For years, I lived two blocks from Cup Foods — the corner store that George Floyd was killed in front of by Minneapolis police on May 25.
That store is like many of the others in this country where working-class, Black and Brown folks get a fair amount of their food. Walk into these stores, and you will also find overpriced daily necessities, such as shampoo and deodorant, as well as an ample supply of junk food. To Cup Foods’s credit, they do stock fresh fruits and vegetables. Still, the supply that they can offer is far from that of a standard grocery store, with a selection of health foods and organic produce.
My point is not to criticize Cup Foods. Instead, as we have the much-needed discussion concerning how to rethink this country’s policing system, we also need to include in that conversation ways to address the racial inequities that are built into our food system.
Bridging the two is quite possible — current debates that are happening in city councils around this country about defunding the police ought to include how funds can be diverted from law enforcement, to creating and supporting a new generation of farmers of color.
Now, when city officials discuss defunding the police, they point to moving money from law enforcement into a variety of programs that deal with treating substance abuse, mental health, domestic violence and homelessness.
Additionally, how about dedicated resources to buying land, ensuring access to water, and getting folks a start in agriculture with seeds and other farming necessities?
Minneapolis shares with many other cities the fact that in certain areas, working-class people, especially people of color, lack access to nutritious food. Minneapolis’s Cup Foods was at the heart of one of those areas — sometimes referred to as food deserts — until a grocery cooperative opened a few blocks away. Even then, it took pressure from community activists to make sure that that store would ensure affordable, healthy food to people of color who live in the area, as well as offering living-wage jobs.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), a food desert is a relatively permanent subdivision of a county that contains between 1,000 and 8,000 people, with a poverty rate of 20 percent or greater, and with at least 500 persons and/or 33 percent of the population living more than 1 mile from a supermarket or large grocery store.
One USDA study identified approximately 6,500 food deserts in the U.S., with two-thirds of them in urban areas. The same study also found that as the number of people of color increase in an urban area, the higher is the likelihood that that space is a food desert.
Still, the term “food desert” is correctly criticized as a misnomer; it hides the systemic racism that inheres in the U.S. farm and food system.
Besides access to food, this racism is prevalent in everything from land ownership — where approximately 95 percent of farmers are white — to the distribution of farm subsidies, where again, it is white people who get the lion’s share of government assistance.
There is a long history to the creation of these inequities, including hundreds of years of slavery as well as the dispossession of Indigenous peoples. For African Americans, despite the many challenges of the Jim Crow era, many families found ways to access land for farming. In fact, the number of Black farmers peaked at 925,708 in 1920, which was about 15 percent of the total number of agricultural producers in the country.
Since then, that number has fallen year after year, to now, where just over 1 percent of farmers in the U.S. are Black.
True, the number of farmers overall has fallen in the country. But, as Pete Daniel points out in his book, Dispossession: Discrimination against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights, farm loss for Black people far outpaced their white counterparts.
It wasn’t mechanization alone that drove Black farmers off the land – the U.S. government was complicit in denying resources that could have kept African Americans on their land. Black farmers were systematically denied by racist local government officials much-needed loans for decades, or when they were granted the resources, they were provided them at a much later date than what they requested.
To evidence this, Black farmers brought a lawsuit against the USDA for discrimination — Pigford v. Vilsack — in 1999. The farmers and their relatives won that suit, which is considered the largest civil rights settlement in U.S. history. Specifically, over 70,000 people received over $2 billion.
While that lawsuit is a step in the right direction, awarding payments to individuals doesn’t address reversing the inequities that exist in our food production system.
To really think about countering the racism in our food system, we need to think about targeted policies that would benefit young farmers of color, many of whom reside in urban areas.
Look around the country. Urban agriculture is booming, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic makes people turn to local food more and more. Many of these groups are led by farmers of color, including groups in cities such as Pittsburgh and Detroit, which help young people start cooperatives, manage community gardens, form land trusts, and practice sustainable, regenerative forms of farming.
What these examples and proposals show is that the term “food desert” is a misnomer yet for another reason — many people of color in urban areas have traditions, skills and abilities that connect them to growing food. What they lack are resources. Where could they get them? Let’s start with taking from the police.
So, when we talk about defunding the police, we should include in that discussion how to provide resources for people of color to grow their own food, in the areas where they live. Let’s make this discussion of police abolition, which brings up so much pain and violence, into a conversation about life and growth. People of color, African Americans especially, have endured, suffered and bled for generations at the hands of violent state actors. Part — just a part — of possible compensation for this injustice should include growing and supporting young farmers of color for the future.