Last week, the food justice movement received a sizable publicity boost when Newark, New Jersey mayor, Cory Booker, announced that he would try living off of a budget equivalent to his state’s food stamp program (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, for short). Booker said in his blog post that his goals for the challenge included raising awareness about food security problems, and elevating “innovative local and national food justice initiatives and food policy.”
Booker’s food stamp challenge is nothing new. He follows a long line of politicians, journalists and celebrities that have attempted to persuade governmental agencies that the amount of money allocated to food stamp recipients is simply not enough. His predecessors range from five House representatives who led the way in the 2007 Congressional Food Stamp Challenge, to foodie and restauranteur Mario Batali who put his family and himself on the meager budget of $31 a week to protest cuts to food programs for the poor.
None of the food stamp challenges over the past 10 years have yielded a change to the way state and federal governments address poverty. None have inspired long-term community action, or prompted enough controversy or limelight to extend the discussion more than a few months. House Representative Jim McGovern worked hard to pass a bill in 2007 that would have raised minimum allocations to food stamp recipients and improve food security programs, but HR 2129 died a quick death before it could even reach Senate.
Booker’s focus however, was different. With simple gestures, a few well-composed and stirring photographs and a daily menu of blogs posts and tweets, Booker put the focus exactly where community action groups could use it most: on the question of food justice and the rights of the consumer to have wholesome, safe and nutritious food. It followed three rules of social media: keep it short, say it multiple times in multiple ways, and make sure the message is one that others can build upon.
The food justice program has been around for decades. As Booker noted on the last day of his #SNAP Challenge, the concept of food security can be found in the words of a 1958 speech to the UN by Eleanor Roosevelt: “Where, after all, do human rights begin?” The inspiration for this question is at the very core of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which was authored 10 years earlier at the close of World War II. And more recently, it’s been the inspiration for countless food and nutrition programs in Latin America that focus on educating and treating the rural poor.
But it is in the U.S. that the concept of food justice has taken its most interesting turn. In Detroit, where a staggering number of residents often can’t make their monthly food bill, it’s inspired The Food Justice Task Force. Food sovereignty, the FJTF website says, is more than just lobbying for better access to better food; it includes “forging new models of collective control of land and waterways; assuring legal protection of the commons” and outing mega-companies that may threaten food security efforts by polluting or initiating “resource grabs.”
In September of this year, the nonprofit organization, The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, organized a conference on these very topics.
According to its website, “one of the primary features of the conference was the use of a People’s Movement Assembly process to craft principles around food justice.” The people’s movement assembly is best associated with the Occupy Wall Street Movement, which became the inspiration for dozens of similar actions throughout the world. In this case, topics like climate change and toxic chemicals, immigration reform, fair food reform, healthcare and the right to a living wage all played a part in defining how to attain food justice.
Mayor Booker has received both praise and criticism from the media for his #SNAP challenge. Some see it as an extension of his growing “super mayor” image. Others, however, see the challenge as simply a ploy to gain support for his future run for governor. While the challenge can’t help but increase his popularity among New Jersey voters, its underlying message about the need for food justice and food security is one that can be easily heard beyond the shores of New Jersey.