Food justice activist Karen Washington wants us to move away from the term food desert, which doesnt take into account the systemic racism permeating Americas food system
America’s sustainable food movement has been steadily growing, challenging consumers to truly consider where our food comes from, and inspiring people to farm, eat local, and rethink our approaches to food policy. But at the same time, the movement is predominantly white, and often neglects the needs and root problems of diverse communities.
Issues of economic inequality and systemic racism permeate our national food system. The movement’s primary focus has been on finding solutions to “food deserts” – defined as areas empty of good-quality, affordable fresh food – by working to ensure that affected neighborhoods have better access. But some advocates, and studies, have argued that the proximity of a well-stocked grocery store is not enough of a solution given this country’s elaborate food problems.
Farm subsidies in the United States go predominantly to white farmers, which has led a group of black farmers to sue the US government for discrimination. Food pantries, which distribute food directly to those in need, are stigmatized. Our subsidized food system, as the activist and community organizer Karen Washington points out in the interview that follows, “skews the cost and value of food”.
Washington has been battling for food justice for three decades. Before taking up the cause, she worked as a physical therapist, and saw many of her patients, predominantly people of color, suffering from diabetes, obesity, and hypertension. (More than one-third of American adults, and 48% of African American adults, are obese.) Treatment always involved medication and surgery as opposed to prevention, and Washington knew there had to be a better way. She moved to the Bronx, in New York, in the mid-1980s and became a vocal community gardener.
Since that time, Washington has won a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award, been invited to the Obama White House for her involvement with New York’s Botanical Garden, and been called “urban farming’s de facto godmother”. She’s also worked to transform the Bronx’s empty lots into spaces where food can grow, helped launch a farmers’ market, and, in relentlessly engaging her community, has remained focused on the intersections of food and issues like poverty, racism, a lack of healthcare, and joblessness.
In other words, Washington has been around the block. What she found is that there weren’t very many people who looked like her with active roles in the food system. To bring additional voices to the table, she cofounded Black Urban Growers, an organization dedicated to supporting and advocating for black farmers and black leadership in the food movement, in 2009. And as she creates a more inclusive food community, she is working to redefine the challenges that the food system faces, too. Washington is opposed to using the expression “food desert,” which she calls “an outsider term” that calls desolate places, rather than places with enormous potential, to mind. She prefers “food apartheid”, which “brings us to the more important question: what are some of the social inequalities that you see, and what are you doing to erase some of the injustices?”
– Anna Brones forGuernica
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