The twenty-first century has given birth to a rising obsession over all things food: from celebrity chefs and televised cooking competitions to a growing appetite for exotic flavours and craft brew. So it’s not surprising that the food movement, often called the “good food” movement, has gained significant traction and visibility in Australia over recent years.
Activism efforts of this good food movement have largely focused around issues related to the impacts of industrialised food and agriculture; notably pesticide and chemical use, greenhouse gas emissions, factory farming and public health threats from increased junk food consumption, to name but a few. Often pitching buzzwords and concepts to which concerned consumers can easily (if only sporadically) latch on to – like ‘voting with your food dollar’, eating seasonal or locally-produced foods, or buying Fairtrade or organic – the food movement often champions a politics of “conscious consumerism” for effecting change in the food system.
Yet not everyone can access, or afford to participate in, this kind of “good food” movement. Indigenous Australians, the poor and many ethnic minorities remain almost invisible in the “good food” movement, or at best, passive recipients for food initiatives like rescued supermarket waste or nutritional education programs.
Food Justice goes beyond the less-politicized “good food” movement that is focused on accessing healthy food, farmers markets and community gardens, and brings attention to the inequities and powerlessness of certain populations in determining their food needs. Food justice ensures that everyone, regardless of race, income, gender or age can access and afford a basic healthy diet while working to build a democratic food and agriculture system that ensures fair wages, health and dignity. A core goal of the food justice agenda is to make visible the experience of food injustice and how these inequities can be reduced and overcome.
There is staggering evidence of food injustice and inequity in Australia. Australians who are most likely to suffer food insecurity and hunger are low-income earners, the underemployed and people living in remote areas. Indigenous Australians, particularly those in remote regions, are disproportionately affected. Poor quality diet is linked to three out of the four major causes of death in the Indigenous Australian population (cardiovascular disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes) and is a major contributor to the alarming proportion of indigenous children who are “failing to thrive”. The interplay of disadvantage around income and the cost of fresh food is but one example of food injustice in remote communities, with healthy food baskets costing up to 40 percent more in remote areas than in major cities.
Another example of food injustice is the exploitation of undocumented and underpaid migrant workers on Australian commercial farms. All major Australian supermarkets – Woolworths, Coles, IGA, Aldi and Costco – and a number of fast food and convenience outlets have been exposed in using the grossly exploited labour of predominantly Asian migrant workers. The invisible illegally-low pay, long working hours, and poor working and living conditions would simply not be tenable for other more organised sections of Australia’s working class. These same supermarkets have been driving down food prices to unsustainable levels for farmers, turning farming into an unviable profession for small-scale farmers. Over the last 35 years, the number of Australian farmers has declined a massive 40 percent; equating to an average of around 300 fewer farmers per month since the 1980s.
Food injustice isn’t just limited to far-away rural areas. Inner area gentrification and lack of affordable and/or public housing push many minority ethnic and low socio-economic groups to the outer suburbs of Australia’s capital cities, where disadvantage is becoming increasingly polarised. Access to fresh, affordable and culturally-appropriate food is often impeded by a lack of fresh food outlets and adequate public transportation to access them. As supermarkets are primarily driven by the imperative to generate profit, large supermarkets are concentrated in areas where populations are more affluent, as they have more expendable income to spend in store. This is particularly true for health food stores, whose product lines often incur a hefty price premium. The result is a supermarket stigma in which people in more disadvantaged areas – often ethnically diverse with lower incomes and higher rates of illness or disability – have less access and choice when it comes to healthy food.
At the most basic level, an effective movement to address Australia’s food issues must include not only the voices of people of diverse backgrounds but their leadership, too. Ultimately, no single set of solutions created under a single cultural and social system is likely to produce the kind of transformative change required to ensure that every Australian eats well. Building coalitions across class, race, ethnicity, gender, and occupation, in which each is given equal representation and decision-making power, ensures that everyone’s food choices and values are included in determining solutions to the current food system.
To build a fair, equitable and sustainable food system in Australia, we must put food justice at the forefront of the food movement. Doing so will not only reveal the need for profound change in the way this country produces and distributes food, but also the potential paths to transformation.