By Nicholas Freudenberg and Diana Johnson
On February 17, the New York City Food Policy Center hosted a forum on Race, Racism and Food Justice. The session marked Black History Month and featured three people in the forefront of the movement to create a more equitable and just food system here in New York City and the nation.
Dara Cooper is the Director of NYC Food and Fitness Partnership at the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, the nation’s first community development corporation. (see her profile in this issue of our e- newsletter). Dara also presented the words of Diana Robinson, Campaign and Education Coordinator, Food Chain Workers Alliance, a coalition of worker organizations whose members plant, harvest, process, pack, transport, prepare, serve, and sell food, organizing to improve wages and working conditions for all workers along the food chain. Diana had planned to attend but was unable to. Naa Oyo A. Kwate, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Human Ecology and of Africana Studies and the Associate Director of the Center for Race and Ethnicity, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, is a researcher on psychological and social determinants of African American health and the role of structural racism in shaping patterns of health. The final speaker was Simran Noor, Director of Policy & Strategy, Center for Social Inclusion, a center that works to identify and support policy strategies to transform structural inequity and exclusion into structural fairness and inclusion. Summaries and videos of their talks and additional resources can be found here.
Why did our food policy center, a public health and nutrition research and action center sponsor such an event? The most basic lesson from public health history is that the health of populations improves when living conditions improve and deteriorates when they worsen or when the benefits of prosperity are inequitably distributed. A second basic lesson is that when social movements grow and thrive living conditions generally improve, thus contributing to better and more equitable health.
To succeed, movements need two critical resources: political power and ideas, good ideas that can win people over. At the session, panelists explored some ideas that may assist in mobilizing the political power to transform our food system. A public health truism is that living conditions shape health and improvements in living conditions lead to improvements in health. In the last few years, we’ve learned or perhaps re-learned –that access to healthy, affordable food is a fundamental cause of health and disease. We’ve also learned that our current food system distributes food inequitably with certain groups- African-Americans, Latinos and other people of color and low-income people – having less access to healthy food and therefore experiencing a higher burden of hunger, food insecurity and diet-related disease.
Second, the inequitable distribution of food – and education, housing, health care employment and safe environments– is not an accident but rather a consequence of systems of political and economic stratification. One such system is structural racism – a pattern of policies and institutional practices that produce barriers to opportunity for people of color. By understanding racism as more than the prejudices of individuals and organizations, we can begin to analyze what needs to be done to achieve greater equity. A key goal of the session was to understand how structural racial inequities shape our food system and contribute to inequities in well-being.
Because structural racism and other inequitable stratifications are systems, no single solution can fix these inequities. So a third idea is the need for multiple change efforts within multiple systems. In health, the World Health Organization has defined its goal as promoting “health in all policies”. What that means for those of seeking to create a more equitable food system is that we can’t look simply at food policies. We also need to look at housing policies and patterns of residential segregation. We need to understand how local community development contributes to food equity. And we need to find new ways to bring together the many movements working for equity across sectors. Each of the panelists helped to define how a health in all policies approach can advance the work of creating a more equitable food system in New York City and the nation.
A final theme of the session was the importance of democracy. The diagnosis of our sick food system that brings advocates and food professionals together is that it produces inequity, illness and hunger. The prescription is as American as cherry pie: more democracy. More participation in making decisions about food by those most adversely affected by our current system. A more level political playing field where people of color, low income people, recent immigrants, children and families, food workers and others have power and voice proportional to their numbers in our society. New limits on the power of corporations and the ultra-wealthy to impose what’s good for them on the rest of us.
Our session also highlighted some of the challenges to come. African-Americans (and Native Americans) have the longest history of oppression in this country, but other groups – Latinos, Asians, and many other recent immigrants and low-income groups of all colors – also bear a disproportionate burden of our unfair food system. As the movement to create a more equitable food system advances, it is essential that we lift up the voices of disadvantaged communities and all of the groups within it. We often consider racial oppression to be something of the past, but it is the present experience of many and it occurs in both subtle and not so subtle ways. As we develop solutions to level the playing field we should ask ourselves: How can we create food organizations and policy agendas that embrace the needs of all these groups? How can we support and encourage food leaders from all these communities? Will finding common ground help these populations achieve a more equitable food system? Will challenging the racialized practices of the food industry (for example, in product development, marketing, and employment practices) help to educate the public about the role of race and racism in our food system? How can we begin to reverse segregation in all of its forms and ensure that we are being inclusive and mindful of the role racism plays across all ethnicities in plaguing our communities with a disproportionate burden of chronic disease? These are the questions a food movement committed to equity must take on if we are to make progress.