6 Action items for racial equity in food systems

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Many of our initiatives at KC Healthy Kids focus on improving community food security, which is defined as a condition in which all community residents obtain a safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes community self-reliance and social justice. By its very definition, community food security means building food system equity. We cannot succeed in that goal without addressing racial injustice. 

American food and agricultural systems have relied on land theft, economic and physical exploitation of people who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color for four centuries. This remains the case today, as you’ll see in just a few examples of ongoing racial injustices involving food

  • Those who are BIPOC are more likely to work in restaurant, hospitality and other low-paying service industries. More than a quarter of those who are Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous Peoples are low-wage workers, compared to less than 17% of whites. 
  • Low-wage workers like those who work on farms, food processing plants, grocery stores and fast-food restaurants are less likely to receive paid sick leave, family medical leave and health insurance through employers. Unsafe working conditions have made food-chain workers particularly vulnerable to harms caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, subsequent recession and policy responses. 
  • Often deemed essential, food-chain workers continue to suffer from wages too low to cover safe housing, healthy food and healthcare. Though these workers are often identified as “essential” their health and well-being are not. This is systemic racism which results in health and economic racial-disparities.
  • Though our food and agriculture systems continue to rely upon the work and skills of people who are BIPOC, their ownership of farms and farmland has been decimated over the last century by racist policies and practices, many of which continue today.

Here are our top 6 action items. Read on to find out why each is important, what we’re doing and what you can do.

1. Support Black-owned Farms and Food Businesses

Why it’s important: Supporting black-owned/led farm and food businesses and agencies is an important act of solidarity, particularly at a time when many farms and food businesses are struggling. 

As documented by The Atlantic, The Guardian and other media in the last year, a century ago, 1 in 7 American farms were black-owned. Today, as a result of decades of racist, discriminatory laws and lending policies, less than 2% of American farmers are black and they possess just 0.52% of farmland (less than one percent). 

What we’re doing: Our policy team has sought input and feedback from local Black leaders in farming and food, within and apart from Greater KC Food Policy Coalition, regarding actions to be taken in solidarity, and will continue to do so. We have also examined calls-to-action issued by leading food systems organizations which are BIPOC-led. 

In our local food initiatives, we’re helping wholesale buyers understand the racial and social inequities in our food system and share ways they can support BIPOC farmers. In past years, we have reviewed local food partners’ policies and efforts to advance equity, and will continue this process with new partners while digging deeper with longstanding partners. 

One goal of our local food initiatives is to shift food system control to communities. A new project, still in planning stages, will create a resource for consumers and wholesale buyers to help them more easily support farm and food businesses including farmers markets, community supported agriculture programs, restaurants, wholesalers, food rescue and recovery, composting sites and seed and supply providers. As we collect this data, BIPOC farmers will have the opportunity to self-identify and choose to be publicly designated as such on our local food directories. 

What you can do: Listen to and amplify the voices of BIPOC leaders fighting racism in the food and agriculture system, and support their efforts, including calls-to-action. Here’s a list of such organizations developed by the HEAL Food Alliance, “Some of the Black-led orgs leading the fight against racism in the food and agriculture system.”

Learn more about historical and ongoing theft of Black-owned farmland, discussed by people impacted, in the New York Times-produced podcast 1619, episode 5,  parts 1 and 2. You can also read about what some Black farmers and advocates have to say about ongoing loss of Black-owned farms in Huffington Post and on F.A.R.M.S‘ website.

We worked with BIPOC leaders and others to identify existing, up-to-date sources for Black-owned or led food and farm businesses. Here are several you can use to guide your buying choices: 

 

2. SUPPORT FOOD CHAIN WORKERS

Why it’s important: Many food-chain workers on farms, in meat processing facilities, grocery stores and restaurants are laboring under unsafe conditions for poverty wages, with no sick leave. Both Kansas and Missouri have seen serious COVID-19 outbreaks at meat processing facilities, where the majority of workers are both immigrants and people of color.

Despite inadequate social distancing accommodations and PPE, many workers at such plants have been told they must return to work, even if they have tested positive for a current asymptomatic COVID infection. Likewise, many food service, grocery and farm workers are working in unsafe conditions. Meanwhile, agribusiness is trying to further push down their wages. 

These conditions reflect systemic racism in public and institutional policies which disregard the health and well-being of BIPOC workers and result in health and economic disparities. Food chain workers have the right to a safe workplace and fair pay. 

What we’re doing: We’ve joined Food Chain Workers Alliance, HEAL Food Alliance and many others in calling on Congress to #ProtectAllWorkers and #ProtectMeatpackingWorkers.

What you can do: Speak out to #ProtectAllWorkers by signing onto this letter for fair pay and protections and this letter for basic benefits and emergency pay. Then sign this letter to #ProtectMeatpackingWorkers. Follow-up by sending letters and sharing the links on social media.  

 

3. Expand Medicaid

Why it’s important: Many low-wage food-chain workers in Kansas and Missouri do not receive health insurance through their employers AND do not qualify for Medicaid. The health and economic consequences of this, including food insecurity, are as dire as they are unacceptable. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Medicaid expansion would improve the health and financial status of families. By increasing health coverage and lowering uncompensated care costs, workers would have better access to health care, better health outcomes, more financial security and more opportunities for economic mobility.

What we’re doing: We continue to demand Medicaid expansion in both states. In Kansas, we are asking lawmakers to act to expand Medicaid in the next legislative session. We encourage Missouri voters to pass the Medicaid expansion measure which will appear on the August 4 ballot. 

What you can do: In Kansas, contact your state legislators and ask them to expand Medicaid. Identify your state legislators and their contact info here. In Missouri, support the Yes on 2 campaign to expand Medicaid in Missouri. Voters will decide this ballot issue on August 4, 2020. Visit Healthcare For Missouri to learn more and get involved.

 

4. Expand Federal Nutrition Programs

Why it’s important: An unprecedented rise in unemployment and other wage disruptions in recent months have driven an abrupt increase in food insecurity across the nation, including food-chain workers. Local hunger relief agencies, such as Harvesters- the community food network, After The Harvest, and Food Equality Initiative, report an unprecedented spike in need.

The worst may still be ahead, as temporary unemployment and stimulus aid runs out for many in July. Nationwide, private hunger relief agencies such as these provide just 5% of the food assistance in the USA, and government programs provide the balance. Government nutrition programs must be strengthened and expanded if we hope to avoid widespread hunger and food insecurity. 

What we’re doing: We’ve joined Food Research Action Council and many others calling on the US Senate to strengthen SNAP in the next COVID-19 legislative response package. 

What you can do: Call your US Senators via the capitol switchboard 202-224-3121. Tell them the next COVID-19 legislative response package must strengthen SNAP (food stamps) by: 

  • boosting SNAP (food stamps) maximum benefits by 15%, and;
  • increasing the minimum SNAP benefit from $16 to $30, and; 
  • suspending all SNAP (food stamps) administrative rules that would terminate or weaken benefits. 

 

5. Be Counted in the 2020 Census

Why it’s important: Historically, the census has undercounted black people, immigrants and other minorities, resulting in lost federal funding for crucial programs and infrastructure and reduced political representation. 

The census impacts community food security in numerous ways. It determines how much federal funding communities receive for critical programs such as SNAP (food stamps), school breakfast programs (modeled after groundbreaking work by black civil rights leaders), affordable housing, USDA assistance programs important to minority farmers, and more. 

The census also determines the number of seats each state has in congress and how political district lines are drawn. An undercount of minority communities is theft of political power. This must not happen in 2020. 

What we’re doing: We are working with the Regional Complete Count Committee to ensure our communities are fully counted.

What you can do: Complete your census form. It’s easier than ever, and takes just a few minutes. Help us spread the word! The Regional Complete Count Committee website includes resources and tools that make it easy to share information with others. You can also use NAACP tools or find Complete Count resources for other regions.

 

6. Vote in Every Election

Why it’s important:  We must change local, state and federal policy to address long-standing racial injustice. That requires voting for policy changes which appear as ballot initiatives, and electing people who stand against police brutality and systemic racism. 

What we’re doing: We’re sharing information about nonprofits, voting and elections with partners and staff, and examining how we can encourage voter participation. 

What you can do: Confirm you are registered to vote at vote.org or click on this map to learn how to register to vote in your community. Many organizations working for racial justice, health equity, food systems and other important issues provide congressional report cards. We encourage our supporters to use such tools as they prepare to vote. 


Photos: Sam Davis, site manager at Juniper Gardens Training Farm gives school food and nutrition services staff a seed-to-market overview of how the farm works; Vernon Stapleton and Michelle Mitchell of Leon’s Thriftway, thought to be America’s longest running Black-owned grocery store, hosted elected officials in 2016 and explained the role their store played in the community. The store closed in 2019 after 50 years in business; Dre Taylor, owner of Nile Valley Aquaponics gives policy makers a tour of his operation.

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