Climate Connections: Environmental Racism
Food is one of the joys in life, but food production can be anything but a joy. From planting and packing to preparation and purchasing, our current system is rife with racial inequity and environmental disaster. Communities of color are hit with pesticide poisoning in California’s Central Valley, COVID deaths in Tyson meatpacking plants, industrial run-off from chicken farms, and food deserts that bolster reliance on climate contributing fast-food chains. And for those that want to get involved in farming, an industry with a shortage of people and an average age of 57.5 (as of 2019), they are pushed out, strong-armed, and given bad or no loans. All of these are results of our land-use and resource hoarding which are classic tactics used to enforce and establish a racist system.
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Luz Calvo and Catriona Rueda Esquibel
More than just a cookbook, Decolonize Your Diet redefines what is meant by “traditional” Mexican food by reaching back through hundreds of years of history to reclaim heritage crops as a source of protection from modern diseases of development.
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The food system is not broken; it’s working exactly the way it’s supposed to: as a caste system based on demographics, economics, and race. If we’re going to transform this food system, we have to look at power and who has power. The current food system is controlled by a handful of people who are predominantly white men.
People have been growing food in cities for thousands of years. There seems to be a feeling that if people are able to grow food in their communities that things are going to change. For me, growing food isn’t enough. We need to address the structural, industrial, and environmental determinants that reinforce racism in our society.
Farming in the United States is enmeshed with both racism and capitalism in a way that has had a profound impact on who owns, accesses, and benefits from farmland. Recently, I published research with Portland State University student Amy Marion examining data on non-farming landowners, farmers who own and lease land, and farmworkers. We found significant racial/ethnic disparities when it comes to representation, land, and money.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nearly 18 percent of Americans live in a food desert—that’s 54.4 million people. Buying a lot of food at once is hard when you struggle to pay the bills. And many people in these communities likely hold jobs in the service industry that have been cut as restaurants shutter to protect our health.
Kendrick Ransome started out farming a few years ago with just a hoe, a rake, and a shovel.
He could have used support getting his hog and vegetable business off the ground, but he was wary of asking institutions for help. “My big brother told me, ‘Stay away from loans,’” said Ransome. In 1925, most farmers in his rural hometown of Edgecombe County, North Carolina, were black. But now, the 26-year-old is an anomaly.
“When they did take out loans and they were unable to pay them back, you lose everything you got — that’s including your farm and your land for your family.”
Ransome’s fear of institutions is based in the centuries of discrimination black farmers have faced across the country. But despite that history, he and other young black Americans are reclaiming the trade.
The forces pushing black farmers off their land in the 20th century were manifold, and the impact was devastating. In 1920, there were more than 925,000 black farmers; by 2017, there were fewer than 46,000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.