Recycling and composting and alternative transportation is great, but do you know what environmental justice is? If we’re not trying to save the planet while supporting the people who live on it, can we even consider ourselves environmentalists?

I can grow food and compost and make my own toothpaste. I can tell you the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (417 ppm, by the way). I can remind myself to turn the lights off. I can justify 99% of my actions based on their perceived environmental impact. 

But until very recently, I had no idea how much racism was embedded in the environmental movement. I call myself a food sustainability expert but, until the past several months, I had very little idea that environmental racism and the foods we eat are many times dished up on the same plate.

What is Environmental Justice?

Environmental justice is one of those terms that sounds great but really requires a deeper dive to fully understand (much like sustainability). The environmental justice movement realizes that there’s a link between environmental, economic, and health issues—particularly those that impact BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) individuals.

Borrowing from Green Action, we can consider environmental justice as:

those cultural norms and values, rules, regulations, behaviors, policies, and decisions to support sustainability, where all people can hold with confidence that their community and natural environment is safe and productive—it is realized when all people can realize their highest potential, without interruption by environmental racism and inequity. 

What is Environmental Racism?

Maybe we can realize that, like in most areas of modern life (i.e. the economy, housing, education), racism is also present when it comes to the environment. Many of us probably realized that racism was disproportionately impacting certain people and communities—but perhaps we didn’t realize exactly how bad things were. 

Again referring to Green Action, environmental racism

refers to the institutional rules, regulations, policies or government and/or corporate decisions that deliberately target certain communities for local undesirable land uses and lax enforcement of zoning and environmental laws, resulting in communities being disproportionately exposed to toxic and hazardous waste based upon race.

 

So, What Does this Have to Do with Food?

Who grows your food?

In 1910, 14% of farm owner-operators were Black. In 2017, that percentage was down to just 1.3%. As we’ll see with everything else, structural racism has prevented Black and Brown people from accessing land. It has prevented people of color from accessing the same loans and grants as their white counterparts. All of these issues prevent food sovereignty and are associated with the simple fact that BIPOC individuals are twice as likely to be food insecure.

How to help: Food sovereignty is a term everyone should know—but I can’t do it justice to describe, and would instead recommend learning from someone more directly connected to the movement. 

  • Leah Penniman is a legend in the food justice and food racism space. Check out her book Farming While Black.
  • She also has a farm (Soul Fire Farm) which you can check out and find ways to help end racism and injustice in the food system. 

Who’s burdened by diet-related illnesses?

According to a 2009 study, ” typically, racial and ethnic minority groups—defined here as Black or African American, Hispanic, Asian, and American Indian/Alaska natives—experience diet-related disparities, and consequently tend to have poorer nutrient profiles and dietary behaviors and patterns relative to white.”

So, when it comes to conditions like Type II diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, chronic diseases, and high blood pressure (and the fact that Black Americans are seven times more likely to die from COVID-19), these can be direclty correlated to structural inequalites that reduce access to healthy food.

Further complicating things, government programs (i.e. SNAP) have literally force-fed many BIPOC communities, resulting in a shift from culturally appropriate and locally produced foods—that also happen to be healthy and sustainable—to the foods common in the “Western diet” (i.e. mostly processed foods high in sugar, salt, and fat). 

What areas have “food deserts?”

Ever heard the term “food desert?” A food desert is a loosely defined term that essentially means an area that is without a healthy food source. It looks like this—a grocery store that is too far for people without adequate transportation, meaning that the only food available is either fast food or convenience store junk food. 

In these areas, it’s easier to get a Big Mac or bag of Doritos than fresh food. That is, if fresh food is even available anywhere. 

There’s a lot of factors that contribute to a food desert (a supermarket probably doesn’t want to open in an area where it won’t do well financially, for instance). While food desserts are located in areas with lower income levels, racial composition is another huge factor. 

Predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhoods have fewer supermarkets and poorer quality food than their white counterparts.

This is so problematic that even the term “food desert” has become rather contentious because the issues that lead to these disparities go well beyond the geographical placing of a grocery store. Stay tuned for an article about food apartheid but for now, here are a few resources to look into. 

How to help: Volunteer or support an organization that’s addressing food desert areas and tackling food justice issues. 

Where do you buy your groceries and go out to eat?

If you’re anything like me, most of your money goes to food. Most households spend $300 to $500 a month—and that’s on groceries alone. Add the additional couple hundred most of us spend when we dine out (or order in, given the current circumstances), and that’s a lot of money. 

Do you have a favorite grocery store? How about Aldi? Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods? Kroger, Publix, or Safeway? Do you know how many of these retail outlets (which we already recognize receive a lot of our hard-earned dollars) are owned by Black folks? Zero. Nada. Zilch. 

There are more than 47.8 million Black people in the United States. Yet less than 10 grocery stores are Black-owned. You don’t have to be a mathematician to realize that these numbers don’t add up. 

How to help: You may struggle to find a Black-owned grocery store in your city, but that doesn’t mean that you can take a bite out of racism. 

And a list of Black-owned food brands, too!

Who’s impacted by toxic agricultural waste?

The disproportionate exposure of certain individuals to toxic waste is a key focus of the environmental justice movement. 

Take for instance a mostly Black community in North Carolina that’s been exposed to health damaging and polluting (and downright disgusting) open-air pits for one of the world’s largest pork producers. Health issues like tuberculosis, kidney diseases, anemia, and infant mortality are common and local residents were 1.5 more likely to be Black than white. 

If it’s not animal waste, it’s pesticides. Or hormones in the water supply. Or toxic fish at an abandoned site. Or sludge. Or the chemicals BIPOC workers are exposed to. Or toxic pollution from the factories that process the food. 

These all lead to a range of serious health concerns and a significantly reduced quality of life. Many of the communities lack the political power to get some of the world’s biggest corporations out of their backyards. 

How to help: If I’m honest, I’m kind of at a loss with this one. Environmental racism has been happening for hundreds of years and even after being challenged, the systems that perpetuate it continue. 

  • Don’t support ‘big food’. Most of the biggest factory farms and food companies are also the worst polluters (Tyson, Smithfield, Coca-Cola, Nestle, PepsiCo, Mondelez International, Unilever, and Mars should be avoided).
  • Protest. March. Call. Write. Discuss. Learn. VOTE.
  • The environmental justice movement started with this report: Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States. It was published in 1987. Too many years have passed with too few improvements.
  • The Intersectional Environmentalist movement brings together issues of class, wealth, race, gender, etc. It’s a good place to start if you’re wondering how to support change. 

Food is Power

Environmental justice, and the issues that drive the movement, are there—you just have to know where to look. 

Many of us take for granted the fact that we are able to eat whenever we want whenever we want. The simple fact that many of us can head to the local organic grocery store or check out the farmers’ market is a privilege that many people don’t have.

Good, healthy, locally grown food shouldn’t be a luxury—it should be a right. And the fact that BIPOC individuals are more likely to miss out on this ‘luxury’ is a grave and serious indicator of systemic racism. 

But it isn’t all bad. We can all do so much more to promote food justice. First of all, let’s examine our privilege when it comes to food. For me, that means the time to research what’s healthy, the finances to source foods that align with my values, and the time and education to prepare healthy meals. How can I use my privilege to change the food system?

It’s a start, but I’ve been making a conscious effort to eat from more Black-owned restaurants. I’ve started donating to some of the organizations fighting for Black food justice and food sovereignty listed here.  

Share this article. Discuss this at the dinner table. Start demanding more from local politicians. Put your money where your heart is. Together, we can eat our way to a fairer and more just (and more delicious) food system. 

***The environmental justice movement was founded by Black and Brown environmental leaders. Its history is embedded with their history. Black and Brown voices are important here. I’ve written this to inform myself but I encourage all of you to seek out voices of BIPOC individuals to carry on your newfound interest in the environmental justice space.