Dec 3rd, 2018, 03:42 PM

Food Apartheid and Its Consequences

By Adrienne Cuffley
The image displays the US Air Force promoting healthy food options for a balanced diet. Image Credit: Creative Commons/Airman 1st Class Grace Lee
While the food movement is growing in the U.S. because of going green and healthy habits, economic inequalities and systemic racism permeate our national food system

Thanksgiving is always a time for family and giving thanks but more importantly , it's a time for food. Lots and lots of food. The week after the festivities most Americans find themselves eating leftover turkey sandwiches, with cranberry sauce and sweet potato mash on the side for their lunch at work or school. Typically the rest just ends up in the garbage. Often without even thinking about it, we just toss the food we have become sick of.

This is a bigger problem than we think. Food waste is a big problem in the United States. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, food waste is estimated to be between 30 to 40 percent of the food supply. After Thanksgiving, the Natural Resources Defense Council, a non-profit fighting for sustainability issues, reported that around 204 million pounds of Turkey will be thrown out across the country. It is no secret that the United States has a huge food waste problem, however it is much more complicated than it appears on the surface.

The U.S. has a food system problem. Its current system is designed to starve those in lower economic households of whole healthy foods, especially those of color.

Leah Penniman's new book, Farming While Black, released on Oct. 30, highlights the African ancestry of farming in the United States and expresses the power of growing your own food. She wants her book to inspire "picking up those seeds and carrying on that legacy about not forgetting where we come from and who we are." Penniman is a farmer and advocate for food access, highlighting the exclusion of African-Americans in the U.S, particularly in accessibility to fresh food.

According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service (an arm of the the United States Department of Agriculture), black owned farms have become almost non-existent. In the 1920s, 14 percent of farms in the U.S were owned by black people. That has drastically dropped, with less than two percent of actual farmers and less than one percent of farm owners being black.

This is attributed to several factors: Jim Crow laws of the late 19th to early 20th century, the Great Migration of black people from the south to more urban areas of the north, and out right discrimination against black farmers crippling their access to goods and services. But today, “food deserts” (known to some as the “food apartheid”) leave black citizens behind.

Food deserts are known as areas empty of quality and affordable food. This term has become debatable since the solution often involves opening more grocery stores, or providing farmers' markets in those urban areas. But this is simply a band-aid, not a long-term solution. The term food apartheid is drawing popularity since it better recognizes the political, economic and social inequalities in the food system, rather than solely focusing on racial and geographical discrepancies. This is commonly connected with food insecurity, detailed as the lack of insufficient food and a healthy diet.

Americans of different races, ages and geographic locations must cope with hunger and not having access to healthy food. However, all of these issues of malnutrition skew much more highly in communities of color.  

Black Americans have some of the highest rates of diabetes and heart disease, much attributed to diet and lifestyle choices. This is perpetuated by the lack of access to quality grocery stores. With poor suburban or urban planning, those living within a food desert often have transportation issues, not able to get to a grocery store with whole foods. These families are also less likely to get on public transportation with a bag of groceries and would rather go down to street to an outlet mall out of convenience. Most often, the options available close to these low-income families are fast-food restaurants at a cheaper price, serving food with little to no nutritional value. 

This problem is obvious since low nutritional value, hunger, and heart disease are affecting poor people of color. According to Feeding America, a domestic hunger-relief organization, one out of four African-American children struggle to get a proper meal during the day. With unemployment and poverty disproportionately affecting African Americans, it makes combating hunger even harder. 

It is important for people of color in the food industry to have a seat at the table when discussing possible solutions, or even when discussing the food sustainability movement and going green. Immediately, activists want to put grocery stores and fresh markets in these food deserts, but that has proven to not be as efficient as predicted, as leading experts question the best decision going forward. 

Black farmers themselves have a long history of fighting for loans and farm subsidies with an ongoing battle with the USDA. White farmers are overwhelming supplied with these resources, including disaster relief funds. This caused the National Black Farmers Association to sue the USDA for discrimination, finally settling for $1.25 billion. This only coming years before a class-action lawsuit of  black farmers in Tennessee being sold defective seeds. From 2007 to 2012, there has been a 12 percent increase in the number of black farmers, but only time will tell if the U.S. government is doing everything it can to protect and support all of its farmers. 

In an interview with The Guardian, food justice activist Karen Washington further explained the lack of diversity at food conferences. Washington launched the organization, Black Urban Growers simply because of the lack of diversity at conferences like Organic Growers. Despite being around for 25 years, black speakers have been featured only on two occasions. She further explains that there are plenty of leading farmers of color, but they are simply not invited or reached out to. Often, black issues in the food industry are not discussed and when food deserts or insecurity are addressed, it is often through a white lens or by someone who is not a member of the community. 

Going forward, it is important to be aware of who grows our food and truly has access to healthy choices. It is quite clear that economic inequalities and decades of racism still affect our food system today. It is important to support farmers like Leah Penniman and continue to support black leaders in the movement.