Race & the Food System



Surprising to many is that hunger and poverty are extensive and persistent challenges in the United States. Approximately 49.1 million Americans worry on a daily basis how they will provide enough food for themselves or their families – let alone healthy, nourishing food. In a nation that arguably produces ample food and wealth for all of its citizens, why does 16% of our population struggle with obtaining life’s basic necessities? And why is 52.6 % of those 49.1 million hungry Americans Latino or African-American? (FRAC, Hunger & Food Security in the US, 2009). In other words, why do people of color have limited access to adequate food to feed their families in numbers disproportionate to the larger population?Many visitors to the Food Security Learning Center site are actively working towards food systems change. These community-based organizations, individuals, universities, foundations, businesses and government agencies are investing tremendous amounts of physical resources and life energy to create food environments that nurture and sustain us, our children and future generations. Issues of food and farming, including many hopeful stories, are more prevalent in our mainstream media than ever before. Conversations about what we consume and how it impacts our health are ubiquitous on television, in school systems and other public institutions. As Americans we now acknowledge an inextricable link between diabetes, hypertension and obesity. What is missing from the equation of grassroots efforts and an informed public that prevents us from achieving adequate, healthy, fresh food for all?

This FSLC section explores how race, as a complex social construct rooted in the historical roots of the United States, is a significant variable in equitable access to good food. The problem is systemic; therefore, the solution must be approached with an eye towards understanding those systems and how to change them.

The Growing Food and Justice For All Initiative—a network of activists working toward a just food system and world—is in the process of developing shared language and facilitating a common understanding of historical roots of racism in the United States in order to effectively implement strategies for change. This is a critical path toward transforming organizational structures that can end hunger and poverty through the development of sustainable and just food systems in our communities.

What does race have to do with the food system?

A food system consists of the processes in place that bring food to your table each day. It is the people, fields, machines and organizations involved in creating the grain bar in your pocket or the beverage you drink for breakfast. A food system is the sum of the guiding forces and values that inform the production, harvest, processing, transporting and marketing of the food we consume at each meal.

The food system, as it functions today, is an undeniable part of our nation’s march towards economic and political power. It is a part and parcel of the historical pattern of denying certain people land, resources and power based on their ethnic group and/or skin color. Models of cultivation, harvest, processing and delivery exploited the labor of people of color who, through their underpaid or slave labor, helped to sustain an abundance of low cost of food. These patterns persist. The U.S. food supply and it’s relative abundance and low-cost today is largely dependent on labor inputs from migrant farm workers, who often do not have citizen status, who are underpaid for seasonal work and live with the threat of deportation.

Every people has a popular story that is passed on through generations about how their nation-state came into being. Ours says the United States began with Columbus’s “discovery of America.” It continued with settlement by brave Pilgrims and other Europeans seeking freedom. The story continues with how independence was won from England with the American Revolution. And it expanded westward until it became the enormous, rich country we know today.

This story omits many important facts about the emergence of the United States as a nation that are relevant in understanding how race today still plays a role in determining why some of us have greater access to healthy food and others are merely subsisting. While the bravery of pilgrims and the pursuit of political freedom by Europeans is indeed a part of our nation’s history, so are conquest, genocide and slavery – the primary means through which “freedom,” as the authors of our constitution defined it, was established. Scholars and historians often point to three phases of nation building that resulted in hierarchical social structures defined largely by race which we still experience today.

The first stage was the European seizure of the lands inhabited by indigenous peoples. Before the European invasion, between nine and eighteen million indigenous people lived in what they called Turtle Island and which we now know as North America. By the end of the so-called Indian Wars, about 250,000 remained in what is now the United States.

The second phase focused on achieving economic dominance which necessitated a large supply of acquiescent labor. With the growth of agriculture and industry in the colonial period, a tremendous labor shortage ensued. European workers supplied cheap labor, and indigenous people were insufficient in numbers to make up the shortfall. Enslaved Africans provided the labor force that made the growth of the United States possible.

The third major phase in the formation of the United States as a nation was the seizure of almost half of Mexico by war—today’s Southwest—in 1846. A few years later, in 1853, the U.S. acquired more of what is now Arizona from Mexico by threatening to renew the war. This expansion enabled the U.S. to reach the Pacific and thus open up valuable trade with Asia that included markets for export and goods to import and sell in the U.S. It also opened to the U.S. vast mineral wealth in Arizona, agricultural wealth in California, and new sources of cheap labor to build railroads and develop the economy.

Our mainstream history books do not readily recognize the ways in which oppression of certain groups of people have enabled the United States to achieve economic and political dominance in the world. The established origin myth maintains our founders as brave freedom fighters, innocent of oppression. And the U.S. is depicted as a democracy – the land of the free – from its early days.

When the Constitution was written, three groups notably had limited access to the new democracy: blacks, women and the young. Another significant group, Native Americans, was outright excluded. The struggle of disenfranchised groups to become included in the processes of government and access to equal rights continues today. The idea of freedom for all, while compelling, was not codified by those who wrote the U.S. Constitution in 1787. As Frederick Douglas would famously say 70 years later, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”


WhyHunger and GFJI partnered to do this project on Race & the Food System.