News headlines abound on food deserts. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines them as areas lacking ready access to healthy and cost-effective food choices. However, many food justice advocates prefer the term “food apartheid,” a phrase that highlights the systemic racism that underlies unequal access to food and centers the leadership of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities in the struggle.
“Numerous groups are working to empower people to feed themselves in healthy ways and stave off the symptoms of a modern industrial diet,” writes Dr. Analena Hope Hassberg in her chapter in a recently published collection of essays, Black Food Matters: Racial Justice in the Wake of Food Justice. “However, fewer are centering Black or other oppressed people in their analysis or working to deconstruct the racialized processes responsible for food apartheid and other forms of structural racism in the food system.”
“Food desert” is also perceived as imprecise, as it “obscures the vibrant life and food systems in these communities” and “implies that these areas are naturally occurring,” observes Nina Sevilla of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Ples Montgomery IV, president of the Oak Cliff Veggie Project, adds in an interview with the Dallas Morning News that the use of the term “food apartheid” underscores that “the suffering this community is enduring now was, at least at one point, caused intentionally.”
Food apartheid further contextualizes the staggering statistics that show food insecurity disproportionately impacts people of color. The 2019 USDA Trends in Food Security data found food insecurity to be at 19.1 percent among Black households and 15.6 percent for Latinx households, in comparison to 7.9 percent of white households.
As a result of COVID-19, “estimates of food insecurity doubled for white and [Latinx] households and increased by 60 percent for Black households,” according to Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research’s Rapid Research Report. Such data, the report explains, “indicate the need for continued relief payments until the economy rebounds, such as increased SNAP and Unemployment Insurance payments.”
Much of the history of food apartheid, contends a 2012 New York Law School report, is driven by “ostensibly race-neutral policies espoused by the government that have had racialized consequences.” In the wake of the pandemic, food insecurity issues were incorporated into Racial Equity Rapid Response Teams (RERRTs) in cities like Chicago. Plans for new urban planning initiatives have also been proposed in Minneapolis and Boston to address these issues.
What might a more equitable food future look like? Food justice leaders call for deeper cultural dialogues about food sovereignty. For example, Global Justice Now says communities must have “control over the way food is produced, traded, and consumed.” With community control, it would be possible to “create a food system that is designed to help people and the environment rather than make profits for multinational corporations.”
In upstate New York, the nonprofit Soul Fire Farm Institute is advancing food sovereignty through hands-on farming practices, education, and community-building initiatives within an “Afro-Indigenous centered community farm committed to uprooting racism and seeding sovereignty in the food system.”
“This year, multiple pandemics assaulted the very life breath of our communities. The pandemics of COVID-19, anti-Black racism, and raging wildfires left us gasping for air,” shared Leah Penniman, co-director and farm manager, and Larisa Jacobson, co-director and partnerships director, at Soul Fire Farm Institute in their 2020 annual report. “While some responded by hoarding and isolating, the greater number [of us] wove ourselves into a mutually supportive network of community care, working as interdependent members of a collective body.”
Over the past year, Soul Fire delivered over 1,000 free food boxes to households experiencing food apartheid, sold 900 units of healing medicine through its online store, and launched over 50 BIPOC-led videos and online learning materials. Looking ahead, Soul Fire Farm’s strategic goals include a “solidarity share” of “at least 1,000 bushels of naturally grown farm products with community members living under food apartheid through weekly doorstep delivery and BIPOC-centered organizational partnerships, positively impacting the health and household economies of members.”
The development of BIPOC partnerships and leadership to address these issues is foremost for organizations seeking to eradicate food apartheid. The HEAL (Health, Environment, Agriculture, Labor) Food Alliance, a “multi-sector, multi-racial coalition of 55 organizations,” launched its third School of Political Leadership Cohort, providing 14 BIPOC leaders from across the US six months of online leadership training. The current cohort is drawn from four partner organizations: Communities Uniting for Farmer Health and Justice in Minnesota, the Idaho Food Sovereignty Project, Cultivate Charlottesville in Virginia, and Good Food Oakland in California. Previous cohorts have trained 20 leaders; with this cohort, the number trained will increase to 34.
Zoe Hollomon, organizing co-director for Pesticide Action Network North America and a Minnesota-based member of this year’s cohort, says in a press release, “Our communities are coming together to fight in different and creative ways and HEAL’s School of Political Leadership will offer a support network and resources to BIPOC and grassroots organizers who are experts in food justice to make our movement more powerful and connect us with other leaders fighting for system change.”
Leadership development also is a focus for youth-based organizations like the By All Means Leadership Alliance (BAMLA) in New York. Recently, BAMLA hosted an Anti-Food Apartheid event at the Word Up Café, offering plant-based meals along with information on food justice and its leadership program.
Empowering BIPOC leaders strengthens communities in ways that end food apartheid while nourishing pride, ownership, and continued activism. Marla Karina Larrave, political education director at HEAL, explains her group’s approach. “For too long,” she notes, “the people who determine our food and farm policies have exploited people and the planet for profit.” To counter this, she says, “We must empower the farmers, organizers, and people working across the food chain who are most burdened by these threats to lead our food system and to decide what policies are best for them and for the planet.”