A Brief History of Race and Food in America

A blog post written by Ariel Bernstein

The injustice that this country was built upon, and which continues throughout our present day, has become increasingly impossible for white America to ignore, as we have been able to do for so long. I have been thinking about the best way for me, a white woman, to engage in these important conversations about race, and I think the best place to start is with our work at Red Rabbit. Our mission has always been one of justice and social impact, so it is imperative to discuss our work as it relates directly to racial justice. It is an entry point for us not only to participate in a nation-wide dialogue about racial equity, but to be clear about why we do what we do every day. Why are we, a healthy school meal company, concerned about racial justice? The answer is simple: there is no food justice without racial justice. 

The inherent connection between food and race goes back to the founding of our nation, and has a legacy that has not only stayed true through the present day, but is as strong as ever. This country was built on the exploitation of land and labor that did not belong to those who claimed it. Land was stolen from Native Americans to create large farm plantations, where it has been tilled and depleted for so many generations that the regeneration of key nutrients is almost out of sight. People from Africa were taken away from their homeland and forced into slavery to work these plantations, exploiting not only their labor, but their knowledge of the earth and their cultural ties to the very food they grow. As this stolen land and labor was utilized as a tool in imposing “Manifest Destiny” to spread throughout what became the United States, white plantation owners gained in wealth, power, and control, building a country that keeps these systems of displacement and labor in place. 

To this day, Black Americans, immigrants, and people of color continue to be the backbone of the food industry, serving as farmworkers, cooks, factory workers, delivery drivers, and school cafeteria workers. This reality is not separate from the legacy people of color have in occupying these positions in the food system, nor can it be separated from the greater trends we see of systemic racism, particularly when it comes to food and health. Income and health disparities between white and black people are, to this day, aligned with redlined districts that were drawn throughout the US in the 1930s to physically separate white neighborhoods from the rest. Areas designated as “undesirable” were, and still tend to be, populated by people of color, have lower median income, and can be unhealthy food environments (sometimes referred to as “food deserts”). These same neighborhoods have higher rates of obesity and diet-related chronic illness. This correlation between race and health is not only seen in diet and zip code, but even more apparent with the COVID19 crisis. People of color are disproportionately represented on the frontline of COVID19 response, in large part because they work in food-related professions, and they are more likely to have conditions that are most susceptible to terrible cases and complications with the illness. Thus, it is no surprise that we see such high rates of coronavirus (and coronavirus deaths) in communities of color. 

Black Lives Matter. They matter when discussing who can eat the food that will bring them health. They matter when addressing a pandemic that has brought sickness to so many. They matter when the police are deciding how to interact with the Black community. They matter when people are protesting in the street for their voices to be heard. Black Lives Matter for these reasons and so many more. 

At Red Rabbit, our mission is to provide access to healthy meals for all students. Some of these students might have this access already, and some may not eat fruit or vegetables outside of their Red Rabbit lunch. Though encouraging kids to eat fruits and vegetables seems like a minute, and sometimes annoying, aspect of someone’s day, it is actually an act toward justice. Impacting the eating patterns and habits of young people who are too often shown that the color of their skin does not qualify them for a healthy diet, is in itself, an act of defiance. It shows defiance toward a system that devalues the health and bodies of people of color; toward a system that is created to keep some populations healthy and some constantly sick; toward a system that values the lives of some but throws away the lives of others. So, why would a school meal provider be active in a conversation about racial justice and police brutality? Because we are fighting for the lives of Black people everywhere. 

The chain of inequality that trickles down, as seen in this history of the food system, is present in all aspects of society, fueling the anger and unrest of Black folks and people of color in this country. The death of George Floyd, as well as Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Delrawn Small, and the list goes on, are horrific incidents that are direct results of the years of a system of racism and oppression in this country. At a time when many of us may not be able to protest or donate, this is the time for allies like myself to have the tough conversations, to educate ourselves on the history, and to do what we can to elevate the voices that matter, the ones that need to be heard. Red Rabbit stands in support of our partners and communities, and will continue to fight for food and racial justice, now and always.

References and further reading:

'Heroes or hostages?': Communities of color bear the burden of essential work in coronavirus crisis (ABC News)

People of Color are at Greater Risk of COVID-19. Systemic Racism in the Food System Plays a Role (Civil Eats)

It’s Not Obesity. It’s Slavery. (New York Times)

Facts About Childhood Obesity (A Healthier America)

Birmingham’s ‘Food Deserts’ Have Been Shaped by its Redlined Past (Civil Eats)

Food Environments in North and Central Brooklyn: The Legacy of Past Policies (Ariel’s Graduate Thesis)

An Anti-racist Reading List (New York Times)

Racial Equity Challenge Resources (Food Solutions New England) 

Seeing White (Scene on Radio)

A Decade Of Watching Black People Die (Podcast)

White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism (Robin J. DiAngelo)

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack (Peggy McIntosh)

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