Advancing Equity in Food Systems

Advancing Equity in Food Systems: Supporting Food Justice and Food Sovereignty, and Ending Food Apartheid

Food justice, food sovereignty, and food apartheid are broad conceptual frameworks for understanding local food systems. These frameworks overlap, and they share some fundamental commonalities: they all aim to help us envision a just, ethical, and sustainable food future, and focus on the social and political systems that enable or impede this vision. At the same time, each has a unique focus and framing of the issue. Law and policy can work toward or support the goals, values, and visions of these frameworks and build equitable food systems. This section explores each of these frameworks and related policies to consider.

In this section:

What is Food Justice?
What is Food Sovereignty?
What is Food Apartheid?



“Food justice sees the lack of healthy food in poor communities as a human rights issue and draws from grassroots struggles and US organizing traditions such as the civil rights and environmental justice movements.”

Food First

“Food justice is a holistic and structural view of the food system that sees healthy food as a human right and addresses structural barriers to that right . . . . Food justice efforts (which are generally led by indigenous peoples and people of color) work not only for access to healthy food, but for an end to the structural inequities that lead to unequal health outcomes.”

Food Print

Food justice for a community will depend on the shared vision and priorities of community members. As a starting point, some common food justice themes include food access; autonomy to grow food; and equitable community participation in creating, implementing, and evaluating laws and policies that affect these areas. Achieving food justice within a community requires distinct strategies that target causes and conditions of injustice specific to that community.

Food justice policies come in many different varieties and appear across different levels of government. For example, federal, state, local, and Tribal laws and policies can advance food justice by promoting and supporting:

*The examples above are a few selected examples of related resources and do not represent the full breadth of work on these issues.

Food Justice Policy Examples

Oakland, California’s Department of Race and Equity integrates the principle of “fair and just” into the city’s actions, planning, and policy. In applying this principle, the law specifically recognizes that “[f]ood systems that support local food production and provide access to affordable, healthy, and culturally appropriate foods for all people” are a determinant of equity.

In 2019, Boston, Massachusetts established a Good Food Purchasing Program that requires city food purchases and service contracts to satisfy standards that promote justice within the food system.

Boulder, Colorado applies a portion of revenue generated from the city’s sugar sweetened beverage excise tax towards city activities that improve health equity, including access to healthy foods and food and nutrition education.

Learn More about Food Justice


“Food sovereignty is 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. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute, and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.”

Declaration of Nyéléni (2007) (first global forum on food sovereignty)

Food sovereignty challenges the current power structures in the food system, maintaining that farmers, food producers, fishers, and communities should have control over their food, land, and water. Food sovereignty recognizes the right to healthy and culturally appropriate foods for all and acknowledges that food producers should benefit from the economic value of the food they produce. It pushes back against the corporate food regime which is controlled by a few large agribusiness companies and demands a shift to local food production by small producers, prioritizing a community’s right to produce the food they need to feed themselves.

Importantly, food sovereignty movements in the US center self-determination and liberation into discussions around food justice. For example, the National Black Food and Justice Alliance describes food sovereignty as requiring a drastic change in what is currently an exploitative food system to one that is built with community self-determination at the center. Food sovereignty can only be realized by changing ownership structures across the food system, from land ownership and seed production through food distribution and retail.

Food sovereignty has unique and heightened significance for Indigenous peoples in the U.S. and around the world. The Declaration of Atitlán, Guatemala, drafted at the Indigenous Peoples’ Consultation on the Right to Food, recognizes this significance, affirming “the Right to Food of Indigenous Peoples is a collective right based on our special spiritual relationship with Mother Earth, our lands and territories, environment, and natural resources that provide our traditional nutrition [and] underscoring that the means of subsistence of Indigenous Peoples nourishes our cultures, languages, social life, worldview, and especially our relationship with Mother Earth[.]”

The Tribal Food Sovereignty Advancement Initiative of the National Congress of American Indians describes Tribal food sovereignty as: “the right and availability of tribal nations and peoples to:

  • freely develop and implement self-determined definitions of food sovereignty;
  • cultivate, access, and secure nutritious, culturally essential food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods; and
  • design and maintain food systems and enact policies that advance tribal priorities for ensuring that tribal citizens have the sustenance they need to thrive physically, mentally, socially, and culturally not just today, but for the generations to come.”

For Indigenous peoples, food sovereignty and Tribal sovereignty are deeply intertwined. Disrupting Indigenous foodways has been a powerful tactic for disrupting Tribal Nations and cultures, and these disruptions continue to operate to this day. Applying Tribal sovereignty has been an effective strategy for Tribes in resisting and repairing these disruptions. Tribes in the United States are exercising their Tribal sovereignty to protect and/or restore traditional foodways by protecting traditional animals and plants, reclaiming land, and strengthening traditional food knowledge, to name just a few. In the foreword to Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States, Winona LaDuke writes, “Food sovereignty is an affirmation of who we are as Indigenous peoples, and a way, one of the most sure-footed ways, to restore our relationship with the world around us.”

Food Sovereignty Policy Examples

Tribal Food Sovereignty

The White Earth Band of Ojibwe enacted a law recognizing Manoomin (wild rice) as having legal rights, including “the right to pure water and freshwater habitat; the right to a healthy climate system and a natural environment free from human-caused global warming impacts and emissions; the right to be free from patenting; as well as rights to be free infection, infestation, or drift by any means from genetically engineered organisms, trans-genetic risk seed, or other seeds that have been developed using methods other traditional plant breeding.” The White Earth Band subsequently filed a case in Tribal court to enforce those rights against the state of Minnesota.

The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission’s Model Food Code Project has model Tribal policy language and supporting materials designed to “assist tribal harvesters, food handlers, food processors, food managers, regulatory staff, leadership, and community members in making decisions around building a food system that includes traditional foods and provides for the sale of those food within and beyond reservation borders.”

The Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative has Model Tribal Food and Agriculture Code Project that provides model law language and contextual information on a wide range of Tribal laws related to food and agriculture, designed to “facilitate agricultural production, food systems development, and health outcomes improvement in Indian Country.”

The Diné Policy Institute’s Food Sovereignty Initiative has used community-based participatory research methods to inform recommendations regarding avenues of growing food sovereignty in their communities. Read their report, Diné Food Sovereignty, particularly the section “Strategies and Recommendations,” for various policy examples.

Municipal and State Food Sovereignty

Maine’s 2017 Food Sovereignty Act permits municipalities to adopt food sovereignty ordinances, such as Madison, Maine’s Local Food and Community Self-Governance Ordinance. For a brief history of the Act, see the “Food Sovereignty” section of HFPP’s resource, State Policy Options to Increase Access to Healthy Food.

Learn More about Food Sovereignty

For more information and perspectives on Tribal and Indigenous food sovereignty, check out:

For more information and perspectives on other food sovereignty work, check out:

For more information about the legal strategies around the right to food and the rights of nature, check out:


“Communities experience food insecurity, or disruption of food intake[,] because of lack of money, resources, and food apartheid. Food apartheid results from political and economic decisions rooted in structural racism, which have inequitably led to long-term disinvestment in primarily low-income communities and communities of color.”

The Praxis Project

At their core, food justice and food sovereignty are centered on affirmative rights and building or reinforcing systems to fulfill those rights. The term “food apartheid” focuses on injustice and squarely calls into focus deliberate policy choices that have resulted in geographically linked racial inequities in healthy food access.3 In other words, the term food apartheid helps us visualize the manifestations of structural oppression by “place” and “space.” Further, food apartheid identifies white supremacy as a key driver in the policymaking process and calls attention to how communities of color have been denied the means to afford and eat healthy, culturally meaningful foods.

Food apartheid seeks to diminish community sovereignty and individual autonomy through physical sorting, separation, and barriers. It emphasizes the direct link between public and private policy, chronic community disinvestment, and the racial inequities apparent in access to healthy food. It highlights how longstanding, intentional policy decisions, such as redlining, have denied communities of color the opportunity for social mobility and land access or ownership while also exposing them to harmful environmental toxins. By drawing the direct connection between policy decisions and racial inequities in food access, the term invites conversations and solutions around the root causes of inadequate access to healthy foods and food system agency in these areas and offers transformative solutions beyond attracting more grocery stores.

Karen Washington, an activist and co-founder of Black Urban Growers, began using the term “food apartheid” to highlight the intentional and systemic racial inequities in healthy food access. In her own words:

“I coined the term ‘food apartheid’ to ask us to look at the root causes of inequity in our food system on the basis of race, class, and geography. Let’s face it: healthy, fresh food is accessible in wealthy neighborhoods while unhealthy food abounds in poor neighborhoods. ‘Food apartheid’ underscores that this is the result of decades of discriminatory planning and policy decisions. It begs the question: What are the social inequities that you see, and what are you doing to address them?”

Naming these root causes invites policy, systems, and environmental solutions that address the ongoing impacts of structural racism, including racial residential segregation, redlining, chronic community disinvestment, and entrenched socioeconomic inequities. It also pushes us to move away from victim-blaming arguments that inequitable food access can explained by a community’s lack of initiative. Instead, the term creates an intentional focus on how structural racism and structural inequities are rooted in a long history of slavery, colonialism, land theft, white supremacy, and anti-Blackness.

Food Apartheid Policy Examples

We have not found examples of policies explicitly using the term “food apartheid.” However, there are examples of policies that expressly link lack of healthy food access to systemic racism.

In 2019, Milwaukee County, Wisconsin passed a law recognizing that racism has created a public health crisis in Milwaukee County and committing to use racial equity tools in developing its budget, policies, processes, and procedures. The law seeks to achieve racial health equity by “us[ing] racial equity tools to evaluate the impact of decisions on [B]lack and brown communities.”

Cuyahoga County, Ohio, passed a resolution in 2020 declaring racism a public health crisis in Cuyahoga County and committing government resources to eliminating racial health disparities. The resolution recognized that structural racism has created health disparities among Black people in access to healthy food, among other areas, and created a County Equity Commission and a Citizens Advisory Council on Equity. Many other cities, towns, and counties have declared racism a public health crisis, as visualized in the American Public Health Association’s map of declarations. Although not legally enforceable, these declarations are an initial step that should be followed with action such as resource allocation to create meaningful change.

St. Petersburg, Florida passed a resolution in 2021 declaring racism a public health crisis which included the finding that Black citizens in Florida “have been limited to areas with restricted access to healthy foods, disproportionate amount of convenience and liquor stores, clean water, and other essential resources, leading to a variety of other health issues. . . .” The resolution tasked the city with advocating for policies to improve health in Black communities and take other actions to advance racial equity. A few months later, the city issued a lengthy report that explained the history and current impacts of systemic racism within St. Petersburg and how they affect access to healthy food and other aspects of health, which included additional policy recommendations.

Race Forward’s report, “Building the Case for Racial Equity in the Food System” provides specific policy recommendations for a more racially equitable food system (see Section VI) and includes a racial impact analysis tool to assess policies (see Appendix: Guiding Questions for Racial Impact Analysis).

Learn More about Food Apartheid

  • Malik Yakini on Food Apartheid: a short video providing an overview of food apartheid.
  • The Capital Market of 20743 provides access to fresh, healthy produce in a predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhood in Capitol Heights, Maryland. The community farmers’ market supports businesses and farms owned by people of color and is accessible to people without transportation, showing an investment in the community that extends beyond food.

  • Soul Fire Farm in New York is an Afro-Indigenous community farm committed to food sovereignty and ending food apartheid. Their approach combines agroecology with Afroecology, “a form of art, movement, practice, and process of social and ecological transformation that involves the re-evaluation of our sacred relationships with land, water, air, seeds and food.” Listen to an interview with Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm to learn more.
  • More information about governmental declarations calling for racism to be addressed as a public health crisis can be found at the American Public Health Association’s interactive webpage dedicated to this topic.

For further reading on this topic, check out:

Discussion Questions

  • How do the equity frameworks of food justice, food sovereignty, and food apartheid overlap? What commonalities do they share? How are they different?
  • What terms, approaches, or frameworks best reflect or describe your experience with improving local food systems? What resonates with you? What do you disagree with? Why?
  • Are there particular food system issues or challenges that are not reflected in any of the frameworks or approaches discussed above? If so, what are they?
  • Some food justice advocates have used the term “food apartheid” to describe our current food systems as a way to reflect the role of racist systems, structures, and policies in perpetuating spaces that are concentrated with barriers to healthy food options. How does this characterization align with your experience or perspective of our current food system challenges?

In the next section, we discuss some of the terms and indicators used to talk about improving food justice, strengthening food sovereignty, and ending food apartheid.

Sample Definition Environmental Justice

“Environmental Justice—a set of principles and a grassroots-led movement—arose in response to the disproportionate exposure of communities of color and low-income communities to harmful pollution, toxic sites and facilities, and other health and environmental hazards. . . . In the simplest terms, achieving Environmental Justice means making sure all people have the opportunity to live the healthiest lives they possibly can.”

Environmental Justice Health Alliance

Next: Measuring Progress


3“Apartheid” signifies a system of intentional, government-enforced race-based discrimination and, as implemented in South Africa, has been recognized as unlawful under international law and as a crime against humanity (see, Dugard, John. “Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid” United Nations, 1973,

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