Monday, April 22, 2013

What do Jim Crow & fast food have in common?

As interest in organic, sustainable food grows across the United States, many are referring to "Food Justice" as the new frontier of civil rights. According to the CDC, one in three African-American children will be diagnosed with Type II diabetes by age 18, with almost equally dismal rates for Latino youth. In fact, the CDC now predicts that the youngest generation of U.S. citizens will be the first to have a shorter lifespan than their parents, something Food Justice advocates attribute to our "toxic food system" and something that disproportionately affects minority, impoverished youth. 
Access to healthy and affordable food is especially problematic for the urban poor, a sector often predominantly African-American. Many live in proverbial "dead zones" stranded far from any food source besides fast food or convenience stores. Even those with access speak to the struggle to find fresh fruit or vegetables, the difficulties of the food stamp system, and the way their environment conditions poor food choices (for example, the high incidence of working single parent households in these communities makes idealized family dinners all but impossible). Moreover, many children in these neighborhoods rely on school lunch/breakfast programs, programs that are often woefully inadequate and lacking in nutritional value. 
There is no easy solution to this problem, however. On one hand, this issue is often dismissed as an issue of laziness, stupidity, or lack of family values, assertions that echo the dismissive white attitudes of the mid twentieth century. Thus, although Food Justice is becoming more and more accepted as a very real problem, a problem that urgently needs to be fixed, even those who strive to fix it often have trouble gaining support for programs that engage with the community and incorporate them into decision making. Top-down change, particularly change instigated through government institutions like schools, is favored. Exacerbating this is an unwillingness to link Food Justice (a picturesque, palatable cause involving little kids) with broader social ills plaguing urban, minority neighborhoods, meaning that interrelated problems cannot truly be solved. 
This top-down attitude is worsening perceptions of Food Justice advocates as uppity, elitist, and condescending. By focusing on blame rather than the actual issues at hand and by refusing to involve the community, many Food Justice organizations actually foster increased racial tensions. The disconnect between governmental initiatives/charities and preexisting community efforts to revitalize their food sources (e.g. student-led efforts at high schools, locally-created community gardens and farmers markets) has unfortunately hindered much positive change and is actually strikingly reminiscent of the tension between civil rights activists and the 'official' channels of change. 
What do you think? Do you think Food Justice can be fit into the narrative of civil rights? How do you think this problem ought to be resolved? Is this a racial issue or merely an economic one?


  1. It is hard to answer if this problem is just a racial or economic one since those two categories overlap. However, it is mainly an economic issue since high poverty areas are the ones that have food deserts. I believe that Food Justice has become an extremely popular focus for many groups - take Urban Farms in Memphis. People are beginning to realize that a lack of fresh healthy foods in low income areas is one of the biggest health problems for those in poverty. Some have made plans to replace vacant lots with community gardens filled with fresh food (see source A). Others have began to stock convenience stores with fresh, heathy foods. Some have even opened up grocery stores in food deserts with the incentive that if you spend $50 you can receive a free ride home This type of program is for those who have a long way to travel to get fresh food (see source B). These are interesting and hopefully successful plans to resolve this problem.

    A -


  2. There is evidence of this problem attempting to be combated in Memphis. The Walgreen's and CVS' throughout the city have started having fresh produce available for purchase at not ridiculously marked up prices. However, the majority of the convenience stores in the city are located relatively close to grocery stores. The food deserts that exit within Memphis are areas where the only options are fast food and liquor stores-neither of which can ever provide healthy options. Some liquor stores have started selling diapers and produce, but usually at ridiculously high prices so that they end up doing more harm then good.

  3. Although I agree with Alexandra that the problem is being combated in Memphis, I disagree with liquor stores being evidence. As a born and raised Memphian, I understand that Memphis is an urban area with convenience aka "corner stores" almost everywhere. However, these convenience stores have a few more healthier options to choose from. In the Memphis City School district, the lunch program has evolved massively from offering hot wings when I was a freshmen in high school to having majority healthy food options when I became a senior. However, we cannot attribute this problem completely to the government. The parents, especially those who receive food stamps, have a choice in the manner they spend their money on groceries. To say that this problem is only a race problem is problematic itself. Instead, I believe that this is more of an economical problem with a few racial kinks based on the region that I occurs.