Jessica Ramirez, a senior at Balboa High School in San Francisco, was learning about fats when she realized what she usually ate was not doing her much good. “I learned that the decisions I make about what I consume every day have a great impact on my body,” says Ramirez.
Then last summer, she read Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, which hammered home everything she had learned in health class. “My entire view of the fast-food industry changed. I decided to entirely cut out fast food,” says Ramirez. Now her goal is to get her family to eat more healthily. “I try to accompany my mom to buy groceries, so she will get more fruits and vegetables, and fewer chips and candies.”
Ramirez may not know it, but her food choices have put her at the entry point of the food justice movement. The Brooklyn Food Coalition (BFC), an organization dedicated to creating a just and sustainable food system in Brooklyn, N.Y., defines three key elements of food justice: (1) everyone has a right to healthy, affordable food; (2) food systems should be sustainable; and (3) food workers have a right to fair working conditions.
Beatriz Beckford, BFC’s director of organizing and policy and former school food organizing and policy coordinator, believes schools are ripe for the introduction of food justice practices. When young people eat vegetables they’ve studied in class or grown in a garden, share that experience at home and then request these vegetables at mealtime, says Beckford, they start to probe food’s role in their world—just as Ramirez has begun to do.
Start in the Classroom
Introducing students to food justice principles begins in the classroom. Take Balboa High School health teacher Chris Pepper. His ninth-grade health curriculum couples nutrition basics with the study of food origins and preparation. He shows Food, Inc., which gets students talking about animal welfare, industrial agriculture and food workers’ rights. His students also research prominent food justice leaders and organizations.
“Teaching about food justice helps make nutrition classes more engaging,” says Pepper. “Learning the story of where our food comes from is really interesting, and it involves some real critical thinking about how our world works,” he adds.
Vicente Manuel, a former student of Pepper’s, has changed his food mindset. “I became aware of the unhealthy foods I was eating,” says Manuel. “Now, instead of buying chips, I get fruit. I stopped buying fast food. I eat healthier cooked meals.” In the true spirit of food justice, Manuel has urged his mother to change her eating habits, too. He says it’s working. She buys more vegetables and fruit and stays away from frozen prepared meals and junk food.