US immigration policy, food justice and the fierce urgency of now

In a recent OpEd in the Boston Globe entitled “Trump Spills the Beans on Who Grows Americans’ Food”, we described how the new administration’s immigration policies can create an opportunity for dialog about the intersections between immigration, agriculture and food. Around 2 million of the people who plant our crops and pick our fruit are undocumented, accounting for fully 50 to 70 percent of total US farm workers. Others are food chain workers in food production, distribution and restaurants.

Our food system is implicated in many of what Omi and Winant (1994) call racial projects, political and economic undertakings through which racial hierarchies are established and racialised subjectivities are created. The administration’s plans for tightening Federal immigration laws, act as racial projects in that they define who is a legitimate subject deserving of workplace protections, and who is regarded as an alien “other”.

With the administration’s goal of increased deportations, research studies have emerged in the past months trying to answer a question which was rarely discussed during the campaigns: how will a Trump presidency impact our agriculture and food system, including the price we pay to feed ourselves? While an important question, discussion of these interlinked policy arenas must go deeper than immediate price impacts. The crucial point is not that Trump’s policies would devastate a functioning agricultural industry; instead, they would expose it as a thoroughly exploitative labour system that industry insiders and successive government leaders alike have quietly supported. We should not be surprised at the impacts Trump’s immigration policies could have on our food given the way our nation has built its food system.

Prices today are artificially low because our use of underpaid, overworked, unprotected labour has subsidised our food system, resulting in cheap food at the cost of precarity: human suffering, invisibilisation, and marginalisation. Key conservative constituencies in the farming and restaurant industries are already finding themselves fighting against the president’s policies, igniting debates unlike those we traditionally see between the right and left. In focusing on this vulnerable population, Trump may have unintentionally forced a national conversation around immigration and food justice and perhaps even forged unlikely political alliances.

It’s a conversation our nation has avoided for far too long, and we may just have a golden opportunity in today’s political climate, with a coming together of resistance against discriminatory, racist, and xenophobic policies. What does it really mean to grapple with how food – and all the stories food entails – intersects in our nation’s history, and what does this story mean when entering our nation’s new political era? Put more simply – why could food be an important gateway into these intersectional conversations?

Food has entered the political and popular conscience of our nation in the past several decades, most notably through the work of writers like Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, Eric Schlosser and Marion Nestle and movies such as Supersize Me and Fed Up. The work of this growing alternative or sustainable food movement generally focuses on building resistance to large scale, high chemical and energy input, monocultural farming and create support for smaller scale, local, sustainably cultivated and low-processed foods. This popular, dominant narrative encourages participation toward a sustainable food movement by supporting an individualist, green consumerist philosophy, a “vote with your fork” to change the status quo of the food system.

Because this strategy is disproportionately available to those with the wealth, education and time to make use of alternative food systems, replete with their farmer’s markets and community supported agriculture, the food justice movement arose to highlight the ways that low-income communities and communities of colour are both disproportionately harmed by industrial food systems and underrepresented in the alternative food movement. To Pollan’s assertion that to eat healthfully and sustainably in the 21st century, one should stay clear from “anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” the food justice advocate asks “Who’s great-grandmother?” (Alkon and Agyeman 2011: 3).

Positionality matters; some great-grandmothers were given scraps from the table, others had their food demonised. Food justice recognises that one’s experience of the food system is determined by and is inseparable from one’s class, race, gender, cultural background, and age. The food justice movement begins with “an analysis that recognizes the food system as itself a racial project and problematizes the influence of race and class on the production, distribution, and consumption of food” (ibid: 5).

The concept of food justice both complicates and makes possible the potential for food to be used as a novel lens into environmentalism, justice, race, and cultural identity. The centrality of food as a way to begin conversations around justice lies in both its intersectionality (there are few topics, from climate change to land use to community activism, that one cannot connect to food) and intimacy (we all eat, we are all implicated, we all have different foodways reflective of our culture and experiences through food). Everyone is at the table when it comes to food (pun intended), and the work of food justice is to center that table as both structurally unjust and socially created, thus recreate-able. It is here that we see possibility for novel conversation and change. Indeed, we would argue that the alternative food movement needs this national conversation, engaging as it does with justice issues that have not been central to the movement’s critique.

From the foregoing, it is clear that difficult but essential conversations around agriculture and food policy are beginning to happen. At the gateway to these conversations is a contested politics of food that sits at the intersection of environmental concerns, racial justice efforts, and cultural autotopographies and sovereignties. The question therefore becomes: how should we use this political moment, this fierce urgency of now, to have these conversations? Who should these conversations include? How could these emerging and perhaps novel relationships be used to guide efforts to achieve both justice and sustainability, or what we call ”just sustainabilities” within the food system as a whole, but also in larger critical areas of justice currently under attack?

Support may come from sanctuary cities. While there is no evidence for this at present, there is a huge opportunity for mayors to build on their basic premise of not using city resources to enforce federal immigration laws, with policies to directly enhance immigrant wellbeing. One key policy arena must be food. In these uncertain times, immigrants increasingly use their food and foodways as an umbilical link between “home” and here. Cities could look for creative ways to ensure food justice, that is key to supporting these foodways, including access to community gardening and other urban agricultural opportunities. They could also develop greater general awareness of the policies promoted by food, farm and restaurant workers’ organisations and other non-profits, policies that also directly benefit low-income native-born workers throughout the food chain.

But to start the conversation, activists in the alternative food movement need to go beyond their privileged positionalities and dominant narrative of merely providing sustainable, ecological alternatives in order to truly challenge agribusiness’s destructive power. To do this they will need a broad coalition of supporters. We argue that such support can best be found in immigrant communities and the campaigners for immigrant and food-chain worker rights, in the low-income communities and communities of colour that have been, and are currently, most deeply harmed by our current exploitative food system. That support may come as well from both progressives and conservatives in farming and restaurant industries who until now thought they were on opposite sides.

Julian Agyeman, Alison Alkon and Sydney Giacalone

Originally published as Immigration, Food Justice and the Fierce Urgency of Now in The Political Anthropologist May 8 2017


Alkon, A and Agyeman, J (eds) (2011) Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class and Sustainability’ (MIT Press)

Omi, M and Winant, H (1994), Racial Formation in the United States (2nd ed.), New York: Routledge.

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