Michigan residents take action against food apartheid
FoodLab Detroit don’t try to make a “food desert” bloom. Instead, the nonprofit is dismantling food apartheid by supporting Detroit food entrepreneurs through education, coaching, and peer mentorship in an effort to evolve local economies and expand access to healthy and culturally appropriate foods.
FoodLab’s framing of food apartheid, rather than the more conventional terminology around food deserts, has become increasingly prevalent in Michigan and beyond. Karen Washington, New York activist, black farmer and founder of Black Urban Farmers (BUGS), coined the term food apartheid as a more accurate description of the conditions affecting urban and rural communities that lack access to healthy food.
“She felt that [the term] the food desert didn’t come out of the community,” says Devita Davison, executive director of FoodLab Detroit. “It’s actually terminology that came out of academia and was picked up by the USDA and others.
Davison notes that a desert is a natural ecosystem, but so-called food deserts are creations of an industrialized food system. This system benefits from the marketing and distribution of nutrient-poor and pathogenic foods to low-income communities, primarily communities of color, where people who shop with food aid dollars are an easy target.
“The food desert does not adequately describe the communities we live in. And it cannot describe the communities and neighborhoods in the city of Detroit, because Detroit has more than 1,900 community gardens, vegetable gardens, and vegetable farms,” says Davison. “It’s insulting because the terminology points to this natural phenomenon – like what happened to our communities is a force of nature. And that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
According to Davison, the term food apartheid raises important questions about why communities lack access to healthy, fresh, and culturally appropriate foods — and how race, geography, and economics influence that access.
“In the city of Detroit and many neighborhoods across the country where you have an overrepresentation of black bodies, those neighborhoods are very similar in the overrepresentation of fast food restaurants and dollar stores. You have your gas station, your Walgreens, and your CVS selling unhealthy foods,” Davison says. “That’s no accident. These communities have traditionally and historically been purposely marginalized. What I see is systemic and institutional racial injustice.”
She notes that the number one killer in the city of Detroit and other communities living under food apartheid is heart disease.
“During the pandemic, black people in Michigan were dying disproportionately. These were people who had pre-existing conditions and were even more vulnerable … with diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity,” Davison said. “We can directly link them to the food they have access to.”
Food Apartheid in West Michigan
During the last decade, Access to West Michigan (Access) staff have recognized the need to expand their work beyond charitable food distribution to address inequities within the food system. In 2018, after nearly 40 years, Access changed the name of its annual spring “Hunger Walk” to “Walk for good food.”
“Food apartheid is a more accurate description of what we see happening,” says Erin Skidmore, Good Director of Food Systems for Access. “Food apartheid identifies that lack of access to food is intentional and not accidental. I think it is much more accurate and truthful.”
Skidmore believes the current charity food system was designed to limit access to food for targeted populations. Some pantries still require recipients to present a driver’s license or mail with their name, which undocumented or homeless people cannot do. Others are staffed with people who only speak English.
“It can be scary and risky to access food from a charity food site because of the requirements that are often asked. And we have so many neighbors in West Michigan whose first and primary language is [not English]“, says Skidmore. “These are barriers and they cause disparities in access to healthy and affordable food.”
To make more healthy food available in neighborhoods affected by food apartheid, Access has set up Fresh markets offering affordable products from small farms at five sites in Grand Rapids where access to good food is limited. To access’ Refresh now The Food Prescription Program works with two Grand Rapids health care providers to give coupons for fresh produce to patients with chronic conditions.
Money raised from the Walk for Good Food supports organizations in West Michigan fighting food insecurity. Each year, grantee organizations participate in a half-day program on a food justice topic that addresses the inequities experienced by today’s industrialized food system.
“We really want to tackle the root causes of food insecurity and poverty,” Skidmore said. “In our food work, we want to see residents take ownership of their food systems, especially populations that have been intentionally excluded from the ability to access food.”
the 2020 Kent County Community Needs Assessment found that 47% of Latinx residents and 41% of black residents said they were unable to afford basic needs like food, shelter, water, and health care. In comparison, only 20% of white residents said they did not have this access. The survey says that “households that cannot afford to meet all their basic needs often have to make difficult trade-offs when it comes to spending. For example, paying a utility bill instead of buying healthy food .” Kent County food policy co-ordinator Janelle Vandergrift says food apartheid is a “useful term” to describe these effects.
“We know there are race, class and geography dimensions to unequal access to food,” she says.
Kent County residents living in the urban core of Grand Rapids aren’t the only ones suffering from food apartheid. Residents of the county’s rural communities also do so, particularly migrant farm workers concentrated in the county’s northern regions, and in Lowell and Saranac to the east.
“Migrant farm workers cannot afford the food they pick. And that is food apartheid,” says Vandergrift. “If people can’t afford the food they choose, there’s something wrong with the way we’ve set up our system – something that needs to change.”
Another aspect of food apartheid is the millions of dollars spent marketing nutrient-poor foods to families with tight food budgets. Misleading messages that convince people that fast food is cheaper, cooking from scratch is hard, or junk food is satisfying have long been accepted as truth.
“Very few celebrities are advocating healthy foods. You don’t have LeBron James advocating plums or nectarines. You have him for Sprite cranberry instead,” says Carola Carassa, West Michigan HealthNetrepresentative of the Kent County Food Policy Council. “I remember growing up thinking that any kind of fat was bad. What I didn’t realize was that the sugar industry was behind that message. Making fat the bad guy was a way to infuse more sugar into our diet.”
Defeat food apartheid
Food apartheid affects many communities in Michigan and across the country. In an article titled “Defeat food apartheid“, Robert Brown, director of the Flint office for the Michigan State University Center for Community and Economic Development, says that “the last century’s urban planning practices have maintained the racial segregation that creates food deserts in black and brown neighborhoods of most of the urban areas of this countryside.”
“This supermarket red line…creates access to less healthy food options at often higher prices,” Brown writes. “We hypothesize that Flint’s food system currently exists in a suboptimal ’emergency’ state due to the presence of feedback loops that resist attempts to shift the system to a more desirable state.”
While the idea of replacing food desert terminology with food apartheid may seem like a split hair to some, activists say this simple change achieves the important goal of bringing to light a centuries-old history of food injustice. racially motivated. Davison notes that more 38 million Americans, including 12 million childrenare food insecure – and communities of color are disproportionately affected.
“The pandemic has contributed to this increase among families with children and, of course, communities of color that were already hungry — African Americans, Latinos and Native American communities,” Davison said. “We need to start tackling systemic racial injustice. We won’t be able to get out of a situation of hunger in our country by providing free meals. We need to address the root causes of hunger, structural and systemic inequalities . “
A freelance writer and editor, Estelle Slootmaker is happiest writing about social justice, wellbeing, and the arts. She is the development news editor for Fast growing media and The Tree Amigos chairs, City of Wyoming Tree Commission. Her greatest accomplishment is her five incredible adult children. You can contact Estelle at [email protected] Where www.constellations.biz.
Photos of Devita Davison by Steve Koss. Photo of Erin Skidmore by Adam Bird. All other photos courtesy of subjects.