In my year and a half or so of being in college, I have been exposed to more activism that I had been in my entire life leading up to college combined. Everyone here seems to have a cause, which I think is phenomenal. I love that so much about my school, that everyone I meet wants to use their voice and their passion to change some aspect of society. I love the way my best friend’s mom puts it; she says something to the tune of “The world has so many problems, and it’s great because you get to choose which one you want to solve.” That sentiment is, I think, more evident on college campuses than anywhere else. Being immersed in this environment has made me a much less ignorant and hopefully much more sensitive and diplomatic person, especially I think when it comes to racial equality, feminism, LGBTQ equality, and Israeli affairs, sustainability, poverty, and, most of all, food issues.
I’m writing this now because this past weekend I was fortunate enough to attend part of a conference on my campus focusing on agency and solidarity; basically the purpose was to help activists of different causes share strategies and work together to coordinate their efforts. I came with a team who hosted a workshop on university food sustainability and sourcing real food (more on that in a future post). The workshop was really cool because we got to hear each of the attendees speak to their diverse stakes in food (not least of which that everyone eats).
A dear friend of mine who I admire for her outspoken advocacy for racial equality attended our workshop and mentioned that she usually focuses her activism energies on issues of race. Some of the group then briefly touched on the societal connections between issues of race and food. I think this topic is not widely understood, so I thought I’d write about it this evening. As far as my “expertise” goes, I’m aware of a few major ties between the dysfunctional food system and racial inequality within the U.S.
I’ll start with those with which I’m less familiar. The business of industrial agriculture most certainly puts minorities at a disadvantage, particularly immigrant workers who are often undocumented. As I understand it, for the most part, people of color are the ones spending unimaginable hours picking our fruits and vegetables and slaughtering and packing our meats, getting paid unjustly, and working in unsafe conditions, with next to no power to change their situation.
The restaurant industry too is heavily flawed with regard to labor issues, including exhibiting broad racial discrimination in employment and promotion, which I wrote about previously. Here is a quote from that post: “There is, with several notable exceptions, almost universal racial discrimination in hiring and promoting. The “front of house” jobs (servers, hosts, managers) go disproportionately to white employees, while the “back of house” jobs (bussers, prep cooks, dishwashers) go disproportionately to people of color. Experienced Black and Latino dishwashers and bussers are frequently passed over for promotions to server and manager positions in favor of less experienced white workers. “
The intersection between food and race with which I’m most familiar is food access and health disparities. Essentially, the problem here is that people of color have consistently less access to what I would call “real food” and consequently have much higher incidences of obesity and diet-related chronic diseases, as well as hunger, malnutrition, and low birth weight babies who may or may not have congenital health problems due to prenatal malnutrition and higher risk for health problems later, which continues the vicious cycle. There are undoubtedly many contributors to this problem, namely poverty and lack of education. As my pal (and idol) Mark Bittman has said, you can’t sustainably feed the world until you eliminate poverty, and there is obviously a hugely complex relationship between race and poverty that needs to be better understood and tackled from the ground up in order to really get rid of these health disparities. Even at the same level of education, on average, people of color have jobs that pay significantly less than white people. How does this affect nutrition? Well, people of color have to work longer hours, they have less time and money to dedicate to seeking out real food and cooking for themselves and their families, they have less time and expertise with which to teach their children healthy habits such as preparing meals and getting enough exercise, and then another generation is without the tools to prevent a lifetime of chronic disease, not to mention pull themselves out of the cycle of poverty. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the complexities of socioeconomic status and race, but that is my general understanding of the current state of things in much of the U.S., particularly in urban areas.
I’d love to hear comments on anything I’ve said and other ways that issues of food and race are connected. Thanks for reading!