Sustainable Food Systems & Justice — Climate Solutions

Sign up for daily news updates from CleanTechnica on email. Or follow us on Google News!

Many people face challenges purchasing healthy and sustainable food. Sustainable systems and justice, however, can coalesce to create positive impacts toward more healthy food access.

The biggest obstacles for those who find it difficult to buy healthy and sustainable food is affordability (48%) and availability (36%), with a quarter of people saying that they don’t know what healthy and sustainable food is. That’s according to a global consumer research survey conducted by GlobeScan, an insights and strategy consultancy, and EAT, the science-based non-profit for global food system transformation.

While many people struggle with understanding what healthy and sustainable food is, there is also an understanding that the terms have different meanings. The most popular descriptions of healthy food are nutritious (47%), organic (47%), and unprocessed/whole (44%). For sustainable food, the top 3 descriptions are good for the environment (51%), organic (42%), and locally grown (34%).

Chip in a few dollars a month to help support independent cleantech coverage that helps to accelerate the cleantech revolution!

What Do (Lack of) Sustainable Food Systems Look Like in the US?

The Center for Sustainable Systems (CSS) at the University of Michigan defines environmental justice (EJ) as the equal treatment and involvement of all people in environmental decision making. They say EJ is experienced through heightened exposure to pollution and corresponding health risks, limited access to adequate environmental services, and loss of land and resource rights. EJ and sustainability are interdependent and both necessary to create an equitable food environment for all.

Here are some statistics from CSS about the lack of sustainable food systems in the US.

  • In 2019, 10.5% of U.S. households experienced food insecurity at some point during the year — reducing their access to adequate food for an active, healthy lifestyle.
  • In 2019, rates of food insecurity for Black and Hispanic households were higher than the national average and higher in rural versus urban areas.
  • Food prices are higher and quality is lower in high poverty areas.
  • In 2018, the average US household spent 14% of income on food; low-income families spent over 30%.
  • Hispanic and Black children have higher obesity rates than White children.
  • About 53.6 million people (17.4% of total US population) have low access to a supermarket due to limited transportation and uneven distribution of supermarkets.
  • A case study in Detroit found that households in poor Black communities were on average 1.1 miles farther from a supermarket than in the poorest White neighborhoods.

Growing Food for Justice: A Case Study

What does an urban agriculture, food justice-led project look like? Go no further than East New York Farms! (ENYF!), located in a culturally diverse and underserved community. With 2 farms and 2 community gardens, ENYF! seeks to provide solutions to pressing food-justice issues by promoting local, sustainable agriculture and community-led economic development.

As reported by Yes! magazine, this pioneering project, founded in the late 1990s, advocates for healthy eating as the main focus of their community education program. The initiative offers extensive support to new gardeners, providing them with seeds and the option to sell the produce they grow at the ENYF! farmers market. It also offers training opportunities for gardeners in the form of weekly workshops that teach different gardening skills and techniques.

ENYF! manages multiple community gardens in the area and helps community gardeners with the process of starting their own gardens.

The 2 farms operated by ENYF! are both about 22,000 square feet. UCC Youth Farm is powered mostly by 35 paid interns aged between 14 and 18 who are living or going to school in East New York. Activities the interns complete include workshops covering ideas around social justice, racial justice, and food equity through obtaining farming skills, work at the farmers market, and providing hands-on support at fellow community gardens.

According to project director Iyeshima Harris, “The main aim of the program is to teach youth how to grow their own food, expose them to urban agriculture, and also create some form of economic stability for them and their family, having them do something positive in the neighborhood.” Interns have the option to stay in the program until they go to college.

By hiring community members and training them, ENYF! builds and shares local knowledge about healthy eating or different produce that could be used to help combat disease. The emissaries work with the community to perform live demonstrations, create recipes from the produce on the farm, or model menu ideas from the farm’s cookbook.

Over 70 different fruits and vegetables are grown at this urban biodiversity site, including many specialty crops that speak to the diverse cultural backgrounds in the community. “We grow things like karela — also known as bitter melon –, callaloo,amaranth, long beans, okra, and jute, due to the culture of the neighborhood and also our staff,” says Harris. “East New York is predominantly a people-of-color community, and we make sure that every crop that we grow reflects the community—we are very intentional about how we think about and work with the community. We have started multiple community gardens in the area and help community gardeners with the process of starting their own.”

Harris continues, “Our produce is priced reasonably—tomatoes are $2 a pound—so we make sure we are meeting the community’s economic needs as well.” Produce is distributed for free within the community on a weekly basis in East New York to residents who cannot afford fresh, local, organically grown food.

This approach stands in contract to the area’s harmful combination of lack of access to affordable, fresh produce and the abundance of nutritionally poor fast-food options — both major contributors to high rates of food-related health problems such as obesity or type 2 diabetes.  According to data from the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, East New York suffers one of the highest incidences of type 2 diabetes in the city, with almost 15% of the population affected.

“The challenge is how to implement a long-term, sustainable food-access program. We are seeing the pandemic affecting us and our neighborhood, and we want to make sure that our community is getting the best access there is,” Harris explains. “I know we can’t do every single thing ourselves, but as long as we are there for our community, that’s what matters to me—as long as we can still provide that access.”

College Students Interact with Sustainability Systems Firsthand

Food — that essential ingredient in human life — inscribes individuals into communities that interact with broader ecosystems. So food production, sustainability, accessibility, and justice all become part of a larger whole of food security.

A new minor at the University of Connecticut, titled Sustainable Community Food Systems (SCFS), speaks to those issues and more. “Learning by doing is essential for what we understand as authentic learning, while also engaging in extensive reflection and critical analysis so that students repeatedly engage in both theory and praxis,” says Phoebe Godfrey, a sociology professor, advisor, and co-founder of the program.

UConn’s main campus is rural, set among rolling green hills and tracts of farmland; its satellite campuses are more urban. Both of those settings provide students with hands-on opportunities to engage in sustainable activism. Students can:

  • work on farms
  • join in partnerships with social justice organizations
  • help build and maintain community gardens
  • develop business concepts to fulfill unmet food needs in local communities
  • work on environmental advocacy efforts to protect clean food and water sources

In all, Sustainable Community Food Systems participants complete 450 hours of paid and credit-bearing internship over the course of their involvement in the program.

These experiences bring students closer to the community than a traditional internship. Godfrey explains that the potential for meaningful careers…

“will help to address our most pressing social and environmental problems – as in, how we will live and eat on this one planet together as one species among millions of others and do so equitably, peacefully and sustainably. These are issues that more and more students want to address and that we as a campus, as a society, and as a species must address together and now.”

Featured image from Unsplash.

Have a tip for CleanTechnica? Want to advertise? Want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.

Latest CleanTechnica.TV Video

CleanTechnica uses affiliate links. See our policy here.

Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

Carolyn Fortuna has 1286 posts and counting. See all posts by Carolyn Fortuna