As our nation once again confronts institutional injustice and racism, the lack of access to healthy food in minority communities continues to fly under the radar in the mainstream media. Instead, videos of police brutality and riots make for sensational headline news.
It goes without saying that police brutality and all forms of institutional racism must stop. But we think at the top of this list is the appalling scope of food deserts in minority and economically-distressed communities.
The dearth of healthy food choices has greatly contributed to soaring rates of chronic metabolic diseases in minority communities. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCSUSA), African American, Latino, and Native American communities are about twice as likely as whites to be diabetic. In addition, these minorities experience higher mortality rates from diabetes complications as well as kidney damage and lower-limb amputations.
It’s perhaps tempting for some people to be cynical and argue “Why would Whole Foods or a health food store open in a community where people couldn’t afford to shop there … isn’t that just the free market system expressing itself?”
Nobody is suggesting that the U.S. government should subsidize Whole Foods so the health food chain could slash their prices in distressed communities. But more, way more needs to be done at the state and federal level to address the lack of healthy food choices in minority communities; systemic racism has greatly contributed to healthy food options.
Food Deserts In Minority Neighborhoods
According to this report by the New York Law School Racial Justice Project, 23.5 million people in the U.S. live in low-income neighborhoods, located more than 1 mile from a supermarket. Think about your lifestyle for a moment. What would you do if you didn’t have a car to drive to the supermarket, let alone the cash to buy fresh fruits and vegetables? Like many people in low-income neighborhoods, you would probably suffer from food insecurity and consume most of your calories from low-nutrient-density processed foods.
Consider this shocking statistic revealed by the Racial Justice Project: In 2012, Detroit, a city with an 83% African American population and 6% Latino population had zero major chain supermarkets in its inner city.
Again, it’s easy for a hyper-capitalist to defend this system, arguing that low-income residents can’t afford organic foods, so why should a supermarket commit economic suicide by opening in a low-income neighborhood?
But the invisible hand of the free market isn’t the only factor. Unjust government policies have been instrumental in creating urban food deserts. After World War II, many middle class white families took advantage of low interest home loans and flocked to the suburbs. Supermarkets were created in this wake of white flight while African Americans were denied the opportunity to apply for the same loans, owing to government-sanctioned discriminatory practices. Over the next few decades, supermarkets continued to abandon the inner cities.
Exacerbating the problem of a lack of access to supermarkets, minorities are faced with higher prices than their white counterparts. This is because small grocery stores in urban areas don’t have anywhere near the buying power of supermarket chains. They pay much higher prices for inventory and have to charge more than supermarkets. Higher-priced produce means that minorities purchase foods high in sodium and sugar. Not only do the health of minorities suffer but the lack of supermarkets in minority neighborhoods also means fewer jobs.
It should be noted that food deserts also plague rural white communities. But minorities are also faced with the indignity of racism.
What Is Being Done About Food Inequality?
More community activists and non-profits who help create and oversee urban food gardens are needed. Unfortunately, the federal government seems to be doing too little to address the problem. However, the good news is that certain states and municipalities are implementing successful programs.
For example, The New York Law School’s (NYLS) report points to Pennsylvania’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative, a program that encourages supermarkets and grocery stores to open in financially-distressed areas.
Photo courtesy of SlideShare.net
The city of Baltimore passed a law enabling residents of the city to have their online grocery orders delivered to public libraries if an online retailer could not (or refused to) deliver to their home address.
Ordering groceries online at Baltimore City public libraries, photo courtesy of StarDem.com
The city of Washington, D.C. instituted a program that funds infrastructure improvements to independent markets, if they sell healthier foods and advertise the availability of fresh foods. In New York City, the Health Department’s Healthy Bodegas initiative is a similar program. Also in NYC, the Children’s Aid Society, a non-profit, initiated the Youthmarkets Program, a community school-based greenmarkets run by students.
A New York City bodega, photo courtesy of nycfoodpolicy.org
In Detroit, a city with one of the highest rates of obesity, 92% of food stamp recipients purchase their food at liquor stores and corner shops, according to the NYLS Report. There, one of the city’s faith-based non-profits introduced Peaches & Greens, an inner city produce market.
Peaches & Greens, courtesy of PeachesAndGreens.org
COVID-19 Highlights Food Injustice
Minorities are at greater risk of becoming infected from COVID-19 and dying from it. In fact, according to this report by Johns Hopkins University, African-Americans have accounted for approximately 33% and 34% of all COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths, respectively, despite accounting for only 13% of the U.S. population.
It doesn’t take an expert in epidemiology to conclude that lack of access to healthy foods leads to major suppression of the immune system. While it’s true lifestyle choices play some degree in the rates of obesity, diabetes and hypertension, if obtaining healthy food is not an option, then how can one blame minorities for making poor lifestyle choices?
Further weakening the immune system is the stress to the body not only caused by the lack of nutrient-dense foods, but also simply being a minority, be it being pulled over by the police without probable cause, being passed over for a job opportunity, being denied a mortgage, or of course, facing outright hostility and prejudice.
We should also mention that minorities are more likely to work in places that force them to be in close proximity to others, without proper protection. Think: restaurants, e-commerce warehouses, and meat-packing plants, the latter of which has experienced high rates of COVID-19 infection, exposing the dire need for food production and supply reform.
BōKU Pledges To Fight Food Injustice
For the month of June, we will donate a portion of our sales to the Food Empowerment Project (FoodIsPower.org), a non-profit dedicated to sustainability in food production and equal access to healthy food choices. Moving forward, we commit to being more conscious and proactive in addressing food inequality.
(Featured image courtesy of PeachesAndGreens.org)