Why class, and poverty, are the biggest problems with food

At the James Beard Foundation Food Conference this week, I argued that addressing poverty was not a marginal concern for anyone interested in changing our food system, but a central one. But upon reflection, I realized I’d left something important out: Lower-income Americans matter for the food movement in an integral way, because it’s their concerns—not those of elites—that can give food advocates political weight. To push food into a political issue instead of a lifestyle change takes numbers—and there are way more low-income people than there are wealthy.

To get powerful institutions to meet demands, frankly, you have to have the numbers. Powerful people don’t simply do nice things because they are nice. And with our food system as it currently stands, even if a leader wants to do the right thing, there are many powerful institutions attempting to have the leader keep things as-is. A movement on the ground gives leaders an out: I have to do this, because there is so much political pressure.

I’m pasting my introductory remarks from the conference below, but you can also watch it online here.

INTRODUCTION:Food, Health & Place: Why Equity Matters

Good afternoon. My name is Tracie McMillan. As you just heard, I’m an author and journalist covering food and class, which means I am excited am honored to introduce our next panel.

I want to start with a little context, and what I’ve seen in my career over the last decade. I began my career as a reporter by writing about poverty, telling the stories of New York City families using welfare and Medicaid and public housing. And as time went on, I found it difficult to write meaningfully about poverty—of what that lived experience looks and feels like—without also talking about food. And that discovery led me to a second: That when I talked about poverty through the lens of food, people listened. Most of us here today know that food creates a common, shared experience at the table, but it can also creates a common, shared understanding of the world.

Today, our three panelists are going to explore a third, related discovery, which today funcations as our hypothesis: That if we want to have a meaningful understanding of food, we have to talk about poverty. We have to talk about the kinds of environmrntal and infrastructure issues that we began discussing this morning. we have to talk about equity.

It’s tempting to think equity is an idealistic add-on to a discussion about food. It’s not. Talking about equity is not idealistic. It’s pragmatic. The simple fact is that, when it comes to the demography of this country, poverty is becoming more and more mainstream. It is common in cities and suburbs—rising faster in the suburbs, even, than in our cities—and the National Center for Children in Poverty estimates that more than one in five American children are poor. the usda tells us that 75 percent of people receiving food stamps are in househokds where someone is working.

So if we want to have a meaningful understanding of our food system, if we want to see meaningful change in our food system, the way that food works for the poor is not a marginal concern. It is a central one.


Toni Griffin, Founder, Urban Planning for the American City
Nick Saul, President and CEO, Community Food Centres Canada
Navina Khanna, Fellow, Movement Strategy Center

You can see video of the panel here.


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