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I have spent a lot of time in urban America looking at different neighborhoods and different cultures. I’m an anthropologist and I’ve examined the culture around food and some of the reasons why my community has the relationship to food that we do. One of the reasons that black people have the unhealthy eating habits that we do is that many of us live in food deserts.

When you see the differences between affluent neighborhoods and poor black and brown neighborhoods, the contrasts are visually stunning. Take for example Columbia University where I live and work, there are high quality restaurants, healthy supermarket, and there are even gardens of fresh fruits and vegetables. However if you just head uptown on Broadway, you will know when you’ve arrived in a poor community of color because suddenly there are 24 hour liquor stores, candy stores, bodegas, fast food joints, and Chinese take-out. There are fewer supermarkets and real restaurants. When you do see a supermarket, the meat isn’t fresh and it has a bad smell to it. To make matters worse, liquor stores because of their convenience becomes a central place where people buy food. The visual of these contrasts are deeply depressing.

 

The physical and geographical barriers to accessing healthy food in food deserts are substantial. Decent supermarkets might be miles away, or there is no direct transportation. Or, there are a lot of highways and expressways that make it hard to navigate. But another equally powerful obstacle to accessing healthy food is the economic barrier. There might be a whole market or grocery store right around the corner, but fruits and vegetables are so over priced that the people who live there can’t afford them. The reality is that cheaper food is typically unhealthy food.

 

Yes, there is a great deal of personal responsibility when it comes to choosing what we do and do not eat. And, we should make better choices. But, lets not pretend that anyone working 12hrs a day, who lives miles away from a decent grocery store, wouldn’t on many nights just grab fried chicken wings from the nearest 24hr take-out.

 

These bad choices –however limited – indicate a culture of bad eating. Now, black and brown people not only need better access to healthy food, but we also need to be educated on how to make better food choices. However, it is the lack of physical and economic access to healthy meals that has fueled this culture of unhealthy eating, which has led to a public health crisis that disproportionately impacts our communities.

 

Food deserts aren’t just a social issue; they are a political issue. Just like there has been healthcare reform, we need government intervention in order to stem the tide of increased disease and death linked to diet and nutrition. There are surgeon general warnings on cigarettes and alcohol. There are laws to protect young people from purchasing these harmful substances. And a recent Pew poll shows that most people want stronger regulations on the snack foods sold to children in schools. In addition to regulating junk food, subsidies need to be creating to develop more community gardens, assist small businesses in making healthier food available, and bringing down the cost of high-quality fruits and vegetables in low-income communities.

There is no better example of racism in the 21st Century than the relationship of black/brown people and the access to healthy foods.  People think about racism as an individual act of prejudice or discrimination from one person to another.  That’s not what it’s about.  It’s about systems, structures and institutions.

 

Food justice is racial justice.
Professor, author and activist, Marc Lamont Hill is host of the nationally syndicated TVOne news show Our World With Black Enterprise.

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