When the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Economic Research Service released its 2020 Household Food Security report last month, most media outlets reported that the overall percentage of food-insecure households remained unchanged at 10.5 percent since 2019. “Federal aid kept food insecurity in check,” read one headline. “Could COVID-19 finally end hunger in America?” read another, suggesting that through the emergency food assistance provided last year, we as a nation had somehow “learned how to keep families from going hungry.”
And yet, for some Americans, that couldn’t be further from the truth. During that same time, food insecurity increased for Black, non-Hispanic households—from 19.1 percent in 2019 to 21.7 percent in 2020, with an even higher jump among Black households in the South.
Even as the pandemic has added economic strain for many Americans, it has also underscored what has been true for several decades: Food insecurity is not simply a money problem. It is also a racism problem—a reality that many grassroots food justice organizations address head on in their activism and advocacy.
National policies that dictate how social welfare programs are funded or defunded are inextricably linked to race and racism. After more than a decade of research on food safety net programs and food banks, anthropologist Maggie Dickinson reported in 2019 that the number of people enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) had rapidly increased since 2001, and that the primarily Black and Latinx families seeking assistance were often met with suspicion and disdain.
Programs that were designed to be temporary fixes are primary lifelines for many families in the U.S., but those lifelines are increasingly strained by lack of resources, increasing caseloads, and political lobbying that insists on painting poor and working-class people as burdens to the state.
Attacks on federal programs like SNAP, for example, can be tied directly back to Reagan-era myths about so-called “welfare queens”—imagined as Black and often unmarried with children—that siphon precious resources from the public. This cultural figure has on-the-ground implications. The trope of a Black woman stealing resources from the government so captured the public imagination that it fueled mandatory drug testing policies that resulted in millions of dollars wasted and former President Trump’s proposal to cut SNAP funding by replacing some cash benefits with prepackaged shelf-stable food boxes.
Black communities’ fight for high-quality, accessible food is also a part of the fight against the anti-Black racism that shapes city planning and design, housing, wages, and education—all factors that impact food insecurity well before one goes out in search of groceries. My own research in Washington, D.C. found that Black residents not only have fewer grocery stores or supermarkets in close proximity compared to white residents, but they also reported that the stores near them were not well-maintained and offered products of lower quality.
The decades-long battle to imagine and create food legislation that preserves the health, well-being, and dignity of aid recipients is no less continuous now than it was when Reagan first uttered the words “welfare queen.” It is clear that SNAP benefits do not solve food insecurity, nor do they shield recipients from discrimination or stereotypes associated with receiving public aid.