Confront injustice within the food system to ensure that all people have the access and agency they need to nourish themselves, their communities, and the land.
Food apartheid is a system of segregation that divides those with access to an abundance of nutritious food and those who have been denied that access due to systemic injustice. The term was coined by food sovereignty leader Karen Washington to illuminate the root causes behind what the U.S. government calls “food deserts,” where limited access to affordable, healthy food is driven by systemic racism and leads to increased rates of chronic disease in Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color. Though the term originated in the U.S., food access and agency fall along racial, ethnic, and class lines around the world—from Australia to Lebanon, Peru to Myanmar. Activists living under food apartheid are tapping into their ancestral roots to create a more just and equitable food system. Here’s how to follow their lead.
Unlearn and rethink. Leaders are calling for a fundamental shift away from the current corporate-controlled food system and toward food sovereignty that centers the wisdom and leadership of those with lived experience under food apartheid. That shift begins with a collective reeducation. Explore the resources in the Learn section below to challenge the dominant narrative around food access and agency—from the origins of regenerative farming to the realities of who holds power over what people eat.
Support the work of leaders with lived experience. Those who live under food apartheid are already leading powerful efforts to transform the food system, and they need support to grow those efforts. Particularly if you’re not directly impacted by food apartheid, it’s important to follow the lead of those who are—avoiding the common pitfall of a “savior complex” that seeks to organize from the outside rather than taking cues from those who know food apartheid firsthand.
Share time and resources. Connect with food justice leaders (especially those with lived experience) to find out how the skills and resources you have to offer can best serve the movement toward equity in the food system. Whether you can volunteer professional services like grant writing and marketing or share your own organization’s meeting space or office equipment, there are more ways to give than monetary donations—but that is a powerful way to contribute too.
Vote for policy reform (and protect voting rights). Transforming the food system calls for transforming the inequitable policies that control it, and that means voting. With basic democratic rights in peril around the world, it’s critical both to ensure fair voting conditions for all and to use those rights to push for more just policies. Learn more about recommended policy changes in the Governance section below.
Buy your food from underrepresented farmers. One of the best ways to shift power within the food system is to directly support farmers who have been historically excluded from food production due to systemic injustices like racism and classism. In the U.S., check out a directory of Black-owned farms here and here, Indigenous food producers here, AAPI-owned farms here and here, and Latinx food changemakers here.
Learn from the experts. Let the historic and present-day expertise of communities affected by food apartheid be your guide as you start to reimagine what the food system could be. Much of the wisdom and knowledge central to a regenerative future lies with BIPOC and other underrepresented educators, organizers, and farmers. Invite them to teach your organization or community, and be sure to offer fair compensation for their time and expertise.
Get your community involved. If you are not directly impacted by food apartheid, reach out to folks in your own community to build support for racial justice and food sovereignty among those who may not otherwise know about these issues. In the U.S., you can also encourage your local public institutions (such as school districts and city governments) to sign on to the Good Food Purchasing Program.
Make some noise. Call on policy makers and corporations to transform the food system. Join HEAL Food Alliance’s latest call to action, find food justice action alerts through environmental law firm Earthjustice, or read on to find out how to contact bad actors.
Journalists, Influencers, and Media Outlets
Tell the whole story. Push your reporting to bring more nuance and clarity to the conversation about power and privilege in food systems, with a focus on making sure historically overlooked or silenced narratives about BIPOC and other marginalized peoples’ experiences in the food system are being uplifted. Learn more about reporting that centers the collective rather than a single leader in Soul Fire Farm’s Beyond Heroes: A Guide for the Media.
Donors and Foundations
Make your resources more accessible. Examine your grantmaking through an equity lens, seeking to eradicate any entrenched bad habits and taking concrete steps to ensure your dollars are working hardest for the communities they’re meant to serve. This open letter from BIPOC leaders in food and agriculture to food systems funders is a helpful place to start.
Organizations Led by Those Without Lived Experience
Commit to uprooting bias from the inside out. In the U.S., fewer than 20 percent of nonprofit leaders are people of color, so most organizations seeking to engage in food justice work can consider first taking steps to make sure they’re promoting equity from within. Check out an example of one organization's commitment to equity, and learn more through Soul Fire Farm’s comprehensive action guide.
Invite the community in. Build community ownership into your business model, whether you tap into the power of the co-op approach or implement more informal practices like community feedback loops. Co-op models, especially for grocery stores, have demonstrated success in bringing greater food access and agency to neighborhoods living under food apartheid, while supermarkets established without community buy-in have a higher tendency to close or stall out in the planning stage.
Shift from “consumers” to food citizens. The London-based Food Ethics Council recommends a simple but powerful shift to challenge entrenched power in the food system: stop thinking of people as “consumers,” and start thinking of them as food citizens (active participants in shaping the food system rather than passive shoppers). This takes the relationship from transactional to collaborative—recognizing all people as members of a collective with the power to shape the way we nourish our communities.
Be transparent. Centralized power, long and convoluted supply chains, and a sordid history of corrupt practices have made it difficult for people to trust food companies—especially for those living under food apartheid. Take steps to create real transparency around your practices and ethics in order to begin building trust with communities.
Create good jobs and hire equitably. Prioritize fair working conditions and a living wage. Hire people who are traditionally passed over, including people of color, formerly incarcerated people, and people with disabilities.
Reduce and redirect food waste. Food retailers worldwide waste billions of pounds of food each year while communities living under food apartheid lack basic nutrition. Make a public commitment to reducing, redirecting, and tracking your company’s food waste, focusing on opportunities to directly redistribute good food to those without access. For example, Imperfect Foods created a program to deliver reduced-cost fresh produce boxes to people living under food apartheid. See Wasting Nothing Nexus to learn more.
Make food system reform a priority. Establishing a dedicated working group can help governments go all in on addressing food apartheid with a clear agenda and accountability. For example, U.S.-based HEAL Food Alliance recommends creating an interagency work group focused on the whole food system: USDA, Department of Education (DOE), Department of Transportation (DOT), Department of Health (DOH), Department of Labor (DOL), and Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Learn more about proposed food system reform priorities in the HEAL Food Alliance and Movement for Black Lives policy platforms.
Increase supplemental food and nutrition dollars. Restore, increase, and protect food and nutrition programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in the U.S. Ensure these programs are more accessible and effective by removing discriminatory barriers and expanding the healthy food options available through them.
Incentivize retailers to provide healthy food. Tax breaks and other government incentives can support corner stores in carrying more nutritious food, help co-op grocery stores launch, and encourage established grocers to open in underserved areas. Keep in mind that community ownership is a key component of grocer success, as simply opening a supermarket in a food-insecure area is not a guaranteed solution.
Make zoning laws food friendly. Zoning ordinances can play a part in allowing and incentivizing food equity by explicitly permitting urban farms, farmers’ markets, and agricultural structures (such as greenhouses). Such ordinances open the door for creative solutions like bus-stop farmers’ markets, which help alleviate transportation challenges that many living under food apartheid face.
Bring equity to farm-subsidy programs. Segregation in land ownership and use has helped shape food apartheid around the world. For example, the USDA has a legacy of racial discrimination, systematically favoring white farmers in ways that have not only disadvantaged farmers of color but driven many out of agriculture entirely. While Black farmers have taken action by suing the U.S. government for discrimination, justice still has not come. Reforming farm-subsidy programs is a step toward supporting all farmers equitably.
Outlaw food companies’ use of prison labor. A legal loophole in the U.S. has allowed major food companies like Cargill to exploit incarcerated people, paying them low or no wages to labor in fields and factories producing food products that are shipped all over the world. With people of color incarcerated at a significantly higher rate, prison labor for mass-produced and processed food is harming communities of color both inside and outside prison walls. Closing this loophole is key to creating a more just food system.
Promote dignity for farm and food chain workers. Many of the millions who labor to feed the world are treated unfairly and struggle to feed their own families every day. Food justice leaders point to these policy changes to give farm and food chain workers the dignity they and their families deserve, including a living wage, enhanced job safety, and investments in farmworker communities.
Hold bad actors accountable. Hold “big food” companies accountable for adverse health impacts on people both through warning labels and through taxation in cases where their products harm people (sugary drinks, plastics, etc.). Tax proceeds can fund regenerative farmers who are healing the earth and their communities.
Pay reparations for stolen land and wealth. Governments and corporations around the world have profited from stolen land and labor. Both for governments and for people with resources, BIPOC food justice leaders advocate that reparations are a critical action to take toward righting the injustices within the food system.
Dollar stores target underserved areas where residents have few food options and limited transportation, crowding grocery stores out of the market in cities like New Orleans, where local grocers can’t compete with the ultra-low prices. This leads to a sea of dollar stores that almost never sell fresh, nutritious food. These U.S.-based companies are the major players:
- Dollar General—Reach CEO Todd Vasos at firstname.lastname@example.org or via the headquarters main line at (615) 855-4000.
- Dollar Tree—Reach CEO Michael A. Witynski at email@example.com or report ethical concerns to their Dollar Tree Speak Up line at 1-888-835-5792. Dollar Tree also owns Family Dollar, acquired in 2015.
Food waste in grocery stores underscores the injustice of food apartheid: while retail stores generate billions of pounds of food waste each year, surrounding communities continue to go without fresh, affordable food. Though five of the globe’s ten largest food retailers have joined a coalition to cut down on food waste, most grocers have room to grow in this space, particularly these major grocers ranked lowest on the Slow Road to Zero report:
- Costco—Reach CEO W. Craig Jelinek at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 425-313-8100.
- Publix—Reach CEO Todd Jones at email@example.com or contact the corporate office at 1-800-242-1227.
- Trader Joe’s—Reach CEO Dan Bane at firstname.lastname@example.org or 626-358-8884.
Several global fast-food chains profit from filling lower-income neighborhoods with affordable yet unhealthy food options, providing empty calories that drive increases in chronic disease. This same phenomenon can be seen on a global level, where many of the same companies contribute to rising obesity in lower-income countries. These are a few of the most influential actors:
- McDonald’s—Reach CEO Chris Kempczinski at email@example.com or at the corporate headquarters at (630) 623-3000.
- KFC—Reach CEO Tony Lowings at firstname.lastname@example.org or on their main line at 1-800-CALL-KFC.
- Restaurant Brands International—This Canadian-American multinational fast-food holding company owns companies including Burger King and Popeyes. Reach CEO José Cil at 305-378-3133 or via Linkedin.
Food Justice Organizations
AFSA—Transitioning to Agroecology (Africa)
Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (Australia)
Bangladesh Resource Center for Indigenous Knowledge (Bangladesh)
Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive: CoFED (Canada & US)
The Diyalo Foundation (Nepal)
Via Campesina (Global)
Soul Fire Farm (U.S.)
Rise & Root Farm (U.S.)
We Are the Solution (Africa)
Black Family Land Trust (U.S.)
Black Urban Growers (U.S.)
Farmers and Food Justice Leaders
Karen Washington: cofounder of Black Urban Growers, Rise & Root Farm (Bronx, NY)
Gitanjali Rajamani: cofounder and COO, Farmizen (India)
Leah Penniman: cofounder, codirector and program manager of Soul Fire Farm (Upstate NY)
Jamila Abass: founder, M-Farm (Kenya)
LaDonna Redmond: diversity & community engagement manager, Seward Community Co-op (Chicago, IL)
Jyoti Fernandes: agroecological smallholder farmer (UK)
Malik Yakini: founder, Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (Detroit, MI)
Jolanda Buets and Simone Heemskerk: cofounders, Por Eso! (Peru)
Dolores Huerta: cofounder, National Farmworkers Association (Stockton, CA)
Sharon Cittone: Now Partners, CEO Edible Planet Ventures (Fort Lauderdale, FL)
Neely Snyder: executive director, Dream of Wild Health (Minneapolis, MN)
Scott Chang-Fleeman: founder, Shao Shan Farm (Marin County, CA)
Malik Yakini on Food Apartheid (Center for Nutrition Studies)
The Underlying Racism of America’s Food System (TEDx Talks)
Not for Sale! Community Food Systems over Corporate Control (HEAL Food Alliance)
Rewriting Racial Rules: Building an Inclusive American Economy By Andrea Flynn, Dorian Warren, Felicia Wong, Susan Holmberg
Farming While Black by Leah Penniman
“To Free Ourselves, We Must Feed Ourselves” (Sun Magazine interview with Leah Penniman)
Soul Fire Farm Action Steps & Policy Platform for Food Sovereignty by Soul Fire Farm
In the U.S., Black-Run Urban Farms Fight Food Inequality by Thin Lei Win
How Asian-American Farmers Shape What America Eats by Cathy Erway
14 Stories of Resiliency and Food Justice in Indigenous Communities by the Civil Eats editors
Soil: The Dirty Climate Solution (How to Save a Planet)
Food Apartheid: (And Why We Don't Call It a Food Desert) (Point of Origin)
Putting an End to Food Apartheid with Olympia Auset (Unwasted: The Podcast)
The Racial Hunger Gap in American Cities and What to Do About It (podcast, The Conversation)
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