Growing Concerns

First lady Michelle Obama attracted major media attention when she took a shovel to the White House’s South Lawn in 2009 and pitched the home vegetable garden as one of the solutions to childhood obesity. She was among a growing movement of Americans who promote gardening’s health benefit by emphasizing how it offers greater control over the food we eat.

So why doesn’t everyone pick up the shovel and start digging? For starters, gardening requires space, time, and money—not to mention horticultural knowledge—which are not widely accessible. Julie Guthman, in a 2008 article in The Professional Geographer, notes how the movement’s supporters tend to presume the lack of knowledge and will—not resources—as the key impediment. Many Americans believe that low-income citizens are ignorant about the benefits of fresh produce, and would change their eating behaviors “if they only knew.” Yet this attitude blames those who are most vulnerable to health and financial challenges, she argues.

Alison Hope Alkon and Julian Agyeman, who edited Cultivating Food Justice in 2011, use the concept of “food sovereignty” to describe how poor and minority communities not only lack access to good food, but are often cut out of conversations about what good food actually is. Food justice movements, they argue, empower local communities to gain access to food that is both nourishing and culturally appropriate, rather than “educating” them about what they should do.

So while the first lady’s call for home gardening raises public awareness about food and health, the broader food justice movement goes even further, showing us that improving food access requires us to think about broader social inequality, and not just where one’s food comes from.