Structural racism has created disparities in food access across the US that have negative health, social, and economic outcomes for affected populations. Compared to predominantly white communities, BIPOC[i] communities have more difficulty regularly accessing adequate healthy food. In 2019, when nearly 42 million people in the US were unable to regularly acquire enough food to meet their needs, this number included just 8% of white residents but 16% of Latinx[ii] residents, 19% of Black residents, and 24% of Native American residents. Since 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified hunger nationwide, with especially damaging impacts for BIPOC communities. Ensuring equitable food access will require systemic transformation built on awareness of current and historical patterns of disenfranchisement within the food system.
The racial and socioeconomic inequities in access to healthy food that Washington has called food apartheid result from discriminatory policies and practices embedded deeply in the food system and broader US society; for example, in local zoning policies that limit urban farming, in lasting economic and social impacts of historic redlining by mortgage and insurance companies, or in federal subsidy and loan programs that mediate access to farm capital. BIPOC communities experience food apartheid in the US because these policies and practices have created lasting residential segregation, deepened poverty, driven supermarket flight from urban neighborhoods, and contributed to ignorance among white populations of the foodways of Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities.
Food apartheid is the result of structural racism in the US food system. Racial disparities in historical US structures of food production and access have led to high rates of food insecurity and lack of healthy food access for Black and Brown communities in comparison with their white counterparts. With her framing of food apartheid, Karen Washington encourages food systems thinkers to see not only the relative absence of grocery stores with abundant healthy food options in BIPOC communities, but also the underlying history of discriminatory practices that led to differential food access in the first place.
The term apartheid originated in South Africa in 1948, from the Afrikaans word meaning “apartness.” Apartheid was both an ideology and a governmental doctrine designed to fully separate white settler colonials from Black South Africans—economically, socially, and politically. Though earlier South African governments had supported segregation, apartheid solidified segregation via a series of laws requiring physical separation between races, registration according to racial identity, prohibition of mixed marriages, and elimination of Black South Africans’ right to own land, among other measures. Under apartheid, many Black South Africans became financially destitute, leading to widespread hunger, malnutrition, and nutritional diseases. Contemporary research in the late 1980s estimated that 30–40% of Black South African children faced food insecurity while an estimated 30,000 child deaths annually were caused by malnutrition. Although apartheid ended in the 1990s, white South Africans still benefit from the social and economic advantages their population gained during this period, while Black South Africans continue to struggle with lasting poverty and unequal access to education, healthcare, and nutrition.
Similarly, US food disparities are the result of past and current discriminatory laws and policies that disadvantage Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities with devastating long-term consequences. To call attention to the historical roots of food inequality, food justice activists have embraced the language of apartheid to fully characterize the social and economic factors that create and perpetuate a racial double standard of food access and dietary health among communities of color.
FOOD APARTHEID IN THE US
The historical roots of food apartheid in the US are found in urban planning practices such as redlining, which for many decades segregated communities based on race. Redlining began in the 1930s when lending institutions shaded predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods in red on area maps, indicating areas less desirable for lending. Redlined neighborhoods were also denied favorable home loans and insurance. Banks refused to extend mortgages to these neighborhoods, preventing Black and Brown residents from building generational wealth through property ownership and making these neighborhoods unattractive for white homebuyers. Federal housing subsidies mainly benefited white, wealthy homeowners, while predatory lenders took advantage of Black and Brown homebuyers with exorbitant interest rates. Discriminatory language in house deeds, known as racial covenants, confined home sales in many areas to white buyers. These practices prevented wealth and capital accumulation in Black and Brown urban communities, leading to concentrated generational poverty. Other government policies, such as urban renewal initiatives, demolished Black neighborhoods in order to build interstate highways, resulting in mass displacements of Black people from their homes.
Supermarket redlining is another contributor to food apartheid. The unfavorable economic and social conditions created by mortgage and insurance redlining encouraged flight by both businesses and households with sufficient means to move. The establishment of modern supermarket grocery stores in the middle of the 20th century reflected the movement of affluent white populations. Major chain supermarkets historically tended to avoid opening stores in urban or low-income neighborhoods with high concentrations of Black or Brown residents, preferring instead to open branches in majority-white neighborhoods. A study of urban areas in Connecticut found that some neighborhoods lacked any grocery stores within a two-mile radius. In Hartford, nearly 85% of grocery stores had left the city within a 15-year period. In other cases, residents were more than a mile from grocery stores, a problem for area residents with little to no access to vehicles. The study additionally found that communities with access to many large chain supermarkets were over 80% white, and only 4% were characterized as low-income.
Geographers and other social scientists have pointed out the limitations of mapping food availability solely on the basis of distance without also understanding the many other contributing factors such as differential poverty rates and unequal access to transportation networks that can also shape household food access. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics and the US Census Bureau gather national demographic data related to income and employment. The relative poverty rate in the US—defined by the percentage of single-earner households whose income falls below the federal poverty level of $12,760 per year—reflect racial disparities born of the long history of economic exclusion based on race and ethnicity. In 2019, poverty affected 24.2% of American Indian/Alaskan Native households, 21.2% of Black households, 17.2% of Hispanic households, 9.7% of Asian/Pacific Islander/Native Hawaiian households, and 9% of White American households with one income earner.
Additionally, Black and Brown communities that lack access to affordable healthy food options are often disproportionately targeted by fast food advertising, and ready access to highly processed foods with lower nutritional value. A 2004 study revealed that in New Orleans, Black communities had 2.4 fast-food restaurants per square mile compared to 1.5 in higher-income, predominantly white areas. The study also noted that on average Black consumers were exposed to six more fast-food chains than white consumers while food shopping. In 2020, researchers found that retail food stores in the Bronx consistently stocked more unhealthy items than stores in the Upper East Side, while water, diet drinks, and juice appeared more often on street vendor menus in the Upper East Side.
US agricultural policies are another major structural contributor to food apartheid. Lending and subsidies favor white farmers and larger, established farms. As recently as in 2020, USDA granted loans for farmland, equipment, and repairs to only 37% of Black applicants but to 71% of white applicants. In a program to help farmers during the COVID-19 pandemic, farmers of color received less than 1% of the payments, although they represent 5% of all US farmers. Black farm owners, who in 1920 numbered 14% of all farmers, have seen their numbers shrink due to the economic disenfranchisement and discrimination entrenched in federal programs.
Food apartheid further degrades the health of communities that already face disparities in healthcare access and economic opportunity. A 2015 study of historically redlined neighborhoods found that the practice was significantly associated with lower incomes and a higher prevalence of illnesses like asthma and diabetes. Frequent consumption of highly processed fast foods of the type intentionally marketed to low-income and BIPOC communities is linked to obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease. Latinx people are 1.3 times more likely than white people to die from diabetes and twice as likely to suffer from diabetes complications. In another sobering statistic, Black people are 30% more likely to die from heart disease than white people and less likely to have their high blood pressure under control—a statistic created and intensified by structural racism in the form of reduced access to healthcare.
Karen Washington coined the term food apartheid to better characterize the racial inequities inherent in the food system. Washington is a food justice activist, farmer, and co-founder of Black Urban Growers. She supports urban and rural Black farmers in growing healthy food for their communities, has been an avid community gardener for over 30 years, and started City Farms Market in the Bronx to bring fresh vegetables to communities lacking access to healthy foods.
Food desert and food swamp are two terms often used to describe disparities in access to healthy food options resulting from structural racism and discrimination based on race and income. However, these two terms are controversial, and many Black and Brown food justice advocates have raised objections to how these terms are used.
The terms food desert and food swamp are used to describe neighborhoods that lack grocery stores featuring a wide array of fresh produce and healthy foods and are characterized instead by the presence of fast food chains and markets that mostly feature unhealthy, highly processed grocery food options. The term food desert originated in Scotland in the early 1990s and first appeared in a report from a UK government task force on nutrition. It has since been widely used by academics, journalists, policymakers, and food advocates in other parts of the world.
Washington and others have pointed out that food desert is an outsider term imposed on Black and Brown communities without taking institutionalized racism and other social and economic factors into account. The term food desert implies that a community is devoid of food, rather than calling attention to the higher prevalence of fast food and highly processed food and the relative lack of healthy, culturally appropriate foods. The term food swamp was an outsider’s attempt to refine the concept of a food desert. However, neither food desert nor food swamp accurately portrays the problems affecting food-insecure communities of color or potential solutions.
Both food desert and food swamp imply that food access disparities are natural phenomena rather than intentional, human-created social conditions, allowing the blame to shift away from the governmental policies and social and economic practices that have intentionally targeted and disenfranchised Black and Brown communities. According to Washington, the term food desert not only obscures the harmful practices that created food apartheid but also erases the vibrancy and regenerative potential of communities living with food apartheid.
FOOD APARTHEID: A Search for Solutions Grounded in Justice
Unlike the terms food desert and food swamp, food apartheid directly acknowledges the systematic decisions that have disadvantaged BIPOC communities. In promoting the term food apartheid, Washington seeks to clarify that the problems of food access in Black and Brown communities intersect deeply with structural racism and other related issues, including healthcare access, poverty, educational access, and joblessness.
All of these issues weave together in a food system that distorts the value and cost of food through subsidies. Washington points out that Black farmers struggle for representation and are disregarded in the development of solutions to food apartheid. In a 2018 interview with Guernica, Washington says that the term food apartheid is intended to engage a transformative approach to the currently broken system: “You say ‘food apartheid’ and you get to the root cause of some of the problems around the food system. It brings in hunger and poverty. It brings us to the more important question: What are some of the social inequalities that you see, and what are you doing to erase some of the injustices?”
Examining food apartheid as part of a wider discriminatory food system focuses attention on community resilience and transformative pathways to food justice. By comparison, measures like establishing food banks and farmers’ markets, building grocery stores, or running public media campaigns that encourage drinking water instead of sugar-sweetened beverages can be seen as smaller one-off interventions that will not bring about systemic change. Although such measures provide vital immediate assistance and can be beneficial, the core discriminatory attitudes, policies, and practices that create and perpetuate food access disparities must ultimately be addressed. Washington asserts that creating an inflow of capital to communities of color, together with policies to promote local ownership of homes and businesses, will begin to correct entrenched inequities. Investing in the people of a community through capital infusions and financial and business education is a more potent transformative tactic than outsider-led one-off improvements, Washington points out.
Another essential part of this transformation is to challenge the US’s exploitative agricultural system, dominated by corporate agriculture and animal farming. Large industrial farms exploit the labor of BIPOC individuals and other socially and economically disadvantaged segments of the US population, while unfairly targeting Black and Brown urban neighborhoods with marketing for highly processed, nutritionally lower quality foods. Black farmers are pushing back on this unfair system; for instance, Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm in upstate New York provides training for Black and Brown youth to better understand the food system and empowers them to reconnect with land and food sources.
While high-income, mostly white communities benefit from easy access to grocery stores that stock a wide variety of fresh and unprocessed food options, the true beneficiaries of the current food system are food corporations and industrial farms. These large-scale businesses shape every aspect of the food system, from the production and sale of seeds for crops to the mechanized industrial operations where crops and animals are raised, to manufacturing, food processing, and marketing. Four corporations own 65% of grocery stores, while 20% of farms control nearly 70% of US farmland. Federal policies support the consolidation of wealth in large companies and the wide marketing of meat, dairy, and highly processed foods, rather than expanding and diversifying farm ownership and increasing equitable consumer access to healthy plant foods.
Even in domains that may seem unrelated to food, structural discrimination has had far-reaching implications for the health and wellbeing of Black, Brown, and Indigenous populations, a reality aptly articulated by Karen Washington’s concept of food apartheid.
There are many ways to help dismantle food apartheid. Food system advocates can contribute to righting the wrongs of food apartheid by seeking continual education on the realities of food access disparities and refocusing efforts on solutions for the underlying structural racism and classism of the unequal food system. Purchasing from and investing in businesses owned by Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, as well as employing jobless members of these social communities, help to bring capital into neighborhoods that have suffered from food apartheid. Food conferences and trade organizations can actively seek out more diverse perspectives and leadership. At the policy level, city, state, and national funding can be reallocated to redress food access and insecurity in low-income communities while centering the voices and agency of affected communities and empowering those experiencing food apartheid to be leaders in forging an equitable food future.
[i] Stray Dog Institute uses the term BIPOC to recognize the lived histories of oppression and resistance experienced by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. This term is not universally embraced, particularly because it can erase the experiences of individual groups by lumping them together. Additionally, the language of this term reflects the specific historical social context of the United States and may not accurately reflect current or past racial and ethnic descriptions elsewhere. We recognize these drawbacks and use the term BIPOC only when a statement is truly applicable to Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Middle Eastern, North African, East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander communities in the US. When an experience or condition is applicable only to a specific group, we use specific rather than general language.
[ii] Stray Dog Institute uses Latinx as a gender-neutral alternative to “Latino” or “Latina” to refer to persons of Latin American heritage living in the US. We use this term although we recognize that it simplifies and homogenizes important cultural variations, and individuals may have their own preferred terminology. We honor the importance of the diverse lived experiences of oppression and unique cultural histories of Latin American countries, regions, and peoples.
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