elevate their voices and give them space within leadership.

Finally there was a strong call to just get informed, follow Native chefs and community groups, and to use social media as a way to build healthy relationships with Native communities.

Food Justice in Hawaii

Fifth Installment

“Power dynamics are central to any conversation about food justice,” shared Ikaika Hussey, founder of Hawaii Federated Industries.

Three generations of Hawaiian activists spoke about power dynamics of colonization and resistance that define the current food landscape in Hawaii. 

Today, the island experiences high rates of food insecurity and dependency on imported foods but also a strong movement to reconnect to traditional meals and culture.

Daniel and Meala Bishop are part of the older generation of activists who grew up in Hawaii when it was still a U.S. territory. They experienced firsthand the loss of their culture and language. In the 1960’s, school was segregated and didn’t teach them about the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. 

Daniel shared how his grandmother was taken from her family from an early age and raised Catholic without any knowledge of Hawaiian history.

“When I confronted the truth at the dinner table, it was met with great hostility,” he shared.

This older generation was instrumental in the renaissance of Hawaii embodied in the milestone 1978 Hawaiian Constitution. The document made Hawaiian an official language of the state and created an office for the protection of Native Hawaiians, acknowledging the need for reparations.

Marti Townsend, director of The Sierra Club of Hawaii, explained that the constitution created many innovative policies that are essential for the protection of the environment and food sovereignty.

An example, Townsend explained, was the public trust doctrine that “recognizes that there are natural cultural resources that are shared by everyone. Water, for example, cannot be privately owned.” 

Hussey added that many of the tenets of the 1978 Constitution, including the public trust doctrine, were taken from policies and practices of native Hawaiians prior to colonization.

Both Townsend and Hussey represent the renaissance generation that grew up after the enactment of the Constitution. Both connected historical racist attempts to undermine Hawaiian culture to the challenges faced by native Hawaiians today in a capitalist society.

The early generation of activists and the renaissance generation paved the way for the important work of young activists like Ka’iana Runnels who, in his own words, says his “responsibility in life is to feed,” and connect people to traditional ways of life.

Runnels grew up immersed in Hawaiian language and culture and with a deep understanding of the history that was hidden from Daniel and Meala Bishop.

In his eyes, it was essential for young Hawaiians to decolonize their minds and tongues, freeing the way they think and eat. And the only way to do this is to break the school-to-prison pipelines and connect kids to their history.

The six speakers – representing a multigenerational perspective on the fight for justice in Hawaii – expressed hope for future generations of Hawaiians. They see a shift in mentality and a reconnection to traditional ways of living. They also see communities working in unity to tackle challenges like climate change and the lasting impact of the pandemic.

Food Justice and Mental Health

Sixth Installment

Now a professor of pediatric medicine at George Washington University, Dr. Kofi Essel uses the analogy of a deadly snake to explain the toxic stress of food insecurity to his students.

He asked his students to imagine the shock of seeing that snake outside of your home, a healthy fear response, but then he described repeatedly seeing the snake and being unable to make it go away.

The healthy and self-preserving fear of the snake becomes permanent and starts wearing on you.

“We all experience stressors,” he explained. “But when it’s unrelenting, it overwhelms the system; it becomes a toxic stress. Food insecurity is a toxic stress that permanently rewires the brains of children.”

The sixth installment of the Food Justice Series hosted by Share Our Strength focused on the devastating impacts of food insecurity and mental health.

Doctor Cindy Leung, nutrition epidemiologist at the University of Michigan, shared that this conversation was long overdue, while she described some of the many consequences food insecurity can have on kids.

The non-exhaustive list included, lower psycho-social function, lower cognitive development, hyperactivity, aggression and anxiety and difficulty getting along with peers.

Susana Martinez witnesses all of these consequences in her role as chief strategy officer and national director at the Latin American Youth Center in Washington, D.C. Her organization offers comprehensive services to immigrants and other vulnerable families. 

“Food insecurity,” Martinez shared, “is something that will take a little bit of time to expose. The stigma around food insecurity reveals itself in the fact that families don’t want to disclose.”

Martinez shared stories of kids who rejected food because they were embarrassed to say they were hungry and parents who would call feeling offended whenever their kids received free food. She emphasized the importance of looking for behavioral signs in kids and building relationships to meet and understand their needs.

Dr. Essel has encountered the same experience with his patients. He expressed the importance of creating environments in which the stigma doesn’t exist.

“Kids just want to be accepted,” he shared. “One thing we did in D.C. was to offer school breakfast across the board. The idea of allowing all kids to access healthy meals reduces stigma.”

Dr. Leung, Martinez and Dr. Essel wrapped up the conversation discussing practical solutions like the universal breakfast in Washington, D.C.

Martinez focused on additional strategies to reduce stigma, addressing food access and changing the conversation around mental health, normalizing the fact that these challenges can affect anybody. She said understanding the cultural background of families was essential to achieving this.

Dr. Essel focused on solutions at the federal level.

“The most important policy by far is SNAP,” he shared, explaining that – according to a USDA report – 90% of families in the U.S. don’t have enough funds to purchase food for their families all month.

The speakers agreed that the pandemic magnified already underlying inequalities that are the root cause of food insecurity and its devastating effects on the mental health of kids.

“The first thing we can do is acknowledge that food insecurity has structural drivers in our communities, like poverty, racism and unequal food distribution,” Leung explained. “Addressing how we can make food more equitable is a good starting point, recognizing that food insecurity correlates with other insecurities.”

Stay tuned for more Conversations on Food Justice. Please email foodjustice@strength.org to share any feedback and ideas of what topics you would like to see.