How Inequitable Food Systems Cause Harm

Food is one of the most vital parts of life. It sustains us, gives us energy, and nourishes our bodies. It is a basic right and need for every human being. Unfortunately, food has become a commodity. The systems that grow, process, and sell our food are largely made up of corporations with corporate interests: turning a profit is more important than ensuring that every person has equal access to high quality, nutritious food. In 2022, 44.2 million Americans lived in households that struggled to afford enough food. In Oregon, one in eight children are hungry, and 447,260 people are facing hunger. According to a recent OPB article, food insecurity is on the rise in Oregon: the latest census shows that 11% of Oregon households are food insecure, an increase that is largely attributed to the pandemic.

Through the rise of neoliberal capitalism, food has become something to be produced, sold, and purchased. One of the major defining markers of capitalism is production for profit rather than production for use, something that is extremely relevant when talking about food systems. As the scale of food production has grown from local farms to global trade, this aspect of food systems has become more pronounced. Today, food is often produced with the goal of profit, rather than feeding people who need it, meaning corporations that grow food and manufacture food products — as well as major grocery chains — control and influence distribution.

Unsurprisingly, the distribution of healthy, higher-quality food is inequitable. Wealthier neighborhoods tend to have more grocery stores that sell fresh produce and nutritious food. After all, it is in the corporations’ best interest to place their stores in locations where their customers will be able and willing to spend lots of money. In contrast, low-income neighborhoods often lack quality grocery stores or options for purchasing nutritious food, and instead can be filled with fast-food chains. These areas are referred to as “food deserts.” While a food desert is an area that lacks options, the term “food apartheid” refers to the larger systemic issues at hand.

The systemic issues that lead to food insecurity are not only concerned with access to food but also with how existing food is purposed. While some people starve and do not have enough, others have an abundance. Oregon households waste 6.3 pounds of food per week on average, serving as evidence that there is not a scarcity of food, rather that the systems of producing and distributing food are not doing so equitably. That is not to say that individuals are solely to blame for wasted food: businesses make up 40% of total food waste annually, with retailers wasting more than restaurants or other food service providers.

How do we go about creating a better food system that provides high quality food to everyone who needs it? Like other systemic issues, it will require multi-pronged efforts that must target every aspect of the system. Lasting and comprehensive change must ultimately be systemic, but in the meantime smaller-scale operations addressing hunger are vital. Locally run free fridges fill gaps within local, state, and federal policies to address both day-to-day hunger as well as the greater food systems. Other activists and organizations are also doing intensive work to address these issues at all levels. The Farmlink Project, for example, has repurposed millions of pounds of food nationwide from farms that would have otherwise had to throw it away. Initiatives like this play a huge role in addressing the problems of food waste and hunger, specifically in the agricultural sector. They ensure that surplus crops make it from the farm onto someone’s plate.

On the policy side of things, food advocates in Oregon are backing measures like allocating money to a free meal program for children over the summer when they are not in school. Programs like this, as well as funding for food banks and programs like SNAP are another step that should be taken to address hunger.

Our Streets plays its own role in addressing food waste and hunger issues by repurposing thousands of pounds of food a year. Through our Feed the Streets program we provide meals to shelters, service providers, and community partners including the local free fridges. With this work, we play one of the many small yet vital roles in addressing food injustice and hunger.

Many other local nonprofits are working towards more equitable food systems. Urban Gleaners collects and redistributes 80,000 pounds of food per month to low-income communities through free food markets and school pantries. Milk Crate Kitchen is a grassroots nonprofit that provides weekly meal service at no charge, utilizing food donations wherever they can. Blanchet House operates a cafe that serves underprivileged communities six days a week and Sisters of the Road has a long history with a similar program, although their cafe is currently closed as they develop their new location. These organizations, along with many others, are helping alleviate hunger and dismantling barriers to fresh, quality food.

Nonprofits such as these remind us of the power of individuals. When addressing inequitable food systems, it can feel daunting and beyond our control. But even the smallest of actions play a crucial role in reducing food waste and creating equity. Finding ways to reduce your own food waste is small but impactful, as is getting involved with local nonprofits by volunteering or donating. There are endless amounts of food banks and other local initiatives that can use support. For many, capacity is limited to getting food on the table. For those who have the ability, our actions may not solve the systemic issues, but it can still make a difference.