Nutrition / Public Health

Food Justice: How A Movement With 1000 Meanings Has Resulted In Conflicting Practices

The food justice movement has done much to promote a more sustainable food system in recent years. The emergence and re-emergence of farmer’s markets, food cooperatives, and community supported agriculture, among others, is commonly described as “a step in the right direction.” 

However, and somewhat surprisingly, some of the key players in the food justice movement have chosen dramatically different, and often conflicting, routes in supporting a movement that lacks a formal definition to begin with (what exactly is food justice, anyway?). Today, a movement solely based on people’s own, self-definition of food justice is inadvertently resulting in contradictory, unethical, and often harmful practices that continue to unfairly decorate a broken system, mask a number of pressing issues, and ultimately prevent the movement’s much-needed progression.


Organic is the new gourmet. Organic retailers commonly opt for high-grade produce, such as Fancy, Extra Fancy, or Washington Extra Fancy, which aids in the growing misconception that organics are remarkably more expensive than conventional counterparts.

One issue that a majority of food justice supporters can agree on is the limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables in high-risk neighborhoods, or “food deserts.” In recent years, organic food retailers, including cooperatives and supermarkets, have  enlisted in relieving food access barriers by setting up shop in needy neighborhoods, but have done little to keep produce prices down.

This is evident by the ample amount of high-grade produce sold in retail stores. It is no coincidence that organic apples of Washington Extra Fancy grade are shinier, crisper, and tastier than conventional apples of U.S. Standard grade. This is referring to quality, not organic standards, despite consumers’ perceptions. Retailers often opt for high-quality produce to excuse higher prices for organics, thereby contributing to the misconception that organics are pricier than conventional counterparts. Retailers’ definition of food justice therefore neglects issues related to the affordability of healthy, organic fruits and vegetables.


Retail stores remove “bad” produce overnight in a process referred to as “culling.” The level of culling  varies from business to business. Better partnership with Food Rescue groups may alleviate this issue.

Additional examples can be noted. The act of culling is as old as produce markets themselves: retailers periodically remove rotten produce to improve product appearance. In recent years, culling has evolved from aesthetic purposes to that of a commercial strategy; on top of removing spoiled produce, retailers additionally cull fruits and vegetables that present with minute scratch marks, faint wrinkling, slight bruising, off-color, and whatever ”unattractive blemishes” that detract super-picky buyers.

Unfortunately, retailers that lack adequate man-power are less likely to carefully examine their products and often cull more produce than necessary; one moldy blueberry may result in chucking the entire container. Interestingly, the food waste generated by over-culling may artificially prevent retail prices from dropping; retailers especially avoid “bulk bins” because it runs the risk of reducing profits. Some retailers choose to partner with Food Rescue groups, but relationships are short-lived among smaller-sized retailers. The culprit, once again, is retailer’s conflicting definition of food justice that puts profits above that of affordability and sustainability.

These apples might seem fine, but for certain retailers, they are not deemed acceptable.

These apples may seem fine, but for certain retailers, they are deemed unacceptable. Retail “Bulk Bins” run the risk of backfiring and hurting profits, so some retailers find it more economical to dump bad produce.


Over-culling can result in major food waste. One moldy blueberry can result in chucking the entire container. The shrink resulting from culling may artificially keep produce prices high.

Aside from retail stores, farmers’ markets are also guilty for conflicting practices surrounding food justice. Running trucks and power generators have become commonplace among urban farmer’s markets that tailor to customer demands for access (I want to eat this here) and efficiency (I want to eat this now). Some farmer’s markets have policies in place regarding the use of trucks and generators, whereas others fear of breaking relationships with long-time vendors.

Likewise, not all farmer’s markets have policies in place for recycling. Some farmer’s markets find it difficult to negotiate municipal recycling and compost pickup often due to irregular scheduling and insufficient waste. Private recycling is an option, but small-sized farmer’s markets operating off of grant funds may find it more difficult to afford private services.


Retailers that lack the adequate man-power to carefully examine each of their products tend to dump more produce than necessary. Additional reasons include inadequate refrigeration, poor staff training, and over-purchasing sale items. In this image, an employee ties up cases and cases of bad strawberries.


Ironically, food trucks and power generators have become commonplace in farmer’s markets and other outdoor events parading sustainable food systems. Lack of permanent indoor space is often to blame.


Small, independent farmer’s markets have greater difficulty partnering with municipal recycling  agencies because of irregular scheduling and insufficient waste. As a result, some markets are forced to forfeit recycling.


  • Ask your local food retailer how they dispose of excess produce. If you belong to a Cooperative, collaborate with fellow members on realistic solutions to reducing retail food waste, such as securing or amending relationships with local food rescue groups, or setting up a “Bulk Bin.”
  • Ask you local farmer’s market representative about sustainable practices. Assist in securing regular trash, recycling, and compost pickup at your local farmer’s market, and review market policies regarding food trucks, power generators, and other practices that go against sustainable ideals.
  • Consider your own definition of “food justice.” Food Justice is everything from sustainability, to access, to health, to culture. Consider encompassing all of its definitions to avoid conflicting practices. And most importantly, try to detach the “self” from the greater food system.

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