Racism in the Food System: How It Poisons Our Food Supply
The classic image of an American farmer is a middle-aged white man graying at the temples and donning a pair of overalls.
It may sound like a stereotype—and it’s certainly the stereotypical image portrayed by advertisers and the media. But that doesn’t mean it’s inaccurate.
According to data from the USDA, an astounding 95.4% of American farmers in the U.S. are white. African Americans make up a paltry 1.3% of the nation’s farmers, by comparison, even though they represent 13.4% of the U.S. population.
This means Black people are underrepresented by a factor of ten in the farming industry. It’s only gotten worse over the decades. The number of Black farmers in America has plummeted from nearly 1 million in 1920 to fewer than 50,000 today.
Underrepresentation of land-owning farmers of color is just one of the many forms of racism in the food system.
It’s been this way since our country’s founding. It started with land theft and attempted genocide of Native Americans and continued with the kidnapping and enslavement of West Africans, who toiled in cotton and tobacco fields to make white men rich.
Hunger and Food Insecurity
Food access has always been racialized in the U.S. But Ronald Reagan supercharged the effort to restrict access to food in the 1980s with his thinly veiled racist war on food stamps (today called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP).
Gutting food assistance led to a predictable rise in hunger, even among some of Reagan’s most devoted white supporters.
Food assistance programs are in fact a lifeline for many low-income whites in the U.S. According to demographic data, 39.8% of SNAP participants are white, 25.5% are African American, 10.9% are Hispanic, 2.4% are Asian, and 1% are Native American.
Yet cruel attempts to gut SNAP have never gone away, as Reagan’s racist rhetoric around food assistance has stood the test of time. Today, 1 in 10 Americans struggles with food insecurity, a problem made even worse by the pandemic.
Another glaring example of systemic racism in our food system are so-called “food deserts,” where fast food chains and corner stores stocked with fat, salt, and sugar-laden processed foods are often the only option.
“Food apartheid” is a more apt description, underscoring the fact that these food-starved areas are human created, not a fact of nature.
Black families are 2.5 times more likely to live in neighborhoods with no full-service grocery store, while Latinx families are 1.4 times as likely to lack nearby access to grocery stores.
Lack of access to healthy food has a domino effect in BIPOC communities.
Black and Latinx Americans have shorter life expectancies, get sick at younger ages, and have more severe illnesses than white Americans. And they have higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension.
Lack of access to healthy food negatively impacts children’s brain development, which can lead to poor performance in school. This in turn can increase the likelihood that BIPOC kids will enter the juvenile detention system or be incarcerated as adults.
All of this busts wide open the myth of meritocracy—the harmful idea that anyone, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status can be successful in America if they just work hard enough.
It’s not just lack of access to healthy food that makes BIPOC Americans sick. People of color are far more likely to live near landfills, trash incinerators, coal plants, and toxic waste dumps.
This is by design. Communities of color are treated as “sacrifice zones” where polluting companies set up shop with little or no regard for the health of residents.
North Carolina has come under fire in recent years for its massive hog farms, which poison the water and air in predominantly African American communities. Black North Carolinians are 1.5 times more likely than white residents in the state to live within 3 miles of animal waste control facilities.
In California, one of the country’s agricultural centers, Latinx farmworkers and residents live with toxic levels of air and water pollution and pesticide exposure. In the San Joaquin Valley, more than 5 million people—mostly Latinx—drink tap water contaminated with nitrate at levels at or above the federal limit.
Predictably, rates of asthma, allergies, cancers, and neurodevelopmental abnormalities are higher among those who live in or around agricultural areas with heavy pesticide use.
Purging Racism from Our Food System
Communities of color deserve better.
To fix systemic racism in our food system and achieve real food justice, we need to support Black, Latinx, Asian, and indigenous farmers.
We need to invest in communities of color and ensure they have access to healthy food that’s affordable.
We need to promote and support urban agriculture led by people of color.
We need to expand food assistance programs while working to end the conditions that cause BIPOC families to need assistance in the first place.
We need to learn about the land we occupy and support indigenous food sovereignty and traditional Native food preparation.
And we need to end food apartheid in our neighborhoods.
We can do these things. We can make our food system more equitable, more resilient, and better for the planet.
Want to learn how?
Listen to DCP'sPolitics of Food podcast featuring Cristina Gonzalez. Through in-depth conversations with experts and everyday people, Cristina goes deep into the intentional politicization of food and how it impacts communities of color in the U.S. and around the world.