Protecting food as a human right in the U.S. begins with education

Defending the human right to food is a growing international effort, and is being taught in the food studies program at Syracuse University.

Basic human rights can be difficult to define, and even more challenging to protect.

Human rights violations occur - and go unpunished - at the regional, national and global levels. While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, approaching and addressing violations against human rights have still proven to be complicated.

What may seem to be one of the most essential human rights, is the right to food.

Food, and how it is made, preserved and produced, affects every part of human life; from cultural tradition to economic security. Approaching adequate food and nutrition with a human rights framework is an international effort, and includes respecting, protecting and fulfilling the right to food. 

One example working to promote this movement is The Right to Food and Nutrition Watch, an annual publication by The Global Effort for the Right to Food and Nutrition. It aims to draw attention to global violations and crises that people across the world face. The theme for the 2016 issue is Keeping Seeds in Peoples' Hands. Its essays and case studies focus on violations made against indigenous and peasant rights, offering solutions to many international issues.

One violation that has continued for over four decades is the land grabbing of ancestral land in Brazil. Other crises include Egyptian bread subsidies that dismantle food sovereignty, and extreme water scarcity in West Africa.

This publication is critical because the lack of mainstream media attention dedicated to human rights issues have left information, applicable to all people, virtually inaccessible.

As an internationally collaborative effort, The Watch has also shed light on the right to food movement here in the U.S.

Jessica Powers, a director at WhyHunger, wrote an essay in last year's Watch which argued to replace the U.S.'s current charity-based approach with a human rights approach.

She wrote, " banks occupy a mythic role in the popular imagination, with millions of citizens participating as volunteers at food pantries, collecting canned goods, and raising funds... The public perception that hunger can be solved through charitable aid must not be allowed to absolve the U.S. government from its obligation as a human rights duty bearer to create a comprehensive and coherent food policy that respects, protects and fulfills the human right to adequate food and nutrition of all rights holders, especially those most socially marginalized."

If it is difficult to think of food as an inalienable human right in the U.S., it is because of the lack of knowledge and understanding surrounding human rights. However, the food studies program housed in Falk College at Syracuse University is one of a few programs in the country to study food and nutrition using a human rights framework, according to Prof. Anni Bellows.

"There's a movement in the U.S. to talk about economic and social human rights in the U.S.," Bellows said. "It is serving as an opening to create space for an international dialogue."

In addition to teaching food studies from a human rights-based approach, Bellows serves on the FIAN International board. FIAN (Food First Information and Action Network) is an organization that aims to eliminate hunger globally.

International dialogue is more likely to take place if human rights education continues to be implemented in the U.S. While the issues and violations in the West are very different from those of developing countries, it is imperative to continue to teach a framework that creates not only a better understanding of fundamental human rights, but how to protect those rights for all people.


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