There are many motivations for attending a farmers’ market: seeing friends, grabbing a delicious waffle, hearing a local busker, discovering fresh fruits and vegetables. For my 4 year old, the highlight is snagging a balloon animal. But for many people, going to a farmers’ market is one way to correct inequalities in the agriculture and food (agrifood) system.

In the United States, we often have romantic ideas about agriculture. We like to think that the food we consume starts at a family farm, complete with red barn and rolling hills. However, the reality of agrifood is far removed from this nostalgic ideal. In fact, the modern agrifood system is industrialized, globalized and firmly embedded in capitalism, and most of the food we consume starts not in a farm, but in a lab. The agrifood system is a vast arrangement which includes resources like water, soil, seeds and labor; production; distribution; exchange; consumption; and waste.

Inequities can be found in every stage of the agrifood system. For example, low income populations and people of color have been found to have higher exposure to industrial pollutants, including pesticides and herbicides, and are more likely to live near fertilizer factories and landfills. (Also see Lester, Allen, and Hill, 2001, “Environmental injustice in the United States: Myths and realities.”) People who live in rural and urban ‘food deserts’ are less likely to have access to affordable and fresh foods. Female farmworkers frequently experience sexual abuse Irma Morales Waugh, “Examining the Sexual Harassment Experiences of Mexican Immigrant Farmworking Women.” And smallholders in the global south increasingly struggle to find markets for their products.

Inequity also lurks amongst the alternatives to this industrialized system that have arisen in the last half century. For example, a growing body of research finds that racial and class hegemony persists in the local food movement, which is predominantly supported by white, middle and upper middle class individuals (i.e., Julie Guthman, “‘If They Only Knew:’ The Unbearable Whiteness of Alternative Food,” in Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class and Sustainability). Research finds that a number of barriers such as income, knowledge, space and interest may prevent low income populations from engaging in some of the hallmark activities of alternative agrifood movements, such as home gardening. Justin L. Schupp, et al., “Exploring barriers to home gardening in Ohio households.”

Despite the array of inequalities in the agrifood system, and despite the fact that we all eat, we as consumers often remain relatively unaware of these issues. Unless we seek out information, or have a personal connection to a farmer or farmworker, it is easy to go about our daily lives unaware of the ways in which we participate in a system that is riddled with injustice. We may say that we are concerned about the well-being of workers, for example. But this doesn’t stop us from going to a grocery store and grabbing any number of products that were likely produced and processed by people who experience harsh living and working conditions. We may express concern with the environment, but it is hard to see that the ground beef, nicely wrapped in plastic, is part of a system that produces large quantities of greenhouse gas emissions that are rapidly altering global weather patterns.

One role that social science research can play is bringing to light such issues. But social scientists do not always do a good job of making their research accessible. This is part of the motivation for this special issue of The Blue Review.

The articles in this special issue of The Blue Review address the central theme of food and inequality. While they are not an exhaustive examination of how the agrifood system and consumption patterns shape inequality, they cover a range of issues that are of current concern, including the scale of food production, gender inequality in alternative agrifood, animal welfare, farm workers’ health, food security, food distribution and power in the agrifood system. It is my hope that these articles bring to light a range of concerns related to food and inequality and inspire discussion about how to move forward towards a more equal, more just food system.

The essays include:

In total, the articles provide an introduction to some of the linkages between food and inequality and offer insight into how to improve the food system in Idaho and beyond.

Organizations in the state of Idaho have been doing incredible work to address many of the issues raised in the articles presented in this issue of The Blue Review. While we can’t discuss them all, I would like to highlight a few here.

  • For example, Global Gardens is an agricultural training program working with refugee populations, as well as tribal communities in Idaho to provide resources, including land, training and inputs like seeds, in order to enable these populations to grow food for both household consumption and for revenue.
  • The Community Council of Idaho is a non-profit organization in Idaho working to improve the health and status of rural communities. They provide important services for farmworkers in the state, such as Migrant and Seasonal Head-Start centers.
  • The Idaho Hunger Relief Task Force brings together representatives of public and private entities across the state to address policy and programming that can help to improve food security for residents of Idaho. They accomplish this through programs like the Cultivate Idaho Initiative, which provides assistance to communities who want to assess and develop their local food systems in order to build a more food security community.
  • The Treasure Valley Food Coalition draws together individuals and groups in order to build a vibrant local food economy in the Treasure Valley. They promote activities supporting the developing of a vibrant local food system, provide resources for finding local food, and run the Tomato Independence Project, which involves classes and events that promote and support the local food economy.
  • And the City of Boise’s Energize our Neighborhoods project in the Vista Neighborhood is focusing attention – and significant grant funds – on improving access to fresh and healthy foods.

We hope you find new insights in these articles. Please join us for a potluck and teach-in, to be announced soon, to share some fall food and discuss the issues raised as we work together to mend our collective tables.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.