Why and How the American Food System A Brief Primer
Represents and Upholds Structural Racism
The American food system is not broken. It’s working as designed: a capitalist regime intent on oppressing the black and brown bodies on which it was built.
Systemic racism in our food system begins with agriculture, which is the product of the labor and knowledge of enslaved black people and displaced Indigenous people. Their descendants have been continually barred from land ownership, the means of production, and the fruits of their labor.
The USDA has been referred to as ‘The Last Plantation’, alluding to its historically racist culture and refusal of loans and subsidies to black farmers.
In 1920, there were nearly a million black farmers and 16 million acres of black-owned farmland.
Today, there are just 450,000 black farmers and 1 million acres of black-owned farmland.
To be clear: Just .52% of farmland in the US has black ownership. 95% of farmers are white.
Malcolm X said: Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice and equality.
It doesn’t end on the farms. Racial disparities in ownership and leadership roles exist throughout the food system’s chain of production: white workers hold 75% of managerial positions in the food system. Black workers hold just 6.5%.
In addition to the many other barriers built into daily life in America for people of color, racial inequality in wages in the US means that of the 47 million people living below the poverty line, less than 10% are white. 27% are black, 26% are Native American, 25.6% are Latinx, and 11.7% are Asian-American.
Food insecurity (lacking physical and/or economic access to safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food) is directly tied to race and poverty. 21.2% of black households are food insecure.
White neighborhoods contain an average of 4x as many supermarkets as predominantly black ones. Grocery stores in majority black communities are usually smaller and have fewer fresh foods and nutrient-dense options.
Lack of access to nutritious food and natural ecosystems leads to diet-related health concerns: Nearly 50% of the black population and 42% of the Latinx population in the US suffer from obesity vs. less than 8% of the white population.
Diet related disease is not based on poor individual choices, but on the food apartheid resulting from zoning and urban planning methods, mortgage-lending practices, wage discrepancies, and other social inequities that all work to confine communities of color to environments lacking basic amenities.
Children in food insecure households risk developmental, psychological, and physical impairments from malnutrition and stress.
Because black people have been stripped of land to own and operate, and in turn blocked from the means of their own food production, they are most reliant on the violence of agribusiness despite being disproportionately harmed by it.
There is no social justice without food justice.
There is no food justice in a racist and capitalist food system that prioritizes profit over people and actively consolidates power in the hands of the white elite.
Solutions will not be found through corporate innovation, but through dismantling the patriarchal and racist mechanisms that define our current food system, ultimately returning land, seeds, knowledge, access, and power to the black and brown people essential to- and historically sacrificed in- making it.
REFERENCES / RECOMMENDED BOOKS + ARTICLES
1. Eric Holt-Gimenez, Dismantling Racism in The Food System, Food First
2. A. Breeze Harper, www.sistahvegan.com
3. Alison Hope Alkon, Black, White and Green: Farmers Markets, Race, and the Green Economy
4. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
5. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States
6. Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism
7. Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People
8. Center for History and News Media, “Bracero History Archive,” braceroarchive.org/
9. Pete Daniel, Dispossession: Discrimination Against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights
10. Anuradha Mittal and John Powell, “The Last Plantation”
11. John Powell, “Poverty and Race through a Belongingness Lens,” Policy Matters 1
12. Elsadig Elsheikh and Nadia Barhoum, “Structrural Racialization and Food Insecurity in the United States; A Report to the UN Human Rights Committee on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”
13. High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America, by Jessica B. Harris
14. Tim Flannery, The Eternal Frontier, An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples
15. The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks by Toni Tipton-Martin
16. Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, by Marcia Chatelain
17. Rachel Slocum and Kirsten Valentine Cadieux, “What Does It Mean To Do Food Justice?,” Journal of Political Ecology 22, http://jpe.library.arizona.edu/volume_22/cadieuxslocum.pdf
18. Slavery and Capitalism, The Chronicle Of Higher Education
19. Eric Holt-Giménez, “This Land Is Whose Land? Dispossession, Resistance and Reform in the United States,” Backgrounder (Oak- land, CA: Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, Spring 2014), http://foodfirst.org/publication/this-land-is-whose- land/.
20. The US Farm Bill: Corporate Power and Structural Racialization in the United States Food System (Berkeley, CA: Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, UC Berkeley, 2015), http:// haasinstitute.berkeley.edu
21. Ashante M. Reese, Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access
22. Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century, by Kyla Wazana Tompkins
23. Black Culinary History, Reading List
24. The underlying racism of America’s food system: Regina Bernard-Carreno at TEDxManhattan
25. The Last Plantation, Food FIrst
26. Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power, by Psyche A. Williams-Forson
28. Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability, edited by Alison Hope Alkon, Julian Agyeman
29. Black Lives Matter in The Food Movement Too, Civil Eats
30. Annotated Bibliography on Structural Racism in the Food System, Michigan State University, 2020
31. The Atlantic: The Great Land Robbery, by Vann R. Newkirk II
32. PBS: How southern black farmers were forced from their land, and their heritage (video and audio)
33. The New York Times: Black People’s Land Was Stolen, by Andrew W. Kahrl
34. The Guardian: There were nearly a million black farmers in 1920. Why have they disappeared?, by Summer Sewell
35. Ashante M. Reese, Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access
36. Leah Penniman, Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm's Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land
37. Dr. Monica White, Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement (Justice, Power, and Politics)
38. Rashid Nuri, Growing Out Loud: Journey of a Black Revolutionary
39. The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South, by Michael Twitty
40. Burgers in Blackface: Anti-Black Restaurants Then and Now by Naa Oyo A. Kwate
41. Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America by Frederick Douglass Opie
(SELECT) ORGANIZATIONS WORKING TO
COMBAT THE EFFECTS AND FUNCTIONING
OF THE SYSTEM
COMBAT THE EFFECTS AND FUNCTIONING
OF THE SYSTEM
HEAL Food Alliance
Domestic Fair Trade Association
Center for Social Inclusion
Black Urban Growers
Black Church Food Security
Black Food Sovereignty Coalition
A Growing Culture
Soul Fire Farm
People's Breakfast Oakland
SoLA Food Coop
Urban Grower's Collective
Indiana Black Farmer's Co-op
Detroit Black Community Food Security Network
Red Hook Initiative
Brooklyn Rescue Mission Urban Harvest
The Philadelphia Urban Creators
Acres of Ancestry + Black Agrarian Fund
National Black Food & Justice Alliance
Black Urban Growers
National Black Farmer's Association
The Rural Coalition
The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund
U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance