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