Food Justice and the Urban Agricultural Economy

On the Topic of Food Justice

In the broadest terms, food justice is defined as a social movement that works to solve inequalities in the global food system.  It can be examined from a number of perspectives, but the most relevant approaches for this project are distributive justice: the allocation of food resources; and productive justice: the ability to participate in the food economy (Allen & Melcarek, 2011, p. 189).

According to Allen & Melcarek (2011, p. 190), distributive justice addresses the uniquely modern circumstance of poverty as the root cause of hunger.  Historically, famines were caused by weather patterns, natural disasters, and geographic barriers to distribution, but advances in technology have overcome these problems and created a global food surplus.  Despite this fact, more people go hungry today than at any point in history, simply because of the market economy (Allen & Melcarek, 2011, p. 189).

The second piece of the problem is the disparate allocation of land used for food production and other resources that affect the availability and price of food.  Productive justice concerns the global and local structural inequalities that have led to a vastly disproportionate distribution of land ownership and political/financial influence over the food economy (Allen & Melcarek, 2011, p. 190).  In the U.S., a small percentage of principal operators manage the majority of farmland, and these individuals, as well as the government policy and corporate decision-makers, are almost exclusively males of European descent while the most food-insecure groups are single-mother households and people of color (Allen & Melcarek, 2011, p. 190).

Food Justice and the Urban Agricultural Economy

As an increasing majority of both global and American populations reside in cities (Melcarek, 2011, p. 433), urban agriculture has become a key component in the topic of food justice, as it promotes urban sustainability, provides a financial opportunity using existing resources, and serves as a source of direct food distribution in urban communities (Weissman, 2011, p. 435).  The array of activities that fall under the category of urban agriculture–such as rooftop gardening, vacant lot cultivation, and commercial operations located in cities–have the potential for both distributive and productive justice for urban dwellers.

In the United States, distributive justice is hampered by poverty not only because of the inability to afford food in the first place, but also a widespread lack of nutritious food in low-income neighborhoods.  Areas without practical access (defined as a 10-15 minute walk for an able-bodied individual) to affordable, fresh food are known as food deserts (Smith, 2011, p. 185).  Therefore, since urban areas are home to some of the poorest communities in the U.S. (Allen & Melcarek, 2011, p. 190), they are also home to the most problematic instances of distributive injustice.

The lack of space inherent in an urban environment is a significant obstacle to productive justice in these communities.  Buildings and pavement cover most of the land and pollution presents complex challenges for gardening in the remaining space, leaving urban dwellers dependent on the economy of imported food (Grover, 2011, p. 189). However, given practical education and sufficient resources to start their own gardens, urban communities have the potential to overcome spatial barriers to agricultural production and participate in their local food economy (Melcarek, 2011, p. 435).


The Search for Solutions–and Promising Developments

Though modern technology and economic systems have created our current food injustices, they also offer solutions to many of the distributive and productive disparities.  Smith (2011, p. 186) notes that health organizations and community groups have successfully partnered to implement programs bringing farmers markets to urban food deserts.  Similarly, the United States Department of Agriculture has funded grassroots initiatives to increase the availability of fresh produce in low-income neighborhoods (Smith, 2011, p. 186).

As sustainability becomes a greater concern for policymakers, urban agriculture programs are on the rise (Melcarek, 2011, p. 434).  The transformative, greening effects of urban agriculture are a powerful asset for political appeal, especially when combined with its potential to reduce pollution, waste, and poverty (Melcarek, 2011, p. 434).  When communities are able to grow their own food, they are no longer dependent on the food import economy and the structural burdens which accompany that market.  Small-scale agriculture not only encourages participation, but also creates a number of auxiliary activities such as processing and distribution systems, fostering an entirely new and much-needed economy in urban communities (Weissman, 2011. p. 438).



Allen, P., & Melcarek, H. (2011). Food justice movement. In D. Mulvaney, & P. Robbins (Eds.),Green food: An A-to-Z guide. (pp. 189-193). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi:

Grover, V. (2011). Food security. In N. Cohen, & P. Robbins (Eds.), Green cities: An A-to-Z guide.(pp. 188-193). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi:

Melcarek, H. (2011). Urban agriculture. In D. Mulvaney, & P. Robbins (Eds.), Green food: An A-to-Z guide. (pp. 433-437). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi:

Smith, J. (2011). Food deserts. In N. Cohen, & P. Robbins (Eds.), Green cities: An A-to-Z guide. (pp. 185-188). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi:

Weissman, E. (2011). Urban agriculture. In N. Cohen, & P. Robbins (Eds.), Green cities: An A-to-Z guide. (pp. 435-442). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi:


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