Northtown Books Presentation, Arcata, California

August 11, 2017


Food issues reveal much about a community and a country’s well-being. In the US and China, the two largest economies in the world, the two largest contributors to global warming, and the two largest producers and consumers of pesticides, how food is grown and consumed has critical environmental, social, cultural, economic, and health-related consequences. Food Justice in turn has become an approach in both countries that seeks to create a healthier, greener, and just food system even as those approaches have emerged from very different histories and different ways their food systems have evolved. For this talk I want to compare and contrast food justice-related issues in the US and China, drawing on my two most recent books, Food Justice (with Anupama Joshi) and Global Cities; Urban Environments in Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and China (with Simon Ng).



My engagement with food system issues and food justice research and action in the U.S. dates back to the early 1990s and in Hong Kong and China since 2011 when Simon and I began to discuss our collaboration that resulted in the Global Cities book. In the mid-1990s, I helped establish and direct the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute (or UEPI), first at UCLA and then after 1997 at Occidental College where some of that food related research and action work took place. Farm to school was one of the programs we initiated at UEPI in the late 1990s and it soon went national. As the program grew, it provided an important way to illustrate and advocate for what we began to call “food justice,” a term not then widely used. Anupama became the UEPI staff person who led our farm to school program and she continues today to run the National Farm to School Network, which operates in all fifty states and in multiple regions here in California. As we expanded this work and other food justice-oriented projects and research work at UEPI, we decided to pull together what became the Food Justice book as an effort to describe the dominant food system and the alternatives to it from a food justice perspective.

Similar to the Food Justice book, the Global Cities book emerged from UEPI collaborations related to our action research approach. This included a coalition of environmental justice groups plus UEPI and researchers from USC. The coalition, which called itself THE Impact Project, focused on the community and environmental and workplace hazards associated with the movement of goods from places like China and Hong Kong through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and onto the trucks and to the warehouses and eventually to the big box stores like Walmart. This focus on a global trade and goods movement system led us to link up with an action research public policy think tank in Hong Kong called Civic Exchange whose chief research officer was Simon Ng. As UEPI and Civic Exchange began to collaborate, Simon and I began to discuss pulling together our respective action research work into a book. We decided to focus on six areas: global trade and goods movement; air pollution; water quality and water supply; transportation; public and private spaces; and food. In doing so, similar to Anupama and my effort with the Food Justice book, we wanted to identify how those issues had evolved, their environmental impacts, and the strategies for change in all three places: Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and China.



In the Food Justice book, we defined the concept of food justice in three ways. First, we identified food justice as an approach that linked a particular focus or area of concern (for example, the exploitation of farm labor) to its broader food system implications. Second, food justice, we wrote, represented a set of issues that affected entire groups or constituencies. However, food justice had particular resonance in advocating for change for those most vulnerable within the food system. In this way, food justice was fundamentally an equity issue that also had cross-class or universal application. Third, we described food justice as a set of issues that connected to other social justice issues, whether health, labor, immigration, environment, land use, and so forth.

What I thought I would do tonight, based on the two books, is reference our three definitions of food justice to describe how the food systems in the US and China have evolved, what social and environmental impacts they have had, and what strategies for change are available. Perhaps, we can then talk about the North Coast and Humboldt and you can help fill in the dots.

Food Issues within a Food Systems Framework

Using our first definition – how food justice issues are addressed within a food systems perspective — there are clear differences but also striking similarities between the US and China. In the US, we have developed a highly integrated system, from growing, processing, manufacturing, distribution, and the sale of food, to how it is consumed and how it becomes waste or its post-consumer life. Some of those who grow our food in the US have continued to operate “factories in the field,” to use Carey McWilliams’ felicitous phrase from more than 75 years ago. This is perhaps most striking with our meat and poultry production, including those confined animal feeding operations, or the CAFOs, that are so prevalent in those industries. Whether food retailers, food processors and manufacturers, fast food operators or global food producers, each of those players along the food supply chain have played an outsize role influencing how food is produced and eventually consumed.

Let me give a few examples. When potato farmers grow their crop in Idaho, they contract with one of the major producers like the J.R. Simplot company who in turn contracts with McDonalds. McDonald’s then specifies what potato variety to produce (e.g., the Russet Burbank) and how it is to be grown and produced. These potatoes will then be turned into the exact specifications for the frozen french fries to be shipped to McDonald’s outlets nationally and globally. Potato farmers in Idaho, even those with large farms of 1000+ acres, are dependent on their relationship to Simplot, which grosses nearly $6 billion in sales, including a substantial percentage earmarked for McDonald’s. When McDonald’s marketing team then talks about its relationship to a particular Idaho farmer, as they recently did in a video they have been circulating, they are leaving out how, through a series of food system relationships, the largest players, themselves increasingly globally focused, dictate what should be produced. Parenthetically, McDonald’s since the 1990s has also operated in China and is the second largest global fast food chain, after KFC, to do business there.

Another example: a chicken farmer in Tennessee or hog farmer in North Carolina is also likely to be dependent on contract relationships with global operators like Tyson and Smithfield. Tyson in turn is dependent on a Walmart or a McDonald’s for its domestic supply, even as it seeks to expand its global presence in more than 30 countries, most visibly in China. Chicken farmers, even more than their potato farmer counterparts, operate almost entirely in places like Tennessee as contract farmers. Product changes, such as chicken McNuggets, further industrialize the process of what it means to raise chickens for slaughter. With hogs, huge slaughter and processing plants, with massive open waste lagoons and spray fields and controlled by just a few corporate giants such as Smithfield, have dominated this commodity’s supply chain. Just one Smithfield meat processing plant in Bladen County, North Carolina, for example, processes more than 8 million hogs a year, making it the world’s largest pork processing plant.

Food retail in the U.S. has also gone through major restructuring in the last several decades. It continues to experience pressures to consolidate, create larger sized stores with their own private labels, develop prepared food stations, seek to assume local identities, and, in the case of Walmart or its European competitors such as Tesco or Aldi who have entered the US market, go global. Food retailers, like the processors, distributors, manufacturers, and fast food chains, seek to influence and control different aspects of the food system supply chain, not just regionally but nationally and increasingly globally.

China’s food system has also witnessed major changes, particularly since the early 1980s in what is known as the “reform period” or the development of capitalism with Chinese characteristics and even further in the past fifteen years after China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. These changes are particularly marked by what we characterize in our book as the influences of marketization, urbanization, and large-scale developmentalism. For the food system those influences have led to more concentrated land ownership and production units. The communal forms of land ownership in the Mao period transitioned at first to a burst of private smallholder plots during the 1980s and into the 1990s, to most recently into larger vertically integrated organizations that link production, processing, and markets. These larger organizations, most notably the dragon-head enterprises, have been subsidized by the central government and even more directly by local governments through tax and credit benefits, advantageous loans, and availability of land and electricity.

These shifts are primarily focused on the domestic market, particularly as China continues to push for urban growth, which now represents more than 50% of the population. China has also witnessed the rise of large food retail operations, both global players such as Walmart and Carrefour but also its own huge domestic food conglomerates who also operate the “hypermarkets” which resemble our supercenters. Again, these retailers are urban focused, launching operations in the largest cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou, but now also operating in dozens if not hundreds of smaller “Tier 3” cities that include populations between 5 and 10 million people. China has also gone global, both as importers as its product mix has changed to rely more heavily on a high protein rather than grain-based diet as well as more highly processed foods; and as exporters, as it seeks to expand its global role. One of the largest global operators from China, the WH Group, has become the largest pork producer in the world, including in the US after it purchased Smithfield a few years ago. Some of its products, a global blend, have such names as “King of Kings,” “Hot Dog with Corn,” “Spicy Crispy Sausage” and “Luncheon Square Sausage,” reflecting its mixed branding.

So, in both the US and China, following our first food justice definition, we’ve seen a more integrated supply chain, dominated by increasingly global players, where those who grow the food and those who consume it are at best secondary players in how the system operates. There are major differences still. China is still heavily rural and its urban middle class is relatively small compared to the US but growing. In both countries, deep inequalities, as I’ll discuss, are prominent.

Equity Issues

Let me shift to our second definition then: how food system changes affect different groups of people. In the US, food system changes have influenced who produces our food and under what conditions, how we access our food, product mix, diet, and where and how and what food is consumed. Take the question of access to food. Already by the 1960s, with the rise of more concentrated food retail and larger store sizes, supermarkets especially gravitated toward car-centric suburban locations and largely abandoned the more dense, inner city sites. The small, local, single item stores – the bakeries, butcher shops, fruit and vegetable vendors – began to dwindle. At the same time, fast food places proliferated in suburban and inner city locations alike, while small food marts, in gas stations or, in the case of inner city locations, in liquor stores, became the closest locations to purchase food. The concept of a food desert was introduced as early as the 1990s signifying the absence in the inner city locations of a full-serve market with more affordable prices and available fresh meat and produce. Some activists preferred the term “food swamp,” pointing out that food sources were available but the price and quality and variability were more to the point.

Or take the question of product mix and diet. The superb nutritionist Marion Nestle has used a chart she first developed in the late 1990s that tracks the increase in portion size of sodas correlated with weight gain to talk about how food diets, influenced by such players as Pepsi and Coca Cola or McDonalds or Burger King, have helped create the oft-described “obesity crisis” in the US (and in fact globally). The numbers are in fact astounding.  According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men have gained an average of 15 pounds (from 181 pounds to 196 pounds) in the past twenty years, while women have gained even more weight, an average of 17 pounds (from 152 pounds to 169 pounds). Within that overall population, black men gained 18 pounds, while black women gained an average of 22 pounds.  More than a third of the US population (36.5%) now qualify as obese. Among those, blacks and Hispanics have the highest rates at 48% and 42%, while women had a higher prevalence (38%) than men (34%). Humboldt County did a little better, but not too much (about 25% obesity prevalence).

Those numbers are particularly concerning when weight gains are linked to disease outcomes such as type 2 diabetes or heart disease. Obesity-related medical costs now account for 10% of all medical expenditures, as much as $147 billion annually. One leading physician in the diabetes field even wrote a book with the title “Diabesity.”

The combination of poor healthy food access, more food swamps, changes in diets with more highly processed foods combined with fast food, and increased prevalence of weight gain, obesity, and diet-related diseases such as diabetes illustrate food justice definition #2; namely, food system changes in the US have universal as well as strong equity-based implications. As researchers in the US and globally have learned, the twin conditions of low income status and weight gain can go hand in hand, but even wealthier people are prone to weight gain and diet-related diseases; all linked to food system changes.

In China, food system changes linked to urbanization and huge migrations from rural to urban have led to major changes in access to food, changes in diet, and diet-related health outcomes. Purchases of processed food, for example, have grown dramatically, more than four times between 1999 and 2013. In approximately that same period, the consumption of grains, vegetables, and meat items shifted from an 8-1-1 to a 4-3-3 ratio, creating a far more protein heavy diet that also witnessed more meat, pork, and poultry. The changes in diet, also fueled by increases in fast foods, processed foods, and decreased physical activity, have led to increases in overweight and obesity. The most recent research study, published in The Lancet, identified 62 million obese people in China compared to a nearly non-existent obese population at the advent of the reform period. China now is second to the US (which has about 90 million obese people); a dubious one-two combination that goes with other dubious numbers such as pesticide use and carbon emissions.

There has also been a spike in diet-related disease in China. Diabetes prevalence, for example, jumped from less than 1% in 1980 to 11.6% or 14 million people in 2010 with more than half the population having possible risk factors for the development of diabetes or cardiovascular disease. While some have called this China’s nutrition transition (that is, towards a more middle class shift in diet) the changes are population-wide, with urban populations most directly impacted. Equity considerations come into play due to the huge inmigrant populations that represent the most exploited of the populations. Global drug companies, moreover, have seen opportunities where others might see hazards, with one research report touting the promise of double-digit pharmaceutical sales growth and significant opportunities for multinational pharmaceutical companies.

Food Justice as Social Justice

Let’s shift to the 3rd definition of food justice – the link to other social justice arenas. The above examples point to the food-health connection. A food and labor link is also prominent, not just in the growing but also the processing, production and sale of food that also represents a huge and often exploited work force in the US — and a growing set of industries in China. The rural to urban inmigration in China in the past thirty years of what has been called the “floating population” has been due in part to food system changes in rural areas as well as the need for a large urban-based labor pool related to China’s embrace of export production. This parallels the US food system’s historical reliance on immigrant labor pools from Mexico and Central America and more recently from refugee populations into the US to work on the farms and meat processing plants.

Food system changes, of course, also have had major environmental implications in both the US and China.  Those waste lagoons are major air and water quality concerns. Various pesticides and herbicides have been regulated and even banned in the US over the years only to be replaced by new chemicals that contribute additional problems while the banned substances continue to be exported to other countries. In China, substantial farmland has been lost due to contamination of the water from both industrial and agricultural discharges, as much as 20% according to China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection. Some water sources in China, including those polluted by agricultural runoff, have been identified as unfit for any use, not just for human consumption but for agricultural use as well.

Food Justice Strategies for Change

Where then does food justice, particularly food justice as a form of resistance and as an alternative framework to the dominant food system, come into play? Using our definitions, we can evaluate some of the strategies that have developed in opposition or as an alternative to the dominant food system trends, in both the US and China. For the US, we can look at farmers’ markets, CSAs, farm to school, and food purchasing policies. For China, we can look at the rural reconstruction and cooperative movements, urban agriculture, and CSAs.

I’ll focus on farmers’ markets, farm to school, and food purchasing programs in the US, and CSAs and urban agriculture in China. In the US, farmers’ markets were revived in the late 1970s in places like Philadelphia and Los Angeles as a strategy to make accessible fresh fruits and vegetables at affordable prices in low-income communities where such fresh, local produce was no longer available, while providing farmers in peri-urban areas with another direct marketing venue. By the mid-1980s, however, farmers’ markets began to be increasingly housed in middle-income communities in order to increase prices for farmers and to also create a welcoming urban place, an agora in contrast to the placeless, homogenous food offered in many supermarkets. Farmers’ markets have grown steadily since then, from 1755 in 1994 to 8692 farmers’ market listed today by USDA. Can equity then still become part of the intent of farmers’ markets? Some programs, advocated by food justice groups and others, have helped create and promote programs where food stamp and WIC recipients, seniors, and vets can receive benefits to shop at farmers’ markets. Despite increased participation (about 800,000 seniors and 1.7 million WIC participants, for example) these programs are still not large enough to fully reinvent farmers’ markets as an equity-based program.

Farm to school programs include farm direct deliveries to schools and additional programs such as school gardens and hands-on curriculum development. UEPI and other groups designed them explicitly as food justice programs. They increased direct marketing opportunities for farmers, many struggling to keep afloat and they provided fresh and local produce to schools regardless of income level. The majority of the students in many of the participating schools and school districts qualified for free or reduced lunch; namely, students whose families were near the poverty line. As the program has expanded, there has been increased participation by private schools and wealthier suburban schools, but the low to moderate-income public school systems are still central to the program.

Among the alternatives, the Good Food Purchasing Program, that emerged from the Los Angeles Food Policy Council and now operates nationwide, has perhaps most explicitly embraced the third of the food justice definitions. The program created criteria in five areas to be scored (environment, local purchasing, fair labor practices, animal welfare, and health) for food procurement. The program focused on re-orienting food purchases by institutions like schools and health centers, and, in this way, directly embraced the food justice-social justice link as well as an equity and food system framework.

In China, the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) movement grew out of the advocacy for rural reconstruction that included strategies for cooperative models that embraced sustainable or eco-agriculture goals. CSAs were relatively knew for China. The first CSA farm in the Beijing area was established in 2010-2011 in comparison to the more than 50-year history in Japan where they were first developed, and its thirty-plus years history in the U.S. There was some initial tension about the CSA’s purpose and goals. Shi Yan, the founder of the first CSA in China, Little Donkey Farm, left it after disagreements about its direction to start a new farm entity called “Shared Harvest.” Shi Yan criticized Little Donkey Farm’s shift towards a consumer model whose subscriber participants were more fearful of food safety problems than engaged and committed as participants in creating a new farm model. Since then, many CSA participants, more aligned with the Shared Harvest perspective, have helped facilitate the development of dozens of more CSA farms as well as a CSA Alliance that has hosted gatherings for hundreds of new farm and eco-agriculture advocates.

Urban agriculture has also become an increasing trend in China, ranging from rooftop farms to small plots managed by the migrant populations, many of whom are displaced peasant farmers. These migrant populations, some of them living in what are called “villages in the city,” have come to represent the type of diversity of cultures and cuisines that contrast with the high-rise, more privatized homes and neighborhood constellations that can be found in China’s largest cities. Small vegetable growing plots can also be found squeezed in among the crowded housing and alleyways in these urban clusters.


In sum, what’s perhaps most striking when comparing and contrasting food issues in China and the US is how the dominant food system has impacted what is considered global, national, regional and local when it comes to food grown, or food produced, distributed, sold, and consumed. Some of the largest global players like to call their approach “glocal,” where local represents a marketing strategy for a globalized system. For food justice advocates, whether in China or the US, that concept of the global-local connection needs to be reversed. Local, in this food justice frame of reference, is available in multiple locations and in multiple forms. These include: appealing to and mobilizing the most vulnerable while also seeking to attract broader constituencies; focusing on how the dominant food system impacts both producers and eaters; and elevating food as a social justice issue. As a strategy for change, food justice or its sister movements such as food sovereignty can help demonstrate that local and indigenous food systems are best able to meet people’s needs even as they are seen as having global resonance.

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