Leaders of Color Discuss Structural Racism and White Privilege in the Food System

What can the food movement learn from Black Lives Matter in this tumultuous moment?


Like many of you, we watched in horror as events unfolded across the country last week, and the hell and heartache has left us reeling. We’ve long reported on food justice and last year wrote about why food belongs in our discussions of race. But we know we have a lot more work to do. In that spirit, we reached out to leaders of color in the food justice community for their thoughts about how they think the “food movement” might come together on the issues of race, equity, and access. We encourage others to speak up, add your voices to this space, and to continue the conversation.

Erika Allen, Chicago and National Projects Director, Growing Power

When people say “The Good Food Movement” are they thinking about racial and economic parity? I do, which is why I see it as a Good Food Revolution. I’m not sure how you define sustainable agriculture without this being a central point of understanding. The economic scaling up and investment in urban and sustainable agriculture without the facilitation of anti-racism work on an academic level—to truly understand one’s role as a perpetuator of racism even within liberal thought and action—is a real disconnect. Undoing racism and its companions of oppression, does not magically happen, and it requires real effort. Not just talk, or a workshop, but daily vigilance, and a real cultural shift. We are at a historic juncture. We [at Growing Power] believe that growing food and justice for all goes hand-in-hand toward the realization of a truly sustainable agriculture movement domestically and globally. To achieve that, we need to integrate our understanding on a deep level. This isn’t political rhetoric, this is what we have been struggling for since abolition of slavery. We need to address racism and white privilege and supremacy in the Good Food Movement. As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to move forward and mobilize, this is a unique opportunity for us to amplify our voices and to begin to put our words to action by increasing equity in all domains to ask: How are we using our access to power, wealth, and resources to shift paradigms of economic realities for people of color?

Beatriz Beckford, Co-Founder and National Organizer, National Black Food and Justice Alliance

The ‘“food movement” has historically struggled to center racial justice and more specifically to center and resist anti-Black racism. Given the roots of the agriculture in America, its origins in chattel slavery and violent plantation culture, it is no surprise that we see an evolved and sophisticated continuation of that culture in today’s food system. Rampant exploitation of workers, displacement from land and home via gentrification and foreclosures, inadequate access to quality food, all reinforced by racialized policies. Quite frankly, our modern food system is a true regime of food apartheid that undermines democratic and community control of our food systems. It does so with privatization/corporatization at the expense of people and the planet for profits. The tactics commonly employed by the ‘“food movement” are rooted in changing individual behaviors so much so that we tell people to “vote with their forks,” and have clever puns like the “plate of the union.” 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. We say if people just had nutrition education, then we can change the system, but systems change doesn’t work like that. We have to organize, we have to engage in direct action and confrontation with the state and corporations. We have to ensure that resisting anti-Black racism is at the core of our campaigns and strategies. That means supporting and following the leadership of low income people of color.  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.

Natasha Bowens, Author, The Color of Food: Stories of Race, Resilience and Farming 

We have to remember that injustice does not live in silos. The food justice movement and the Black Lives Matter movement are fighting the same beast. Racism and the injustice that follows is systemic. It is why our Black communities are losing access to farmland and fresh food, and why we are losing our lives at the hands of police. The people of this country have deeply woven issues with race and justice to unfurl before we can truly solve these crimes. But it is more important now than ever that we stay woke, that we not lose sight of the truth, and that we come together across communities and refuse to be silenced until justice is served.

Andrea King Collier, Freelance Journalist, Author, and Civil Eats Contributor

When people feel hopeless, and like they have nothing to lose, chaos breaks loose. Don’t think for a minute that food is not a part of the equation of being whole. All people need to feel safe, need to be heard, and need a piece of the American dream. We have so much work to do when it comes to equity, and the food system is no exception.

Dara Cooper, Organizer, National Black Food and Justice Alliance and HEAL Food Alliance

We have a system built on the fallacy of white supremacy and an extractive economy rooted in theft and exploitation, and steeped in anti-Blackness. It is critical that the food “movement” understand that the patterns of domination and exploitation that drive our prison and policing systems are inherently connected with the patterns of domination and exploitation that drive the inequities within our food system. We who believe in food justice and food sovereignty must recognize the need for an abolition of all enslavement and exploitation in order to achieve any semblance of justice. We must also take this time to seriously support, invest in, lift up, and make much more visible the voices and work of Black, Brown, and Native people who are actively resisting and building, who are brilliant and who are more than capable of leading us into a much needed revolution. The time is absolutely now.

Hank Herrera, Farmer and Food Justice Advocate

We must find ways to stand in solidarity with our African American brothers and sisters—and they with us—if we are ever going to repair the disaggregated, fractured, atomized communities resulting from all that the colonizers have inflicted and continue to inflict upon us. And it is essential to notice that the structure of the dominant food system and its destructive impacts on people of color have resulted from this structural violence, from the genocide of native people to slavery to exploitation of farm workers and especially the lack of access to fresh, healthy, affordable food for low-income people and people of color and the associated negative health impacts.

Eric Holt-Gimenez, Executive Director, Food First

Many food justice activists have felt for a long time that all the organic carrots and farmers’ markets in the world are not going to end hunger unless we also end racism. The continuing street executions of people of color—and the retaliation against the police in Dallas—should remind all those committed to food justice that dismantling racism isn’t optional. As a person of mixed heritage, I know that racism has tangled roots: white privilege, internalized oppression, anger, fear, guilt, and grief. I also know that while it is structural, it is also visceral, bound up in our psyche and our emotions, hard to get at, and painful to work through. This is why many people in the food movement choose not to address it. They are afraid that addressing racism is just too hard, too complicated, and too messy. They’re afraid that bringing up the issues of oppression and privilege will end up dividing the movement rather than strengthening it. They are afraid of being overwhelmed with more work. They’re afraid. They are also mistaken. We can’t have a just judicial system, or an impartial law enforcement system, or a sustainable food system on the foundation of an oppressive social and economic system. In fact, we need to be building a restorative society, complete with restorative system of justice and a restorative food system. For that we need to dismantle racism in our society, our food system and in our own food movements. Dismantling racism isn’t extra work. It is the work.

Saru Jayaraman, Co-Founder, Co-Director at ROC United and Director, Food Labor Research Center at U.C. Berkeley

For food justice organizers and advocates to truly support racial justice in this country, these individuals and institutions would need to move beyond their own efforts and stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and many other racial justice organizations, networks, and institutions. It would mean acting upon the understanding that there can never be an equitable or just food system in America as long as police brutality, race-income inequality, gentrification, and so many other issues plague our nation. It would mean moving beyond the idea that communities of color need access to healthy, sustainable, local food—to embracing the notion that we need that and so much more, and that all of these issues are too interconnected to pretend that we can achieve racial equity by addressing only one. 

Navina Khanna, Director, HEAL Food Alliance

The murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile have further exposed the acute violence of systems of power against Black lives, but the truth is that the war on Black lives takes many forms. We see structural violence in the food system, [lack of] access to land and housing, our public education systems, criminalization and mass incarceration, and, of course, policing. The pathway to food justice, food sovereignty, and liberation for all our communities travels through the liberation of Black communities. For example, South Asian Americans are often used as a “wedge”—part of a divide-and-conquer strategy to uphold white supremacy. But my peoples’ struggles have been deeply influenced by Black freedom fighters. I try to do my work in a way that centers frontline leadership, including Black leadership, honoring our collective histories, and confronting present-day institutionalized racism. Each of us can play a role in dismantling systems of power. And this moment, when we’re seeing the state-sanctioned murder of a Black person every 28 hours, requires urgent attention and action. No individual or organization can transform these systems alone, but each of us can use our own resources, skills, and privileges to take action. We need to stand together for Black Lives.

Joann Lo, Co-Director, Food Chain Workers Alliance

Honestly working towards creating a sustainable, fair, and healthy food system also demands that we address the structural racism that plagues our food system. This is a daily practice and requires small steps such as looking internally at our own social circles and organizations, participating in national networks like the HEAL Food Alliance, the Domestic Fair Trade Association, and the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance, and tackling broader structural issues such as racism against farmers and food workers of color. Collectively, we have the power to achieve racial justice—in our food system and our society as a whole—but only if we’re bravely committed to doing so together.

Raj Patel, Writer, Activist, and Academic

Malcolm X said something the food movement needs to hear: “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, that’s not progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. The progress comes from healing the wound that the blow made. They haven’t even begun to pull the knife out. They won’t even admit the knife is there.” What I miss in the U.S. food movement is an urgent sense of history. History about the soil on which local food is grown. About the blood of first nations and slaves in that soil. About the legacy of settler colonialism that lets some folk obsess over kale while those harvesting it can’t afford to buy it. Local food tastes great but won’t end white supremacy. It’s high time we talked about white supremacy and used that language. It may be uncomfortable, but can anyone reasonably expect a discussion about power, colonialism, and race to be anything except uncomfortable? We need the admission before the healing can begin.

La Donna Sanders Redmond, Campaign For Food and Community Justice and One Million Women for Justice 

The intersections between the food justice movement and Black Lives Matter is justice. The food justice movement seeks to do more than just provide access to food. It seeks to incorporate an analysis of agriculture, land, and labor through multiple lenses that include race, class, and gender to root out narratives that support historical injustice and ignore the need for communities of color to be healthy, self-reliant, and prosperous. Both movements are demanding freedom from oppression. Whether it’s an oppressive food system that robs people of the right to health wages and well-being or a system of law enforcement that robs Black people of their right to live with no due process or accountability. We should be unified with Black Lives Matter in our goal: liberation from all systems of oppression and exploitation.

Ricardo Salvador, Director and Senior Scientist, Food and the Environment, Union of Concerned Scientists

We might finally become the nation that the founders imagined, but could not achieve in their time. However, this is about more than evolving from the colonial roots of our society—where the purpose of some of us was to serve the others—to a “modern society” where some of us “tolerate” (which literally means “put up with”) the others. This will take recognition of the fictions that have sanctioned the systematic deprivation of others. Those fictions are crumbling in our times because it is increasingly becoming undeniable that rank racism exists and that it limits the human potential of some of us (and thereby of the nation as a whole). The food system was one of the organizing axes of the nation’s development, and we live still with the relics of the exploitative history of agriculture and it’s continuing plunder. (Visit any labor camp, dairy operation, meat packing plant, or the ‘back of the house’ of any restaurant for an example.) What we all can do, particularly those of us with national voices, is speak the truth about the way the system actually functions, while simultaneously going about the work of building a better version of our nation’s future.

Shakirah Simley, Community Programs Manager, Bi-Rite family of businesses

If we care about food, then we have to care about people. Especially Black and Brown people. We have responsibility to address the ways in which we replicate systems of oppression in the food movement. Our own continued silence is violence.

Karen Washington, Farmer and Activist

It’s not a food movement we need to talk about in this country, it’s that we find ourselves in the 21st Century a country and society still divided along racial and economic lines. We will never move forward until we address the problem of racism and economic injustice head on. It’s about taking on an active conversation to deal with this problem. So far the voices of fear and hate are drowning out the voices of reason, truth, and love. Once we have that open and honest conversation we then need to follow it up with action. Which means dismantling the racist laws and institutions that continue to exist. I’m ready!

Malik Yakini, Executive Director, Detroit Black Community Food Security Network

The system of white supremacy is pervasive in every institution in American society. The food system that provides the vast majority of our food and the “food movement” that seeks to create a just and equitable food system are no exceptions. Any serious efforts to create a food system that places the welfare of people over the drive for profit most have, as an essential element, an analysis of how “race” and poverty play out in American society. The reality is that the struggle for a fair, clean, equitable, and just food system must be linked with the movement to dismantle white supremacy and capitalism. There can be no food justice without social justice.

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  1. Bob Pearson
    Friday, July 15th, 2016
    The Civil War was fought over the issue of slavery - won by the north - uniting all states - albeit grudgingly from southern states for many years - giving everyone the opportunities that freedom allow. We understand that these movements took way too long to develop. The civil rights movement creative vastly more opportunities for all minorities to participate in the American dream..... billions of dollars were spent in the 60's for housing and to help the impoverished climb out of a hole. If you look at those programs (and billions of dollars spent) you will see a large waste of money! Lives were not changed - people did not change given these opportunities. What changes are you proposing other than anarchy? What happened to hard work?
  2. Venita
    Friday, July 15th, 2016
    I do not find this a discussion of a "food system" problem. This is a rant about "perceived" injustices. I say perceived because everyone comes to the table of racism with their own prejudices. Yes, 200 years ago some men were cruel and inhumane to others of the human race. Guess what it was not just to "people of color". You can not hold all men accountable for the actions of some. No one living today was alive at that time! Even today some men are cruel and inhumane to others of the human race, and it is not just "people of color". We will always have cruel and inhumane treatment of others by some people. Most of society does not willfully treat others in this way. You can't change the past but you can change the future! DO SO!
  3. Nathan
    Friday, July 15th, 2016
    This was very difficult to read. It almost felt like reading one of those crazy republican posts, all that was missing was random words being in all caps. The author used a substantial number of buzz words (white supremacy, slavery, etc.) but was extremely light on actual solutions. "We need to dismantle racism" is not an actual solution, it's a goal without a path to achieve it.
    • Kat
      Monday, July 25th, 2016
      You are spot on. If people looked at real solutions, it may help propel them out of victim mode, which MUST happen to even speculate real solutions.
  4. Tt
    Friday, July 15th, 2016
    As I read the Arcticle I am thinking these are my concerns to about food. But o don't view as a race problem. I view it as loss of private farms and our food being taken over by corporations. And even the private farms comply with the corporations so they can make a living. Just because you are black and something happens to you doesn't make it racism. This food problem is a human problem!. He is making all problems as racism.
  5. Friday, July 15th, 2016
    I love this article because I've seen so many comments from whites asking why aren't people of color doing more to stop the violence in America, as if we need them to give us advice on what needs to be done. There are so many programs around this country that are working not just for people of color but for all those who are economically disenfranchised. The country has been trained to associate the words poor, urban, inner-city, and welfare with only people of color and this can be seen every day all over this country. These are positive programs which will help everyone not just people of color. Thank you for a great article.
  6. George Shers
    Friday, July 15th, 2016
    I stopped reading after a while because of the continuous repetition of the same general slogans with no reference to what facts support the argument. One claim is that American agriculture is based upon slavery. After a short period of time, slavery basically only existed in the South on cotton plantations. Those places did not grow food. Although one can certainly argue that Mexican farm workers have been unfairly treated, where is the racism as to Blacks? That Black farms may have been purchased by white farmers does not mean on its face that racism, as opposed to wanting to have more land to increase profits, is involved. How is gentrification related to the production or distribution of food?
  7. Alcina Horstman
    Friday, July 15th, 2016
    What a great selection of dedicated activists; they are all amazing - I've followed a few of these folks for years. Thanks to Thank to Civil Eats for this piece on food justice!
  8. Jubel Gates
    Friday, July 15th, 2016
    Complaining without putting forth a solution is also known as whining. An eloquent read but where is the substance, where are the nuts and bolts? What exactly is it that you would change and where do we begin?
  9. Kamau
    Friday, July 15th, 2016
    white supremacy and theft of ideas, culture and centuries long habits are everywhere as people are discovering that white people have stolen (not called culture appropriation-is still theft) ideas and recipes about cooking from many cultures and present them as their own, but then white people are thieves of most things as they have very little history and only the remnants of culture but the problem is that these history and culture thieves don't give credit to the people that they steal from, yet they are always crying about plagiarism, history clearly points th white supremacy as the creators of plagiarism starting with Aristotle who along with Alexander stole over 11 volumes (burned and destroyed the rest) of books and claimed that they
  10. fwd
    Friday, July 15th, 2016
    I'm an old WASP guy and a 5th generation farmer. Paused to take an education and experience the worlds of academia and business before returning to the farm and settling back into the routine. Any advantage I have enjoyed has come from a supportive intact extended family and loyal friends. I've been disadvantaged by affirmative action and have overcome it. I have farmed successfully for 20 years doing good honest business with entities small and large, including big corporations. I have had and do have ethnic farm employees and together my family and theirs have succeeded. I resent being being misunderstood for my success, for my career choice and for my heritage. I have profited from a conscious choice to politely cooperate with police.
  11. Rachel
    Friday, July 15th, 2016
    Wow! So honest, So vital. Stay woke.

    Rachel
  12. Mimi Ho
    Saturday, July 16th, 2016
    Thank you for your brilliant insights & leadership!!!
  13. Sunday, July 17th, 2016
    Isn't there a problem in all of the United States re: health and nutrition? I am so tired of the "we need to find a solution" rhetoric with no actual proposed solutions. Further... I am pretty sure the community gardens that do exist, pop up due to community involvement as well as gov't help (not necessarily in dollars, but permits/permission). Lastly, I am not a fan of industrialized food, however - I also recognize many of the advances that have been made allow all people to get food at a lower cost.
  14. Monday, July 18th, 2016
    For more perspectives from people of color on white privilege in the food system, and what to do about it, I recommend A. Breeze Harper of Sistah Vegan Project and lauren Ornelas of the Food Empowerment Project.
  15. Chris J
    Tuesday, July 19th, 2016
    OK, I have long come to realize that as a white male, I am privileged in this society. I accept this and have embodied that awareness in trying to keep aware of my view of people of color, how I interact with them, and my efforts to continue to simply see them as people and equals, etc.

    It's fucking exhausting. When I buy a burrito or go to the weekend organic market, is this privilege? Is eating organic food a slap in the face to the poor, non-white people who can't afford sustainable or organic produce or meats? I think about this, I think about the burrito I buy in the Mexican place and wonder if the owner is treating the staff fairly.

    I just...want to take a break from thinking about all this. Is that ok?
    • Elliot Q
      Monday, July 25th, 2016
      Congratulations for being aware of these issues and considering how they effect the way you love your life. However, imagine how exhausting it is to live as an institutionalized oppressed minority. These people can't just take a break from the color of their skin or how society perceives them. I'm not trying to make you feel guilty, just giving you some perspective. Keep on fighting!
    • Kat
      Monday, July 25th, 2016
      At some point, you realize that you treat the person in front if you with respect, make yourself happy and let the rest go. A white man that has brought himself pain for the benefit of another, brings only pain for himself and the other will it be healed from it. Live as if the world were equal and for you it will be. That will heal you, and any coming in touch with you has a chance to see and change themselves, if they still cry out, it is not for your concern.
  16. G. Klinger
    Wednesday, July 20th, 2016
    As a 4rth generation Family farmer, we can't continue to grow wheat when the market price is only $7.00 per acre more than our input expenses. No salaries included. When a handful of Corporations and the Commodities determine fiscal life and death to family farms, then all Americans are at risk. Let us all work together to create an equitable, restructured food system, that embraces creation of sustainable owner/worker urban and rural Farms that sell perhaps directly to the consumer a better product for an affordable price accomplished by cutting out the middleman so that I get more than 15 cents for my wheat in your bread that you pay $ 3.00 a loaf for.
  17. Ashley ruten
    Saturday, July 23rd, 2016
    I am so disgusted and embarrassed at the stupid continued ignorance of white people. As a white person myself, these inane and bizarrely stupid comments by white people really give credence to the observation that white people are seriously inferior.
  18. Monday, December 5th, 2016
    Thanks designed for sharing such a good idea, piece of writing is fastidious, thats
    why i have read it completely
  19. Penny howe
    Wednesday, December 21st, 2016
    That article was really good and oh how true. If one does not have the proper nutrition you don't do well.