Freedom From Want: Advocating for the Right to Food in the United States

By Alison Cohen, WhyHunger, and Denisse Córdova Montes, University of Miami Human Rights Clinic


The right to adequate food and nutrition is both a call to action and a global legal framework for coordinated reform in food and agriculture. In the U.S., we often speak of our civil and political rights (such as the right to vote or the right to be free from police harassment), but less often about our economic, social, and cultural rights (such as the right to affordable housing or the right to clean water). Perhaps that is one reason why we are experiencing the worst income inequality and highest concentration of wealth in this country since the Great Depression.

And yet, despite our lack of investment in a rights-based framework, the U.S. had a hand in promoting right to food as a phrase to be included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  In his Four Freedoms speech, given as a part of the State of the Union address almost 80 years ago, Franklin Delano Roosevelt called for the freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Freedom of speech and worship were already protected in the U.S. Constitution. By including freedom from want and freedom from fear, he was doing something truly radical, endorsing economic security and social rights. He was also acknowledging a tension between the American ideal and the reality; the rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution on the one hand, and a history of slavery and racial discrimination on the other. The Four Freedoms were later incorporated into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, as chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

The current state of food insecurity and the strategies for addressing hunger in the U.S. are a far cry from the vision the Roosevelts invoked on the eve of the establishment of the United Nations.  With the growth of more than 60,000 private charitable organizations distributing food to tens of million of people in need while public social security unravels, Americans are not guaranteed the freedom from want.  And so, we continue to advocate.

The United Nation’s Human Rights Council’s 36th session of the Universal Period Review (UPR) included a review of the human rights records of the United States. November 9th, 2020 was an important advocacy moment for those of us who have been organizing around the right to nutritious food in the U.S. For the first time, a group of civil society stakeholders came together to formally submit evidence of violations to the right to food in the U.S.

The UPR is a “State-driven process,” under the purview of the Human Rights Council (HRC), which allows the opportunity for each Member State to provide a written statement of the actions they have taken to improve human rights in their countries.  In addition to the State’s review, Civil Society stakeholders are also provided an opportunity to submit reviews based on their perspective and experience of the way in which human rights are upheld or violated by their national government.

WhyHunger and the Human Rights Clinic of the University of Miami School of Law spearheaded a submission to the UPR in October 2019 concerning the state of the right to food in the U.S. as viewed through the lens of civil and political rights.  The U.S. is one of only a few countries that has never ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which includes the right to food and adequate nutrition.  FIAN International, the Food Studies Program of Syracuse University and the Center for Hunger Free Communities were co-investigators and authors on the official submission.

Our participation in the UPR of the U.S. became all the more relevant with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is shaking the foundation of our globalized social and economic system to its core. There have been more than 20 million confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S., and more than 356,000 deaths due to the virus.  Around 57.4 million Americans have filed for unemployment since the start of the pandemic. And with frequent images in the media of long lines of people and cars waiting to receive free food – some for the first time in their lives – the number of food insecure people in the U.S. is expected to climb from 37 million pre-pandemic to more than 50 million this year. In addition, the disproportionate spread of COVID-19 in communities of color has drawn into sharp focus the systemic racism present in the U.S. food system.  COVID-19 has exacerbated the inequities in the U.S. food system that communities of color have faced for many years.

Do we continue to accelerate food banking and the charity food aid model, or do we hold our government accountable to ensuring the right to food by taking collective action at the root causes of hunger?

The rising incidence and visibility of hunger in the U.S. due to the pandemic has elevated the question at the core of our participation in the Universal Period Review and our struggle for the right to food and adequate nutrition:  Do we continue to accelerate food banking and the charity food aid model, or do we hold our government accountable to ensuring the right to food by taking collective action at the root causes of hunger?  Throughout North America and Europe, within the borders of some of the wealthiest countries in the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a massive expansion of food charity. In the U.S., appeals for donations of food and money are a new media constant, and the government is relying heavily upon food banks to redirect agricultural waste due to food chain supply stoppages. These community institutions are doing an essential and life-sustaining job of distributing food despite a massive loss of volunteers and the need to protect themselves and clients from contracting the virus.

Yet, the private charitable emergency feeding system in the U.S.—the largest and most sophisticated in the world—has historically never been able to meet the demand or make a real dent in the rate of food insecurity, which has hovered between 11 – 12% of the population over the past 30 years. Even before the pandemic, tens of millions of Americans were struggling to get enough food on the table, while four out of five workers lived paycheck to paycheck.

COVID-19 is heightening this persistent crisis of poverty and inequity,  allowing folks from around the world to see, and many Americans to experience for the first time, the deep contradictions in our food and social welfare systems and the resulting uneven distribution of wealth that hits women, children, and Black, Indigenous and People of Color communities in the U.S. the hardest. Much of this analysis has a long-standing history.

It is time to go beyond business-as-usual. We will not solve this crisis while hunger advocates in the U.S. are left to defend existing (and inadequate) government nutrition assistance and the average American citizen must look to the private charitable sector to meet the “emergency” needs of their hungry family.  Rather it is time to recognize citizens, communities and the natural resources we depend on as rights holders and governments as duty bearers. The right to adequate food and nutrition is both a call to action and a global legal framework for coordinated reform in food and agriculture. As the pandemic reshapes public life around the globe, it also offers an opportunity to organize and protect everyone’s basic human right to food in the U.S.

We recognize that framing an end to hunger in terms of the right to food has the power to connect seemingly disparate peoples and struggles across the U.S. and around the world – that includes Black farmers in Georgia and Mississippi, farmworkers in California, fisher people in the Gulf of Mexico, Indigenous communities such as the Wabanaki and Mohican in the Northeast and the Navajo and Tohono O’odham in the Southwest, school children in urban areas, and food chain workers in meat packing plants throughout the Midwest.  Struggling for the right to food allows us to amplify the lived experiences of those confronting food insecurity in the U.S. and, as an act of solidarity, contribute to the shared analysis of social movements across the globe about strategies that will actually solve hunger.

In an effort to update our October 2019 submission for the UPR of the U.S. in light of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on hunger in the U.S., WhyHunger in coordination with FIAN International, the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights and the University of Miami Human Rights Clinic, held a public event, “Rights Not Charity!”, on October 14, 2020 aimed at offering an analysis of the false and true solutions to hunger, included below.

The official unedited report from the UN Human Rights Council has been made public. The report’s recommendations do not directly address the right to food but they do address access to health care, workers’ rights, housing – among other aspects of the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  The US has until the 46th session of the Human Rights Council (Feb. 22-March 19) to respond.  WhyHunger and the Miami Law Human Rights Clinic plan to bring attention to the recommendations at the local, state, and national levels and follow-up on their implementation.  Stay tuned!

False Solutions to Hunger:  What are we up against?

  • A Broken System: An agricultural system focused on commodities and food for fuel as opposed to food for people.
  • Centuries of systemic racism that have dispossessed communities of color of their land, seeds, crops, identity, and stories rendering them dependent on charity for food access.
  • Political landscape rooted in several decades of neo-liberal policies has led to an intentional shrinking of the government’s role in protecting social welfare.
  • The Dominant Narrative: Public perception of how to end hunger prioritizes a model of charity and food aid and elevates food insecurity as the problem, rather than a symptom of deeper inequity.
  • Corporate Capture: A majority of non-profit/third sector food aid organizations (food banks, food pantries, emergency feeding programs) are supported by corporations in the food and agriculture sector.
  • Proliferation and increasing institutionalization of food access or food aid organizations in the non-profit/third sector, promoted by the corporate-funded Global FoodBanking Network.
  • Corporations’ unrestrained lobbying influences food and nutrition legislation and programs while impeding the political participation of those most affected by hunger and malnutrition.


True Solutions:  What are we advocating for and working towards?

True solutions to hunger include putting the health of people and planet first, localizing or regionalizing food systems, agroecology as a practice and way of life, and strengthening social movements in the struggle for food sovereignty. True solutions include working towards the following:

  • The right to food enshrined in law, justiciable, and enforced.
  • Labor policy to mandate livable wages, stable employment, adequate hours, safe working conditions, and the ease of union representation.
  • Robust and responsive government social protection programs to be well-funded and depoliticized as essential elements of national food security strategies.
  • Federal poverty guidelines, or the poverty threshold, to be updated to account for differences in the standard of living across the U.S. and to include contemporary expenditures as a percentage of income other than food consumption, including child care, health care, transportation, and housing.
  • Emergency aid should be limited to social emergencies and natural disasters. Alongside this, food banks and other food aid providers should develop systems-wide and organization-specific exit strategies to reduce the amount of food charity they distribute and/or transform their institutions to organize for social justice and advocate for more permanent solutions that will end hunger.
  • The U.S. to invest in strategies to become carbon neutral, while alleviating the burden of that transition on the poorest globally and domestically. The U.S. to promote and develop national strategies for agroecology and food sovereignty.
  • The U.S. to end structural racism and discrimination against groups most affected by hunger and malnutrition.
  • Those experiencing and at-risk of food insecurity to take the lead in determining the public policies and strategies used to improve their situations.
  • Governments to end their practice of confluence with the food industry in the form of commodity food programs and industry participation in congressional lobbying. National and local governments to increase investments in social welfare programs that provide a dignified means of food access.


Alison Cohen