The connection between food and human rights is like the human rights movement itself is a recent occurrence. In spite of the lofty notions held by our mainstream thinking and revisionist tendencies about documents such as the United States Constitution an important analysis is drawn from A Short History of Human Rights from the Human Rights Resource Center at the University of Minnesota’s web site:
Documents asserting individual rights, such the Magna Carta (1215), the English Bill of Rights (1689), the French Declaration on the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789), and the US Constitution and Bill of Rights (1791) are the written precursors to many of today’s human rights documents. Yet many of these documents, when originally translated into policy, excluded women, people of color, and members of certain social, religious, economic, and political groups. Nevertheless, oppressed people throughout the world have drawn on the principles these documents express to support revolutions that assert the right to self-determination .
The human rights movement that took a foothold during the 20th Century at least in intent and as part of oppressed people sense of self determination is a movement that is rooted in inclusiveness. There is no doubt a lot of work to be done regarding inclusiveness and diversity but the trend is at the risk of redundancy one of inclusiveness.
The principle document outlining this inclusive goal of human rights for all is laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) . The UDHR was adopted only 60 years ago as the first document to recognize the applicability of universal human rights to all individuals on the planet. It is a remarkable document and despite any criticism one may have about the United Nations; the document is a tribute to the organization’s capacity to bring about global cooperation. The differing ideological and religious doctrines required 1,400 votes before deciding upon the final document and included in it is the universal right to food access. The text concerning food in the UDHR is as follows:
(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, and housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.
The fact that food is addressed in the UDHR in the context of overall health and well being is significant in that it is squarely how food should be contextualized as an essential element for overall health and well being for all individuals and communities.
The essential status of food (especially nutritious and high quality in contrast to highly processed, low quality fare) as part of healthy individuals and communities as a human right is firmly established and will provide the framework for this particular article.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN was established in 1945 before the UDHR was adopted and since then there has been a historical trajectory of events , publications and initiatives until contemporary times. Of particular significance was the World Food Summit of 1996 that was convened to review the progress made after the World Food Conference of 1974 a conference where Henry Kissinger stated that in 10 years no child should ever go to bed hungry. Needless to say the Kissinger prediction didn’t come to pass and alas the 1996 World Food Summit set human rights as the essential policy framework for food security and food justice policy initiatives. As a result the human rights framework also informs the work of nongovernmental and nonprofit organizations around the world.
The veracity of human rights as the framework for food security and justice issues cannot be contested however viewing these issues simply from the lens of human rights may cause one to misunderstand the complexity of food related issues. It is important that one understands the complex links in the struggle to achieve food security and food justice whether in the urban communities of the United States or any corner of the planet.
Similarly we need to establish another parameter of our quest for food security and food justice; that is that hunger is not the only concern that we need to have relative to any discussion of access and justice. This is not an argument presented to suggest in any way that hunger is not important and indeed the paramount issue relative to food security and food justice because it clearly is. That said however the ante must be raised to secure high quality food and calories as a right for every human being. While there will be a more in depth discussion of the relationship to food, nutrition and health later in this monograph the importance of high quality food to all aspects of life cannot be understated; high quality food is critical to fetal and infant development and all stages of life. Food security and food justice must struggle to end hunger while insuring the highest quality food is available to all.
The only way to end hunger and supply the highest quality food possible to humankind is to profoundly change the dominant food system paradigm that favors agribusiness, industrial agriculture and highly processed food with a food system that is sustainable ecologically and absolutely human oriented. The development of a just and secure food system will require an effort of epic proportions that will employ some our greatest minds, particularly from the ranks of those that understand the link between a just and sustainable food system and the continued survival of global civilization.
While the ecological impact of conventional, industrial agriculture is beyond the scope of this paper it is important to briefly mention that a just and secure food system that is sustainable and ecologically sensitive is critical to pollution prevention, ecosystem restoration, the mitigation of climate change and the impact of reliance on fossil fuels on foreign affairs, world peace and resource depletion. As such it is clear that food and the continued survival of life as we know it are inextricably linked.
If one wants to begin to understand the complexity of all of the elements of the food system and how they are profoundly linked I direct you to the appendix of Paul Hawken’s wonderful book Blessed Unrest. In the book’s appendix there is a section entitled “Food and Nourishment”, in that section there are seven subheadings; Food Aid, Food Literacy, Food Supply, Global Food Supply and Sustainability, Hunger and Food Security, Local Food Systems and Malnutrition, Diet, Disease and Education.
Each of these sections is part of the collective issues that must be addressed if there is to be a just and secure food system; that insures high quality food and calories for the human population that is done in a way that insures the integrity of the global life support system provided by Mother Earth.
Justice for Our Food Producers and the Environment
No discussion of food security and food justice can be done without considering the plight of farmers and those that are generally called farm workers .
Industrial agriculture is a major source of environmental—and, by extension, human--degradation today more than ever. The proliferation and accumulation of pollutants due to the use of herbicides and pesticides has created numerous events of ground and surface water pollution. The companies that manufacture these substances are often times amongst those cited as being some of the greatest sources of pollution on the planet. Furthermore, the industrial or factory farms for poultry, cattle and hogs create a monumental environmental threat.
Likewise farmers and farm workers display a variety of symptoms from their exposure to the compounds that are used as agricultural inputs such as herbicides and pesticides. The exposure of agricultural sector workers manifests itself in an array of disorders amongst the workers and the surrounding rural communities.
The occupational health and safety literature regarding the agricultural sector is replete with farm workers reporting symptoms from pesticide exposures such as headaches, dizziness, confusion, irritability, muscle twitching; gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps and respiratory symptoms such as nose and throat irritation, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing. The exposures globally are such that they cannot be ignored as they pose a huge public health crisis that should be addressed immediately.
The environmental risks to the land the people and the ecosystems are such that industrial agriculture must command the attention of environmental, social and economic justice advocates and activists. The stated concern of the human rights and social justice movements about protecting people where they live, work, play, learn and pray is no more compelling anywhere than it is with respect to pesticides, herbicides and other inputs in the agricultural (and non-agricultural) setting. Whole systems thinking and solutions must be sought by the environmental justice movement and those in and working on behalf of the agricultural community to eliminate the overall risks posed by industrial agriculture. Food justice and security in this instance means supporting agricultural policies such as sustainable and ecologically sound agricultural techniques in an effort to drastically reduce if not eliminate harmful agricultural inputs..
Resource depletion such as the loss of topsoil is another negative environmental outcome of the industrial agricultural system. When considered from the context of food production, topsoil ranks near the top (next to water) of the assets we acquire from nature. If you don’t believe it, consider for a moment that you can live only a few moments without air, 3 or 4 days without water, and 5 to 7 days without food. Yet soil erosion and the loss of topsoil are not often thought of as important issues within the framework of food security and food justice initiatives. It should fly up near the top of our concerns when we consider that we are losing our capacity to grow most of our food if we do not eliminate topsoil depletion.
The loss of agricultural land due to residential or industrial “development,” is a global problem. As many communities expand or sprawl into natural or agricultural lands, they are lost to production for a very long time, if not forever. All of these scenarios are unsustainable in the long term and threaten the ecological heritage that our future generations will have to rely upon for their very existence. Will we leave them an ecological debt that they cannot repay? Will our practices vastly reduce the quality of life or indeed end life, as we know it? I do not want to know the answer. I would rather solve the problems and create a global food system that is just and sustainable.
People of African Descent and the Quest for Food Justice and Human Rights
The struggle for human rights and the interconnection to food security and food justice issues is incontrovertible. The struggle for human rights for people of African descent not only in the United States but throughout the Americas has been a struggle at all level of existence for over 350 years.
The quest for human rights for people of African descent is to this day so profound that Michael Harrington in his 1962 classic The Other America: Poverty in the United States offers the following:
Physical and mental disabilities are, to be sure, an important part of poverty in America. The poor are sick in body and in spirit. But this is not an isolated fact about them, an individual "case," a stroke of bad luck. Disease, alcoholism, low IQ's, these express a whole way of life. They are, in the main, the effects of an environment, not the biographies of unlucky individuals. Because of this, the new poverty is something that cannot be dealt with by first aid. If there is to be a lasting assault on the shame of the other America, it must seek to root out of this society an entire environment, and not just the relief of individuals.
Finally, one might summarize the newness of contemporary poverty by saying: These are the people who are immune to progress. But then the facts are even more cruel. The other Americans are the victims of the very inventions and machines that have provided a higher living standard for the rest of the society. They are upside-down in the Economy and for them greater productivity often means worse jobs; agricultural advance becomes hunger .
It is certainly true that there are hungry people in Black communities across the United States and throughout the Americas and that their plight is part of the collective global shame of poverty and hunger; but alas even those that have enough to eat especially in the United States have another problem. That problem is the lack of access in Black communities to high quality food and calories often without regard to socioeconomic status.
Historically, since the arrival of Africans in the Americas in general and the United States in particular, until the present, the majority of people of African descent have inhabited poor and marginal food environments. The Middle Passage was the beginning of a historical cycle of marginal food environments that continue to contemporary times. Yams are described as the overwhelmingly dominant food provided to captive Africans during transit across the Atlantic Ocean. One African survivor vividly described the predominance of yams as the foodstuff provided during transit and how over one-third of those aboard the ship didn’t survive the crossing. He also described that upon arrival he was in poor condition and unable to stand.
This was typical and the marginal food environment was extended to the plantation where the captives according to written and archeological records had poorer, marginal food choices such as poorer cuts of meat, receiving the portions that plantation owners discarded, as well as a poorer selection of vegetables and fruits. After Emancipation and following the waves of migratory activities that find 85% of people of African descent living in urban communities the food environment nationally is marginal, continuing the pattern in place since captivity and transit to the Western Hemisphere.
Another clear pattern is that poorer public health outcomes can be expected just as described by the captive that couldn’t stand upon his arrival as well as the deaths of over one-third of the captives. That pattern that continues into contemporary time is manifest in the health statistics and public health outcomes in communities of African descent.
The public health and epidemiological literature is replete with high rates of cancers, cardiovascular disease, infant mortality and developmental problems, obesity and diabetes. In fact one of the great paradoxes is the rates of obesity seen low and moderate income communities. Low income or poor people are not typically obese in countries of the global south. Why then is obesity common in low income communities in the global north? Could it be the marginal nature of the food environment in Chicago, New York, etc. with the preponderance of the food choices being of poor quality versus the lack of availability and poverty in say Kingston or Soweto (traditional markets in the global South are often filled with fresh food, opposed to the processed food found in grocery stores in the United States, for those that can afford it)? Whatever the answer, it is imperative that after suffering the negative impacts of marginal food environments for over 400 years that the development and implementation of an excellent, life sustaining food environment (in Chicago and elsewhere) becomes a top priority in the development of healthy and sustainable communities.
The marginal community food environment found in the communities of people of African descent is characterized by the profound lack of readily accessible high quality food and calories. These communities are profoundly characterized by the lack of choices from which its inhabitants can have access to and be able to select high quality food and calories.
The resulting lack of access creates a public health and epidemiological profile that includes for example:
3.2 million African Americans have diabetes, which is 80 percent higher than the disease’s prevalence among whites.
The infant mortality gap between blacks and whites doubled between 1950 and 2002.
Women—of any class—who reported high levels of experience with racial discrimination were nearly five times as likely to deliver underweight babies as those who reported no experience with it.
Because I live and work in Chicago I decided to take a look at health statistics for people of African descent in Illinois. Not surprisingly the statistics for cardiovascular disease rates were consistent with national epidemiological profiles. The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) reports the following:
African Americans have the highest CVD age-adjusted mortality rates (863.0/100,000) in Illinois – more than 35.2 percent higher compared to whites (638.4/100,000) and 158.8 percent higher compared to other races (333.5/100,000).
Despite the differences in age-adjusted mortality rates by race, CVD remains the leading cause of death for all races.
African-American men are especially at risk for dying from CVD. The age-adjusted mortality rate for African American men is 1,023.4/100,000, higher than any other race-gender group.
Women of other races (non-white and non-African American) have the lowest CVD age-adjusted mortality rate at 280.1/100,000.
Heart disease includes ischemic heart disease, coronary heart failure and other diseases of the heart. It is the most common form of CVD and can cause angina (chest pain), heart attacks (myocardial infarction) and sudden cardiac arrest. Unfortunately, a heart attack is usually the first sign of heart disease.
Heart disease is the most common form of cardiovascular disease and is the single leading cause of death in Illinois and the United States. In Illinois during 2003, 14,144 men and 15,310 women older than the age of 34 died of heart disease.
Although heart disease age-adjusted mortality rates for all race groups in Illinois are declining, gaps are still evident. African-American men have the highest heart disease age-adjusted mortality rate (807.5/100,000).
Furthermore, while overall heart disease mortality rates are declining, rates for African Americans are declining at an average of 1.5 percent per year compared to whites at 2.0 percent per year.
American men have the highest heart disease age-adjusted mortality rate (807.5/100,000) and women in the other races category (189.8/100,000) have the lowest rate.
African-American women die of heart disease at 1.4 times the rate of white women. African-American men die of heart disease at 1.3 times the rate of white men.
Similar health disparities exist for stroke as well as evidenced by the following IDPH figures:
Stroke is the third single leading cause of death in Illinois and accounts for 18 percent of all deaths due to cardiovascular disease. Differences in stroke age-adjusted mortality rates are most noted between race groups, and race-gender groups. Although more than 5,800 whites in Illinois died from stroke, compared to 959 African Americans and 85 of other races, stroke age-adjusted mortality rates for African Americans are 27.8 percent greater than whites, and 96.3 percent greater than other races.
Noticeable differences also are found in gender/race groups. African-American men have stroke age-adjusted mortality rates that are 43.7 percent higher than for white men, and African-American women have stroke age-adjusted mortality rates that are 15.5 percent greater than those for white women .
The epidemiological profile for people of African descent of diseases that have a nutritional and dietary component are evidence of the need to create food access and food security initiatives that insure the widespread availability of high quality calories throughout communities of African descent.
This initiative must be carried out across socioeconomic lines as one factor that gets little attention is that health disparities and limited food security and access issues aren’t confined to poorer Black communities but all Black communities.
Even when people of African descent aren’t confined through patterns of segregation to predominantly Black communities their health status remains tenuous although socioeconomic differences exist among Blacks. This is probably due to access to health insurance, access to transportation that allows for the capacity to make up for any lack of access and other lifestyle and behavioral factors. Yet even though there are socioeconomic differences between Black social classes nonetheless the disparities between Blacks and Whites overall do not change.
In a Mother Jones article entitled, Upward Mobility, the author Kai Wright in describing the death of his father who in spite of being a physician and having a high level of income succumbed at 60 years old from type 2 diabetes. In the article he makes the following salient points about socioeconomic status and health disparities:
Progressive convention says the problem lies in poverty: too many black people uninsured, too few with access to routine care. And there’s certainly clear enough evidence of a link between disease and poverty.
But what no one can figure out is why the problem is getting worse even as socioeconomic conditions are improving. How does a successful, educated, and well-insured man like my father die before the age of 60 at the hands of a disease that is totally preventable?
Here’s where the debate turns political. If genes are decisive, then no one is to blame for the racial imbalance in Americans’ health. If it’s lifestyle that divides the sick from the well, then the problem is a matter of personal choice.
But there’s a third way to look at the disparity, one that is both more complex and more disturbing. This theory holds that black folks carry a legacy of disease that isn’t genetic but that nonetheless is transferred from one generation to the next—and eventually catches up even with those who clamber up the socioeconomic ladder. Dad died, according to this theory, from the side effects of racism.
Since the civil rights movement, African Americans have improved their lot in life by almost every measure: Black and white incomes are more equal, the racial gap in school dropout rates has been cut by a third, the glass ceilings of many professions have at least cracked. But in that same period, black America has made no progress on what may be the most important measure of all: living to see old age.
According to a paper coauthored by former Surgeon General David Satcher that appeared in Health Affairs last year, the gap between black and white mortality rates exploded among middle-aged men during my father’s lifetime—rising by just over 20 percent between 1960 and 2000—while the overall black-white death gap hasn’t budged from an alarming 40 percent since Dad was a grade-schooler. In an accompanying article, University of Michigan sociology and epidemiology professor David Williams highlighted specific trends. Black and white death rates from heart disease were equal in 1950; by 2002 blacks died 30 percent more often. Blacks had a 10 percent lower cancer death rate than whites in 1950; now it’s 25 percent higher.
The infant mortality gap doubled between 1950 and 2002.
As you move up the economic ladder, black health drastically improves, but the disparities between blacks and whites do not. One dramatic study showed that infants of college-educated black women are twice as likely to die as their white counterparts, largely owing to low birth weight. If genetics isn’t the explanation for those sorts of counterintuitive facts, what is?
The answer, a growing number of researchers say, is that the vaunted black middle class simply ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Black strivers have a much harder time turning their paychecks into the status, opportunity, and security that white yuppies take for granted. “Maybe one of the sources of the anger of the black middle class,” suggests Brandeis University sociologist Thomas Shapiro, a leading proponent of the theory of differential realities for bourgeois blacks and whites, “is that they look in the mirror and they know how hard they’ve had to work. But they understand that they’ve not ‘made it’ in the same way as their white office mates.”
The resulting dissonance—harder work and longer hours to reach success, stress from discrimination that you can neither mistake nor prove—eventually manifests itself in the bodies of people like my dad. They don’t have time to take care of themselves, and even when they do, wellness is just not a priority. So as the white middle class has grown more healthy in recent decades, the tenuousness of black middle-class life has left many stumbling through a vicious circle. It’s harder for “bourgie” blacks to leverage the advantages of our nominal status, so we are more likely to be plagued by health problems associated with poverty, which in turn undermines our ability to sustain what class mobility we’ve eked out. Despite all of the material success he achieved in life, my father died deeply in debt, largely from unpaid taxes on the symbols of middle-class life he had once accumulated—a nice house, a nice car, his own business. By the time he got hold of his dream, he could no longer stay healthy enough to keep it .
The historically poor public health profile of people of African descent described as the “Slave Health Deficit” by Professor Vernellia Randall is indeed deeply rooted and has a profound impact on the public health profile of people of African descent. As I have clearly stated in earlier writings healthy food and high quality calories are critical to the creation of healthy communities and individuals. Likewise food is critical in ending the cycle of poor public health outcomes rooted in the experience of the Atlantic Slave Trade.
Yet the issue is much more complicated than simply improving food access and security status of communities. Indeed it would be irresponsible to leave anyone with the opinion that if you only improve the food supply then all of the public health problems will be solved.
While it is beyond the scope of this short paper the other elements required to construct healthy and sustainable communities deserve some mention and include (but are not limited to) the following considerations:
• Socioeconomic status has a profound impact on public health outcomes and life expectancy.
• Perceived notions of inferiority and the real impact of oppression are interrelated to socioeconomic status and the resultant impact on health.
• The factors mentioned above contribute to increased levels of stress and high levels of stress have a known negative impact on health.
• Inequality expressed in the lack of an adequate public health delivery system in Black communities presents another factor in public health performance.
• Lifestyle and behavioral factors such as high levels of cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption and addictions. All of these factors are exacerbated by feelings of low self esteem related to oppression and perceptions of social status; as well as the targeting of Black communities by advertisers of tobacco and alcohol products and the historical concentration of criminal elements on the community for narcotics sales.
What needs to be done:
• The creation of social and culture theories and practices to combat the negative impact of perceptions of social status and oppression.
• The development of a cultural system that incorporates stress reduction, exercise and healthy foodways into a desired set of sociocultural practices that become an integral part of Black life. This would be the functional equivalent of the traditional and indigenous health systems such as those of India, China or Tibet. The focus of the new multicultural and integrative health care will be prevention.
• An extension of these cultural practices would be the development of a multicultural system of integrative medicine and health practices that would be readily available in the community. The new multicultural and integrative health care system would be affordable for all and incorporated into any emerging health insurance and health care system. Included in the multicultural, integrative health care system would be treatment modalities such as chiropractic, naturopathy, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurvedic Medicine, therapeutic massage therapies, nutrition counseling and exercise prescription including practices such as yoga, tai chi, qigong as well as weight training (with an emphasis on correct form and injury prevention), walking, Pilates and other exercise modalities. The establishment and proliferation of comprehensive health care and exercise facilities is as big a priority as providing a variety of choices for high quality food and calories.
• The reintroduction of what was formerly called home economics into the education curriculum for all students. This curriculum change should be supplemented by the proliferation of cooking and nutrition classes (as well as other elements of healthy living) throughout a variety of sociocultural and educational institutions such as churches, community colleges and public libraries.
• Interrelated to all of the elements of food justice and the creation of healthy and sustainable communities is the need to create a sustainable ecological agricultural system that is both urban and rural. The emerging agricultural system will at its core be rooted in the green economy and be focused the triple bottom line – people, the planet and profit. As such a shift to local production when and where it is feasible is an imperative.
The local agricultural system becomes the key element in a food system that is fair, assessable and equitable. It also lends itself to a food system that creates new jobs, including new farmers in both urban and rural settings and makes it possible for those farmers to get a fair price for their products through the elimination of “middle men”. A system for capital formation is required that is fair and equitable that allows social groups that have been left out of the food system access to the resources required for success. This financing would be available for local food production and food preparation businesses that are the cornerstone of healthy communities.
Human Rights and Food Justice – The Conclusion
The quest for food justice is intimately related to the quest for universal human rights. In my estimation it is the gateway issue in the human rights agenda in that food (along with water, shelter and environmental integrity) is essential to the health and well being of all human beings. As activists, scholars and indeed members of the family of sentient beings we must insist that the human rights of all regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religious affiliation or any other variable be realized and protected.
In the human rights universe food must no longer be used as an instrument of oppression and war. We must all insure that every person have access to not just adequate food but the high quality food and calories that are required for optimal growth and human development from before the cradle to the grave.
To that end I vow to spend the rest of my life working for human rights and food justice for all.