Food Justice & Racism in the Food System

Racism underlies the history of agriculture and food access in the United States. It began with the taking of land from Indigenous people to create farms. It continued with the enslavement of Indigenous and African peoples to work the farms. It continued with the exploitation of immigrant labor from Asia and then Latin America. During the period of Reconstruction former slaves began to gain access to land and achieve financial success. But the death of Reconstruction saw the stealing of most of this land by whites using unjust law and outright theft. In the 1940s when Japanese Americans were forced into concentration camps by a presidential executive order, farms were again taken by unethical and greedy whites, sometimes with no consequences. Racism can also be seen in the tolerance for, and in some places, imposition of food swamps or food apartheid. These are terms are used to describe the great divide in access to healthy fresh food evident when comparing the average white community to the average community of color. This inequality in access to healthy food is a major contributor to the disproportionately high rates of diet related disease found in populations of Indigenous, African Americans, Latinos, Asians and Pacific Islanders. Poor diets impede learning, paths to empowerment and financial success.

Food justice is the work to right this wrong. It encompasses a wide array of activities and activism. Its roots can be traced back to the Black Panther’s creation of free breakfast program for school children. The Panther’s good work helped propel passage of the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 that is now operated by the US government to provide free and reduced cost school meals for all low-income students, the majority of whom are kids of color. Food justice includes development of urban agriculture projects and neighborhood kitchens, economic development initiatives to relocate healthy grocery environments in low income communities. Nutrition incentive programs that provide cash matches for SNAP and WIC benefits spent on fruits and vegetables in farmers markets and grocery stores are another form of food justice. Food justice includes the guarantees that fair proportions of public funding from the USDA and some states, will flow to farmers of color and women who have traditionally been excluded due to documented and adjudicated acts of racism or sexism. Emergent is the idea of reparations in the form of land grants to farmers of color based on the recognition that people of color have been systemically kept from owning land or had their land stolen. This latest concept is well described in Leah Penniman’s important book, Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land.

We support food justice as a primary objective in our work and promote it as a primary goal of the food movement in general.

To hear podcasts related to ending racism and food justice hit these links: J. Miakoda Taylor on crossing the divides of race and privilege and both Navina Khanna and Leah Penniman on food justice work.