Racism in the Food System

By Bridget Kelley

As America mourns the loss of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and the countless other Black Americans who have become victims of police violence, the nation is coming into a new understanding of the role of systemic racism in our country. This moment calls upon us to seek a better understanding of racism’s manifestations across society, including in the food system. As an anti-hunger advocacy group, D.C. Hunger Solutions has a strong responsibility to not only acknowledge systemic racism in the food system but to advocate for more equitable food policies.

Today, people of color in America are more likely to be hungry and food insecure than their white counterparts. In fact, 23 percent of African American households—almost 1 in 4—were food insecure at some point in 2016, compared to only 12 percent in the U.S. overall. Here in Washington, D.C., 1 in 7 households is food insecure, and the majority of food insecure people are African American and live in Wards 7 and 8. These disparities, both nationwide and in D.C., come as a result of hundreds of years of intentional exclusion and oppression of people of color in the practice of social and political institutions.

To create equitable policy and seek justice in the present, it is critical to understand and acknowledge the damaging events of the past. Racism in the food system, and in D.C.’s food landscape, can be traced back to slavery in the Americas. The racial caste system in America forced Black people into an inferior role in the food system from the beginning, as the exploitation of their labor allowed America to build a powerful agriculture system that opened the door for further mistreatment, discrimination, and exploitation of other people of color. Over time, this came in the form of land dispossession (the “40 acres and a mule” promised, but never given, to freed slaves is today worth $6.4 trillion), discriminatory practices in farm loans, the racialization of farm work heightened by the Bracero program, and countless other examples. 

This brief history begins to build a picture of how inequality in food production, food access, and subsequent health outcomes have their roots in a long history of structural racism across the food system. The racism present in the system contributes to higher levels of food insecurity and hunger, increased instances of diet-related diseases like diabetes, and higher poverty rates among Black communities and other communities of color.

In D.C., a clear manifestation of racism in the food system is the grocery store gap. The grocery gap refers to the stark disparities between wards in terms of the number and quality of grocery stores available to residents. Of the city’s 49 grocery stores, only three are in Wards 7 and 8. In 2010, Ward 7 had four stores but by 2016 only had two, and Ward 8 had three in 2010 and only one by 2016. Wards 7 and 8 also have the lowest median incomes and the highest percentages of Black residents. By contrast, Ward 3, which is the whitest ward and has the highest median income (almost 3.5 times that of Ward 8), had nine grocery stores as of 2016. Systemic racism plays a clear role in the grocery gap. The area east of the Anacostia River is about 95% Black, and as noted, has the lowest median income and the fewest grocery stores. People who have limited grocery access are often forced to become reliant on corner stores, which have less nutritious options and higher prices. Lacking access to grocery stores is also disadvantageous for families who use federal nutrition programs like SNAP and WIC, giving them fewer opportunities to utilize nutrition assistance. And in D.C., almost half of SNAP and WIC recipients live in Wards 7 and 8. These conditions exacerbate negative health outcomes associated with food insecurity, underscoring the racist systems that contribute to poverty, illness, and hunger.

In this way, we see how race, poverty, and hunger are deeply intertwined. Racial justice is a critical part of social, economic, and food justice in D.C. and everywhere. It is an especially relevant issue given that the nation’s capital was built by enslaved and formerly enslaved Blacks and was once home to two slave trading ports. Once known as “Chocolate City,” D.C. was a majority-black city until quite recently. Thus, the legacy of slavery and the sting of systemic racism must be taken into account when examining the systems that govern us, including the food system.     

It is critical to recognize the role of racism in the historical roots of hunger and food insecurity and take that into account when looking to create just policy that helps all people in the D.C. community have proper nutrition. Currently, D.C. Hunger Solutions is advocating for the continuation of school meal funding in the fiscal year 2021 budget. Students of color disproportionately rely on school meals as their primary source of nutrition. Cuts to school meal programs are thus an issue of racial justice along with food justice. In the wake of recent tragedies and in the ongoing fight against racism, D.C. Hunger Solutions will continue to advocate for critical programs that fulfill the needs of our residents of color during this crisis and well after.