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Discrimination in our food system is everybody's problem

Vegetables at a farmer's market

The team at GreenBiz started Food Weekly to track progress toward a better food system. But as protestors filled streets across America last week, I was reminded that a critical question about this effort often goes unasked: Better for whom?

We have to ask this question because we can't assume that any progress we make will be inclusive. Systems can evolve and remain discriminatory. We’ve seen this happen in housing, education, criminal justice and so many other areas of our society where people of color are marginalized or punished. Food and farming are no different. 

If this seems questionable, take a look at farm ownership. A century ago, there were a million black farmers in the United States. Now there are around 45,000. On average, they earn a fifth of white farmers. Reasons include predatory practices by developers and systematic discrimination by government loan officers.

Communities of color also lose out at the other end of the food chain. In a disproportionate number of low-income black neighborhoods, redlining, segregation and weak zoning laws have led to the proliferation of junk food outlets and a lack of healthy alternatives. Food deserts — or "food swamps," which one researcher argues is a better term — are linked to obesity and other health problems. 

These disparities are systematic and ingrained and very much with us today. They are one reason among many for the anger we are seeing right now. And history tells us that these forces, unless we actively resist them, will distort attempts to improve our food system. They will prevent "better" from meaning better for everyone.

Yet advocates for sustainable food — and I’m including myself here — are often guilty of treating racism as an urgent problem that somehow isn’t our problem. It’s an issue across the sustainability profession, in fact. Climate journalist Emily Atkin even has a name for it: a "Climate Chad" is an environmentalist who says they "care about pervasive racial inequality and police brutality but don’t believe these issues are related to the climate fight."

There’s no magic wand to be waved here. But there are many things that people in privileged positions can do. One that feels relevant to this newsletter is to insist that people of color are always present during critical discussions about the future of food. This has certainly not been the case in the past.

With that in mind, rather than signing off with my usual list of essential reads, I’ll end with links to pieces about individuals and organizations combating racism and promoting diversity in food and agriculture. Each is an opportunity to participate in change. My request to you is to consider how you might involve some of these remarkable people and projects in your work. 

  • John W. Boyd Jr. is a fourth-generation black farmer and the founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association. More in this Guardian feature.
  • The Castanea Fellowship is a two-year program for diverse leaders working for a racially just food system. Meet the fellows for 2019 and 2020.
  • The National Black Food and Justice Alliance organizes for black food and land by promoting black leadership and influence in food systems and land stewardship.
  • New Orleans chef Tunde Wey uses food and dining to push people to confront issues of race. Learn more in this GQ profile.
  • The Seeding Power Fellowship invests in leaders creating a more equitable food system in the New York area. Here are the 2019-2020 fellows.
  • There’s a wealth of information on how to craft better strategies for food equity at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and the Healthy Food Access Portal.
  • Want more? Civil Eats has a longer list.

This article was adapted from the GreenBiz Food Weekly newsletter. Sign up here to receive your own free subscription.

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