Racial Inequities in Food Go Far Beyond Insidious Branding

Corporate America is waking up to the relationship between food and race. A petition has been circulating this week urging grocery chain Trader Joe’s to “remove racist branding” and rename food items labeled as Trader Ming’s, Trader Jose’s and Trader Giotto’s. The company responded that a rebranding effort is underway.

The news follows similar company announcements. The PepsiCo Inc division that sells Aunt Jemima products acknowledged last month that its 131-year-old pancake brand was “based on a racial stereotype” and vowed to change its name and image. Mars Inc followed suit and announced plans to discontinue and “evolve” its Uncle Ben’s brand of rice products. Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream also said it would find a new name for its Eskimo Pie ice cream bars.

Such efforts are long overdue, but they only scratch the surface when it comes to addressing the complex ways in which racial inequities have carried over into the U.S. food system. Before the pandemic, 37 million Americans lived in food-insecure households, meaning they had “limited or uncertain access to adequate food,” according to USDA 2018 data. Black and Latinx families were more than twice as likely to be food insecure than white families. It stands to reason that, as it has in so many other realms, the Covid crisis will reflect and exacerbate these existing disparities.

“The food system is part of a larger structure of inequity,” says Ashanté Reese, Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies and Anthropology at The University of Texas at Austin and author of Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington D.C. I discussed the root causes of food injustice with Reese, who is also the co-editor of Black Food Matters, along with Princeton University professor Hanna Garth, which will be published in October. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of our exchange.

Amanda Little: What’s your take on the efforts of companies like Trader Joe’s and PepsiCo, which are responding to the anti-racism movement with name and logo changes?

Ashanté Reese: Conversations around representation are important, but they’re also limited. Shifts in marketing strategy are part of what businesses do — they read the room. In this case, the efforts appear to be more about saving face than about altruism, but they can also help us begin a conversation about the deeper realities of unequal food access and insecurity in the food system.

AL: You’ve done extensive research on communities with low access to fresh foods and have called into question the use of the term “food desert.” Why is this term misleading?

AR: The term “food deserts” overly determines how we look at a space and treats it as a void – as if there’s nothing of value there. You hear “food deserts” and think: no supermarkets, a lot of liquor stores and fast food restaurants. The term focuses on a product versus the processes that led us there. If you are in a predominantly Black neighborhood, regardless of class – lots of sociologists write about this – there are fewer resources in those neighborhoods than even in working class or low-income white neighborhoods. The lack of supermarkets in these communities is only one part of a far more complex problem. 

AL: What term should we use instead?

AR: If we’re talking about supermarkets, I like the specificity of [scholar] Elizabeth Eisenhauer’s term “supermarket redlining.” Redlining refers to the literal maps that banks would draw to put Black people in certain neighborhoods and refuse them loans to live in other neighborhoods. We’re now more than 70 years past the peak of redlining and we’re still seeing its impact. Eisenhauer connects that specifically to supermarkets, detailing how they follow similar patterns as residential segregation.

The grocery industry has become concentrated over time in the hands of fewer and fewer retail corporations, which make decisions about where to locate stores based in part on the racial makeup of different communities – even when they are not intentionally considering race. After the 1960’s uprisings in the U.S., many businesses chose to relocate outside of Black urban neighborhoods; in the ‘70s and ‘80s you saw the continued flow of people and businesses to the suburbs and the emergence of shopping centers and strip mall models serving mostly white suburban communities.

AL: What about the term “food apartheid,” which implies that food inequality is the result of a broad range of racist policies and practices well beyond redlining?

AR: Yes, I learned the term from Karen Washington, founder of the nonprofits Black Urban Growers and Rise and Root Farm in New York, and it refers to the many root causes of food injustice – including poverty rates and income inequality, the prevalence and reliability of public transportation, the pressures of neighborhood violence and police brutality and the strength of local schools and school curricula. All of these and many other factors have an impact on where stores are located as well as on eating patterns and community food choices. “Food apartheid” also refers to the widely documented discriminatory policies at the USDA against Black farmers, policies that have undermined Black land tenure, farming heritage, and food security.

AL: Can you describe your ethnographic field work and what you’ve learned from it?

AR: I did 12 months of continuous fieldwork in Ward 7 of Washington D.C. and 24 months over four years. At the time, Ward 7 had two full-service supermarkets for 150,000 residents — far too few. I spent a lot of time in people’s homes, in their pantries and sitting around their dinner tables. I spent time at the stores and sat down with people in popular restaurants, primarily Denny’s, to eat meals.

What caught my attention was less the limitations of this low-food-access environment than the creative and time-intensive ways people were navigating it. For example, if you are taking a bus or walking on foot to get your food, you consider the weight of the bags, the number of bags you carry, the frequency of trips and other details such as the safety of your walking route. Ward 7 is hilly, so few people used public transport to get to markets, and many didn’t have cars. So you carpool, you rideshare, you figure out a way to get what you need.

AL: Can you comment on the disproportionate impacts of diabetes, obesity and heart disease on Black Americans — and how closely these are tied to unequal food access? Could food inequality, in turn, be causing more susceptibility within the Black community to the impacts Covid-19? 

AR: It is unclear whether or not increasing food access (specifically adding more supermarkets) can decrease health conditions like diabetes. There is conflicting research on this – but these conditions are almost certainly connected to racism. If you are struggling with unequal food access, you are probably also underpaid, chronically stressed and living in a redlined neighborhood or one with constrained resources well beyond limited grocery stores. You may also be living in a neighborhood with high crime or heavy policing.

All of this must be factored into rates of diabetes, obesity and heart disease, and by extension to Covid vulnerability. Also consider the high percentage of workers considered “essential” who are Black. Covid has highlighted the reality that Black Americans are navigating the intersections of multiple fault lines all of the time.

AL: What are the most effective solutions in education and policy that can help achieve food justice?

AR: How do you take down and rebuild a whole ecosystem? The answer is bit by bit.

We can begin restoring lost farmland to Black farmers. We can teach agriculture in schools as a normal part of the curriculum. We can establish and support local food councils like the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, which helps to support urban and suburban farms and food webs. We can establish stronger incentives and support for food co-ops, especially in low-food-access neighborhoods. We can make it easier to use EBT [electronic food credits in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program program] at farmer’s markets and remove the stigma attached to it.

I also believe in instituting a Universal Basic Income, which could go a lot further than SNAP or WIC [a related program for women, infants and children], to provide food security to the 40 million Americans living in poverty.

Also, there’s a lot of emphasis out there on educating people in low-food-access neighborhoods to eat better, and I think this misses the mark. There are restrictions connected to what kinds of food can be bought and not bought with WIC. We see the Trump administration advocating for food relief boxes that contain what people “should” eat, and I think it’s dangerous to be that prescriptive, to take away choice. It’s neither helpful nor empowering. If we believe in freedom, if we believe in autonomy, if we believe in self-determination, then these beliefs must inform the way we pursue food justice.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Amanda Little is a professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of a Bloomberg Opinion series on the fate of food after Covid-19 as well as the book "The Fate of Food: What We'll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World."

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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