Hunger, Historical Policies & Structural Racism

Hunger, Historical Policies & Structural Racism

The food system does not serve everyone equally. Hunger is rooted in systems of inequity, including systemic and structural racism. Structural racism is at the root of hunger and the health disparities we see in the US today. In this episode, we’ll talk to Suzanne Babb about the impacts of historical policies on the food security of communities of color. Suzanne is co-director of US programs at WhyHunger.org, New York. She is also an urban farmer and founding member of Black Urban Growers. Welcome to Rights Not Charity.

Host: Rebecca DeSouza

Guest: Suzanne Babb

Producer: Deborah Hill

Interview Summary

So Suzanne, could you start out by explaining to us the meaning of the term structural racism and how it impacts black indigenous in communities of color today?

– Sure. So I’m going to use a definition from Dr. Camara Jones, a public health researcher who talks about the impacts of racism on health. So she starts out by defining institutional racism, which is the systems of policies, practices, norms, and values that result in differential access to goods, services, and opportunities in society by race. So how that shows up is inherited disadvantage, in this case, Black, Indigenous, and people of color, and inherited advantage, and in this case, in the US it is white people who have that advantage. And the way that this gets manifested is in terms of material conditions and access to power. So we’re looking at access to housing, education, employment opportunities, income inequality, different access to medical facilities, access to a clean environment, access to power through information, resources, and voice like in the media. So laying that out when we’re talking about structural racism, structural racism is about how these policies and institutions act together to lead and produce barriers to opportunity and lead to racial disparity. So for example, we could take the mass incarceration of Black men and women. That is a relationship between the education system, the whole quote to prison pipeline between the criminal justice system and between the media that often perpetuates the myths about black people and criminality.

Thank you so much for laying that out for us so clearly. It’s important to remember for us that the structures we have today are the result of our multitude of historical insults. What are some key historical flash points to keep in mind when we think about the relationship between hunger and the right to food?

I think there are two big ones that I can give in as an example as historical insults. The first one would be the dispossession and murder of Indigenous people in populations of their natural resources beginning in the 15th century. And then also the transatlantic slave trade where millions of West Africans were kidnapped, enslaved and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean, sold as chattel to do backbreaking labor from the middle of the 15th century to the end of the 19th century. And this is important because this is the beginning of where oppression and structural racism began for these groups of people, and that policies and practices have just been created and evolved to continue that oppression.

So over the last century there’ve been a number of policies or specific political acts that have shaped the US food system and negatively impacted the right to food for communities of color. I wonder if you can identify for us some of those key political actions.

Yes, so I’ll identify three areas: the Social Security Act of 1935, several USDA farm policies with impact particularly on BIPOC farmers, and urban planning and neighborhoods; and the National Housing Act of 1934.

Let’s now take each one of those policies one at a time, beginning with maybe the Social Security Act. Tell us a little bit about how that Social Security Act affected the food security of communities of color?

So the Social Security Act was created to protect Americans by providing folks in their old age, survivors and folks who have been disabled insurance; so payment in those times when they’re no longer able to work. But what happened was during that time, it excluded domestic and agricultural workers. And 60% of the Black labor force were domestic and agricultural workers. That was completely intentional. Then domestic workers were included in 1950 and agricultural workers were included in 1954. But that left out a generation of people who couldn’t accumulate family wealth or couldn’t get their basic needs met during that time when they could no longer work because of age or disability. And so if they had hunger or food insecurity already because they probably weren’t earning enough money, that was further perpetuated by not being able to access social security.

So the Social Security Act created into generational sort of oppression, increasing the combined food insecurity for communities of color. Now, I wonder how the USDA farm policies also operated as structures of racism?

If we look at the way in which the USDA gives out subsidies, for many decades, they have given out billions of federal subsidies to companies and large scale farms that produce corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, and soy. And we may know now that a lot of those products end up in food, and they help to perpetuate chronic health diseases. And so these processed foods end up in neighborhoods of color and poor neighborhoods at a higher proportion than white wealthy neighborhoods. So not only are we impacting farmers, we’re impacting the health of the communities in which receive the end product of this. Now most farmers of color usually farm what’s called specialty crops, which is fruits and vegetables and livestock. These types of crops are not eligible for the commodity programs and receive way less government support. And even when you look at the support that they do get, there is some racial discrimination there. So for example, the Haas Institute said that white farmers that grow specialty crops receive a payment of about $10,000 per farm, while Black farmers receive an average of about $5,000 per farm.

So not only are communities of color restricted in buying food, but also heavily restricted in growing their own food through these political actions. Now, when it comes to urban planning, can you talk to us a little bit about the impact that urban planning policies have on neighborhoods and communities?

So I’ll talk about the National Housing Act 1934, which was implemented by the Federal Housing Administration. And the purpose of this was to promote home ownership and launch many Americans into the middle class. The FHA provided loans to people so that they could purchase houses, but many people of color were largely left out. In fact, about 2% of these FHA loans were made to nonwhite buyers. What the FHA did was they gave certain neighborhoods different credit ratings. And often what they would do is if you were a suburban or a white neighborhood, you got a higher credit rating than a more ethnically diverse or economically unstable neighborhood, which tended to get lower credit ratings; which made them seem more risky and they had less chance of getting loans. Now we know home ownership is how people get launched into middle class and are able to accumulate generational wealth. So the inability to do this left people of color without that ability to accumulate generational wealth. And this policy also has four major ways in that it impacted people’s lives. So because a lot of the folks who received the loans were then moving into the suburbs and out of the cities, many policies favored building roads and highways into these new suburbs and then drove divestment away from public transportation in cities, which people in the cities, mostly people of color needed to get to jobs and to grocery stores. The relocation of homeowners also meant that they drove out grocers and other retail operations into the suburbs, and that people lost access to employment and also lost access to good places to get food. Local farmland was also lost because of the creation of these new suburbs. So you had to go even further out for folks to be able to get access to good fresh food in the city. And then also they lost a strong property tax base, which led to a decline in public school investment, which included quality school food programs.

Thank you for laying that out so clearly for us. I think it really gives us a sense of how these structures of racism operate almost in invisible ways to reduce the power and food security of communities of color. To end with, I’d like to ask you a question about power in communities of color. What are some ways in which black indigenous and people of color are pushing back against these structures of racism?

There’s so many different ways! As we said at the beginning, institutional racism and structural racism are about policies and practices. And so BIPOC communities are taking action in those same ways. So if we’re looking right now at critical policies, folks are really lifting up the emergency relief for BIPOC farmers, act that came out of the American Rescue Plan, and the legislation that has been presented around justice for Black farmers. There’s also been a really big movement towards connecting to land. There’s the Land Back movement, which is a movement organizing to get indigenous land back in the hands of indigenous people and communities. And a lot of folks are bringing up again reparations, which is recognizing the centuries of the government and corporations profiting off of the harm that they’ve inflicted on black people. But if we’re looking particularly at food sovereignty, some of the ways that BIPOC folks are building power is through healing that connection to the land. And a lot of that looks through buying the land and stewarding that land communally and cooperatively. It’s looking at more people going back to farming, to foraging, to hunting in the ways of their ancestors and honoring those practices and knowledge. It looks like seed saving. It looks like many people growing herbal medicine and using those practices because of the differential access to health care that folks have. It looks like defending the rights of mother earth, defending the land and water and see if you’ve seen many defenses against pipelines by indigenous communities. And it also, I think more importantly, all of these are part of looking at different economic structures that are not exploitative or extractive. You know, really looking at solidarity economies and things like just transition.


Suzanne Babb is Director of US Programs, Nourish Network for the Right to Food. Suzanne works in collaboration with partners to transform the emergency food system from one rooted in charity to one rooted in justice and to build solidarity between emergency food providers and food justice organizations. Through participation in local and national level strategic partnerships, Suzanne helps to create space and facilitate dialogue around the systemic inequities that cause hunger and poverty. Originally from Montreal, Quebec, Canada Suzanne has many years of experience working on community development projects within the English-speaking Black community of Montreal on issues of education, employment and health. Prior to joining WhyHunger, Suzanne was the Community Outreach Coordinator for the Get Healthy Harlem website at the Harlem Health Promotion Center. Suzanne is a member of Black Urban Growers, an organization of volunteers committed to building community support for urban and rural growers and nurturing collective Black leadership, and an urban farmer at La Finca del Sur Urban Farm, a Black and Latina women led farm, in the South Bronx. She holds a BS from Concordia University and an MPH from Columbia University.


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