You may have recently come across a few articles sharing different ways to address racism and support the black community since the death of George Floyd. While all of these articles are pretty comprehensive, most seem to be missing one key – but often-overlooked – form of systematic racism: the U.S. food system.

The Food System in America Today

Our food system interconnects the growth, production, processing and distribution of food throughout the country. It’s supposed to ensure the food that eventually ends up on your plate promotes good health and has as little environmental impact as possible. Unfortunately, it no longer does this. 

There’s a number of reasons why the food system doesn’t work for the American people anymore. Doctors, journalists and scholars have documented the failures of our current system. Many have concluded that a handful of food corporations, known as “Big Food”, control a large portion of the food system and place profit over public health. These companies create, market and sell ultra-processed products that contribute to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and a whole host of other illnesses. There’s little oversight because many of the laws created to regulate the food system have been overturned or simply ignored. 

How the U.S. Food System Fails Our Black Communities

It’s clear we need reform and there are people working hard to fix what’s broken but in the meantime we continue to get sick. While we’re all victims to the nearly unlimited power these food companies possess, black and brown communities are worse off.

The rate of disease in black communities is much higher than that in white communities partly because they don’t have access to healthy foods and food companies know how to work the system. Below are just a few examples of how the U.S. Food System fails our black communities:

  • Food Deserts
    Black and white neighborhoods are segregated. White neighborhoods are usually middle to upper class, suburban settings while black neighborhoods tend to be poorer and urban. They’re also usually food deserts. Food deserts are areas where you have limited access to healthy food. People who live in food deserts purchase most of their foods at a corner market or fast-food chain. There are rarely large supermarkets with a variety of vegetables, fruits and whole grains. People who live in food deserts are met with limited options often-times on a limited budget.
  • SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) Benefits
    Many of the foods and beverages SNAP benefits cover are ultra-processed. A lot of black people rely on SNAP to feed their families. These benefits are released every month along with a slew of advertising and sales for Big Food products. Food companies manipulate the system and the system allows it.
  • Food Workers
    Recently we’ve seen the way food companies treat their workers, many of whom are black. Forcing employees to work in unsanitary conditions during a pandemic is inhumane but these workers are regularly exposed to harmful pesticides and chemicals and superbugs at meatpacking plants. The pandemic helped shed a light on the abuse food workers have endured for a long time.

How Can You Help?

Policy makers need to reign in Big Food and start considering the health of the American people, particularly black Americans, but there are things you can do too. Here are just a few actions you can take:

  • Buy less processed food
    Every time you purchase something from these large food conglomerates, you’re “voting with your dollars” as they say. Since consuming processed foods is so engrained in our diets, it isn’t really possible to cut Big Food completely from our lives but we can limit it. Even making small changes, like swapping out packaged snack food for whole fruit and soda for water, can make a difference. And bonus: you’ll get healthier too.
  • Shop locally
    Buying from a local farm or at the farmers’ market takes money from Big Food’s pocket and puts it back into the local, small business economy.
  • Seek Out Black-Owned Farms and Restaurants
    A quick Google search can help you find black members of your local community who would appreciate your support.
  • Call, text and email your Representatives
    Demand your Congressional Representatives stop accepting campaign donations from Big Food lobbyists and support legislation that aims to curb Big Food’s power and control.
  • Support the Farm System Reform Act
    In January 2020, Senator Cory Booker proposed a bill that would put an end to factory farms. We need more than just this but it’s a great start. Write to your House and Senate Representatives asking them to support Bill S.3221 (H.R.6718).

It’s not easy to see how destructive the food system is on black communities but it’s important to consider our food choices and push our legislators to do better.