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Food Justice is an Animal Rights Issue

By Matthew Liebman, ALDF Staff Attorney

Last March, my partner and I volunteered to gather data for an important study by the Food Empowerment Project on the availability of fruits and vegetables in Santa Clara County, California.

The Food Empowerment Project just released the report this week, and the results are disturbing, reflecting significant disparities in access to healthy foods in low-income communities and communities of color.

But first, why am I writing about this study here? Why is this an “animal issue”? The Food Empowerment Project, led by long-time animal rights campaigner lauren Ornelas, is one of the few groups working at the intersections of the animal rights movement and the food justice movement, drawing connections between the exploitation of human and nonhuman animals in the production and distribution of food.

As its mission states, “The Food Empowerment Project seeks to create a more just and sustainable world by recognizing the power of one's food choices. We encourage healthy food choices that reflect a more compassionate society by spotlighting the abuse of animals on farms, the depletion of natural resources, unfair working conditions for produce workers, and the unavailability of healthy foods in low-income areas.”

It is this last component, also known as “food deserts,” that the Santa Clara study addresses. FEP volunteers conducted extensive surveys of the offerings at grocery stores, convenience stores, and liquor stores in lower-income and higher-income neighborhoods and compared the results. Here are some of the findings:

  • “On a per-capita basis, the higher-income areas have 2.4 times as many large supermarkets compared to the lower-income areas. Additionally, the lower income areas have nearly twice as many liquor stores and 50% more meat markets than the higher-income areas. . . . The disparity is significant and shows that those living in lower-income areas are relying on small corner markets while those in higher-income areas have access to large grocery stores.”
  • “All types of fruits and vegetables covered by the survey are more commonly available in higher-income areas, except (non-organic) canned fruits and vegetables, which are equally available in both higher- and lower-income neighborhoods. Those living in the higher-income areas have significantly more access to fresh, frozen, and organic produce.”
  • “On average, higher-income areas have twice as many locations with fresh fruits and vegetables compared to the lower-income areas. The disparity for frozen produce is even higher, with higher-income areas having 14 times more locations with frozen fruit and six times more locations with frozen vegetables.”
  • “[A]ccess to organic fruits and vegetables is almost nonexistent in the low-income areas and represents the greatest disparity between the two types of areas surveyed . . . .”
  • “[W]hile meat alternatives were available in more than a fifth (22%) of locations in higher-income areas, they were available in only 2% of locations in lower-income areas. Similarly, 18% of locations in higher-income areas had vegan meat alternative options, versus less than 1% of locations in lower-income areas.”
  • “Dairy alternatives . . . , such as soymilk and rice milk, are available in only 3% of locations in lower-income areas (which have proportionally much larger populations of ethnic minorities), compared with 23% of locations in the higher-income areas. And while only 1% of locations in lower-income areas had vegan dairy alternatives, 21% of locations in higher-income areas had vegan options.”

These results illustrate the drastic inequalities in access to healthy, vegan food in low-income communities. Food justice, in addition to being a compelling civil rights issue on its own terms, is an animal rights issue: we cannot promote a vegan, plant-based diet without simultaneously trying to remedy the structural injustices that make such a diet nearly impossible for large portions of the country.


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