On July 14, 2023, the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng, released a both timely and necessary report entitled “Food, nutrition and the right to health.” In light of current global turmoil and instability, the international community has been rendered particularly vulnerable to food and health-related challenges. In her role as Special Rapporteur, Dr. Mofokeng makes a compelling case for the integration of international human rights laws and standards into domestic policy to more effectively address global food and health concerns. 

Human rights are understood as indivisible and interdependent, meaning they are mutually reinforcing. The right to health, for which the right to food is necessary, is critical for the enjoyment of all other rights. Thus, the right to adequate food must be understood through an intersectional lens that acknowledges the connection between food and the social, political, and commercial determinants of health. Additionally, Dr. Mofokeng emphasizes that food is much greater than its nutritional value and holds cultural, regional, and personal significance. Her report presents a comprehensive overview of both the challenges in realizing the right to adequate food and the opportunities for sustainable change. Importantly, the report centers the perspectives of those most closely affected by the burdens of an inequitable food system.

Food insecurity affects over 2.4 billion people and diet-related non-communicable diseases are the leading cause of global deaths. The majority of those experiencing hunger and diet-related diseases are among the most marginalized individuals and communities both globally and nationally. Globalization has furthered the complexities of the food system, prioritizing profit over environmental sustainability, crop diversity, and small-scale farmer success. This emphasis on profit in the global food market has led to food production procedures that not only exploit natural resources but also labor. This is evident through the challenges faced by those working in the food sector, as global food trends towards industrial-scale production have negatively impacted the food workforce. Some challenges of food workforce jobs include low wages, unsafe work conditions, harassment, and inadequate worker protection. 

Student food workers experience a unique set of challenges in the food system, balancing their school work and personal lives while often being underpaid and subject to workplace challenges. Recommendations for building a stronger food workforce, presented by CUNY SPH and the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute, include ensuring that student food workers know their rights and how to exercise them. In doing so, students will have workplace protections while also being provided a course of action if these rights are not fulfilled. As rights-holders, student food workers are able to hold governments and other institutions accountable if their rights are not enforced and protected. This includes taking measures to ensure these rights are not being infringed upon by other entities, including government agencies and companies within the food sector. Moreover, a rights-based framework is becoming more widely understood due to its effectiveness in promoting the needs of the rights-holder. The application of human rights into the food sector importantly acknowledges all the various ways rights are interconnected, advancing the fulfillment of all rights collectively. A rights-based approach to food promotes the rights of food workers as both laborers and also as individuals in civil society.

While it may seem these issues manifest solely at a local level, they are a part of much larger international systems and structures with implications for individuals and communities on all scales. A rights-based approach to food affects every aspect of the food system, which “encompasses the entire range of actors, institutions, and activities involved in the production, aggregation, processing, distribution, consumption, and disposal of food.” This approach to food allows for the cohesion of food-related challenges, from nutrition to labor, and the formulation of comprehensive solutions that will bolster the food system in its entirety, not just in siloes. A rights-based approach to food also promotes avenues for manageable solutions to complex issues related to health, including food and labor, which presents opportunities for increased engagement in solution-building among diverse populations. This expansion of rights-based knowledge extends decision-making power to those who have historically been excluded from such spaces.

While the international community is grappling with the critical issue of food, it is essential to formulate comprehensive and scalable approaches to promote an equitable global food system. Human rights are generally understood as more abstract ideas or standards; however, these must be operationalized into tangible rights that people can claim and for which states can be held accountable. Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng’s report presents domestic food policy as a necessary approach to incorporating a rights-based framework into concrete actions that will sustainably promote human and planetary health. Mofokeng urges States and stakeholders to “protect and promote the right to healthy working conditions and food security of workers in the entire sector.” As the international community works towards achieving the right to adequate food to the highest attainable standard, it is imperative that food workers are included in decisions made regarding the global food system. Once more, as we continue to address the challenges faced by student food workers, engaging these in a context of human rights will further encourage all food systems stakeholders to acknowledge the important intersections between food and labor.

Article by: Jacquelyn Sullivan, Project Coordinator, Groceries to Go Evaluation Project, CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute