Working Toward a More Equitable Food System

Policies to promote healthier food and farms must address the needs of marginalized communities

The broken U.S. food system is a problem for all Americans. But like many of our national problems, it hits communities of color and low-income communities hardest of all. African-Americans, Latinos, and low-income Americans disproportionately lack access to healthy food—and as a result, they are more likely to suffer from diet-related chronic diseases like diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease than the average American. They are also more likely to work at food system jobs that feature some of the lowest wages in our economy as well as unsafe and unhealthy working conditions.

These inequities are propped up by agricultural policies that promote the production and distribution of unhealthy processed foods while putting obstacles in the way of making healthy food more available and affordable for everyone.

So fixing our food system is not only a matter of health and sustainability—it’s also a matter of justice.

Overcoming barriers to healthy food access

Recent research has confirmed what food activists and journalists have been saying for years: all Americans do not enjoy equal access to healthy food. Inequities in food availability and affordability operate along both racial and income lines, with low-income communities of color facing a double disadvantage.

The solution is not as simple as “more supermarkets.” Transportation, affordability, and other food access barriers need to be overcome as well. Communities across America are coming up with innovative ways to meet these challenges locally, as profiled in our 2016 report Fixing Food: Fresh Solutions from Five U.S. Cities.

But local governments and community groups shouldn’t have to work so hard to overcome obstacles put in place by the current system and the federal policies that drive it. We need a national food policy, coordinated across all relevant federal agencies, aimed at promoting healthy food, economic opportunity, and environmental sustainability.

As part of this effort, we need to ensure that the most reliable food source for many American children—the school cafeteria—can be counted on to serve healthy food to nourish growing bodies and minds. Childhood obesity, a problem with serious, lifelong potential health consequences, continues to grow at a faster pace for African American and Latino children than for the population as a whole. So maintaining high standards for healthy school food is also a matter of food justice.

Fair wages and working conditions for food workers

In a cruel irony, food system workers (including farm workers, processing and distribution workers, and retail and food service workers) face higher levels of food insecurity than the average American. A 2012 study by the Food Chain Workers Alliance (FWCA) reports that wages for food system jobs are among the lowest of any U.S. industry, and that food system workers are likely to receive minimal benefits and to be subjected to hazardous, unhealthy working conditions—such as chemical exposure or extreme temperatures—and unfair or illegal labor practices, such as wage theft.

To truly fix the food system, we must ensure that food workers enjoy fair wages and benefits as well as safe and healthy working conditions. 

What we’re doing—and what you can do

The Union of Concerned Scientists is working to address food justice in a variety of ways:

  • We’re a co-founder of Plate of the Union, an initiative working to insert food issues into the 2016 presidential election, as a first step to persuading the next president to make food system reform a priority issue.
  • Through the HEAL Food Alliance, we've been working with other organizations committed to advancing food justice, health and sustainability, including FCWA and Real Food Challenge.
  • Our Center for Science and Democracy is working to promote partnerships between scientists and community groups working to transform their local food environment. In 2014, the Center released a food policy toolkit for local residents and community groups who want to participate in decisions that shape their local food environments.
  • We coordinate and convene the Good Food for All network, a group of grassroots and national organizations strategizing to advance food equity through federal food and farm policy.

You can help:



Last revised date: February 23, 2016

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