Volume 111

The Abolition of Food Oppression

by Etienne C. Toussaint

Public health experts trace the heightened risk of mortality from COVID-19 among historically marginalized populations to their high rates of diabetes, asthma, and hypertension, among other diet-related comorbidities. However, food justice activists call attention to structural oppression in global food systems, perhaps best illuminated by the prevalence of unhealthy fast-food restaurants (and the lack of healthy alternatives) in low-income Black and Hispanic/Latinx neighborhoods nationwide. In response, local governments have begun to prioritize local food production to reduce food insecurity. Yet, even well-intentioned food justice initiatives, such as urban farming programs, can perpetuate structural inequities by glorifying entrepreneurialism or privatization as effective solutions to poverty. Further still, when lawmakers propose targeted relief programs for food insecure communities, such as the Biden Administration’s federal debt relief program for socially disadvantaged farmers, they are routinely challenged on constitutional grounds for preferencing non-White racial and ethnic groups. Thus, food insecurity in the urban ghettos and rural towns of America persists.

To defeat this impasse, this Article advocates an abolition constitutionalist framing of food insecurity in the United States. Specifcally, it argues that framing the problem of food insecurity in historically marginalized communities as a badge of the antebellum system of chattel slavery invokes the legislative potential of the Thirteenth Amendment’s Enforcement Clause. Although the Supreme Court has empowered Congress to pass laws necessary for abolishing all badges and incidents of slavery, there remains a lack of clarity on the scope of material conditions or forms of discrimination that constitute such lingering harms, leading some lower courts to limit the Amendment’s enforcement to literal slavery or involuntary servitude. Accordingly, this Article proposes a dignity-based normative framework to assess the nature of injuries or material conditions that are proximately traceable to the political economic system of American slavery. Using the problem of food insecurity as a guiding explanatory thread, this framework reveals how modern badges of slavery can infict: (i) equality-based; (ii) liberty-based; and (iii) integrity-based dignitary harms. These dignitary harms, individually and collectively, can perpetuate the types of oppression levied by chattel slavery; in this instance, the exploitative, marginalizing, and violent harms of food oppression. Whether modern-day food oppression is animated by state action (or inaction) or by private actors, it not only hinders public health and degrades democracy, but most importantly, it also violates the spirit and letter of the Thirteenth Amendment. 

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