Children in the United States are bombarded with food advertisements, fast food restaurants and brightly packaged food-like snacks intentionally displayed at their eye level. The U.S. food industry manufactures, markets and sells trillions of dollars a year in food products. Despite these robust manufacturing systems and the profits those systems generate, food insecurity menaces a significant proportion of children in this country.
Food insecurity rates for African American, Latinx and Indigenous families are disproportionally high. Defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as a “household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food,” food insecurity rates for African American and Latinx households from 2001 to 2016 were at double the rates of food insecurity in white and Asian American households. According to 2017 data published by Partnership with Native Americans, 35 percent of Native American children live in poverty, and Native American families are 400 percent more likely than other U.S. families to report not having enough to eat.
The problem of food insecurity has increased through the ongoing COVID crisis. According to the 2020 Census Household Pulse Survey (CHHPS), which collects data on food sufficiency for the Institute for Policy Research, “Across the eight weeks for which CHHPS microdata are available, covering April 23–June 23, 41.1% of Black respondents’ households have experienced food insecurity in the prior week, as have 36.9% of Hispanic respondents’ households and 23.2% of White respondents’ households.”
Consistent with Native invisibility across other areas of U.S. life, data on food insecurity among Indigenous peoples through COVID is unavailable; however, the pandemic has definitely had a devastating impact on Indian Country, where the effects of systemic racism were acute prior to the additional pressures of COVID.
One study found that, from 2000 to 2010, food insecurity among Indigenous people was around 25 percent. However, this number does not capture the experiences of particular communities, like the Yurok people, who live in the Klamath Basin in northern California and southern Oregon, and where 92 percent of the households suffered from food insecurity before COVID.
Food desert is the mainstream term for describing a community like the Klamath Basin, where people live with limited access to healthy, nutrient-dense foods. Food justice activist Dara Cooper says the more accurate term is “food apartheid” because it takes into account the structural racialized inequalities perpetuated through our current food system.
A national organizer with the National Black Food and Justice Alliance, Cooper defines food apartheid as “the systematic destruction of Black self determination to control our food (including land, resource theft and discrimination), a hyper-saturation of destructive foods and predatory marketing, and a blatantly discriminatory corporate controlled food system that results in our communities suffering from some of the highest rates of heart disease and diabetes of all times.”
The term “food apartheid” invites an interrogation of the policies, systems and laws that create hunger — instead of suggesting that, like an arid region colored tan on a map, hunger in this wealthy country is a naturally occurring event that system controllers simply document.
Nearly 100 percent of people harmed by food apartheid report feeling that their food will run out, that they don’t have money to buy more, and that they can’t afford to eat balanced meals. In these communities, local schools are often the source of daily meals for children. Phiffany Deramus is school food service manager for the New York City Department of Education and identifies a “high level of homeless students in NYC public schools.”
The official number of homeless students, over 111,000 in New York City in 2019-2020, counts young people in shelters or foster care. Many uncounted students are not technically homeless, but sleep in different homes and have no regular schedule for eating or sleeping because of external pressures that have dismantled the structure and routine of their home life.
“The students look forward to the breakfast, lunch and after school programs we provide,” Deramus told Truthout.
Through the Office of Food and Nutrition Services, the Department of Education in New York City provides free breakfast and lunch programming that complies with nutritional standards set forth by the USDA. Deramus is most excited about the fresh fruit and vegetable program because it “exposes the students to new fruits and vegetables they may not encounter at home.”
Deramus says all New York City public school students receive the same meals, whether they live in an area of high food insecurity or high food access.
However, Dr. Alicia Morgan-Cooper of Village Pediatrics in Baltimore, Maryland, says that, nationwide, lunches at schools with lower funding are often prepared with processed foods instead of from scratch. In fact, some of what passes as school lunch in the U.S. looks meager compared to food in schools elsewhere in the world. As recent images from Patterson, New Jersey, public schools made vividly apparent, some students in this country receive meals so grotesque, they are hard to look at, much less imagine eating.
In countries like Japan, fresh meals are prepared from real food as part of an overall nutrition program. Here in the U.S., the costs of updating school kitchens for actual cooking is prohibitive, and policies meant to improve the healthiness of public school lunches, like President Barack Obama’s 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, have been negatively impacted by subsequent policy decisions. In too many schools, children who receive reduced-price meals but are unable to pay are often referred to debt collectors and shamed within a system ironically meant to nurture them.
Food justice liberates Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) from the systems, policies and norms that deny us affordable access to healthy food and, as Cooper defines food justice, would “provide indigenous, community based solutions to accessing and controlling food that are humanizing, fair, healthy, accessible, racially equitable, environmentally sound and just.” In the Klamath Basin, the Yurok community’s Food Justice Division has used CARES Act funding to purchase 40 acres of ancestral land and plans to build food villages and self-sustaining food systems.
Food justice can produce positive impacts in children, who require nutrient-dense foods not only to grow in a physically healthy way, but also to perform well in school. “There is a correlation between a child’s poor nutrition and neurodevelopment and cognition,” according to Morgan-Cooper. “Poor nutrition causes a decrease in energy which, in turn, causes fatigue and tiredness leading to alterations in memory and in interest in learning.”
Wellness programs that incorporate fresh food made from scratch could help improve multiple outcomes in schools where students are locked in food apartheid. “Consuming nutrient-dense foods provide better academic and behavior outcomes,” Morgan-Cooper says.
Morgan-Cooper recognizes the value of meal delivery in schools where young people experience food insecurity, and she acknowledges the value of the USDA’s MyPlate Plan, which encourages students to fill half their plate with fruits and vegetables. In her home city of Baltimore, schools provide a snack and supper program to provide food to children enrolled in after-school care. “The challenge comes when schools in low-income areas have lesser funding, the school meals reflect such disparities,” Morgan-Cooper says. “Another challenge is to have students continue this behavior at home. If a child lives in a food desert and does not have access to healthy foods during the evenings, on the weekends, or during the summer, their health suffers.”
Morgan-Cooper says government spending should increase to provide healthier food options to schoolchildren. To her, food justice is “that all children, no matter their race or socioeconomic background, need to have healthy foods provided in every school to in turn help maximize their educational potential.” She also recognizes that “this is, of course, dependent on the elected officials to ensure such increases.”
Moving Toward Food Sovereignty
Institutions within BIPOC and lower-income communities are rich with potential to deliver food access that exists in a space of autonomy and freedom from the whims of policymakers. Dara Cooper says this shift toward food sovereignty “entails a shift away from corporate agricultural system and towards our own governance of our own food systems. It is about our right to healthy food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, with the right to define and ultimately control our own food and agriculture systems. Shifting from an exclusively rights based framework to one of governance puts the needs of those who work and consume at all points of the food chain at the center rather than the demands of corporations and markets.”
The Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation aims to achieve food sovereignty in Central Brooklyn, New York, consistent with its dedication to the overall wellness of the people who live there. The Restoration Corporation has delivered art and culture, financial empowerment, youth services, housing, small business support, and wellness to Central Brooklyn residents since 1967. At this community institution, Restoration Corporation Program Manager Alexis Harrison is focusing on food sovereignty.
“We need a values-driven food supply chain, rooted in true community ownership, connected with BIPOC farmers, growers and distributors offering culturally reflective foods, supportive community based infrastructure that hyper-localizes supply chains, supportive of local economies and needs, and is intentional about community food access and affordability,” Harrison told Truthout.
Restoration Corporation’s Farm to Early Care Program provides the scaffolding to support this vision of food sovereignty. Over the past 10 years, Farm to Early Care has partnered with 50 institutions to deliver locally sourced food to more than 50,000 Brooklyn residents. Community gardens provide food access, along with other local distributors like Common Market, Brooklyn Packers, and GrowNYC. Through these and other partnerships, according to Harrison, Restoration Corporation provides:
on-site food access by making connections needed to bring a farmshare on site for their community and/or to make an official switch to local food procurement; local food education, providing sites the opportunity to host food demos, cooking classes, and cooking workshops to be attended by staff, participants, and the community at large; and connections to urban agriculture and community gardens to bridge the gap between community institutions and sites of food production.
In August 2018, the City University of New York Urban Food Policy Institute published a policy brief meant to document Restoration Corporation’s work and offer the organization’s Farm to Early Care program as a template for other organizations to model. Going forward, Restoration Corporation seeks to build on Farm to Early Care and create a food hub, which would be, Harrison says, “a community-owned facility connected to neighborhood assets and small-scale farmers.”
The inherent inadequacy of merely providing communities with food, instead of the autonomous community governance that Restoration Corporation seeks, became vivid during the height of COVID. Long lines of cars queued up for food bank donations through the early months of the pandemic. In urban areas like Brooklyn, people risked COVID exposure to walk or ride public transportation to get food for their families. Seventy-nine percent of New York’s food banks and pantries that saw a surge in visitors reported an increase in families with children. Meanwhile, 40 percent of New York City’s soup kitchens and food pantries closed during the height of the pandemic, with 73 percent of those agencies in high-need areas. The rate of first-time visitors to soup kitchens and food pantries increased to 91 percent.
“The onset of the pandemic revealed the vulnerabilities of local food systems and supply chains that were not adequately serving our communities — low-income, BIPOC, working-class — to begin with,” Harrison says.
In response to the dire need for free food during the height of the COVID crisis, Brooklyn resident Asmeret Berhe-Lumax simply placed a refrigerator on the street for neighbors to access. “One Love Community Fridge is a community-based response to the long lines at food banks that began when COVID-19 infected hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers. We watched as folks of all ages in our community risked exposure by standing in long lines at overwhelmed food banks to be able to procure food for their families.”
Berhe-Lumax’s One Love Community is part of a loose network of community refrigerators. These autonomous fridges share information and support, as well as food donations. Community fridge volunteers rescue food from restaurants and supermarkets, and neighbors can simply place food donations on shelves. Open 24 hours, the fridges provide neighbors this free food, which people simply take in the quantities that their families need. Indeed, children and adults shop the community fridge much like they shop supermarket aisles, looking at labels, thinking about meal plans and making choices based on their immediate needs.
“One Love Community focuses on stocking the fridges with fresh and healthy food while inviting the community to engage and participate,” Berhe-Lumax says. “The fridges should feel like your dinner table at home. We work hard to take away any stigma around food insecurity by making sure the fridges and the food look great and that everyone is welcomed to participate. The impact is immense and immediate. Thousands of families rely on the fridges to be able to feed or supplement food for their families.”
To broaden the path to food sovereignty, One Love Community is seeking partnerships with schools to create more community gardens. The organization intentionally positions sidewalk refrigerators near schools so that families have access. Berhe-Lumax says this food access exists at the intersection of all broader social issues, including social, economic and racial inequalities.
Consistent with the food sovereignty vision, One Love Community wants to involve more local farmers, urban farmers and community gardens into the community fridge ecosystem. The traditional charity model does not provide sovereignty. Behre-Lumax says the community fridge model “disrupts the ‘us versus them’ because it invites community members on all ends to participate. It promotes sustainability, and empowers community members to be part of the solution. The work of One Love Community extends beyond food — it ties into safety, health, empowerment and education.”
Failure to disrupt systems that lock our children in the multi-generational occupation of food apartheid has real consequences: Food apartheid is just one way that racism enters our babies’ bodies, erodes their innate potential and maintains the hegemony that oppresses them. Each effort to achieve food justice and, ultimately, food sovereignty, is an act of liberation from the structural inequalities that marginalize BIPOC people, especially children starting in the earliest years of life.