Food is fundamental,
We know the roots of the problem,
and it doesn’t have to be this way.
We have power and a choice.
Food is fundamental, and our food system is in crisis.
Food reflects how our communities have learned to survive and thrive throughout the ages. It is the seed we hid in our hair as we were removed from our homelands. It is the worn and bent recipe cards handed down from generation to generation. It is a meal made with the spices and flavors that remind us where we come from. Beyond providing us with physical sustenance, food is often our greatest tie to culture, community, and the earth.
While growing, eating, and sharing food can be some of the most meaningful community experiences of our lives, the food system is also the source of some of the most damaging injustices that affect our people. But the mainstream story about food either hides or normalizes these harms. We are effectively told that if we want food to be affordable, then we must accept exploitation in fields, in processing plants, and in food service jobs. We are told that if we want to feed a growing world, then we must accept agricultural methods that destroy our topsoil, pollute our water, degrade animals, and leave farmers and fishers poorer than ever. And we are told that if we are poor, we should accept unhealthy, highly processed food because it is all that we deserve.
While corporate food industry executives get richer, their workers struggle to feed themselves, pay their medical bills, care for their families and communities, and survive. This is because our current food system places a higher value on profits and corporate control than on human health, dignity, and the right to be nourished by and connected to land, culture, and community.
We know the roots of the problem.
This system has been created by a global cartel of Big Food corporations that dominate food and beverage production and distribution in the U.S. and much of the world. They build upon patterns established by state-sponsored monopolies, hacienda jefes, and plantation owners. Big Food’s predecessors went by names like the Royal Africa Company, the East India Trading Company, and United Fruit. Today, they include household names like Walmart, Tyson, and Coca-Cola as well as lesser known but no less powerful companies like Monsanto, Cargill, and Archer Daniel Midland (ADM). Their business models depend on keeping their expenses low at the expense of farmers and workers; marketing highly processed products that are more profitable to them and disproportionately harmful to us; and externalizing costs onto our communities, like pollution, health issues, and climate change. Big Food’s political plan, the Big Food agenda, is to protect this business model and spread it around the globe.
Both Big Food and the United States were built on a foundation of colonization, white supremacy, and the uprooting of people. Native Americans were forcibly removed from their homelands, which were then transformed into plantations, homesteads, and ranches. Those who survived genocide were resettled on reservations and violently forced to abandon ancient land, water, foodways, and community traditions. Indigenous African people were also forcibly removed from their homelands, and those who survived the Middle Passage were forced to stay and work that stolen land to fuel a growing colony. These processes are ongoing and contribute to structural racism. Native Americans—like indigenous communities around the world—still face land grabs and violations of their territorial sovereignty, along with structural poverty, and failing public resources like healthcare and education. For many descendants of enslaved Africans, the dehumanizing cycle of bondage has continued in the form of mass incarceration, for-profit prisons, and debt structures that disadvantage Black food producers and landowners intergenerationally.
As globalization has further connected our struggles, migrant workers and economic refugees from around the world now work in U.S. fields, factories, and food service jobs, and they are often the least paid, least protected, and least visible workers in our communities. This is because Big Food has developed and globally exported an industrial agricultural agenda, which is often branded as international development. This globalized agricultural imperialism has forced countless people around the world to lose their livelihoods, as farmers and fishers leave their ancestral lands and waters and abandon traditional foodways. In both the past and present, Big Food profits from an ongoing cycle of exploitation.
Higher ed is part of the problem.
Institutions of higher education in the U.S. are helping perpetuate this cycle by propping up Big Food with material support: by buying billions of dollars worth of Big Food products, by promoting Big Food brands through pouring rights and named buildings, by funneling students into the Big Food workforce, and by using public resources to develop lucrative technology and intellectual property that is adopted by Big Food.
Just as important as higher ed’s material support for Big Food is its ideological support. Some of this support is overt and obvious, like scholarly papers—often funded by the food industry—that provide academic cover for Big Food’s claims, the suppression of dissenting voices, and the the uncritical teaching of a Big Food point of view in food and agriculture departments. There are also subtler ways that higher ed, especially land grant institutions, uphold the Big Food agenda. What is not taught, for instance, is just as important as what is taught. While many institutions of higher ed have at the very least talked about sustainability and climate change, relatively few have sounded the alarm on the related crisis in the food system. And even though food studies, sustainable agriculture, and agroecology courses and programs are proliferating, the researching and teaching of alternatives to the current industrial food system are dwarfed by the mainstream view.
Higher education’s role in upholding Big Food is not surprising given the origins of many colleges and universities. Many of these institutions were explicitly created to advance the colonial interests of the United States, others were founded on the wealth acquired through plantation slavery, and almost all sit on the land that formerly nourished native peoples.Those institutions that have not grappled with their deep roots in a system of white supremacy—and very few have—are likely to perpetuate the assumptions and operating logic of white supremacy that underpin our food system. This includes a belief in a hierarchy of human worth so that the exploitation of black and brown labor seems normal, a narrow concept of “progress” leading us to fetishize technology and efficiency, and a limited view of whose knowledge and perspectives are valid, preventing academics from seeing the brilliance of solutions already in our communities.
Whether higher ed is influenced by the dollars dangled in front of them by the food industry or by an unexamined relationship with white supremacy, the net result is that our system of higher education as a whole plays a multi-faceted and powerful role in upholding the status quo. By and large—knowingly or unwittingly—our institutions consistently choose Big Food over us. As long as higher ed in the U.S. is in the pockets of Big Food, they will continue to serve Big Food’s agenda and uphold white supremacy instead of serving our communities.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Over the centuries, many people have survived violence and displacement, cultivating new connections to food and land alongside the old traditions they carried with them. They have developed innovative ways to sustainably grow, process, and share food and seeds; to care for the land in a changing climate; to organize for fair labor practices; and to maintain control over their own food and agriculture systems.
Big Food is not the only way. From the example of our ancestors and current food movements around the world, we know another way is possible. Imagine if higher ed uplifted the traditional knowledge and innovations of our communities, became resources to solve critical food issues of our time, and fulfilled their role as places of learning and research in service of the public good. Imagine a new generation of people fighting for food sovereignty and putting an end to the unquestioned dominance of Big Food and white supremacy in our food system.
We have power. We have a choice.
Our power is grounded in the global struggle to resist the Big Food agenda, which has demonstrated that food sovereignty is not only possible but practical and essential for the survival of our people. Our power is grounded in our belief that we can break the cycle of exploitation. We can ensure that dignity for food work; nourishment from the food we eat; and sustainability in farming, ranching, and fishing are the norms and not the exception. Our power is grounded in understanding the roots of the problem—the long history of displacement, discrimination, and marginalization at the hands of imperialist interests.
But ultimately, our power is the influence we have when we speak up, walk away, and defect from a system that doesn’t serve us or our futures.
If we don’t do this, we will see massive corporate mergers between food companies. We will see higher ed research being used to justify pollution and exploitation. We will see the loss of crop biodiversity and of farming methods that offer resilience in the face of a changing climate. We will see rising food insecurity and the total collapse of rural communities. We will see corporate greed continue to weaken labor laws in the U.S. and abroad.
So we have a choice.
Will we continue to tolerate the Big Food agenda and white supremacy, which threaten our ability to survive and thrive? Or will we fight for a food system that nourishes us all?
We are uprooted and rising.
We are a movement fighting for a future that will sustain and nourish generations to come, here and abroad. We are led by people who have been historically marginalized in our food system. We include students, workers, faculty, food producers, and community
members that institutions of higher education are meant to serve. We are people who share a stake in building a food system rooted in food sovereignty. Although our lives and our communities have been rocked by Big Food, we are inheritors of deep knowledge and deep legacies of resistance. We refuse to watch the last pieces of land, culture, and community be ripped away. We refuse to accept the cycle of exploitation.