Houston, we have a problem: racism continues to perpetuate food dependence in Baltimore.
I have been pondering for some time now on this issue. In this two-part series, I offer perspectives on the root causes of inequities in Baltimore’s food system. This article also asserts the need for and explores the prospect of using “black food sovereignty” as a frame to achieve group power and to ultimately transform our local food system.
What if the “food access” ideological frame perpetuates inequities? Is it enough for people to merely have access to food? Where are people accessing the food from? Does this support the corporate-controlled food, globally? Who does the “food access” frame really benefit economically, politically, socially, culturally (overall well-being within the social determinants of health framework) on the local levels?
These are some fundamental questions that, once answered truthfully, appear to shine light on some fundamental barriers and complexities that make it difficult to achieve desired outcomes asserted by experts and advocates—reducing so-called food deserts. It seems analogous to put money and energy into fixing a door on a dilapidated building. It just does not make much sense.
The faces of the food movement in Baltimore are predominantly White women who are not anchored in Baltimore, a city of predominantly Black people. Interesting? What about the reality of that Black people, unlike other groups, have our water, land and food are all owned, managed and provided by others. Additionally, the funding of food, health and agricultural research and interventions in Baltimore City have predominantly gone to organizations headed by our White brothers and sisters and contribute to this pattern of undermining efforts to undo racism in the local food system.
The truth is the limited (or lack of) power of Black people (as a group) to control our food, land and water is the issue—not access to these things. There is little public focus on limiting the sale of genetically modified organisms (GMOs)—products of a laboratory process where genes from the DNA of one species are extracted and artificially forced into the genes of an unrelated plant or animal. There are, in my opinion, minimal efforts being made toward promoting and supporting land ownership, food production, and community-based cooperative business development.
The beneficiaries, economically speaking, of Baltimore’s current “food access” and “food retail” efforts are primarily multi-national and global conglomerates in the “grocery scene.” Brothers and sisters from other ethnic groups are making bank in our neighborhoods. These efforts are not only supporting non-Black group empowerment, but in many ways they support the premature deaths and disease of African people in Baltimore. They also undermine efforts of food sovereignty, generally, and Black food sovereignty, in particular. The efforts of our city leaders have focused heavily on the adoption of land and less (if any) on the ownership of land. Without the promise of land and property, it is impossible to really address the disproportionality issues.
In addition, the well-intentioned tactics currently used (like community meals programs, food pantries, healthy food in corner stores, and securing food retailers to Baltimore, to name a few), while they meet needs on some levels, they also are unsustainable and perpetuate power imbalances. Hunger and food access approaches, at best, feed people for a time and support the global industrial food regime, according to Eric Holt-Gimenez, executive director of Food First, an organization dedicated to amplifying voices of communities and movements by advancing solutions (www.foodfirst.org).
The approach behind these efforts is based on the sciences of the dominant, European-centered culture’s definition of “healthy food,” and essentially contributes too many of diet- and lifestyle-related illnesses among Black people. Exhibit A: MyPlate, a food guide system designed to empower the American public to make healthy food choice provided by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This is not an African-centered or African-designed nutritional system. Inherent in the usage of MyPlate for African people is that all measures can be usedfor all people if it is approved by White people. This approach limits Africans in Baltimore from defining our problems and using our approaches to address our problems in the public sphere.
First, so-called food deserts, as defined and redefined by our local “leaders in food access,” are still dry. Since 2009, the data has not changed very much, except in the number of Black people, who live, eat and love in areas with limited access to healthy affordable food. In fact, the 2015 Food Environment Report by Baltimore City government and Johns Hopkins’ School of Public Health (Center for a Livable Future) shares that approximately 34 percent of Black people live in one of these areas. This percentage of Black people has changed for the worst since the 2012 report revealed that 25 percent of my people lived in an area where healthy, affordable food access is scarce. In Baltimore, since the original full report, Black people (over 63 percent of the City’s population—a majority), Black people’s food plight has increased by 9 percent. It is significant to note that this 9 percent increase has incurred while the overall population increased 5 percent (from 20 percent in 2012 and 25 percent in 2015). This is consistent with other manifestations of racism/white supremacy—the problem.
Baltimore has data that point to institutional, systemic and structural racism and other constructs of oppression. Somehow, the discourse is not producing pragmatic solutions to addressing what the “experts” call food deserts. Food access (and the lack thereof) is a symptom not the problem – inequities bornfrom racism, classism and capitalism. Ivory tower research and dialogues, “community conversations,” other awareness tactics and larger strategies are well-intentioned but not enough.
In short, while our city “leaders”are attempting to feed the Black community in Baltimore City, it is also feeding racism/white supremacy by catalyzing disease, death and disempowerment.