A Blog for the Civil Rights Movement Class at Rhodes College, Spring 2013
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
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?