Today is Juneteenth, a day set aside to commemorate the emancipation of the last US slaves in Texas in 1865. But, as we all know, even though slavery ended over 150 years ago, the life of black Americans is far from equal to that of white Americans. While many of the inequalities are readily evident, some are insidious to most Americans.
Black Americans are 10 times more likely to die by gun homicide than white Americans. And 1.3% of deaths in America are due to gun violence. That’s terrible. But 70% of deaths (more than 1.7 million) in America are caused by a chronic disease such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. More minorities and poor people die of these diseases than do middle or upper class white Americans. All of these are largely preventable with better food choices.
While the problems of poor food quality that lead to obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, etc are talked about a lot, one of the biggest causes of these problems is rarely discussed: our food system. The food industry designs food to be addictive and to create heavy users. In addition, its marketing and positioning targets the poor and minorities.
African American children drink 2 times more soda than white children. And only 8% of African American households have a grocery store in their neighborhoods. In a more rural area, picture the chief of a Hopi tribe in Utah who did not believe he could take action to reverse his type 2 diabetes because it would be impossible to perform the traditional Hopi ceremonies without their traditional ceremonial foods. When asked by Dr. Mark Hyman what those foods were, he replied, “Coke, cookies, and pies.”
How did this chief of a native American tribe come to believe that these highly processed foods were needed for their ceremonies? Obviously his ancestors had different food and drink in their ceremonies. There is no evidence that his ancestors had rampant diabetes, obesity, or alcoholism. Yet today, 80% of his people get diabetes by the age of thirty and their life expectancy is only fifty-three.
How did this change occur? First, most American Indians were moved to reservations. Then, the US cut off much of their water supply by damming rivers to divert water to growing cities. Further, nearly 60 million bison were killed by the US government to cut off their food supply. Without their old food and water supply chains, the Hopi became dependent upon government supplied foods such as white flour, white sugar, and shortening. They made new traditions such as “Indian Fry Bread.” And in time, their ceremonial foods changed as well as their health.
This pattern is repeated over and over in our history, and is a form of internalized racism. It may not be as visible as hate speech and hate crimes, but it can be far more damaging because the victims themselves haven’t seen it as a problem to be fixed.
We often hear talk of food deserts, where the only food available is highly processed foods from a convenience store and fast food chains. But that terminology makes it sound like it is a natural occurrence, something unfortunate that just happened. Nothing could be further from the truth. Karen Washington coined food apartheid to replace food desert because she feels it more accurately describes the phenomenon. While it is hard to find fresh fruit or vegetables in such “deserts,” it is also by design. If there is no other food readily available, humans will buy and eat what is close. And black and other minority communities have almost twice as many fast-food restaurants as white neighborhoods.
The targeting of poor, minority neighborhoods with cheap food-like substances has led to a form of apartheid that leaves members sick, fat, and disabled. And then we blame them for not eating healthier. This is perpetrated by big business. Marketing is designed to attract young kids to seek these non-nutritious foods, and the design team works to make them as addictive as possible so that they have a clientele for life. All the while, neither parents nor kids truly realize what is happening. While they may realize that the food is not as healthy as it could be, they don’t know that it is designed to be addictive, and destined to make them sick.
Food Racism History
In the 1960’s, African American diets were twice as healthy as average American diets with more fruits, vegetables, fiber, and good fats. Today, the USDA estimates that only 5% of African Americans have a healthy diet. This sounds eerily similar to the Native American scenario, and the African American exploitation by whites is similar as well. After the Civil War, former slaves were promised 40 acres and a mule to start their own farm, but offer was revoked by President Andrew Johnson. Those blacks who did have farms in the early 20th century were subject to raids, lynchings, and murders by whites who then took their land.
It is no coincidence that the diets of the average minority in America is worse than the already poor diet of the country. However, there is hope. In the past, most corporations saw their goal as profits to their shareholders. Increasingly, major corporations realize that the purpose of a business is not just profits to shareholders, but also to benefit customers, employees, suppliers, and communities. Going forward, it’s important to support those businesses that DO care for these other stakeholders.
July 4th, Bake It Forward
Food racism is a big problem with lots of players so there will be no quick fix either. Nevertheless, Becca and I believe education is essential, and when people understand what is happening, then more change happens. In addition to this blog, we are donating the proceeds from our July 4th Bake It Forward project to the National Black Food & Justice Alliance. If you’re local to us and so inclined, place an order!
And start conversations about food racism, and how our culture is creating health issues for those in our country who are often least able to afford it. Here are a few other organizations who are actively working to combat this culture: Black Urban Growers, Food Tank, Agricultural Justice Project, Soul Fire Farm, and Bigger Picture. Please consider supporting one of these organizations or any others working to end food racism in your community!