Hidden Racism: Social Injustice in the Food Industry
Why have a disproportionate burden, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19 fallen on African-American and Hispanic populations? Perhaps it is that these communities often live in food deserts and food swamps. They often survive on Supplement Nutrition Assistance Plan (SNAP or food stamps), which provides much assistance but little nutrition. Seventy percent of the SNAP benefits are used for ultra-processed food and 10 percent for soda (or about $7 billion a year). Is hidden racism baked into the food industry?
In Chicago and Louisiana, 70 percent of COVID-19 deaths are in African-Americans, who make up only about 30 percent of the population in those communities. Deaths in predominantly black counties are six times higher than in white counties.
A legacy of poverty, lack of access to healthy food, health care, living wage employment; inadequate housing; and race-based advertising and targeting of minorities by food companies, or what are referred to as social determinants, explain these health disparities, not race. On a good day, life expectancy in African-American communities burdened with poverty is up to 15 years less than average. And today is not a good day.
African American, Hispanic, Native American, and poor communities have the highest rates of obesity, diabetes, and chronic disease. In the last decade, type 2 diabetes rates have tripled in Native American children, doubled in African-American children, and increased 50 percent in Hispanic youth. Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, and Asians are also twice as likely as Caucasians to get diabetes. And African-Americans are more than four times as likely to have kidney failure and three-and-a-half times as likely to suffer amputations as whites.
Why are minorities suffering so much? An insidious but subtle form of hidden racism is harming their health and their communities, but few, if any, are asking the tough questions. It’s a topic I address in depth in Food Fix.
Hidden Racism in Our Food System
When we talk of racism we think of white supremacists, police brutality, job discrimination, limited opportunities, and hate speech, but rarely do we think of food. Hundreds of thousands of African-Americans, Hispanics, and the poor are killed every year by a hidden form of racism, a silent and insidious injustice. Here’s how:
You may have heard of food deserts—where the closest grocery store is more than a mile away and it’s hard to find fresh fruits and vegetables or other healthy food. About 23 million Americans live in these food deserts. But the problem isn’t only food deserts. It is also food swamps, communities filled with fast-food chains and bodegas plying highly processed addictive foods.
Food deserts imply a natural phenomenon, like an unfortunate desert somehow just occurred. Nothing is less true. It’s hard to find fresh produce but easy to find gallon cups of soda and other sugar-loaded beverages, and fast-food chains peddling burgers, fries, and fried chicken are on almost every street corner. These toxic food swamps are more predictive of obesity and illness than food deserts.
What makes this a form of hidden racism? Black communities have almost twice as many fast-food restaurants as white neighborhoods. Only five percent of African Americans have a healthy diet. That is a big change from the 1960s, when African American diets were twice as healthy as average diets, with more fruits, vegetables, fiber, and good fats.
Perhaps a better term is food apartheid, an embedded social and political form of discrimination. The history of sugar is closely linked to slavery. The slave trade served the growth of sugar production. Legal American slavery is over, although slavery still occurs on some farms with migrant workers. But today sugar, especially in its new form, high-fructose corn syrup, is connected to a new kind of oppression—food oppression, which makes people of color sick, fat, and disabled. It is a form of apartheid in which the poor and minorities live in areas that lack healthy food and have an overabundance of foods that can kill them.
Why This Matters
How did this happen? It’s a combination of factors: poverty, social disenfranchisement, racial targeting by the food industry, and government subsidies and programs that support the most profitable foods for the food industry—the very foods that also happen to be the most harmful to our health. This form of internalized hidden racism is not as obvious as limiting voters’ rights and employment opportunities, the bombing of churches, or hate speech and hate crimes. But it is far more pernicious and destructive, in part because most of the victims don’t know it’s a problem.
Of all deaths, 1.1 percent are caused by gun violence. Seventy thousand people die every year from the opioid epidemic. Those problems are real and tragic and need to end. But 70 percent of deaths, or more than 1.7 million deaths each year, are caused by chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, and stroke—mostly the result of our toxic food system. More African-Americans, Hispanics, and poor people are killed by bad food than anything else.
Even when food is available to disadvantaged communities, fresh whole foods can be expensive, which leads to the purchase of cheap, unhealthy junk food. Those who are on limited incomes struggle to get enough food, so when the decision is between facing hunger and eating cheap processed food, the choice is inevitable. Yet we remain silent about the role of the food system in killing millions of Americans.
Marketing to Minorities: Hidden Racism in Advertising
Food companies use cultural icons to influence minorities. Do you think LeBron James actually drinks Sprite? McDonald’s uses Serena and Venus Williams and Enrique Iglesias in their TV ads to attract Black and Hispanic consumers. Is a Big Mac, fries, and a Coke really Serena’s pregame meal? No matter, their dollars are well spent. Race-based advertising works.
Big Food’s marketing ploys are amplified even more for minority children. In 2019, the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity published a damning report entitled, “Increasing Disparities in Advertising Unhealthy Food to Hispanic and Black Youth.” The big food companies target Black and Hispanic youth with their least nutritious products, including fast foods, candy, sugary drinks, and snacks.
From 2013 to 2017, food advertising on black-targeted TV increased by 50 percent. Black teens viewed 119 percent more junk-food-related ads—mostly for soda and candy—than white teens. The top ads came from Nestlé, Yum! Brands (like KFC and Taco Bell), Mars, McDonald’s, and General Mills. The average teen saw more than 6,000 junk-food ads a year just on television.
On top of that, our government is complicit in the perpetuation of these behaviors and the support of the production and sale of the very foods it tells Americans not to eat in its dietary guidelines. What may shock some is that government-guaranteed loan programs support fast-food outlets, which are far more prevalent in poor communities of color. Why do government loans pay for the expansion of food that kills Americans?
Communities Must Come Together to End Hidden Racism
The work of transforming this system of hidden racism must come from multiple sectors. These include changes in government policies, regulations, nonprofits creating local programs to educate and empower people, and grassroots efforts of citizens working to change their communities.
Imagine if Black church leaders (or any affected minority group) collectively joined in a campaign to link the struggles of minority communities to food, to food apartheid, to racial targeting by the food industry, to the invisible form of oppression that keeps communities down, and created a call to action to change all that.
How to End Hidden Racism and Build Community
They might follow the example of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr.’s church in Atlanta, that started a two-acre urban garden where parishioners participate in growing food for the local community. Or they might learn from Ron Finley, the Gangsta Gardener from South Central Los Angeles. He started curbside gardens, turned lawns into food forests, and created raised-bed gardens in dilapidated vacant lots. These garden plots have helped gang members, ex-convicts, and drug dealers find a way out of their struggles.
In West Oakland, California, a very poor neighborhood of 30,000 with no grocery store but 54 liquor and convenience stores, community members started the People’s Grocery. This mobile grocery store—much like an ice cream truck—brought produce to the local community for 15 years.
In the Bronx, Karen Washington founded Black Urban Growers to support Black urban and rural farmers and helped turn abandoned lots in the Bronx into thriving community gardens.
These stories, as well as those of Food Tank, Soul Fire Farm, Black Church Food Security Network, and The Bigger Picture Project, can provide inspiration for providing healthy alternatives and hope for communities of color. These pockets of redemption and innovation are happening all across the country. They are models for breaking the cycle of hidden racism in our food system.