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Growing food justice by planting an anti-oppression foundation: opportunities and obstacles for a budding social movement


The food justice movement is a budding social movement premised on ideologies that critique the structural oppression responsible for many injustices throughout the agrifood system. Tensions often arise however when a radical ideology in various versions from multiple previous movements is woven into mobilization efforts by organizations seeking to build the activist base needed to transform the agrifood system. I provide a detailed case study of the People’s Grocery, a food justice organization in West Oakland, California, to show how anti-oppression ideology provides the foundation upon which food justice activists mobilize. People’s Grocery builds off of previous social justice movements within West Oakland, reflected in activist meaning making around ideas of social justice and autonomy. However, the ongoing mobilization process also faces complications stemming from diverse individual interpretations of food justice—that may not be reflected in the stated goals of food justice organizations—as well as structural constraints. Consequently, building a social movement premised on food justice opens up social spaces for new activism, but may not be a panacea for solving food-related racial and economic inequality. The findings have implications for newly forming food justice organizations, future research on the food justice movement, as well as for theories on social movement mobilization.

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  1. Such privilege has been expressed by high profile celebrity foodies making classist, verging on racist remarks. In a 60 min interview, Alice Waters said, “We make decisions every day about what we’re going to eat…some people want to buy Nike shoes—two pairs—and other people want to eat Bronx grapes, and nourish themselves. I pay a little extra, but this is what I want to do.” Such language reduces food choices to zero-sum games that ignore complex racial and economic systems.

  2. Throughout this article “radical” refers to changing social structures and value systems at their root. This is derived from the Latin radix, or “root.” Given the fundamental importance of food to human survival, and the social and ecological problems tied to food at this historical movement, FJ seeks to get to the roots of these problems.

  3. FJ concerns are now part of Slow Food USA’s organizational mission. The AFM is also taking FJ more seriously, evidenced by the annual conference put on by the Community Food Security Coalition: Food Justice: Honoring Our Roots, Growing the Movement.

  4. Oliver and Johnston (2000) define ideology as “a system of meaning that couples assertions and theories about the nature of social life with values and norms relevant to promoting or resisting social change” (p. 43).

  5. I received IRB approval for this research. Each participant signed an informed consent form. Real names have been excluded to protect identities. Interviews lasted 45 min to an hour. Interviews were requested in person during the course of participant observation. Interviewed interns were 80 % female, 40 % white, 30 % black, 20 % Asian, and 10 % Latino/a. Ninety percent were between the ages of 18 and 26, and 70 % were in or graduates of college. Interviewed staff were 57 % female, 43 % black, 29 % white, 14 % Asian and 14 % Latino/a. Fourteen percent were between the ages of 18 and 26, 43 % were 27–34, 14 % were 35–42, 29 % were over 42, and 86 % had graduated from college.

  6. Similar analyses have been carried out investigating dissensus and consensus of the food security frame, albeit across many organizations and federal agencies using this frame (Mooney and Hunt 2009).

  7. West Oakland had headquarters for both the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (first official black union in the USA) and Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association.

  8. As of 2000, there were 23,141 residents in West Oakland. The community is 65 % African American, 14.5 % Latino, 9.7 % Asian or Pacific Islander, 6.3 % White, 3.6 % two or more races, and less than 1 % American Indian (United Way of the Bay Area 2009). West Oakland is the poorest neighborhood in the Bay Area: 19 % unemployment, 39 % living in poverty, and 56.8 % of households making less than $25,000 a year.

  9. While still in West Oakland, PG has moved to a new office since this study was completed. There have also been changes in staff, including a new executive director.

  10. This program was ended in 2006.

  11. For more details on how PG operates visit:

  12. PG’s website links to resources on anti-oppression training. One resource provides a clear way to understand allyship by challenging activists to ask “what (am I) doing right now, right here, to support the self-determination of communities of color and of low-income people…to support a revolutionary transformation of systems of power…It makes me ask myself what (am I) doing…to help root out the racism in my own heart and the heart of communities I’m a part of, so that I can struggle in true solidarity with communities most affected by injustice as they lead the movement for radical social change” (McClure 2006).

  13. There is some recent evidence suggesting slight shifts in foundation funding toward more radical organizations. In 2011, PG received a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for efforts to fight structural racism in the agrifood system. The America Healing initiative is investing $75 million over 5 years to work towards racial justice. Specifically, PG received money for its racial healing efforts at cultural and institutional levels.

  14. Since my fieldwork was completed, PG has started the Growing Justice Initiative. This is a community driven program meant to provide the space and resources for community members to set up their own projects.

  15. See Holt-Gimémez’s (2011) edited book Food Movements Unite!. Contained therein are essays exploring how to bridge food justice, food sovereignty, and food democracy efforts.



Alternative food movement


Black Panther Party


Environmental justice


Food justice


Food justice movement


Food justice organization


People’s Grocery


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I owe a debt of gratitude to all the volunteers, interns, staff, and West Oakland residents I learned from while working as an ally with People’s Grocery. Thank you for sharing your lives and thoughts with me. Many thanks also to Brian Mayer, Stephen Perz, and Kendal Broad for helpful feedback on various versions of this manuscript. Upon submission, I received many constructive and supportive comments and suggestions from three anonymous reviewers and from the editor, Harvey James.

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Correspondence to Joshua Sbicca.

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Sbicca, J. Growing food justice by planting an anti-oppression foundation: opportunities and obstacles for a budding social movement. Agric Hum Values 29, 455–466 (2012).

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  • Food justice
  • People’s Grocery
  • West Oakland, CA
  • Ideology
  • Framing
  • Environmental sociology