I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
A poem by Langston Hughes – 1926
Our eating is not equal.
And it hasn’t been since the day we met the crops of our natives. And, America, too many of us have had to eat in the kitchen. That lonely place, the emotional and physical food desert.
Today, many of us have heard of the defining term “food desert,” otherwise known as an urban or rural geographic area with low levels of access to healthy and affordable foods. In a 2019 Household Food Insecurity in the United States USDA report, more than 37 million Americans face hunger while Black neighborhoods have the lowest access to supermarkets and greatest access to food food outlets. The word “desert” for many conjures images of emptiness or destitution instead of the realities of life and communities.
A “food desert” may indicate a natural phenomenon for some, rather than shedding light on the systemic racism that underlies food inequality in America. In fact, if you ask people in low-income Black communities whether they have food most respond yes. However food choices are likely to lack nutrition that lead to negative health outcomes.
The food injustice in America results from private and public actors who have failed to address persistent social and economic inequities.
These failures span generations and range from consumer marketing and supermarket redlining practices to government farm subsidies that overwhelmingly benefit white farmers and distort the true cost of food. Food sovereignty activist Leah Penniman reminds us that in 1910 “black farmers owned 14 percent of the land [and] ownership dropped to only 1 percent of land after targeted lynching, racist violence, and the USDA’s discriminatory practices.” Black Americans have been systematically removed from every aspect of the food supply chain from land ownership and production to access and consumption.
Our land is not equal.
These inequities that permeate America’s food system are now exacerbated against the backdrop of the global COVID-19 pandemic that has killed over 110,000 Americans with numbers rising. Non-partisan AMP Research Lab highlights a racial divide where Black Americans are dying at three times the rate of white Americans. Due to higher incidences of underlying health conditions like diabetes, hypertension, and obesity within the Black community, it is especially important that we dig deeper into the root causes behind unequal access to healthy foods and healthcare in communities of color.
The Economic Policy Institute reports that Black and Poor Americans face higher risks of unemployment as they comprise a disproportionately higher percentage of essential workers. Black Americans also disproportionately lack health insurance. Wide-scale unemployment has contributed to a change in consumer spending habits, and coupled with supply chain disruptions has led to even limited options when it comes to nutritious and affordable foods.
Who gets to decide who lives at the table?
Although there is mounting negative evidence contributing to food injustice, there is hope in the recent nationwide social and civil unrest ignited by viral video footage documenting the murder of Black American, George Floyd, by white police officer Derek Chauvin.
My Brother’s Keeper shares grim data that police officers kill over 1,000 people each year in America, and Black people are three times more likely to die than white people. Coronavirus and police brutality have exposed the fallacy of America’s race-neutral public policies and laws and now present an opportunity to address systemic racism and white supremacy.
We have the chance to build upon this momentum to bring greater awareness in our personal and political spheres to create a sustainable food movement that goes beyond farmers markets and community gardens. In fact, the purchasing power of lower income communities is not insignificant.
In the wake of COVID-19 and social and civil unrest, communities must fight even harder for healthy and affordable foods to be available for purchase in geographies that lack access. This is increasingly important given supply chain disruptions and changes in demand when it comes to more expensive perishable fresh produce as unemployment reached an all time high of 14.7% since the Great Depression. Policymakers must rethink their food policies and the government must better exercise its levers (i.e. tax incentives to curb supermarket redlining).
Food for Thought
Americans with limited access to fresh foods have a role to play in demanding healthier consumer packaged goods, and corporations shoulder the responsibility in investing in the future of food by focusing on better product formulation, ingredients, and logistics infrastructure while reducing toxic preservatives that prolong shelf life at the expense of public health and increased chronic disease. The public and private sectors have a unique opportunity to leverage technology to provide equitable access to healthy foods.
Companies in the consumer packaged goods industry will also need to change their business models to meet the growing demands for culturally relevant food products in our increasingly diverse communities and provide healthy options for those with dietary restrictions.
With greater awareness and more civic engagement, we can tackle food injustice that has plagued America since before its founding and march towards a more equitable future for all.
Let’s Take Action:
- Demand that our favorite food companies show up. We tend to hold our food leaders less accountable than our fashion, entertainment, and athletic leaders. Food is as important if not more than any other industry because it affects everyone.
- Buy with intention, whether it is through procurements (i.e. supplier diversity) or purchasing directly from minority-owned businesses and local retailers.
- Vote, but hold our officials accountable. Change happens at the local level. It is important to vote not only in presidential elections but also general and municipal elections that elect county and city officials. Make sure you’re learning about your local alderman, sending emails and calling their hotlines. Even if you don’t feel like voting, don’t tell people. Keep your stances heard.
- Follow Journey Foods as we innovate more ways to disrupt the food system, improve supply chains, and increase equal access to high-quality ingredients and foods.
The blog is a part of the “Food & Justice Series” by Journey Foods, highlighting Food System Injustices, Food Stamps and Blockchain, A CEO Vision for Food that serves all, A Call to Food Activists to think beyond Plant-Based, Eat Not, Want Not and Biodiversity and Diversity.
Co-Authored by Riana Lynn and Jennifer Rimbach