Resetting the Table: Solving Inequality and Racism through Food

In many ways, Covid-19 has boiled over long-simmering problems plaguing America’s food system. Labor has always been at the heart of the food system – economically, politically, and ethically. Our country was founded with slavery who supported the demands to produce enough food and commodities for the economic benefit of the few. 

Although chattel slavery no longer exists in our country, our country has never recovered from the impacts of slavery on our nation. Racist policies impacted the planning of our cities and towns creating segregated neighborhoods. These marginalized neighborhoods were kept from quality grocery stores, our children herded into segregated school systems and forced to use separate water fountains & bathrooms, among other issues. These policies divided American citizens based off of skin color. Even after the Civil Rights Movement, when the Jim Crow laws were finally abolished, the problem of accessing quality food is still here to this day.  Access to quality, healthy food is a constant issue for populations in residentially segregated communities (source: “The dynamics between the food environment and residential segregation” by Ferzana Havewala).

The problem of segregated population policy not only affected African Americans, but Native Americans, too. America’s history shows our Native American populations being uprooted from their native hunting lands and then moved to a land unwanted by many. They were provided government issued commodities to survive with food items such as flour and sugar which were not commonly found in their cultural diets.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shed further light on existing racial disparities in the U.S. food system and its impact on our overall health and well-being.  “The primary barriers of accessing healthy food is cost,” noted Alison Hope Alkon who co-authored “Foodways of the Urban Poor”.

African, Hispanic and Native American populations in the states have increasing food related health disparities including heart disease, obesity, stroke, and diabetes (source: www.minorityhealth.hhs.gov). The health problems many of us have, differential of the color of our skin, is a systems problem. Our health problems are rooted in our national and local food system policies.

Our current agricultural workforce includes those who work as farm laborers, food factory workers, and food service workers – without them we don’t eat; however, most farm laborers, those who hand-pick our fruits and vegetables, process our chickens, and cook our hamburgers earn low wages.

Labor is a critical issue for farmers seeking to scale-up production to supply emerging markets for their products and to meet business and family income goals. But in an environment of diminishing labor, escalating wages and narrow profit margins, finding, managing, training and retaining productive farm crews are proving to be a fluid puzzle with many moving parts. 

Racism and inequality issues in our food system is not new. What is new is the urgency and opportunity in this moment to make transformative progress.

“Solutions need to critically engage political economic structures and cultural traditions while we work on ameliorative measures to improve labor conditions in present time.  However, rather than “making do” with the systems, traditions, and practices we have inherited from the past, we must remake the world of work, valorizing and valuing agrifood labor,” noted Yamashita and Robinson in the edition of Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development (4/1/2016), “Labor in the food system, from farm to table.”

Food brings communities together. “Food justice activists based in low-income communities of color have developed community-based solutions, arguing that activities like urban agriculture, nutrition education, and food-related social enterprises can drive systemic social change,” is quoted from GM Broad’s book More Than Just Food: Food Justice and Community Change.

“Healthy food retailers—grocery stores; farmers’ markets; cooperatives; mobile markets; and other vendors of fresh, affordable, nutritious food—are critical components of healthy, thriving communities,” states in the research paper Access to Health Food and Why it Matters. “Without access to healthy foods, a nutritious diet and good health are out of reach. And without grocery stores and other fresh food retailers, communities are also missing the commercial vitality that makes neighborhoods livable and helps local economies thrive.”

Key questions for policy improvements include 1) how can our communities reverse the alarming rise in food insecurity as a result of COVID-19 and, 2) how can our policies contribute to eliminating the systemic racism in our food system (that leaves Black and indigenous people and other people of color with higher rates of diet-related disease, more food insecurity, less land ownership, and poorer paying and more unsafe food jobs), and 3)how can we address a way to ensure that our food policy can benefit rather than harm our country’s farmers and immigrant work force.

We need to build an inclusive, united front with a new vocabulary – one that engrains dignity, improved health outcomes, economic justice, racial equity, universal school meals, and respecting workers and educators through collective action into all that we do.

The Northwest Tennessee Local Food Network (LFN) has a very simple solution – grow, share, sell and eat real food. Growing your own food is a way to break this cycle of poverty, break down the barriers of racism, improve community economic conditions, and empower all to take better care of themselves, their neighbors, and their land.

The LFN is a small nonprofit based out of Martin, Tennessee, whose mission is to serve as a catalyst for a thriving and equitable local food system that is accessible to ALL. We envision a sustainable regional food system that utilizes locally grown and produced foods to promote healthy individuals, equitable communities and thriving local economies. Will you join us to work towards developing answers to the key questions posed as we strengthen our local food system together? We have information, volunteer opportunities, and educational resources on our website at nwtnlfn.org and Facebook page @NWTNLFN.

Co-written by:
Samantha Goyret, Executive Director, Northwest Tennessee Local Food Network and
Joyce Washington, President, Weakley County Reconciliation Project, and Social Justice Advocate

Additional Resources and Information:

https://www.wealthworks.org/in-the-field/deep-south-community-agriculture