Why is racial equity required to achieve food access for all in Michigan communities

Improving our existing food system to one that assures better access, addresses poverty and impacts critical health, education and other issues for people of color cannot happen without the understanding of equity and collaboration with all people.

October 14, 2015

Image courtesy Saskatoon Health Region Advancing Health Equity

A commentary by J.R. Reynolds, Good Food Battle Creek and board member of the Michigan Good Food Steering Committee

Good Food Battle Creek is a network of individuals and organizations working together to address issues related to our community’s food system.

In January this year, Good Food Battle Creek conducted a two-and-a-half-day workshop centered on racial equity in our food system. This workshop was facilitated by Kalamazoo-based ERACCE (Eliminating Racism & Claiming/Celebrating Equality). It was designed to help participants understand and take action against hidden and not so hidden mechanisms that systematically keep fresh, nutritious and affordable food from many residents.

Central to the workshop were conversations concerning the disparities, inequities and barriers that exist in Battle Creek, particularly for poor persons of color. One might ask, why wouldn’t the workshop focus on all poor people rather than just those of color? The short answer is, it does both.

The sobering fact is that the lack of access to good food disproportionately impacts Battle Creek’s communities of color, as shown in a 2013 report the Health Equity alliance and the Calhoun County Public Health Department, “The Color of Health” . Why is there lack of food access for specific populations? In certain areas of Battle Creek there is a lack of economic development, poor public transportation and zoning that encourages fast food and convenience stores with limited access to good food.  Certain policies and procedures perpetuate the lack of good food access in Battle Creek. Many unintentionally affect people of color, but I believe some are intentional. Is this hard to accept? Read on.

The workshop investigated the inconvenient truth of inequity in the food system from an historic perspective to demonstrate how and why we got into the mess. Then, with the help of participants, facilitators helped surface tangible ways to begin dismantling the institutional conditions that perpetuate inequity, from within our respective workplaces.

Food access (or rather lack of it) touches more institutional settings than you might imagine. In the education sector, inadequate access to good food interferes with students’ ability to concentrate and learn. And speaking of education, there’s a belief that has convinced many affected residents that it’s too expensive to eat good food.

According to a 2014 survey conducted by BC Pulse, a project of Michigan State University and funded by W.K. Kellogg Foundation, 46 percent of adults (living at or below 200 percent of the poverty rate) perceive “cost” as the reason that keeps them from eating more fresh foods.

The survey also reported 57 percent of families eat fresh fruits and vegetables (not from the can) four times per week or less. And, more than one-third of survey respondents said “they don’t find it hard to eat fresh fruits and vegetables.” Encouraging news, until you consider that may mean two-thirds do find it hard to eat fresh fruits and vegetables. Only 4% of the survey participants said that they don’t like the taste of fresh fruits and vegetables. People like these foods, but they cannot get them.

Lack of food access also produces harmful effects in the workplace. Inadequate nutrition leads to higher rates of illness, which translates to time away from work and decreased productivity.

Good Food BC believes discussions about food access can help bring together growers, distributors, government, healthcare providers, and residents to develop strategies to eliminate race-based disparities plaguing our food system.

So far the term “racism” has been avoided because of its polarizing nature. But the fact is that racism plays a key role in supporting and perpetuating disparities that disproportionately plague communities of color. At the same time it should be emphasized that racism harms all of us; whites and nonwhites.

Understanding how race can influence perceptions, policies and action helps develop greater awareness of the challenges facing all small and non-commodities farmers. There’s no doubt about it; race is a complex topic. Heap on issues of poverty and other socially divisive constructs and we’ve got a super-sized problem on our hands. Yet it’s solvable.

Improving our existing food system to one that assures better access, addresses poverty and impacts critical health, education and other issues for people of color cannot happen without the understanding of equity, and collaboration with all people, people of color and white people. We invite everyone to take action and join the conversation.

J.R. Reynolds is Good Food Battle Creek Coordinator and a social justice consultant. Follow him on Twitter @4humansbeing or http://4humansbeing.blogspot.com/

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