Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Amy Brown headshot

The Effort to Stamp Out Systemic Racism in the U.S. Food System Gains Momentum

One area overlooked by many is how the food on our plates in the U.S. is emblematic of a food and agriculture system rooted in systemic racism.
By Amy Brown
Systemic Racism

(Image: A typical store in a food desert, one aspect of what analysts say is the result of systemic racism across the U.S. food and agriculture sector. Note how the food visible is for the most part dried, processed or canned products, which often have lower nutritional content than fresh ingredients — and these stores tend to charge higher prices than large supermarkets carrying a wider variety of foods.)

Calls for racial justice over the past several weeks have focused attention on how systemic racism reverberates across the U.S. economy and criminal justice system. But an area overlooked by many is how the food on our plate is emblematic of an agricultural system rooted in racial inequality. Now, some organizations are shining a light on how to tackle issues of race, equity and access in our food system.

Stamping out systemic racism in the U.S. food system is a complex issue. Its roots go back to when the land itself was taken from native communities by violence and theft and worked by enslaved people, according to Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT), a sustainable farming group that recently pledged to work toward a more equitable farming system. The organization, representing 6,500 farmers, asserts that Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) continue to struggle to gain equal access to land, capital, credit and markets.

FACT acknowledged in a press statement that it has “given out grants to hundreds of farmers without making specific efforts to include the BIPOC farming community ... We must examine our programs and policies to identify how they can reflect and sustain broader societal inequities and take corrective steps.”

Recognizing the struggles of Black farmers

That reckoning with systemic racism is necessary, given that white Americans are most likely to own land and benefit from the wealth it generates. A recent study shows that from 2012 to 2014, white people comprised over 97 percent of non-farming landowners, 96 percent of owner-operators, and 86 percent of tenant operators. They also generated 98 percent of all farm-related income from land ownership and 97 percent of the income that comes from operating farms.

On the other hand, farmers of color (Black, Asian, Native American, Pacific Islander and those reporting more than one race) comprised less than 3 percent of non-farming landowners and less than 4 percent of owner-operators. Latinx farmers comprised about 2 percent of non-farming landowners and about 6 percent of owner-operators and tenant operators, well below their 17 percent representation in the U.S. population. Yet BIPOC people comprised over 80 percent of farm laborers.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, of the country’s 3.4 million total farmers, only 1.3 percent, or 45,508, are Black. They own just 0.52 percent of America’s farmland. Contrast that with a century ago when there were nearly a million Black farmers. Currently, Black farmers make on average less than $40,000 annually, compared with over $190,000 for white farmers, most likely since their average acreage is about a quarter of their white counterparts, the Guardian recently reported. 

Fourth-generation soybean farmer John Boyd, Jr., founder of the National Black Farmers Association, has been fighting for decades against racial inequity in the agriculture system, telling the Guardian in 2019: “Why does it take so long to receive benefits as a black farmer? I know white farmers in my community who went through the same program [for a soybean subsidy] and had their money a long time ago. I’m still waiting.” He and other Black farmers have sued the USDA over discrimination.

Lack of access to healthy foods reveals more evidence of systemic racism

Another glaring aspect of systemic racism within the food system is the lack of access to healthy foods that affects people of color to a far greater degree. According to the nonprofit Food Trust, Black families are 2.5 times and Latinx families are 1.4 times more likely than white families to live in neighborhoods without access to a full-service grocery store.

Rates of diet-related disease break down dramatically along racial lines. Black Americans get sick at younger ages, have more severe illnesses, and die sooner than white Americans, as Civil Eats reported, revealing a two-tiered food system in which the wealthy tend to eat well and are rewarded with better health. Meanwhile, the poor tend to eat low-quality diets, causing their health to suffer.

No wonder, then, that Black doctors, among others, are pointing out how the COVID-19 pandemic, which is disproportionately affecting Black Americans, has further underscored racial inequity. In fact, the pandemic is worsening food desertsdefined as places where residents must travel more than a mile (1.6 kilometers) to reach a supermarket. Today this is the case for 23.5 million Americans.

The nonprofit Food for Free, dedicated to providing the Greater Boston community with reliable access to fresh and nutritious food, is working to address the food insecurity that Black and Hispanic households are more likely to face. According to the American Psychological Association, food insufficiency is associated with higher prevalence of poor health conditions and can negatively impact brain development in children, leading to poorer performance in school.

The results contribute to the cycle of social and educational inequalities for children of color during pivotal developmental years. Food for Free, which sees access to nutritious food as a fundamental human right, includes food rescue, home delivery, and backpack programs for children and families in need as part of their programs for increasing options to access healthy meals for underserved communities. In 2019, Food For Free distributed more than 2 million pounds of nutritious food to more than 30,000 people throughout Greater Boston and, like many other food distribution organizations, has seen demand skyrocket in the wake of the pandemic.

“Our plates are not united”

Farmers, food relief organizations, food companies and leaders of color in the food movement are among those recognizing that a more resilient global food system post-pandemic must also be a more equitable one, as TriplePundit has also previously reported.

“Our plates are not united and what’s on your fork can look vastly different if you’re in a red-lined, over-policed community with struggling schools and low-wage jobs,” Beatriz Beckford, co-founder and national organizer of the National Black Food and Justice Alliance, told Civil Eats. “It is critical that anyone engaged in the food movement — or any movement for that matter — have a racial justice analysis and further a racial justice practice. Any movement devoid of that practice is not a movement at all.”

Image credit: Elvis Batiz/Wiki Commons

Amy Brown headshot

Based in Florida, Amy has covered sustainability for over 25 years, including for TriplePundit, Reuters Sustainable Business and Ethical Corporation Magazine. She also writes sustainability reports and thought leadership for companies. She is the ghostwriter for Sustainability Leadership: A Swedish Approach to Transforming Your Company, Industry and the World. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn and her Substack newsletter focused on gray divorce, caregiving and other cultural topics.

Read more stories by Amy Brown