The food justice movement is a grassroots initiative and structural view that sees nutritious food as a human right.
It argues that lack of access to healthy food is both a symptom and cause of the structural inequalities that divide society, while recognizing how race, class, and gender play vital roles in the way food is produced, distributed, and consumed.
Specifically, the movement seeks to shed light on how Communities of Color and low-income communities are disproportionately harmed by the current food system — for instance, how they’ve been denied access to the means of production.
In addition, the framework considers other factors that hinder food access, such as the price of goods and the locations of grocery stores.
Therefore, food justice activism is just as much about creating local food systems as it is about ending the structural inequities that lead to unequal health outcomes.
The movement aims to address the structural barriers and economic factors that prevent access to healthy, culturally appropriate, and nutritious food.
Knowledge around food justice and culture, therefore, is vital. However, for those unfamiliar with the area, knowing where to start can feel a little daunting.
Luckily, there are many incredible documentaries out there aimed at educating audiences and raising awareness of the food system.
Here are 6 documentaries and docuseries you can stream to learn more.
“High on the Hog” is a four-part Netflix documentary series that explores African American culinary history and the influence of classism, racial disparities, and labor relations on African American food culture.
The documentary is an adaptation of American culinary historian Dr. Jessica B. Harris‘s 2011 book of the same name.
“High on the Hog” is hosted by Stephen Satterfield, founder of Whetstone Magazine, a publication dedicated to food history and culture.
Historically speaking, the show argues, American food culture has reduced African American cooking to Southern or soul food. However, Black people have made countless contributions beyond that, including to well-known, classic American dishes.
It’s an important and culturally relevant docuseries to watch, as it sheds light on how much of what is considered American cuisine originated from the African American population.
Not only does it educate viewers on the endurance of African cooking traditions and food, but it also unabashedly speaks on how enslavement influenced what we know of today as American cuisine.
It is a deeply nuanced exploration of the roots of Black American food. In terms of food justice, this documentary is a crucial text for understanding and celebrating the true foundation of American cooking.
Related Reading: Check out this article about honoring Black culture and heritage through food.
“Salt Fat Acid Heat” is a four-part Netflix docuseries that explores how the titular elements are used in different local cuisines as the heart of the dishes.
The show is inspired by American chef Samin Nosrat’s 2017 cookbook of the same name. Nosrat hosts this docuseries as it investigates the essence of cooking by distilling food down to these four basic elements.
She travels to Italy, Japan, the Yucatán region of Mexico, and her hometown of Berkeley, California, to meet with restaurant chefs, home cooks, and artisans to develop a greater understanding of their unique kitchen fundamentals.
This works to celebrate each cuisine’s country of origin while also unifying their respective food cultures.
The series is a less academic, more accessible introduction to food culture and history due to its presentation as an instructional cooking and travel show. Its anchoring in food culture still makes it highly educational, relevant, and enjoyable to watch.
Related Reading: Check out this article about chef Andy Baraghani’s take on how food can reflect our social and cultural identities.
The film examines the issue through the stories of a single mother, a second-grader whose health issues are exacerbated by her diet, and a fifth-grader who depends on the generosity of friends and neighbors to eat.
The film suggests that hunger in America doesn’t stem from a true lack of food. Rather, it’s a complex situation fueled by social and governmental apathy.
Among other problems, the documentary cites:
- the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s farm subsidy program rewarding big agribusinesses over family farms
- the higher cost of nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables compared with highly processed foods
- the food stamp system that disqualifies many low-income households from government assistance
While some of the evidence is outdated,“A Place at the Table” is an excellent documentary to watch if you want to better understand how structural inequities lead to disproportionately unequal health outcomes for low-income communities.
Related Reading: Check out this article about America’s “food deserts” — and why some food justice scholars say that’s not the most accurate term.
“Eating Our Way To Extinction” is a documentary that explores our food system, its negative effects on the planet, and the possible repercussions it could have on our future.
The film features various locations worldwide to share testimonials from the Indigenous people most affected by the environmental crisis. They highlight the relationship between the food we eat and our current ecological crisis.
The film argues that the animal agriculture and fishing industries are key factors leading to increases in the rearing of livestock, unsustainable feed production, antibiotic overuse, and deforestation.
Thus, it asks viewers to consider a plant-based diet to counter the effects of environmental destruction.
This documentary has received some criticism for overlooking the influence and culpability of wealth-driven economies, putting the responsibility on individual consumers instead of demanding accountability from corporations and governments.
However, it is a good introduction to the relationship between food culture and climate change — particularly for those looking for more insight into how our personal dietary habits may affect the global population.
Related Reading: Check out this article offering nine tips for reducing your carbon footprint in the kitchen.
“Gather” documents the growing movement of Native Americans seeking to reclaim their spiritual, political, and cultural identities through food sovereignty while battling the trauma of centuries of genocide.
It follows members of four different Indigenous nations as they work with community leaders to reclaim and preserve their cultural traditions. Some of these stories include:
- the opening of a restaurant that uses Apache-grown produce to combat food insecurity
- the reintroduction of ancient medicinal and food practices
- a teenager’s academic research into the benefits of a traditional buffalo-based diet compared with a modern beef-based one
The film’s story is anchored in the healing of generational trauma through community collaboration in the fight for food sovereignty. Personal narratives and archival footage contextualize the continued violence that Indigenous people experience.
The documentary argues for restorative revolution and highlights how Native Americans of all ages are using their skills in research, cooking, and foraging in the fight for food justice.
Related Reading: Check out this article about the effort to preserve Indigenous cultures by honoring traditional foods.
“Food Chains” is a documentary that explores agricultural labor in the U.S. and the culpability of the multibillion-dollar supermarket and fast food industries in the abuse of farmworkers.
Also directed by Sanjay Rawal of “Gather,” the film documents the experiences of migrant farmworkers who pick fruits and vegetables sold to large U.S. food wholesalers. It explores the work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and their hunger strike for better wages.
The workers shown, mainly from Latin America, share their poor working conditions and their experiences with both wage theft and — in some cases — modern-day slavery.
This documentary argues that America’s food system will never be sustainable if it’s based on the abuse of low-income workers. It also highlights how food justice and human rights are inextricably linked.
“Food Chains” sheds light on how farmworkers are abused and enslaved to this day within the borders of the U.S. It focuses on the human cost of our food supply industry, the battle for food equity, and the fight against corporate greed.
Related Reading: Check out this article that dives deep into the challenges associated with our food supply chain — and how you can help fix them.
In order to achieve a sustainable food system, understanding the food justice movement is imperative.
While there’s a growing body of academic work highlighting the movement to empower historically sidelined communities, there are also many accessible documentaries and docuseries working to influence change, too.
Film, after all, is a very powerful visual aid when it comes to increasing awareness of social inequalities, and it can offer a gentle introduction into complex topics.
Watching the films and series mentioned above can certainly provide you with a solid foundation for learning about food justice and culture.
Zuva Seven is a freelance writer and editor-in-chief of the online digital magazine An Injustice!. She’s committed to educating people on general health, wellness and mental health in particular, though she also dabbles in politics and pop culture. Her work has appeared in various publications, including Refinery29, Business Insider, Stylist Magazine, Greatist and many more. When she’s not writing, you can find Zuva strength training in the gym or working towards completing her Bachelor of Arts degree in film, media and gender studies from the University of Cape Town. Follow her on Twitter.