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Food Justice + Soil Health

Updated: Jun 20, 2022

Two farmers picking a tomato.
Photo by Zen Chung from Pexels

We don't often see the phrases "food justice" and "soil health" referenced together. Yet, these concepts are interconnected. We might value justice, health, and wellbeing for all, as they are foundational tenets of our republic and democracy. But we might still be learning how unjust our food system and how unhealthy our soils have become. Everyone has a role in the solution. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught that justice is indivisible and that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. He also stated justice, at its best, is love correcting everything that stands against love. When we are "4 The Soil," we follow four core principles for building soil health. We also aim to recognize interlinked problems and solutions. We can re-imagine and redesign our food systems and remediate our soils to reflect our values.

Karen Washington, a farmer of Rise and Root Farm, activist, and James Beard Leadership award winner, joined us for Episode 22-5 of our podcast, 4 The Soil: A Conversation. We talked with her about how soil health is deeply rooted in community, justice, and a sense of belonging. She shared an important question: "We talk about soil fertility and the mechanisms behind microbes...fungi, bacteria, and that's all well and good. But how does that resonate to the people who are affected by soil infertility?" Washington has worked alongside neighbors in New York City to transform vacant lots filled with hazardous waste into flourishing community gardens. She knows the benefits of communal spaces and growing food. "For me as a food justice advocate, [I am] trying to get people to understand that good soil means good health." So how does food justice impact building healthy soils? What is food justice?

What is food justice?

Food is a rather tame word. However, as you begin to add words like local, community, security, justice, ethics, sustainability, and politics, the meaning of food in a social, economic, and environmental context becomes rather complex. Food justice has multiple definitions, and is both a belief and a practice. Just Food, a nonprofit based in New York, describes it as: "Food Justice is communities exercising their right to grow, sell, and eat healthy food... This is a community-based perspective to building a local food system. Exercising their right calls for a democratic approach in which every person has a voice. Growing healthy food requires fair access to space and resources, including healthy soils. Selling healthy food means ensuring the ability to obtain the necessary licenses, permits, and space to price and market their food. Eating healthy food, of course, involves ensuring fresh, affordable, accessible, locally grown, and culturally appropriate foods. Food justice also highlights the wellbeing of the land, workers, and animals. Food work has been laced with exploitation and injustices, particularly toward people of color.

How does food justice relate to soil health?

Like soil health, food justice begins by recognizing the problem and then mediating connections. Washington starts food justice conversations with history lessons beginning before enslavement in the U.S. "We were brought here…not because we were dumb but because of our knowledge of agriculture and the principles about crop rotation and intercropping and soil remediation and irrigation." Once the conversation starts, Washington encourages "people [to get] their hands dirty, especially young people." She noticed when children at the farm had never dug into the soil. "Don't be afraid of it!" she'd tell them. "[Do] not be afraid of earthworms or the little creatures you see, but [gain] understanding." Washington wants people to recognize the soil's "impact [on] where you live, where you play, and where you [eat]." "It takes a village, it takes diversity," said Washington. "It's not one voice, one race, one color, it's the [multitudes] of all of us coming together to make sure that this planet, the elements of this planet, is here for everybody."


Join the movement! 4 The Soil is a campaign by the Virginia Soil Health Coalition to raise awareness of soil as an agricultural and natural resource. By caring for the soil, we can build healthier communities, stronger economies, and a more resilient landscape.

Hands holding plant trays full of starter plants.
Photo by Alfo Medeiros from Pexels

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