Our Food System Is Built on Racism. You Can Help Change It

Calls for racial justice have highlighted the need to understand the role racism plays in our daily lives. As we fight to create a more just and compassionate food system, we must examine the ways systemic and historical racism affect how food is produced and who has access to it. For activists wanting to end racism in our food system, the best place to start is learning more about how racial oppression is built into it.

United States Department of Agriculture’s History of Discrimination

The USDA is responsible for promoting agricultural trade for farmers but for years discriminated by race in the support it offered.

According to the Nation, land ownership by African Americans peaked in 1910 but declined steeply over the past century as Black Americans were disproportionately pushed off their land and away from farming through systemic discriminatory practices by the USDA or through racial violence. In 1920, one out of seven U.S. farms were Black-run; by 1992, African Americans operated one out of 100.

USDA loans are critical for farmers, yet numerous accounts reveal how systemic racism affects loan distribution. In fact, a report commissioned by the USDA shows that “minorities received less than their fair share of USDA money for crop payments, disaster payments, and loans.”

Hundreds of farmers who had experienced discrimination sued the USDA in 1997 over its unfair lending practices. The class action suit was settled in 1999, and the USDA has paid over $1 billion to thousands of victims. Yet nearly a third of farmers’ discrimination claims have been denied. Even after the settlement with the USDA, many Black farmers still face difficulties accessing farm loans. And critics say Black farmers are disproportionately denied subsidies. Despite pressure from farm advocates, the USDA still does not reveal the identities of farm subsidy recipients. Without knowing who receives these funds, advocates cannot hold the USDA accountable for unfairly distributing taxpayer dollars to farmers.

Food Deserts

Typically found in low-income rural and urban areas, food deserts are regions where people lack access to fresh, healthy food. Instead, these communities are saturated with cheap processed food, primarily available at fast-food restaurants and convenience stores, resulting in poor health outcomes.

African Americans disproportionately lack access to healthy food. This creates a two-tiered food system where wealthier white communities have better health outcomes than poorer Black communities.

Only 8 percent of African Americans live in a census tract with a supermarket, compared with 31 percent of white Americans. Even where they have grocery stores, Black communities have fewer and poorer quality food choices on average than white communities.

In addition to food access, the food justice movement also tackles the structural causes of food-system disparities. Addressing inequity in food access requires increasing food security in Black communities through programs that bring in fresh food or grow it locally or support food-distribution programs run by local organizers.

Slaughterhouse Workers

The meat industry runs primarily on the labor of poorly paid Black and brown people, disproportionately employed by what the agriculture industry calls meatpacking plants. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, almost one-half of slaughterhouse workers are Hispanic, and one-quarter are Black. Slaughterhouse jobs often require working long hours for low pay and are incredibly dangerous. In fact, as Human Rights Watch reports, slaughterhouse workers suffer illness and injury rates about two times higher than workers on average.

Up to the end of the 20th century, poultry plant workers in the South were primarily Black women. According to LaGuana Gray, the meat industry capitalized on “the historical defeminization of black women, which characterized them as fit for the dangerous, arduous, often grisly work usually reserved for men.”

The meat industry continues to exploit the vulnerabilities of immigrants and people of color for low-wage jobs in hazardous conditions.

Environmental Racism

The immense suffering factory farms cause animals and the terrible environmental impact of these facilities have been well documented. But many people don’t know that factory farms are also incredibly harmful to the people forced to live nearby.

Factory farms, in many areas, are disproportionately located in communities of color. In North Carolina, for instance, Black communities near factory farms suffer increased groundwater and air pollution, decreased property values, and higher rates of many diseases.

The placement of these facilities in communities of color is no accident. According to sociologists at Arizona State University, “land use, housing segregation, racialized employment patterns, financial practices, and the way that race permeates zoning, development, and bank lending processes” are key drivers of environmental racism.

Dismantling racism in our food system requires all of us to pitch in. If you’re ready to get started, here are a few ways to get involved: Learn more about food justice issues by checking out Civil Eats, an independent news source covering our food system; join a food justice organization near you; and choose plant-based foods from companies that pay workers fairly and benefit impoverished communities and disadvantaged groups.

To learn more about some of the many benefits of plant-based eating, download our FREE Vegetarian Starter Guide today.
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