A. Who are the Hungry?
Although our country's food system crisis impacts the entire nation, people of color bear a disproportionate brunt of its harm. While this Comment pays particular attention to the present and historical structures impacting African-American communities, inequality in the production, acquisition, and quality of food affects communities of color throughout the entire United States. Research indicates that obesity, food security, and “food deserts” most negatively and disproportionately impact people of color and low-income individuals.
Nationwide, 38.1 million people, or 12.4 percent of the population, identify as African-American (or Black). When compared with the U.S. population as whole, African-Americans experience “hunger, poverty, unemployment, and income disparity” at disproportionate levels. In 2010, rates of food insecurity in African-American households were higher than the national average, at 25.1 percent. In 2008, 27.2 percent of African-American families had difficulty getting enough to eat, compared with 11.6 percent in Caucasian households overall.
Disparities in food consumption equate to disparities in health. A recent study found that proximity to grocery stores was associated with lower rates of obesity. Healthier food is generally less available and more expensive in urban African-American neighborhoods. One study found that African-Americas are almost four times more likely to live in food deserts than Whites. In general, the role of racism as an “organizing process in the food system” is evidenced by people of colors' disproportionate lack of access to healthy food, unbalanced likelihood to lose their farms, and overrepresentation in the agricultural labor and food processing industries.
Over the past decade, the United States has seen a dramatic increase in awareness of the state of our food supply, urban agriculture, and nutrition. Often missing from these discussions, however, is an understanding of food oppression's structural causes. Instead, the focus typically lies on personal responsibility and the need to bring in outside information to educate communities deemed to be suffering from hunger and health problems. Because many people who work to address food access are outsiders to urban communities of color, “many community organizations remain unaware or closed to the ways racism works in the food system.” Such food organizations often overlook the histories of institutionalized racism when proposing “solutions” or goals such as self-sufficiency. Funding needs often demand allegiance to organizations outside of the community and thus do not challenge the power structures that create racial disparities.
Throughout the United States, many low-income communities and communities of color face a daily food crisis. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 17.2 million households were “food insecure” in 2010, and struggled to acquire adequate food due to lack of financial resources. In addition to facing food insecurity, urban areas often exist in what are commonly called “food deserts” or grocery gaps, locales in which there are no grocery stores or other opportunities to purchase fresh, healthy food, which typically co-exist with “food swamps,” areas which have a high prevalence of unhealthy food options, such as fast food and convenience stores. In a 2009 report to Congress, the USDA also found that “higher levels of racial segregation and greater income inequality” define urban areas. The USDA also found that close to six percent of all U.S. households lacked access to obtain the food they “wanted or needed,” and over half of these households also lacked sufficient financial resources for food.
Research conducted in California illustrates these findings. In Los Angeles, a research study by Occidental College found upper-income areas had approximately three times as many supermarkets per capita as did low-income zip codes, and majority Caucasian zip codes had 3.17 times as many supermarkets than majority African-American zip codes. West Oakland, an area whose population numbers 30,000 and is 77 percent African-American, is home to fifty-three liquor stores, thirteen fast food retailers, and zero grocery stores. Even when there are grocery stores in urban communities of color, the produce is often of a lower quality and higher price than that of suburban supermarkets.
Racial justice scholar Andrea Freeman asserts that the damage done by lack of access to healthy food has a “pronounced and extreme effect on low-income people of color” which “represents a form of structural oppression that activists must incorporate into a struggle for racial and economic justice.” Structural food oppression undermines the well-being and very survival of low-income, urban communities of color. Since the food we consume so directly impacts our health, the negative impacts of lack of adequate nutrition and the stress of hunger permeate all other aspects of life. As expressed by one scholar, “[h]ealth is fundamental to every aspect of life,” and “without health, a student cannot do well in school; a worker cannot hold a job, much less excel at one; a family member cannot be an effective parent or spouse. Health crises and the staggering costs they impose are critical underlying causes of poverty, homelessness and bankruptcy. People of color who live in racially segregated neighborhoods are exposed to greater health risks. African-Americans confined to segregated areas have historically experienced rising mortality rates due to overcrowding leading to disease and drug use. These forms of structural racism are shaped heavily by government policies.
Such policies include providing public assistance that is insufficient to cover the cost of fresh food, drawing resources and services out of the cities, zoning and incentive policies that favor corporations over community-based businesses and urban farming, and government subsidies that facilitate saturation of urban communities and schools with fast food. This government-sponsored racial inequality tends to be obscured by the “distinction between public and private spheres of action and is perpetuated by the myth of personal choice, even where a lack of options and resources severely limits the ability to exercise choice.”
In addition, marketing analysis used to determine where businesses choose to locate their stores systematically undervalues inner-city neighborhoods. Marketing firms generally rely on national data counts such as the U.S. Census, which often fail to accurately count city residents, especially people of color. One study of a mostly African-American and Latino area of Washington, D.C. undercounted the area residents by 55 percent. Market studies also generally use average household income rather than at total area income to determine an area's purchasing power, and thus underestimate available dollars within dense urban areas.
In the United States, policy discussions about food insecurity often ignore the histories of institutionalized racism that have caused widespread hunger and poverty, and instead tend to place the blame on the struggling communities. These discussions also often overlook a particular “relativistic quality that has wormed its way into our food system over the past ten years.” As lower-income areas begin to make small improvements in access to healthy food, such as the addition of a grocery store or the slightly improved reach of the food stamp program, higher-income communities, by comparison, “leap ahead” with increases in their purchase of local and organic foods. The result is that, “as trends in consumption associated with lifestyle and health expand one class's universe of choice and perceived health benefits, a lower, less privileged class barely catches up to where the other class was in the last decade.” Without an effective intervention, this gap is likely to continue its expansion.