Remembering to use our racial equity lens

By Kana Miller, Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Certificate student 

This blog is part of a series from the December Arizona Immersive program of the Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Graduate Certificate Program. Students virtually toured the state, meeting with farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs, government staff and non-profit leaders.

This past year has been full of unprecedented events and life shifts, from the pandemic and protests for racial justice, to the election and extreme weather events. For many of us, 2020 became a year for reflection and learning. As our Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership cohort gathered for our virtual immersion in December, it felt like yet another moment for reflection - reflecting on the missed opportunity to meet in person and visit Arizona’s diverse agricultural landscape. As I listened to our wonderful lineup of food system leaders, I noticed a theme in their stories that ran parallel to a theme found throughout our first semester, and unsurprisingly most of 2020. Whether intentional or not, the power of language and how we use it became a recurring message. 

Over the course of the semester, I learned the importance of using my words concisely and judiciously when conveying a message to a member of Congress. We discussed rural development and the awareness needed to avoid generalizing rural places (because, as we learned, “If you’ve seen one rural community, you’ve seen one rural community.”). We heard from restaurateurs who persuasively argued the need for their fellow chefs to care about the origins of their ingredients and the communities that produced them. We listened as various water conservationists shared the framing they use to convince others to consciously consume water. Strong and effective policy work leans heavily on the ability to tell a powerful narrative. 

The power of language was perhaps most impressively reinforced during our session with anti-racist practitioner, Jordan Curry Carter. Jordan welcomed our group with a calm and warm demeanor. He challenged us to rethink the language we used when discussing race, racism, and equity in the context of our food system work. The case to rethink how we discuss food policy issues with a racial equity lens was made clear when we were asked to consider the term, food desert. According to the USDA, a food desert is a low-income community where in urban areas, at least 33% of the population lives more than 1 mile from the nearest grocery store, and in rural areas, at least a third of the population lives more than 10 miles from the nearest grocery store. Access to transportation is also taken into account. 

The term food desert is commonly used in conversations around food access, food insecurity, and health disparities. Many of us may be familiar with the neighborhoods within our communities that are labeled as food deserts. Some of us may live in food deserts ourselves. In my experience, the most common response to eliminating food deserts is to bring in a grocery store. The problem with this solution is multifaceted. It doesn’t ask for historical community knowledge (i.e., Was there a grocery store here previously? If so, what caused it to close? Did residents like shopping there?) and suggests that the only reason someone may struggle to put food on the table is simply lacking access to a convenient grocery store (thus, placing responsibility over the situation on the individual). 

A new term has gained popularity, suggesting new solutions and a new way of thinking about food insecurity and food access – food apartheid. I was first introduced to this term from Karen Washington, activist, farmer, and community organizer, who described it as a “look at the whole food system, along with race, geography, faith, and economics…you get to the root cause of some of the problems around the food system.” Food desert implies a natural occurrence, a place devoid of resources (if you have ever visited a desert, you might have noticed that desert ecosystems are full of life and have developed ways to sustain them...much like the people living in communities defined as ‘food deserts’). Food apartheid suggests far more deliberate actions. Segregation, redlining, lack of funding for infrastructure and above-minimum wage jobs all played a role in creating communities without proper food resources. By applying a racial equity lens to our language, we are able to aptly address the systemic issues in need of new solutions.  

We have a lot of work to do, in order to see a new world where these broken systems are rebuilt. I believe that individually, we each have the ability to contribute to and create the change necessary for a more just and equitable world, for everyone. 

Photo Credit: EdPuzzle Staff