Tanya Fields Executive Director of the BLK ProjeK in New York joined the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy Tuesday, September 17, to launch the 2013/14 webinar series, Frontiers in Food and Agriculture. Tanya’s talk, “The Road We Travel: From Fare Food to Fair Food,” considered how we link theory and practice in food justice as she addressed the complicated and often sensitive issues of justice and racial inequality in the food system. She framed issues of urban food justice in a historic and geographic context, but also discussed the inherently personal link between her own life experiences and food.
For Tanya, any progressive conversation on altering the food supply system must begin by considering how racism has become institutionalized into the very fabric of our culture and reinforced through the structures and policies of the food system. This inherent racism, she said, biases supply, access and quality -- creating not only food deserts but also food apartheid for low-income residents of marginalized communities like the South Bronx.
Food apartheid refers to situations where the availability of fresh, nutritious food is delineated by racial and economic neighborhood boundaries. This form of racism has also been referred to as “retail redlining,” or denying financing and loans to people of color based on their geographic location. A recent Huffington Post article notes the same phenomenon in South L.A., where grocery stores and other corporations are leaving the neighborhood despite consumer demand.
This link between nutrition and geography is as striking as it is entrenched. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a non-profit focused on American health, recently published a series of infographics visually depicting the difference in life expectancy for neighborhoods in several major American cities; the neighborhoods are separated by only a few short miles, but wide divisions in socioeconomic status. The Foundation found that babies born in inner-city DC live as many as seven years less than those born a few metro stops away.
This structural racism is further captured in the interactive Food Environment Atlas put out by the USDA’s Economic Research Service. The map reveals that the Bronx, which had New York City’s highest percentage of both Blacks and Hispanics in 2010, has more than 10,000 people with low access to food stores.
In the presentation, Tanya spoke about her own struggles with access to high quality food as she raised a child with food allergies and respiratory issues, which she found to be related and connected both to the quality of her family’s living environment and the quality of the food they ate. She highlighted the challenges of travelling long distances with children in tow and trying to stretch a meager income and SNAP benefits while paying a premium for organic produce at grocery stores targeting high income consumers.
SNAP is the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps. According to the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, which administers the program, “SNAP is designed to reduce food insecurity – reduced food intake or disrupted eating patterns in a household due to lack of money or other resources.” In August the Service released its findings from an official assessment on the effectiveness of the program. “Participating in SNAP for 6 months,” the study found “was associated with a decrease in food insecurity by about 5 to 10 percentage points, including households with food insecurity among children.”
Tanya’s personal anecdotes and the findings of the USDA study are made all the more relevant by the House of Representative’s recent majority vote to make substantial cuts to the SNAP program. The bill aims to cut $40 billion from the program in the space of the next 10 years and also seeks to restrict eligibility to the program. These changes are bound to have a material impact on communities like the South Bronx: 15.2 percent of the Bronx population, according to the USDA Atlas, participated in SNAP in 2011. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the changes will result in a reduction in participation in the program by about 30 percent.
Jena Clarke is a first-year Master of Environmental Management candidate at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She earned her B.S. in International Agricultural Development from the University of California, Davis in 2009. She is interested in agricultural policy, especially relating to livestock production and rangeland management. Her background is in cattle ranching in the US and Australia, where she worked as a cowgirl and later as a business analyst for a corporate agricultural funds manager.