voices of women in law // voix des femmes en droit

Taking A Feminist Approach to Food Law: 5 Reasons Every Female-Identifying Jurist Should Care About Food Policy

By Talia Ralph

Many of the most serious food policy issues of our generation disproportionately affect women: at nearly every point in our food system, we’re hungrier, less represented, worse-paid, and more scrutinized compared to our male counterparts. As female jurists and future lawmakers, it’s in our hands to ensure that women are able to farm, eat, cook, and serve food equitably. However—like food law itself—these challenges often manifest within institutions and areas of the law that, at first glance, have almost nothing to do with food. Whether you work (or plan on working!) in banking law or local politics, here are five reasons to join the fight for better food.


1.     Women are more likely to suffer from food insecurity, especially the elderly.

Whether you are unsure where your next meal is going to come from, or you’re too far from the nearest grocery store to shop for dinner, you are food insecure—a wide-ranging term that means a person or their family is dealing with an empty fridge or rumbling stomach at some point in their day or week. In Canada, 5% of all children and 8% of adults are food insecure.[1]


The situation is especially dire for women, says Dr. Caroline Begg. Dr. Begg has been studying the effects of food insecurity on the elderly in rural neighborhoods outside of Montreal. Her team found one common denominator: “We do definitely see more women at the community kitchens,” she says.


Why? Because women have longer life expectancies and lower incomes on average compared to men, which leaves them with less savings for retirement; an AARP study found that women over age 40 are almost 3% more likely than men to be food insecure.[2] Beyond limited finances, older women don’t get enough to eat due to a lack of adequate public transportation near their homes, their need for modified diets, and depression.[3] “If you map them out, the major grocery stores are on major routes,” says Dr. Begg. “Without a car, it’s 30 minutes on the bus—it’s not an easy venture.” Often, it’s accessibility that creates food insecurity, meaning that if you work in infrastructure, local politics, or health law—heck, if you do real estate zoning or business development for a major grocery store chain—you have avenues to make women’s lives more food secure.


2.     You think the glass ceiling is bad? The barn roof might be worse.


Dr. Begg started her career studying sustainable agricultural practices in Tanzania and the Philippines, where she witnessed the inequalities that plague female farmers. “They don’t own the land, they can’t get money, their husbands have left,” she says. In 21st century North America, the lay of the land isn’t too different. We often ask ourselves why there aren’t more women in corporate suites or in politics; we seldom ask why there are so few women out in fields or running farms. The answer starts with an ingrained belief that men and men alone are fit to own property and do manual labour. Despite ample proof to the contrary, the bias remains pervasive: Dr. Begg says that only about ⅓ of the women in McGill’s Farm Management Program are planning to run the farms they grew up on. “Not that long ago, if women were studying agriculture they were going on to do something else. Today, the number of women taking over their family’s farm is still much less than I would like,” she adds.


You may be asking yourself—if their families won’t give them their farms, can’t women just start their own? They can, and they do, but most women who want to strike out on their own need capital, and find themselves getting denied loans more frequently than men. “Many of the bank managers who deal with farm projects are men, and you have to really prove to them that you can handle this business,” Dr. Begg says. Similar to their white-collar counterparts, female farmers also ask for, and thus receive, smaller amounts when they do get a business loan granted. A recent study found that female small-business owners asked for an average of $89,000 in financing compared $124,500 that men requested. That’s consistent with research that women ask for raises less often than men, and get less money when they do.[4]


Kate Giessel, who manages government relations and contracts for GrowNYC, New York City’s largest farmer’s market management organization, grew up on her family’s farm in the Midwestern United States, and has seen first-hand how tough it is for women to get into farming. “Younger generations aren’t staying in farm businesses,” she says. “The industry is insular and there are high barriers to entry, particularly financial ones.” For all you finance-minded future attorneys, consultants, and managers out there, the mandate is simple—we need to trust women to run farms, and give the same financial resources men have had access to for centuries. There’s simply no compelling reason not to allow women to run farms; in fact, more women than ever are at the helm of American farms (14 percent of the nation’s 2.2 million farms, to be exact).[5]


3.     Women are the last line of defense against foodborne illness.


Despite huge advances in the slow and often silent fight for domestic equality, women still deal with the lion’s share of food preparation in their homes. In fact, women spend more than twice the amount of time cooking than men—which suggests that traditional attitudes about household food preparation persist, despite women’s huge advances in the workplace.[6] But here’s something you may not have considered: because women are still working longer shifts at home after work, they’re often responsible for strategic meal planning, clean-up, and other duties—so any shortcomings in our food safety regulations and inspections fall largely on us.


Many foodborne illnesses are preventable through proper treatment and inspection at the source of production and packaging; in Canada, we count on the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to ensure we’re not ingesting dangerous ingredients. However, $35 million was slashed from the CFIA budget this fiscal year, which means they’re less equipped to catch a problem before it spreads. What does this mean for women? “Our neoliberal politics and the individualization of responsibility for our health mean that food safety has increasingly become a consumer’s responsibility,” says Sarah Berger Richardson, a doctoral candidate at McGill’s Faculty of Law and an expert on the ethics of food safety regulation. Because women control most of the food coming into their homes, we bear more of the burden for keeping ourselves and our families safe from illness. “Policies that shift the responsibility for preventing foodborne illness onto consumers disproportionately hold women responsible,” adds Berger Richardson.


Aside from being extra-vigilant about washing and cooking according to regulations, what else can we do? We can push for policies that protect our food safety regulators from budget cuts, support technologies and advancements that ensure that the food we’re eating is safe at the source, and make sure that domestic work is not just valued and respected, but shared wherever possible. 


4.     Women are at the center of heated debates about body image and obesity.


Obesity has rapidly become one of our society’s most serious health threats, increasing the risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and mental illness, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.[7] Not only is obesity a public health issue that affects millions of Canadians, it also costs taxpayers billions of dollars in health care—$1.8 billion in direct costs and $2.5 billion in indirect costs in 2005, to be exact.[8]


It should be no surprise, then, that a women’s right to weigh what she wants is also a matter of public and governmental concern. As Naomi Wolf argues in The Beauty Myth, this fixation on the female form is oppressive—it keeps women in a never-ending pattern of obsessing about the shape and size of our bodies.[9] Ironically society’s laser focus on women’s bodies hasn’t cut down on the rate of obesity. However, the question has shifted in recent decades: what if overweight or obese women are healthy and happy with the way they are?


For many body-positive activists, being fat isn’t bad, or even unhealthy: it’s something to be celebrated. Many members of the fat-positive movement argue that our society unfairly judges the overweight and obese in ways that can be viewed as discriminatory. Law professor Yofi Tirosh goes further, arguing that the right to be overweight or obese should be recognized in the eyes of the law. In her ground-breaking essay “The Right To Be Fat”, Tirosh argues that size is part of the constitutionally guaranteed right to liberty.[10]


“It’s worth asking who gets left behind when you make a law like a sugar tax that purports to help fight a public health issue like obesity,” says Berger Richardson. In many cases, policies like taxes, bans, or regulations on processed foods take away a sense of autonomy—and those are considerations that should be balanced by future policymakers.


5.     From five-star steakhouses to small farms, low wages and sketchy labour practices disproportionately impact women.


It is a well-known fact that women make less on the dollar than men; it is a lesser-known fact that restaurant workers make a lot less than just about everyone else in the country. Both the U.S. and Canada still have a separate minimum wage for tipped workers—$2.13/hour in the U.S., and at least $9.00/hour in Canada. In both countries women do the overwhelming majority of hospitality, care, and food service work that involves interacting with customers. These front-of-the house workers are much poorer than the rest of the North American workforce largely because they rely on other people to supplement their paycheck. So, if a diner doesn’t like the service they get and decides to give a paltry 10% tip? Women feel it more. According to a report by ROC United, a non-profit dedicated to improving conditions for restaurant workers, “women in tipped occupations live in poverty at over twice the rate of the rest of the population, and earn only 68 percent of what men earn in the same occupations.”[11] It is also worth noting that the pay gap is still alive and well across all restaurant sectors, with female restaurant managers making an average of $3 less an hour compared with their male counterparts.[12]


It’s not just restaurants that offset their costs by underpaying their employees; farms also take ample advantage of underpaid or unpaid labour. “Subsidizing food with human labour is a dirty little secret in agriculture,” says Kate Giessel. Unpaid work is illegal, but that doesn’t stop farms with already-narrow profit margins from taking on unpaid interns to help. Though it doesn’t happen frequently, these shadowy labour practices can have devastating consequences on farmers as well as their workers. “If any farmer is using low or non-waged labour because their profit margins are so low that they can’t afford to pay people a living wage, then their business plan is not financially viable or able to withstand $5,000 on up to $15,000 in fines,” says Giessel.


What can we do? ROC United and countless organizations have been pushing for years to have the tipped minimum wage revoked and the general minimum wage raised nation-wide; that push is far from over. As for agricultural labour, we need to make sure that farmers are getting paid enough for their work so that they don’t have to resort to unpaid labour; by paying people more, we’re ensuring that we’re also paying a price for food that’s more representative of the input costs of growing it. It’s a feedback loop where everyone wins.


These issues are just the proverbial tip of the iceberg; food is a basic right and necessity that needs all the help of smart, brilliant lawyers like you. If you’re interested in getting more involved in food law and policy, consider joining the McGill Food Law Society—e-mail for more information about how you can help support fair, sustainable food systems for women everywhere.




[1] Canada, Statistics Canada, Health At A Glance: Food Insecurity in Canada, Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 82-624-X (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2012) Online:

[2] Sara Strickhouser, James D. Wright, Ph.D., and Amy M. Donley, “Food Insecurity in Older Adults” (2015) AARP Foundation Working Paper. Online:

[3] Michelle B. Pierce PhD, RD , Nancy W. Sheehan PhD Ann M. Ferris PhD, RD, “Nutrition Concerns of Low-Income Elderly Women and Related Social Support” (2008) 21:3 Journal for Nutrition of the Elderly, online: <> at abstract.

[4] Fundera, “State of Small Business Lending: Spotlight on Women Entrepreneurs” online: (2016) Fundera Ledger

[5] United States Department of Agriculture, “2007 Census of Agriculture: Women Farmers”, National Agricultural Statistics Service (2007) online:

[6] United States, US Department of Labour: American Time Use Survey: Household Activities (Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Labour Statistics, 2016) online:

[7] Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “The Health Effects of Overweight and Obesity”,(2007) online: <>

[8] Canada, Public Health Agency of Canada: Obesity in Canada: Snapshot (Ottawa: Public Health Agency of Canada, 2012) online:

[9]  Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women (New York: W. Morrow, 1991) online at: As Wolf writes: “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”

[10] Yofi Tirosh, “The Right To Be Fat” (2012) 12:2 YJHPLE. Online: <>. As Tirosh writes, “recognizing the right to be any body size as part of the general principle of liberty (and, more specifically, as part of autonomy and dignity) would entail that we cautiously scrutinize governmental policies aiming to create incentives for losing weight or deterrence against gaining weight, as well as some acts by private actors, and balance them vis-à-vis their potential infringement of the right.”

[11] ROC United: “Tipped Over: Employer Liability in a Two-Tiered Wage State” (2016) online: <>

[12] Roberto A. Ferdman, “There’s a big gap between what men and women make in the restaurant industry” The Washington Post (28 August 2014) online: <>

Contours is made possible by funding from the McGill Law Students’ Association / L’Association des étudiant-e-s en droit de McGill. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in whole or in part without permission from the authors.

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