Food is more than just stuff that we put into our mouths. It’s our fuel, and it affects not only how long we live, but our quality of life and our capacity to influence our environment. The World Food Summit of 1996 defined food security as existing “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.” Food justice means that no matter where you live, your economic status or the color of your skin, you have access to quality food. We cannot discuss inequities in our food system without discussing the role of racism in that system, or its broader role in our lives, for that matter.

Some people believe that we live in a “post-racial” society, that because we now have a black president, racism is no longer a major issue. However, it’s vital to remember that the intentional systematic oppression of black people was enforced by law in this country only a couple of generations ago. We can all agree that history shapes our present. Take the the Indian Homestead (Dawes) Act, the National Housing Act (which established the Federal Housing Administration), and the Federal Highway Act (FHA) as examples. These worked to afford privilege to whites and deny rights to everyone else. The Dawes Act of 1887 resulted in the acquisition of millions of acres of land by white “pioneers” at the expense of indigenous people. Beginning in the 1930’s, the FHA provided subsidized housing loans that helped whites to get homes in the suburbs, which led to “white flight” and the subsequent deterioration of minority-filled urban communities. Thousands of miles of interstate highways plowed through many  black communities across the country in the 1950’s and 60’s, destroying the livelihood and businesses of countless black families but sparing vibrant white communities. 

I remember stories of Claiborne Avenue here in New Orleans, once a thriving strip of black business and cultural activity lined with beautiful oaks. All I have personally seen, though, is the pillars of Interstate 10 decorated with pathetic paintings of oak trees, alongside a few remaining black businesses. The foundation upon which this country was built is deeply rooted in white supremacy. Today’s outcomes (i.e. lack of economic development in black communities, an increasing wealth gap between white and black communities, unfair hiring practices, racial profiling, etc.) have everything to do with the overt, intentional and legal racism of the past.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, to find that racism can be found in all aspects of the food cycle, from production, processing and distribution to consumption and disposal. Who has access to land and seed? (The majority of black farmers are small operators who can't afford to buy seed.) Who receives the government subsidies? (90% of USDA subsidies go to commodity crops, and only 7% of black farmers grow commodity crops.) Who experiences the environmental impacts of food distribution? (Similar to the way interstate highway systems and chemical plants are built in low-income black communities, so are food distribution centers. Large delivery trucks come regularly and idle, releasing harmful diesel particulate, an asthma trigger.) Which communities have better supermarket access? In which communities are garbage transfer stations often located? The answers to each of these questions will inevitably point to a racist system.

Of course, racism also shows up in the planning of food policy. A recent public forum I attended on urban agriculture policy here in New Orleans shouldn’t have struck me as odd or inconsistent with history. Still, it angered me to see that the majority of participants were white—despite this being a majority-black city—and many of those were not New Orleans natives. In this city where so much of our population was displaced by the levee breach during Hurricane Katrina, and with most of the folks unable to return being low-income and black, this racial imbalance was especially troubling. 

So, where does racism come into play here? It was a public forum, after all, and everyone was welcome to come. However, I wondered as I sat in the meeting, how was the word spread about this forum? How was this group initially formed? What neighborhoods are represented by the core group? Who was invited to the initial planning of this group? Although this outcome clearly wasn’t intentional, no policy meeting should take place without proper representation from the people who will be most affected.

I had a similar experience about a year ago at a meeting regarding urban agriculture in the city zoning plans. Of about 30 attendees, I could count on one hand the number of black folks in the room. Additionally, our local food policy council has only 2 black members in its core group, which consists mostly of non-native white academics. To their credit, a good thing came out of their meetings - the Fresh Food Retail Initiative. However, there is still something fundamentally wrong with the exclusion, albeit unintentional, of the affected population. As food is the most basic of human needs and rights, it’s a no-brainer to conclude that, in a majority black city, black people should be at the forefront of food policy planning.

Then I ask myself: is it really unintentional? Perhaps this imbalance occupies a place in between intentional and unintentional. If you recognize injustice (i.e. under-representation of a historically oppressed group of people who will be most affected by the decisions made at this meeting) and choose to organize in a way that will inevitably lead to an unjust outcome, is that not intentional? John A. Powell of the Kirwan Institute might call this “unconscious bias.” He speaks all around the world about this topic, and recently gave a presentation in New Orleans on unconscious bias. He says that some practices have “predictable racialized outcomes,” even though the intention is not to be racist. As long as this country’s footing is still firmly rooted in white supremacy, none of our actions can be truly neutral. As Paolo Freire put it, “Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” It is important that whites and all people take responsibility and look critically at their actions to ensure that all voices are heard. 

All this is not to say that black people (and other non-white people) have no choice in the matter. Part of my personal frustration at the aforementioned meetings was that black people were not the organizers. It’s very easy to complain about not being included, but even that’ is a way of ceding power to someone else to choose whether or not to include you. 

Whatever the case, black people need to be involved in food justice, because it is so important in our communities. Hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer are all diet-related illnesses that disproportionately affect the black community. Obesity is now an epidemic in this country, and Louisiana is ranked as the 5th most obese state, with 64.9% adults and 47.54% children overweight or obese. Limited access to supermarkets can reduce consumption of healthy foods, resulting in poor nutrition and increased prevalence of obesity. There are typically three times as many supermarkets per capita in upper and middle-income neighborhoods as in low-income neighborhoods. The neighborhood-to-supermarket distance for the Lower Ninth Ward, for instance, is nearly double the city average, making the Lower Ninth Ward, like many low-income black neighborhoods around the country, a certifiable food desert. Why then are we not at the forefront of this conversation, especially in cities where we are the majority population?

Of course, structural racism has a hand in this as well. Let’s take a look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, where the physiological needs (such as food, clothing, and shelter) are the most basic, and self-actualization (i.e. problem-solving and creativity) is at the top. According to Maslow’s theory, the most basic level of needs must be met before a person is likely to focus on higher-level needs. In other words, a person in poverty who has a harder time meeting basic needs is likely to spend more time and energy in pursuit of them, rather than organizing and participating in planning meetings. In general, black communities are more likely to experience poverty, lack of economic development, poor schools, poor food access, etc. as a lingering result of the overt, legal and intentional racism of the past. That means that, theoretically, we have fewer people likely to step up into leadership positions. Of course, many black leaders have risen and continue to rise to the call for equity in various areas, but it’s important to recognize how structural inequities affect how many people will operate within a system.

Then there’s the disease called internalized racism. Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary developed a theory called Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, which suggests that centuries of slavery followed by systemic racism and oppression have resulted in multigenerational adaptive behaviors, some of which have been positive and reflective of resilience, and others of which are detrimental and destructive. Negative symptoms include “Vacant Esteem,” “Marked Propensity for Anger and Violence,” and “Racist Socialization and (internalized racism).” Internalized racism describes the process by which oppressed people absorb and ultimately perpetuate their own oppression. Examples of internalized racism range from the overt (i.e. black-on-black crime and internal destruction of low-income black neighborhoods) to the not-so-obvious (like poor personal eating choices and verbal and psychological abuse). 

Internalized racism also describes how people feel about themselves and others in their group, as well as their own ability to affect change in their environment. I have participated in many frustrating conversations where black people talk about how horrible black people are (using different words) and how pointless it is to unite with other black people to affect change. This does not by any means describe all black people, but it is a damaging mentality that is still prevalent within our community. 

Most important, however, is that food access isn’t an issue that has been viewed as vital in many communities. In post-Katrina New Orleans, housing and jobs continue to take precedence over talks about food. Despite these challenges, it’s critical that black people lead the food justice movement in New Orleans and other majority-black cities. Detroit, another majority-black city with similar economic and land-abandonment issues to New Orleans, is a model for black leadership in food justice. The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (http://detroitblackfoodsecurity.org/) was formed in 2006 out of concern about the lack of black representation in food policy issues in Detroit, and their own account of their foundation describes many of the same concerns we face in New Orleans:

“We observed that many of the key players in the local urban agriculture movement were young whites, who while well-intentioned, never-the-less, exerted a degree of control inordinate to their numbers in Detroit’s population. Many of those individuals moved to Detroit from other places specifically to engage in agricultural or other food security work. It was and is our view that the most effective movements grow organically from the people whom they are designed to serve. Representatives of Detroit’s majority African-American population must be in the leadership of efforts to foster food justice and food security in Detroit. While our specific focus is on Detroit’s African-American community, we realize that improved policy and an improved localized food system is a benefit to all Detroit residents.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. The DBCFSN also led the effort to create the Detroit Food Policy Council, which developed critical Food Security Policy adopted by the city of Detroit. That policy outlines the current access to quality food in Detroit and its impact, as well as actions needed to achieve true community food security. They also spearheaded the “Undoing Racism in the Food System” workshop in Detroit, facilitated by New Orleans’ own People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. Granted, Detroit’s population is roughly triple that of New Orleans (even despite its 25% decline in the past decade), but it still stands as a model of what is possible for this city.

Other examples of  black leaders in the food justice movement include Growing Power (http://www.growingpower.org/) in Milwaukee, which convenes an annual conference themed Growing Food and Justice For All (http://www.growingfoodandjustice.org/), Truly Living Well Center for National Urban Agriculture (http://www.trulylivingwell.com/) in Atlanta, the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference (http://www.blackfarmersconf.org/) in New York and the People’s Grocery (http://www.peoplesgrocery.org/) in Oakland. The People’s Grocery in Oakland, CA has an excellent model of partnering with “white allies” (http://www.peoplesgrocery.org/article.php/allyship) who can help without taking power from the majority-black population. The leadership of black people in the food justice movement is also being tracked in The Color of Food (http://thecolorofood.org), an online database of farmers, urban growers, food activists, and other food-related initiatives led by people and communities of color.

History shapes our present, but it need not shape our future. The foundation upon which we all stand is inherently unfair (to say the least), and was intended to be so. We cannot move forward in an honest way without dismantling and restructuring that foundation. Racism is not a “black” problem; it’s all peoples’ problem. We, all people, must be intentional about dismantling it. That process will certainly result in discomfort, loss of privilege, and hurt feelings for some, but these inequities will persist unless we attack racism head on. Anything else is merely a band-aid.