When you think of social justice, what comes to mind? For me, it’s usually something related to human trafficking, racism, or poverty. Enter food justice: a topic that is not normally discussed, and yet which relates to, and encompasses a variety of social justice issues, even the ones I mentioned a couple of seconds ago. While food justice is about hunger, it’s also about trafficking, racism, poverty, and a whole mess of other injustices. So let’s sit down at this metaphorical dinner table, and talk about food.

Food justice is not just about feeding the hungry, it’s about ensuring that the entire food system, from farm, to factory, to table, is just. To start you off with some delicious facts, did you know that 41 million people, or about 1 in 6 people in the United States struggle with hunger ?  Not so delicious. There’s a really sad phenomenon in the USA called a “food desert”, which simply put, is a geographic area that does not have access to affordable, nutritious food. Out of the 40 million people struggling with hunger, half (23.5 million) live in a low-income neighborhood more than a mile from a supermarket, without access to a vehicle. To bring race into this picture, 8% of African Americans live in a neighborhood with a supermarket, compared to 31% of Whites. And adding socioeconomic status to the mix, there are approximately 30% more junk-food filled convenience stores in low-income neighborhoods. Throw in some human trafficking, and you’ll find that 11% of forced laborers worldwide work in agriculture . Trafficking, racism, and poverty, all wrapped up in food (or the lack thereof). Sound a little unfair yet?

When I think of food justice and God, I’m reminded of the countless times in the Old Testament where God used food to get my attention. I love farming. I love plants, and soil, and food. When I showed up to my first week of college, not knowing anything about anything, I stumbled into the agriculture department and 4 years later walked out with a degree in Agribusiness and a love for the earth. So, when I’m reading (or skimming) the seemingly endless lists of laws in the OT, it’s like God knows that I’m zoning out and so he throws in something like this:

“When you harvest the crops of your land, do not harvest the grain along the edges of your fields, and do not pick up what the harvesters drop. Leave it for the poor and the foreigners living among you. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 23:22, NLT)

A connection between the earth and God’s heart of compassion. Food justice since the beginning. And this idea is seen throughout the Old Testament, again in Leviticus (19:9-10), and also in Deuteronomy (24:19) and Ruth (2:2, 2:15). It’s clear from the beginning that God’s heart is for the poor and needy, and as Christians imitating the heart of Christ, it should be our purpose to help the oppressed. Acting to ensure that our impoverished neighbors have access to food is a good place to start.

Now let’s talk about food security, aka the hunger problem. The opposite of food security, naturally, is food insecurity, which the USDA defines as “the lack of access, at times, to enough food for all household members.” Here’s some more facts for you to chew on: 12.3% of American households are food insecure. What’s up farmers? Actually, don’t blame the farmers- the United States produces more than enough food to feed all of its inhabitants. So why are so many Americans going hungry?

The hunger problem in the US is not caused by a lack of food, but rather socioeconomic barriers that prevent access to food, food waste, and a flawed food system. In other words, hunger isn’t just about the food, but about the whole system. In terms of socioeconomic barriers, we already know that the majority of people in poverty live in food deserts. If a hamburger meal costs less than $5, and a head of lettuce is maybe $2, who’s going to spend their hard-earned money on plain lettuce? And that’s for those who actually have a grocery store in their immediate area. Food waste doesn’t help in the fight for food justice either. Around 40% of food is thrown away in the US yearly; that amount of food is enough to feed 25 million Americans, or half of the population that struggles with hunger! The flawed food system is a problem of its own, and I could write a text book, a dissertation, and probably 10 short documentaries and still have more to say. But to keep it simple let’s just say that currently, our food system values money over people. When you realize that a handful of industrial farms produce 50% of crops in America, and those crops aren’t for eating, but are shipped, trucked, and flown all over for animal feed, trade, or biofuels, you begin to question the way things work. Oh, and there’s also the fact that generations of farmers are getting old and dying, and the few young’uns who are interested in agriculture have a hard time getting the resources to farm. Now we really have to think about where our food comes from.

It breaks my heart that something as fundamental as food has become so corrupted in our world, because it shows just how far we’ve come from Eden. But in Christ, there is always hope! So how can you as a Christian live out the heart of Christ and fight for food justice? Well, with this system, it sure is difficult, but there are some simple ways to help. One easy way to start is simply to waste less food! When I was a kid, my mom would tell me “There’s starving kids around the world”, and “wasting food is a sin”, to which I would say something sassy like “I’ll just mail this half-eaten chicken leg to Africa.” The food that we waste can’t directly be used to end hunger, but indirectly it can! 72 million pounds of perfectly good food, from farms, restaurants, and manufacturers, ends up in landfills every year- and this food can be “rescued”, and used to feed the hungry.  But even if our food isn’t “rescued”, when we are aware of our wasteful habits, we consume differently, and being a conscious consumer can have great effects on our food system. Another way to consume consciously is to try and buy food products that are local, or fair trade, when possible. While these foods are more expensive, they do disrupt the vicious cycle of a money-driven, unjust food system. Local foods cut down transportation costs, which is also great for the environment, and those extra bucks you spend go to supporting the livelihood of small-scale farmers. Fair trade products ensure that you as a consumer are not contributing to forced labor, trafficking, or unethical practices. For those of you who are into politics and the government, check out the Farm Bill- it’s a piece of legislature that dictates all policies relating to food and agriculture, and can make or break nutrition assistance programs in the U.S.

My dream? Imagine if every church in the United States, with access to even a small plot of land, decided to start growing vegetables. What if churches with lots of land gave some of their land to new, aspiring farmers? I’ve heard it said that my city of Whittier, California has 80 churches alone. I’m blown away at even the thought of hundreds of thousands of churches with small (or not so small) gardens across America, sharing fresh food with those in need. It wouldn’t end hunger, but it would definitely be a start to caring for those around us. We are meant to work as a body, not individuals, and the fight for food justice is a team effort. Once we get started on hunger in the U.S., there’s a whole world of hunger that could use the hands and feet of Christ. What are we waiting for?

Julia Kleemann

Julia Kleemann

Jesus lover, adventure taker, injustice fighter. Gardener by trade, artist for fun. Loves movie theaters, laughter, the 1980’s, and playing air drums in the car.