Aerial view of 2 tractors planting potatoes in the fertile farm fields of Idaho, during the spring.

Justice on the Table

The sprawling U.S. industrial food system creates big challenges that demand creative solutions.

By Brennen Jensen

“Farm-to-table” is a term fashionable restaurants employ to promote their wholesomely raised produce and meat transparently sourced from local farmers. The subtext: This is a meal you can feel good about.

But when talking about our greater 21st-century food system, with its global reach and industrial scale, the transparency falls away along with some of the good feelings. Injustices, inequities, and public health challenges exist all along the modern-day food chain—from the largely migrant agricultural workforce and vast animal feeding operations to meat processing plants and fragile food distribution networks reliant on low-income workers.

Following are three ways the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future is working to build a healthier and more equitable and resilient food system.


More Animals, More Problems

Industrial meat and egg production means fewer, bigger farms. The number of U.S. hog farms, for example, has declined more than 70%. And while some major meat producers may use idealized imagery on packaging of a red barn surrounded by livestock-dotted fields, that belies the reality. Their concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, confine thousands of animals within sheds. Masses of animals produce mass amounts of urine and feces that pose health threats to nearby residents.

North Carolinians know this all too well, as their state is a top pork producer. “The rapid expansion of industrial hog operations in North Carolina occurred largely where higher concentrations of the populations are Black, Indigenous, and people of color,” says Chris Heaney, PhD, MS, an associate professor in Environmental Health and Engineering. Such CAFOs’ putrid emissions are linked to reduced pulmonary function, mental health issues, exacerbated asthma, and other health problems. Heaney’s research also found dangerously elevated levels of fecal-indicator bacteria in local surface waters.

Another problem: Industrially raised animals are routinely prophylactically dosed with antimicrobials, with estimates suggesting some two-thirds of medically important antimicrobials sold in the U.S. are used on livestock. The rise of antimicrobial resistant (AMR) infections is a global health concern. Heaney’s work in North Carolina showed that livestock-associated antimicrobial-resistant Staphylococcus aureus was transmitted to both CAFO workers and the community.

“We’re facing a potential epidemic of resistance,” he says. “Such antimicrobial use practices should be closely examined as contributors to AMR bacteria carriage and infection in humans.”


Fields of Fire

Immigration, migration, and the fate of undocumented workers are hot-button political issues. But one thing is beyond debate: Foreign-born hands feed the nation. Roughly three-quarters of U.S. farmworkers are immigrants, about half of whom are undocumented. And a third of these workers have family incomes below the federal poverty line. Adding to their vulnerability, farmworkers are exempt from federal labor regulations that protect workers in other industries—a condition known as agricultural exceptionalism.

Climate change, with its potential for increased deadly heat waves, is a real threat to those toiling in the fields. Agricultural workers die from heat exposure at a rate 35 times that of all other civilian workers in the U.S., says Patti Truant Anderson, PhD ’14, MPH ’09, a CLF senior program officer and an associate in Health Policy and Management. Farm workers are often paid based on the amount of produce they can harvest, creating a disincentive to take breaks, drink water, or use the bathroom.

Another health threat: Pesticide exposure. Climate change can lead to greater pesticide use as pest seasons are extended and intensified.

CLF has joined other labor advocates asking the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for federal farmworker heat safety standards and protections.

“Workers don't have a lot of capital or power to challenge employers, and we really think that the government needs to create and enforce these standards,” Anderson says.


Food for Thought

COVID-19 presented numerous challenges to the nation’s food infrastructure. When learning went remote, millions of children lost access to free or reduced-price school meals. When restaurants closed, thousands of farmers and fisheries lost buyers for their perishable goods. And while low-income food system workers were deemed essential, many lacked access to PPE.

“During the pandemic, food service workers were some of the most vulnerable workers and did not have the luxury of staying at home,” says Anne Palmer, MAIA, an associate scientist in Health, Behavior and Society and CLF’s director of practice.

Food policy councils—which unite stakeholders from communities, nonprofits, farmers, retailers, distributors, government, and academia—led creative responses. A 2020 CLF survey of such councils highlights their pandemic adaptations and pivots.

Detroit’s food council, for example, helped grocery store workers acquire PPE. Other councils organized volunteers to distribute school meals to homebound children or advocated for additional public financial support for families with such children. Councils also worked with federal agencies to adapt programs, helping beneficiaries of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program acquire food online, for instance.

“An important piece of our learning is realizing that food has not necessarily been treated as a public good in a lot of jurisdictions,” Palmer says. “And when it's not treated as a public good, it ends up being kind of haphazardly addressed. We hope innovation will continue in this space, along with increased attention to disparities.”