What does race have to do with our food system? Everything.
Racial and ethnic disparities are sadly alive and well when it comes to how food is grown in the US. White farmers are at an overwhelming advantage when it comes to owning land and they see the greatest benefit from the 97% of the income generated by it.
Black, Hispanic, and Native American farmers, are more likely to lease land than own it and they generate less wealth than their white counterparts. Hispanic people are also disproportionately more likely to be farm laborers; jobs that come with significant health and safety issues and very little pay.
These are serious racial and ethnic inequalities happening in our current day and age, but they stem from the long-standing structural discrimination that our agricultural system is rooted in. Post Civil War, freed slaves were awarded land under General William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15. By June of 1865, 40,000 freedmen had settled on 400,000 acres.
By 1920, there were 925,000 Black-owned farms, representing about 14 percent of all farms in the United States. But since then that number has only continued to drop—today, African Americans make up only 2 percent of our farmers and 1 percent of rural landowners. This loss of land occurred due to discriminatory government laws and funding (like federal Homestead Acts) as well as a lack of legal and financial resources due to systemic racism.
This decline of Black, Brown, and Native farmers has had far-reaching negative impacts. It means a decline of wealth and continued generational financial hardship. It means a disconnection from history and cultural practices that connect people to the land. It also means that these communities don’t have access to the same fresh, healthy foods as predominantly white communities, something that we’re recognizing goes far beyond food deserts and instead represents food apartheid.
We know that your zip code is more important than your genetic code in determining your risk of disease and death and that 70% of deaths are caused by chronic disease—mostly the result of our toxic food system. Lack of access to land and fresh food is a form of oppression and it’s setting communities up for generational illness and strife.
So what can we do about it?
Leah Penniman, a Black Kreyol educator, farmer, author, and food justice activist from Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, NY, joined me on The Doctor’s Farmacy last week to discuss the deep-seated issue of racial inequalities in agriculture and the solutions activists like her are creating.
I hope you’ll tune in to learn more about this important issue of our time and how to be a part of an inclusive thriving food system.