What’s in a Social Justice Diet?

What’s in a Social Justice Diet?

You can make whatever diet you’re currently eating even healthier.

by Ray Levy-Uyeda; reprinted with permission from Yes! Magazine

Photo credit: North Coast Growers’ Association

Billions of dollars are spent telling individuals how to eat healthy. But even if you follow EAT-Lancet’s planet-friendly diet to a T, and your dinner plate is filled with gluten-free nutrivore fare, vegan locavore leafy greens, and ovo-pescatarian (wild caught!) omega-3’s, it still might be missing something. America’s industrialized food production and the dire nature of our planetary health raise the question: How do we add climate and social justice to our diet?

This year, members of the federal Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee will convene to update their recommendations. But this effort to help guide Americans toward a “balanced” diet is also the product of lobbying by the dairy, grain, and meat industries, which have long been accused of pursuing dollars at the expense of health.

Considering the impact of environmental racism and the number of food deserts in the United States, it’s clear that food production and consumption are not just about personal decisions. It’s about politics and systems that determine who has healthy grocery options available and who does not. Existing guidelines not only ignore the needs of the climate and rely on intensive factory farming practices, but they assign blame for poor bodily health and quality of life based on “choices” that, for many people, simply do not exist.

What would it look like to be able to eat with justice—social, racial, economic, and climate—in mind?


Before we talk about eating, we have to talk about the land on which our food is grown. In contrast to the American colonial prioritization of extracting resources from the ground, rivers, and oceans, Indigenous food systems are built on a relationship with the land. But when Native peoples were forced to leave their lands—along with their soils and place-based expertise—they were robbed of the healthy diets they had developed over generations.

Genocide, forced assimilation, creation of reservation territories, and continuance of anti-Native policies have dispossessed Native people of two kinds of wealth: the ability to truly self-govern and manage their land, and the ability to build capital, which would enable individuals to make choices about how to live a healthy lifestyle.

“What we’ve noticed, and what I’ve aimed to do, is promote the simple enrichment of diets through our traditional foods, because we know that eating just one traditional food meal a week changes the blood,” says Valerie Segrest, a member of the Muckleshoot tribe and a director with the Native American Agriculture Fund. According to a 2019 U.N. report, Indigenous peoples steward 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity—plant and animal species that are essential to climate health.

But the U.S. government has an abysmal record of breaching treaties made with Native governments. And by replacing Native food systems with industrialized versions, Segrest says the U.S. harms the land and public health simultaneously. Native leaders, U.S. scientists, and public health officials say that chronic diseases, including diabetes, didn’t exist in Native communities until the mid-20th century. Now, Native people have the highest rate of diabetes of any racial and ethnic group in the U.S.
Segrest has worked with all of the tribes in Washington state to teach the importance of traditional ingredients and says that Native foods are the remedy to this health crisis: “What’s good for an Indian is good for everybody.”


Ayanna Jones is a Black farmer, educator, and community organizer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She lives in a majority-Black community, which runs up against a number of institutionalized racist practices. “Food justice is huge for us,” Jones says, detailing how her community’s food options are limited to local grocery stores that often sell low-quality or spoiled produce.
Stores offering higher quality and healthier options are intentionally located in the wealthy White communities, where customers are thought to be more interested in and able to pay for them. For those who can afford to travel to these neighborhoods to shop, their dollars end up leaving their own communities.

With this in mind, Jones says she began to think about what it would look like to grow her own food, to become self-sufficient. She wanted to find a way to show young people in the community that their bodies were worthy of food that is not rotten or laden with sugar and salt.

In 2015, Jones started the Sankofa Village Community Garden to provide anti-food-apartheid education and community programs, including gardening for seniors and summer camps for youth. Here she teaches young people how to produce their own food and how their bodies feel when they eat food that’s good for them.

“I give them that mental food,” Jones says. “They’re discovering the myths they’ve been given about food and food justice.” But even when one learns that sugar-filled cereal won’t sustain a child throughout the school day, if parents aren’t paid a wage that allows them to purchase healthier options, it’s difficult to turn knowledge into action. Still, Jones believes that “information is power”—that knowing is better than not knowing. “I’m growing to educate,” she says.


In nearly every corner of the country, it’s cheaper to purchase a liter of soda than it is to buy a head of broccoli; a 2013 study found that a “healthy” diet cost $550 more per person per year than an “unhealthy” one. For a family of four, that’s an extra $2,200 each year. “The system is set up to feed poor people more poorly,” says fifth-generation farmer Andy Dunham, who runs an organic vegetable operation in Grinnell, Iowa. “The only reason that soda is so cheap [is because] the United States government subsidizes the hell out of those crops: sugar cane and corn.” Billions of federal dollars are disbursed annually growing Big-Ag products: corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice, and to industries like big beef and big pork rather than small family farmers.

“I don’t think people have any idea about how much we spend on policy that [is] environmentally degrading,” Dunham says. To combat today’s industrial production, he calls for establishing ecologically diverse farming systems and a managed grazing system that allows soil to sequester carbon. And empowering people to know the difference. If consumers and voters understand the environmental implications of what they’re purchasing and which businesses they’re supporting through their consumption, then food policy at the federal level might look different. “Having a food literate society allows for policy to be sane,” he says.

In terms of what that translates to on the plate, Dunham says climate justice eating is about having a region-based diet. That doesn’t always mean picking plants over meat; it means taking into consideration where your food was raised and what kinds of energy, chemicals, and transport went into that process. You may need to change your approach to menu planning to reflect what’s in season, rather than relying on production somewhere that’s enjoying summer during your winter. This approach supports local farmers and keeps the carbon footprint of your food relatively low.


All forms of structural inequalities are made visible in the industrialized food system—from production to consumption, says Victor Brazelton, a community activist and educator with Planting Justice, an Oakland, California-based grassroots organization that works to cultivate food sovereignty, economic justice, and community healing through individual and communal empowerment. Planting Justice hires organizers, farmers, and activists who were formerly incarcerated. Part of its work is to combat current-day colonization and community displacement by building access to organic food through community gardens and educating kids about what healthy food looks and tastes like. “Food is medicine,” Brazelton says. Sustainable farming practices heal people and the planet.

“Community first starts wherever you are,” Brazelton adds, which includes acknowledging and collaborating with the people who originally stewarded the land. In the East Bay of California, the state government forced Ohlone tribes from their land through violence, but despite this, they still live and practice Ohlone culture today in what’s now called Oakland. Planting Justice developed a partnership with the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, which works to repossess stolen Ohlone land. Planting Justice is currently working to pay off a 2-acre land parcel, and when it does, it will hand the deed over to the Land Trust.

“What’s really important is people having agency over their food,” says Molly Scalise of FRESHFARM, a D.C.-based food justice organization. FRESHFARM brings healthy food directly to communities through farmers markets, in-school programs, and gleaning programs, which distribute unsold produce to shelters. The organization also runs a farm-share through local schools, where parents can purchase produce at a subsidized rate using SNAP benefits. Scalise says this is necessarily a collaborative effort with D.C. residents to make sure it’s “not invasive or intrusive.” She says solutions arise from working with neighbors and communities.
The goal is making options more accessible to consumers in order to impact community health while ensuring that local farms remain profitable.


How can we begin to talk about justice when those most impacted have the least access to decision-making tools and systems? That question is at the center of Jamie Harvie’s work. Harvie is the executive director of the Institute for a Sustainable Future, which works to build solutions for ecological health through advocacy and research. A food justice diet, he says, must mitigate climate impact, reduce poverty, and ensure that decision-making processes include those most impacted.

Ultimately, Harvie says, what’s good for the climate will be good for people too. But White, Western, colonial systems have conditioned many of us out of the understanding that food systems and communal health are connected.

Food justice must return systems to communities, Harvie explains. Organizations like Oregon Rural Action tackle food injustice from a farming and policy perspective, by working to change state laws that allow farmers to sell directly to consumers, as well as collaborating with the state’s Department of Energy to provide low-interest loans to schools upgrading their energy systems, and building access to local farmers markets. Local food systems that are communally owned and operated allow for communal wealth creation. This means that food is not only eaten in the same region where it is produced, but the financial and public health benefits uplift the community as well.

Tying together food and climate justice isn’t an intellectual exercise, Harvie notes. Justice work, in any form, is about creating and sustaining relationships with one another, including the relationships with the Earth and our food systems. We have to do the hard work of moving from a transactional, colonial, and capitalist model of feeding ourselves to a relational model of feeding and caring for each other.

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Ray Levy-Uyeda is a Bay Area-based freelance writer who focuses on gender, politics, and activism.
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  • Buy locally grown food. Join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture); see more information on page 91.
  • Grow some of your own food. Even a little bit helps – set a manageable goal, like 10% of your vegetables, and take it from there.
  • Garden in the community. Coordinate and share with your friends, family and neighbors. Strengthen local sharing and trading networks.
  • Pay an Honor Tax to the Indigenous people whose land you inhabit. An Honor Tax is a tangible way of honoring the sovereignty of Native Nations. The tax is voluntary, the amount is decided by each individual/organization, and it is paid directly to the tribal entity. Look up the Indigenous history of where you live at www.native-land.ca.
  • Cooperation Humboldt is a nonprofit working to create a community where food is understood to be a human right, and no one goes hungry due to lack of wealth or income. Volunteers are needed to plant community fruit trees, stock Little Free Pantries, install mini gardens for low-income residents, plan events, and produce the Community Food Guide you’re reading now. More information at www.cooperationhumboldt.org and here.

Reviving Relationships with Our Foodways

Reviving Relationships with Our Foodways

A History of Indigenous Food Sovereignty in California and Beyond.

by Cutcha Risling Baldy, Ph.D. & Kaitlin Reed, Ph.D., Co-Directors of the Native American Studies Food Sovereignty Lab at Humboldt State University

Fisherman gather at the mouth of the Klamath river on the north bank where it meets the Pacific Ocean. The Yurok traditionally use small nets trawled by hand along the shores. Photo credit: Joel Redman / If Not Us Then Who www.ifnotusthenwho.me

At the heart of food sovereignty is the self-determination of individuals, communities and groups over their food systems. The Declaration of Nyéléni (Ni-ye-leni) defines food sovereignty as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally-appropriate food, produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.”

There are six principles of food sovereignty:

  • Focusing on food for people
  • Valuing food providers
  • Localizing food systems
  • Making decisions locally
  • Building knowledge and skill
  • Working with nature.

Food sovereignty is also about centering Indigenous voices in how we collectively move forward in building sustainable food systems. Indigenous scholars Devon Mihesuah and Elizabeth Hoover write that “The concept of Indigenous food sovereignty is not focused on only rights to land, food, and the ability to control a production system, but also responsibilities to and culturally, ecologically, and spiritually appropriate relationships with elements of those systems.” Therefore, the revitalization of traditional food sources through Indigenous food sovereignty is critical to how we build food sovereignty in our region and beyond.


Throughout California, but especially in Northern California, Native peoples maintain strong relationships with their traditional food sources. Traditional Native food systems, ecological practices, and Indigenous scientific knowledges included very sophisticated, well thought-out and complex food systems that required ongoing ecological management.

In California there are several clear examples of how California Indian people practiced a complex system of food management that not only considered ongoing sustainability but also created an ecological abundance. For example, cultural burning was a practice that prevented catastrophic wildfires while also dramatically increasing food production systems, and supported cultural practices like basket weaving.4 There are several documented examples of explorers writing about California as looking like a “well-tended garden” and also noting how the landscape was shaped significantly by California Indian ecological practices.

In this region, there have always been movements and efforts to maintain food sovereignty by tribal nations. Our region is vibrant with Native programs, organizations, and leaders who have built leading Food Sovereignty movements around salmon, acorns, traditional gardens, and “Cooking Healthy in Indian Country.”

Photo credit: Dr. Cutcha Risling-Baldy


When colonialism invaded California, settlers attempted to not only kill and remove Native peoples, they also supplanted ecological management which dramatically reduced food production that Indigenous peoples were dependent upon.

During the Spanish Mission system, Padres outlawed Native people from eating their traditional foods. The separation of Indigenous peoples from their foods was thought to be a way of civilizing and controlling Native peoples. They also forced Native peoples to labor in agricultural fields, removing native plants and replacing them with crops like grapes (for wine) and corn. Refusing to labor for the mission often resulted in being whipped or put into stocks or other violent punishments. There are even stories of some missions facing starvation because of the overreliance on growing nonnative foods and the refusal of the Padres to allow Native peoples to provide for all people in the missions by utilizing acorns. Padres said that they would rather people starve than eat these Indigenous foods.

The Gold Rush was one of the most violent times in California history and resulted in a 90% reduction in the California Indian population. The state of California supported an attempted genocide of Indian people by legalizing the enslavement of Indian people and also authorizing a California volunteer militia to kill Native peoples. Each region of California was allowed to set their own price to pay for the scalps and heads of Native Americans, with several regions setting prices at numbers like $5 per head or 25 cents per scalp.

The Act for the Government and Protection of Indians (1850) allowed for the enslavement of Native peoples as “apprentices.” Humboldt County records reflect that most people enslaved under this law were girls aged 7-12. This system of slavery made it dangerous for Native people to practice their foodways. At a point, it was too dangerous to go out and gather or to try and pass on this knowledge intergenerationally because our women and children were being targeted for kidnapping and enslavement.

When we think about the adaptations and sacrifices that Native people had to make to navigate these periods of time we must remind ourselves that our disconnection from traditional foods was not because we “lost” our culture or our knowledge, this disconnection was because of violence. These knowledges were violently wrested away from us by colonization.

U.S. Government practices of attacking food sovereignty as a way to forcibly remove Native peoples from their land continued across the nation. George Washington, referred to by the Haudenosaunee as “town destroyer,” was known for his “scorched earth” policy where he ordered agricultural fields of the Haudenosaunee destroyed and the earth burned so that crops would not be able to thrive in the region. The U.S. Government ordered the mass killing of buffalo in an attempt to weaken and starve Native peoples in the Great Plains. In California, the Bureau of Indian Affairs commissioned a report to discuss how they could eradicate oak trees in the hopes of destroying California Indian connections to acorns because it continued to be an important staple food.

Native peoples, as a result of being forced onto reservations, were put onto government rations, and in some cases those rations would be withheld from tribes who resisted the continuing encroachment of the U.S. Government.

The state then imposed educational systems, like boarding schools, which forcibly took Indian children away from their families and tried to assimilate them by separating them from their cultural practices and cultural foods.

The passage of the Dawes Act in 1887 tried to force Native peoples to give up communally owned land for individual property ownership. It also attempted to force Native peoples to practice western style farming and agriculture. The destruction of food sovereignty continued through environmental changes like the damming of rivers and flooding of Native lands, and polices like removal, allotment and relocation.

Indigenous land dispossession was how the State of California was able to become one of the leading economies in the world. This land dispossession prevents Native people from accessing their food sources to this day. Native lands were taken via policies like the creation of national and state parks which continues to prevent Native people from accessing foods, cultural materials, and sacred sites. When we talk about reclaiming our foods it is not just about the food, it is also about reclaiming stories, languages, cultural practices, and our connection to our lands.

Photo credit: Dr. Cutcha Risling-Baldy


Our food sources are currently under attack – like our salmon relatives who are threatened by water seizures and proposed water infrastructure projects. The COVID-19 pandemic also illustrated how precarious the food system within our local Native land regions continues to be.

The Klamath Basin Tribal Food Security Project found that 92% of Native American households in the Humboldt/Del Norte regions are food insecure and 70% never or rarely have access to Native foods. 64% of Native households rely on food assistance and 84% worry about their next meal.

As we work for the ongoing food sovereignty of our tribal peoples it is because our communities have been targeted for exploitation both historically and through contemporary practices. Rural and poor communities, like tribal groups, have less access to healthy foods and often face some of the highest rates of diabetes and other health issues in the nation. Food sovereignty is not only about reconnecting to our knowledges and practices; it is also an issue of environmental and social justice. Our traditional food knowledges can help us to build stronger futures.

What you see today in our region is a reconnection. We’ve been fighting this fight for food sovereignty for over 150 years by continuing to carry our knowledges forward despite the many attempts to destroy us and our connections to our lands and foods.

Learning about food sovereignty teaches us how and why relationships to our food sources and systems are fundamental to the existence of people and nature. Internationally renowned Native American scholar and activist Winona LaDuke states “Food sovereignty is an affirmation of who we are as indigenous peoples and…one of the most surefooted ways to restore our relationship with the world around us.”

We believe that reviving our relationship with food and food sovereignty will enable us to rebuild that relationship and look forward to the many ways we can continue to support this work in our local communities.

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Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy (she/her) is the Department Chair and Associate Professor of Native American Studies at HSU and a Co-Director of the NAS Food Sovereignty Lab & Cultural Workshop Space. She is Hupa, Karuk and Yurok and enrolled in the Hoopa Valley Tribe.
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Dr. Kaitlin Reed (she/her) is an Assistant Professor of Native American Studies at HSU and a Co-Director of the NAS Food Sovereignty Lab & Cultural Workshop Space. She is Yurok, Hupa, and Oneida and enrolled in the Yurok Tribe.
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Food is Good Medicine
by Jude Marshall (Hupa, Karuk, Yurok)

We pray for it, we work for it, we dance for it.
Laughter and tears all bundled up.
Bringing it all back in a good way.
Fasting with love, eating with joy.
Sowing good feelings in all that we do,
Feeding the people.
Weaving knowledge, belonging, and hope,
One strand at a time.

The Potawot Community Food Garden is located at United Indian Health Services in Arcata, CA. The community educational garden is a 3-acre plot that provides organically grown vegetables, fruits and native herbs. The Potawot Garden distributes food to the UIHS community via Kay-woi Garden Membership and a bi-weekly Farmers Market. Believing that “food is good medicine,” the Potawot Community Food Garden welcomes volunteers to help work in their garden to lift up and inspire the health of its community. Call 707-826-8476 for more information about volunteering.


Apples at the Farmer's Market

Photo credit: North Coast Growers’ Association


The work to create this publication was conducted on unceded Wiyot territory. We are grateful to live, work, play, and grow in this place, surrounded by beauty and abundance. We are grateful to the original inhabitants of this land for their stewardship, tenacity and generosity.

Dear Reader,

On behalf of the dozens of local individuals who collaborated to bring this edition to life, welcome to the 2021 Community Food Guide!

The magazine you hold in your hands has recently undergone some changes. After four years of existence as the Local Food Guide by Locally Delicious, Cooperation Humboldt has enthusiastically taken on publication of the Guide.

It’s a natural fit, because at Cooperation Humboldt we believe that nutritious, culturally appropriate food is a fundamental human right that should never be dependent on wealth or income.

We’ve worked to create a magazine that promotes access, equity, education, and empowerment in our local food system through the following priorities:

  • Honoring the history, cultural knowledge, and experiences of local Indigenous people and centering their voices.
  • Creating an appealing, accessible, and useful tool that specifically supports those most in need.
  • Supporting local food businesses, especially those that have historically faced challenges accessing resources.
  • Promoting justice and localization in our food system.

We’ve learned a lot through this first year of the publication process, and we’re grateful for all the patience and support we received.

We hope you will enjoy the Guide, share it, and let us know how you’ve put it to use to help create a community where no one goes hungry.

Hou’ (Thank you),

Tamara McFarland
Editor; Food Team Anchor
Cooperation Humboldt