On the occasion of Juneteenth, a day commemorating the emancipation of those enslaved in the U.S., Feed the Truth’s staff and board are taking the opportunity to reflect upon, uplift, and recommit to how racial equity and the protection of Black lives is woven into the fabric of our work to realize a healthier, more equitable food system. Feed the Truth sees greater transparency, corporate accountability, as well as more responsive and representative democracy as essential to this charge.
The emancipation of the last enslaved people on June 19, 1866 came 90 years after the United States declared its independence and that “all men are created equal.” Today, we in the U.S. are still living with the legacy of slavery. It reverberates throughout our food system—a system that is deeply unequal, harms the Black community in a myriad of ways, and has been built off of the exploitation of Black people and their labor that persists to this day.
Access to healthy food is highly racialized, with Black communities among the most likely to experience “food apartheid.” The rates of obesity and other diet-related diseases are far higher among Black people than their white counterparts. Black children are the targets of junk food marketing, leading to higher rates of exposure to these ads relative to white children. And even now, when a predominantly Black city, the District of Columbia, seeks to address long-standing food and nutrition inequities (learn more about the Nutrition Equity Amendment Act here), the sugary drink industry that has long profited from Black servitude and exploitation has pulled out all the stops to preserve the status quo.
The legacy of slavery is manifested in the racism that has harmed and disenfranchised Black farmers for generations and in the exploitation of Black workers in our food system. As Julian Agyeman and Kofi Boone put it in their article on the topic: “The ‘40 acres and a mule’ promised to formerly enslaved Africans never came to pass. There was no redistribution of land, no reparations for the wealth extracted from stolen land by stolen labor.” And Black land ownership only declined from the outset of the 20th century thanks to a range of racist policies. Recent efforts such as debt relief for Black farmers have begun to redress historic wrongs, but are only just the start. What’s more, the banking industry is actively resisting and slowing this relief, conjuring a long history of broken promises for Black farm families.
The food industry’s perpetuation of the subminimum wage and its simultaneous opposition to paying living wages has trapped a workforce that is disproportionately Black in poverty. As discussed in a recent report by One Fair Wage and the UC Berkeley Food Labor Research Center, at emancipation, restaurant owners created the tipping system that exists today because they sought to hire newly freed slaves and have them work exclusively for tips. Major restaurant corporations and their primary trade group continue to preserve this exploitative practice in the form of the subminimum wage, which has been frozen at a scant $2.13/hr for three decades.
Today’s pandemic has only laid increasingly bare the ways in which the food industry depresses economic growth for Black and brown communities up and down the supply chain. From farmworkers to food service workers, poverty wages, lack of health care, paid sick leave, and unsafe working conditions conspired to put an already vulnerable workforce at increased risk of not only severe illness, and even death, but of ever deeper food and financial insecurity than many had experienced prior. In meatpacking, the exploitation of a predominantly Black and brown workforce has been especially deadly, with penalties accounting for little more than a slap on the wrist.
Yet, the corporations perpetuating the greatest harms on Black workers, Black health, and Black prosperity have no shame proclaiming their commitment to uplifting Black lives…leading us to believe they are on another side of history now. In but one particularly important and crass example, Big Food has lined-up to make statements about how it supports voting rights and a vibrant democracy. But then the industry can’t bring itself to disassociate from the politicians, the lobbyists, and the trade groups behind a mad dash to adopt voting laws aimed at disenfranchising the Black vote. This is all very deeply concerning given how critical a healthy and equitable democracy is to realizing a healthy and equitable food system. We are all truly in the debt of leaders like Nsé Ufot, of the New Georgia Project, who have had the courage to tell corporate executives directly to stop bankrolling “Jim Crow 2.0.”
And, fortunately, Nsé is far from alone in her efforts to dismantle our modern-day plantation economy. Today’s movement to “decolonize food systems” is rooted in the centuries-old traditions, innovation, and advocacy. And as we noted in our statement a year ago, there are a multitude of organizations doing critical work to achieve racial justice. We at Feed the Truth ground ourselves and our work in this movement knowing that our organization has a responsibility and an important role to play in challenging food corporations and systems of power that negatively impact Black and brown communities. We stand with and are indebted to the leadership, activism, and example set by Black communities and frontline groups fighting to disrupt and dismantle systems that perpetuate racism. We want to highlight a few of these groups:
The National Black Food and Justice Alliance is a coalition of Black-led organizations aimed at developing Black leadership, supporting Black communities, organizing for Black self-determination, and building institutions for Black food sovereignty and liberation.
The Acres of Ancestry Initiative/Black Agrarian Fund is a multidisciplinary, cooperative nonprofit ecosystem rooted in Black ecocultural traditions and textile arts to regenerate custodial landownership, ecological stewardship, and food and fiber economies in the South.
The Black Church Food Security Network utilizes an asset-based approach in organizing and linking the vast resources of historically African American congregations in rural and urban communities to advance food and land sovereignty.
We at Feed the Truth believe that our food system requires transparency in board rooms, on farm lands and in the seats of power, such that exploitation cannot hide in the shadows. It requires accountability, such that power is not wielded by the white, wealthy and well-connected few at the expense of the many who harvest, cook, pack, and serve our food. It requires that we join in solidarity with organizations and movements fighting for racial equity and justice.
We acknowledge we have strides to make in our work to shine a light on food industry political and marketing practices that harm Black people. In our board composition. In our hiring and culture. In helping to grow, not compete for, philanthropic resources that have overwhelmingly been concentrated in predominantly white and white-led organizations. And in being the strongest ally and partner possible to those dismantling systems of oppression and to uplift Black lives. We recommit to working with urgency toward a racially-just food system that is a source of health, joy, and economic opportunity for generations to follow.
Leah Penniman, co-director of the trailblazing Soul Fire Farm and author of Farming While Black, characterized this road ahead as follows: “The challenges before us are monumental. We are not obligated to complete the task of repair, but we are required to act at the intersection of the our capability and what the world needs. To maintain silence is to cast our vote for the status quo, to passively endorse a racist and exploitative food system…”