Does race matter when seeking access to healthy food? Part 1

Historic and current policies have shaped racial inequity in our food system.

If you are involved with your local food system, or do any reading on the topic, you have likely heard the terms “food access”, “food security” or “food insecurity.” Within this body of writing and research, you will most likely run across information about how people of color in the U.S. have less access to healthy food than white people. Years of scholarship, including engagement at the community level with diverse individuals, has helped to identify how race affects one’s ability to get fresh, healthy food in our country. Beyond the research and evidence provided to support this fact, have you ever wondered why?

This complex, multi-layered question needs to take into account cultural, societal, political and economic considerations. This article will not provide a fully developed answer to the question of why race matters in having access to healthy food, but it will offer insight into how historic policies have shaped this reality for people of color that reside in the U.S.

The Center for Social Inclusion has recently published a report entitled “Building the Case for Racial Equity in the Food System”. According to the Altarum Institute and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, racial equity is “a world where race is no longer a factor in the distribution of opportunity.” This report highlights some of the major policies over the last century that have built our food system on inequitable footing, based on race. The evidence is communicated by sharing the story of two young people in the U.S. that have different racial backgrounds and geographic locations, but face the same issue of not always having enough food to meet their needs.

One policy area highlighted in the report as having a large impact on racial inequity in the food system is housing. Historic housing policies have disadvantaged people of color from purchasing homes, through red-lining or discriminatory lending practices and encouraged white people to move to the suburbs. With the loss of population, tax dollars and other resources, many businesses and industries followed suit and left, including grocery stores, further reduced opportunities for employment.

As a longer-term consequence, these policies have encouraged the development of roads and infrastructure in suburbs. By contrast, these policies have disinvested in urban infrastructure, including public transportation. One consequence of inadequate transit systems is additional difficulty in accessing grocery stores that are often far from urban centers. In addition, increased suburban development has often occurred by purchasing and building on farmland, increasing the distance from farms to city markets. Within Michigan, this has had very clear impacts. Recent research from Brown University and Florida State University showed that Detroit is the most segregated city in our country.

In addition to location and housing, land ownership is another area that has disadvantaged people of color. Examples used in the report demonstrate the many iterations of policies that legitimized taking land from Native American communities. The first formal ruling that allowed this was a Supreme Court decision in 1823, which prioritized U.S. citizens’ “right of discovery” above the Native communities’ “right of occupancy.” Also cited are the challenges that Black Americans faced after the age of slavery and the regression into discriminatory policies, some of which allowed Black farmer land loss to happen at a much higher rate than for white farmers. This area also includes the discriminatory lending practices that federal agencies once held, which are now attempting to be reconciled. You can find more information about recent class action lawsuits against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, on behalf of African American farmers from the USDA.

Lastly, the report highlighted the disparity that is present in wages paid to food system workers. The Food Chain Workers Alliance reports that five of the eight lowest paying jobs are in the food system. Of those that receive these low wages, people of color are disproportionately represented. Historically, this inequity was demonstrated by the inability of almost 75 percent of Black Americans to access Social Security benefits until the 1950s, which has had generational impacts on the ability of a large portion of the Black community to accumulate wealth.

All of these factors add up to a very complicated and interrelated system that puts a disproportionate number of people of color at a disadvantage to obtaining fresh, whole and healthy foods. This article lays the context for this important and relevant issue. Part two of this article will share some of the recommendations to progress towards equity in the food system and some of the efforts taking place in Michigan.

Community Food Systems programs within Michigan State University Extension promote the production and purchasing of good food, which we define as healthy, green, fair and affordable. These efforts are tied to promoting equity in the Michigan food system.

Other articles in this series:

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