“Food justice” refers to the idea that everyone should have access to healthy and sustainable food. The concept comes from the food justice movement, which recognizes the link between food, health, and the environment.

The term “food justice” has existed for at least 20 years. Since then, its meaning has evolved. Generally, though, supporters of food justice advocate access to food as a human right.

Keep reading to learn more about food justice, including what it means, its principles, why it matters, and how people can participate.

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Definitions of what food justice is can vary, but in general, it is the belief that people should have access to the food they need to be healthy.

A 2023 review identified four components of food justice in past research:

  1. food security, which is when people reliably have access to food
  2. food systems transformation, which refers to fair methods for producing and distributing food
  3. community participation and agency, which means communities are involved in their own food production and can make their own decisions
  4. environmental sustainability, which is when food production does not harm local ecosystems

In contrast, “food injustice” is when people do not have access to the food they need or when the only food they can access is harmful to people or the planet.

Food justice is a response to the serious issues that face food production and public health, such as:


In 2015, the members of the United Nations, which includes the United States, agreed to 17 sustainable development goals they would try to reach by 2030. One of these goals was “zero hunger.”

As of 2021, 10.2% of American households had low food security, meaning they did not have reliable access to adequate food. This is equivalent to 13.5 million households. There has been some improvement in these figures in recent years, but the gains have been small.

Food inequity

For some communities, it is possible to reliably get food, but it is not possible to obtain balanced or nutritious food. This is known as food inequity.

In the United States, 1 in 5 children cannot access the food they need to be healthy and active. Food inequity can manifest in many ways, including:

  • Limited availability: According to a 2020 review, lower income and racially diverse areas in the United States tend to have fewer grocery stores, meaning people have fewer choices. Some communities live in food deserts, where getting fresh produce is difficult or unaffordable.
  • Reduced accessibility: Problems with roads, transport, or crime can make it hard or unsafe for people to get to grocery stores or markets to buy fresh food. These problems can affect anyone, but especially people who have disabilities, live in rural areas, or live in low income neighborhoods.
  • Expense: A 2019 review of previous research notes that while certain brands selling high calorie foods lowered their prices between 1990–2007, the price of fresh fruits and vegetables increased by around 17% between 1997 and 2003. This makes eating a balanced diet more expensive.

Food inequity puts people at higher risk of diet-related health conditions, such as diabetes and obesity.

The climate crisis

According to estimates, agriculture is responsible for 15% of the greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change. Climate change, in turn, poses a serious threat to global food supplies and to human health.

Because of this link, many food justice advocates believe that production can only be just if the methods benefit people and the planet. Without this component, efforts to achieve food security could cause further damage.

For example, a 2023 review of previous research notes that some governments have previously used exploitative and environmentally destructive methods to meet food targets. Industrial agriculture can result in:

  • greenhouse gas emissions from livestock, animal waste, and soil plowing
  • the release of pollutants and particles in the air that reduce air quality
  • toxic pesticides entering the soil and water
  • the inhumane treatment of animals

Exploitation of people and communities

In the process of providing food, companies and governments can also harm people.

In many countries, agricultural work is seasonal, and so the industry often relies on migrants who travel for work. In the United States, migrants produce most of the nation’s food.

However, because migrant workers are not citizens of the country they work in, they often have minimal rights and so are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

Meanwhile, many large food companies operate overseas, acquiring large areas of land that local communities previously managed themselves. This can be very damaging and may:

  • deprive local people of access to that land and the resources it contains
  • replace existing resources with non-native plants or livestock
  • displace rural or Indigenous communities
  • harm the local economy

Historically, some companies and governments did this intentionally in the context of colonialism. The effects are still apparent today.

When communities produce their own food, they have direct access to fresh, sustainable ingredients. Community farms can also create jobs and give people more control over what they grow and eat.

Ensuring people have access to the food they need benefits everyone, but it could especially benefit certain groups, such as:

  • Children: Children are vulnerable to food insecurity and food inequity because they cannot provide for themselves. During the COVID-19 pandemic, data showed that food insecurity doubled overall and tripled in households with children.
  • Women: 70% of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty worldwide are women. Women also make up 50–80% of food production workers and yet own less than 10% of the land. This means that, despite playing a key role in food production, women working in agriculture often have less power to change it. They are also more vulnerable to the effect of climate change on their work.
  • People of color: In the United States, Black and Hispanic neighborhoods are more likely to have fewer supermarkets and reduced access to fruits and vegetables. This is due to the effect of racism over time. For example, the practice of redlining discouraged people from buying property in neighborhoods graded as “dangerous,” resulting in a lack of investment.
  • Indigenous people: A 2020 paper notes that in Canada, European colonization stopped many Indigenous people from producing food in traditional and sustainable ways. This, combined with economic inequity, has contributed to significantly higher rates of food insecurity than in the rest of the population.
  • People with chronic conditions: Dietary changes are part of managing many health conditions, but some of those changes can be expensive or inaccessible. For example, a 2019 study of gluten-free foods in the United Kingdom found that they were 2.18 times more expensive than gluten-containing foods, on average. These barriers make it harder for people with celiac disease to get the food they need.

People who are interested in food justice can consider:

Learning about food injustice

Learning about food injustice can help people understand the issues communities face. It may help to learn the history of food production in the United States, the current issues, and how this is affecting people and the environment.

It may also be useful to learn about local issues, as each community has its own needs when it comes to food production and sustainability.

Buying local, sustainable food

The most direct way people can support food justice is by purchasing their food from community-owned farms, particularly those that produce food locally in a sustainable way. This could involve shopping more at:

  • farmers markets
  • cooperatives
  • smaller retailers, such as local butchers or fishmongers

Some farms and businesses may also have other things they need, such as money, skills, or other resources.

Supporting existing organizations

Many food justice organizations are already working to give people access to healthy, sustainable food. People may be able to support an existing organization through:

  • donations
  • buying produce
  • volunteering

Using your influence

People can enact wider change by contributing to, or starting, campaigns to change local laws and practices. For example, people can:

People with influence over businesses or institutions can also use their power to change food purchasing decisions, employment practices, and environmental policies.

Food justice is the idea that everyone has the right to healthy, sustainable food. People who support food justice typically believe it is necessary to change the systems of food production so that they provide people with the food they need without harming people and the environment.

The principles of food justice may help to address food inequity and the effect it has on public health. People can support food justice by learning more about the food system in their country or region, supporting food justice organizations and farmers, and using their influence to change broader policies and practices.

Learn more about health equity here.