Let's Talk About Food Apartheid

by Cybele Ramirez

Here at Loisa, while celebrating the flavorful dishes of the Latinx diaspora, we likewise carry the ambition to deliver conscious and healthy cooking staples to our community, no matter the location. 

Whether visible or not, disparities in food access are present across the US and the world. In our home of New York City alone, more than 1.4 million people experience food insecurity, including one in every five children. 

As awareness of these challenges has grown, so has the use of the term food deserts to paint a geographical picture of this issue, with specific neighborhoods lacking access to fresh, healthy, and affordable foods being tagged as such. But does this phrase really say it all?

The term ‘food desert’ implies there is a barren landscape with a lack of nutritious food resources, for which the most obvious solution would be to create more healthy food stores and options for communities. 

While the term has been widely used for decades now and does imply the need for more equitable food access, it ignores the greater social and political context in which these ‘deserts’ are located. It simplifies the complexity of food injustice by suggesting that bringing more grocery stores to the ‘desert’ will solve the issue. 

The fact is, these ‘deserts’ are predominantly in low-income, Black and Brown communities, and food justice requires that we are aware and proactive about confronting the disproportionate impact of food insecurity on BIPOC communities.

More than food deserts, this is food apartheid.

Before we get into it, it is important to define what apartheid means. 

Apartheid is defined as a policy or system of segregation or discrimination on grounds of race.

Food apartheid, specifically, is described as an intersection of various race-based inequalities and systems that result in unequal access to healthcare, food, and other essential human resources. 

Unfortunately, combatting food apartheid in communities of color across the U.S. isn’t that simple. In order to implement effective solutions, community leaders and key stakeholders must consider the systemic racial and discriminatory barriers put in place decades ago which are the roots of this problem. When middle-to-upper class white families move out of neighborhoods, the grocery stores and healthier retail chains tend to follow and leave behind vacant storefronts and empty lots.

Let’s talk about access

Grocery store chains are often scarce or nonexistent in low-income, black and brown communities. This is largely due to difficulties securing loans when there isn't an existing business nearby, higher insurance rates in areas where the crime rate is high, and companies choosing to invest in areas where rapid growth is taking place instead of in communities that need resources the most. 

Big corporations and grocery chains commonly try to save profits by withdrawing from lower-income communities. As a result, former customers need another place to shop, and oftentimes other stores are further away and are not easily accessible, or are replaced with more expensive, less healthy food options for communities. 

This leads to a spike in fast food consumption and reliance on other unhealthy food options that are more easily accessible. 

Working toward food sovereignty

Organizations seeking to educate their communities on engaging with healthy food from production to consumption are often doing the work of food justice

Autonomy over one’s own food is known as food sovereignty. The global mission, created by La Via Campesina in the 1990s, fights for “the right of peoples and governments to choose the way food is produced and consumed in order to respect livelihoods.” 

According to FoodPrint, we must reckon with the trauma of slavery, and work with our populations to redefine our relationship with the land from one of trauma and violence to one of healing and power to reach justice and sovereignty. Many Black-led food organizations like Soul Fire Farm and their Black and Latinx Farmers Immersion have been doing this exact work across communities by teaching people of color how to farm and work in the food-producing industry. 

In order to combat the growth of food deserts and the effects of food apartheid on communities of color in this country, we must ensure that food sovereignty, and food justice are achieved. 

How to minimize food insecurity in your community

Facilitating change requires us to be aware every day of how our communities are shaped by food. 

We saw a rise in community efforts across major cities to mitigate food insecurity during the Covid-19 pandemic. Community fridges, for example, have been popping up all over New York. This NYC Fridge map, created in 2020, aims to help anyone in need locate their nearest fridge. It also encourages that visitors donate, share, and start fridges in their communities. 

Small business owners are also using their power to offer healthier food options and food justice education in communities of color. Many of these businesses are also making it their mission to give back to food-insecure communities. By being a conscious consumer, you can support these initiatives, too. 

Finally, commit to knowing more. Familiarize yourself with organizations and activists already doing the work. Documentaries like A Place at the Table and Just Eat It are good places to start. Keep food justice in your network by following resources like Civil Eats and Veggie Mijas

By approaching the issue of food apartheid in the U.S. with real equitable solutions that consider the decades-long history and race-based socio-economic context of the problem, and by, partnering with local and state governments for fresh food drives and making changes in our own backyard, we can begin to ensure that food justice could soon be achieved in this country.


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