May 3, 2017

4 Not-So-Easy Ways to Dismantle Racism in the Food System

Our food system is built on stolen land and exploited labor. Here’s what we can do it fix it.
By Leah Penniman /
4 Not-So-Easy Ways to Dismantle Racism in the Food System
Participants in Soul Fire Farms’ Black and Latinx Farmers Immersion program. Photo by Jonah Vitale-Wolff.

Racism is built into the DNA of the United States’ food system. It began with the genocidal theft of land from First Nations people, and continued with the kidnapping of my ancestors from the shores of West Africa. Under the brutality of the whip and the devastation of broken families, enslaved Africans cultivated the tobacco and cotton that made America wealthy.

But the story doesn’t end with the Emancipation Proclamation. Later came convict leasing, a form of legalized slavery that kept many Southern black people on plantations—in some places until the late 1920s. Just a few decades later, Congress created the migrant guest-worker program, which imported agriculturalists from Mexico and other countries to labor in the fields for low wages.

All of this history combines to produce the racism I see today in my work as a farmer and activist for food justice. Farm management is among the whitest professions, while farm labor is predominantly brown and exploited. Meanwhile, people of color tend to suffer from diet-related illnesses such as diabetes and obesity, and to live in “food apartheid” neighborhoods—high-poverty areas flooded with fast food and corner stores, but lacking healthy food options. While some writers refer to these areas as “food deserts,” I prefer the term “food apartheid” because this is a human-created system of segregation, not a natural ecosystem.

Our food system needs a redesign if it’s to feed us without perpetuating racism and oppression.

With this new administration, that’s even truer today than before. After the election of a presidential candidate who ran on a racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic platform, the power of white supremacy in the United States is laid bare. Just as our ancestral mothers braided seeds of rice and okra into their hair before boarding slave ships, believing in a future of harvest in the face of brutality, so must we maintain courage and hope in these terrifying times.

As we work toward a racially just food system, abandoning the “colonizer” mentality that first created the problems is crucial. The communities at the frontlines of food justice are composed of black, Latino, and indigenous people, refugees and immigrants, and people criminalized by the penal system. We need to listen before we speak and follow the lead of those directly affected by the issues.

This article offers four infographics that explain different aspects of the problem. It also contains two solutions for each of them—some of the systemic changes we’d need to fully address it, and a way for individuals to take action. I hope these can be practical seeds of hope toward a racially just food system.

1. Uphold everyone’s right to land

After decades of discrimination by the federal government, Black farmers have lost almost all of our land. Reparations for past harm are the first step to justice.

System Shift: Where possible, land and wealth must be redistributed to the descendants of those from whom it was stolen. Some first steps would be to pass the bill H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations proposals for African Americans, and to create debt forgiveness programs for farmers affected by discrimination. We must also halt and reverse the grabbing of land from tribal nations, such as we’ve seen at Standing Rock and Bears Ears.

As Ralph Paige of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives has put it, “Land is the only real wealth in this country, and if we don’t own any we’ll be out of the picture.”

Since land loss in the black community is ongoing, we need to intervene by supporting land trusts, which are community organizations that hold property for the common good. Land trusts can purchase and temporarily hold black-owned land after foreclosure, the death of the owner, or amid a legal dispute. Organizations such as the Land Loss Prevention Project, which provides legal support to black landowners trying to keep their farms alive, need our backing.

Plant Your Seed: Read the HEAL Food Alliance and Movement for Black Lives Policy Platforms, which offer pathways for land reparations and a just food system. Take a moment to appreciate the brilliance of the text and then host a discussion group at your congregation or workplace with the goal of having these organizations endorse and implement these platforms.

2. Honor the people who grow our food

The U.S. does not provide a living wage, health care, or labor protections to the farmworkers who feed us. It’s time to update the law and stop exploiting agricultural workers.

System Shift: The people who feed our families deserve full protection under the National Labor Relations Act and Fair Labor Standards Act, which should both be amended to remove exclusions for farmworkers. All workers deserve the same rights, including minimum wage, collective bargaining rights, and protections from child labor.

Since many are not citizens, immigration reform is needed to create pathways to full citizenship for farmworkers and their families. Let’s join Movimiento Cosecha—one of the organizers of the “Day Without Immigrants ” event planned for May 1—in calling for permanent protection, dignity, and respect for the 11 million undocumented people in this country.

Beyond that, farmworkers need pathways that allow them to advance to management and ownership of farms. Programs like the National Black Farmers Association “Let’s Get Growing” program and Soul Fire Farm’s Black and Latino Farmers Immersion, which focus on training farmers of color, need support so they can equip farmworkers to become managers. (Full disclosure: I co-direct Soul Fire Farm).

Plant Your Seed: Encourage your local farmers, supermarkets, and cafeterias to join the Domestic Fair Trade Association and to seek Food Justice Certification through the Agricultural Justice Project. Both groups uphold high standards for fair treatment of workers and care of the environment.

3. Eliminate Food Apartheid

Communities of color have less access to life-giving, healthy food, resulting in high rates of obesity and diabetes. Policies and actions that boost community control are part of the answer.

System Shift: Healthy food is a basic human right, not a privilege for the wealthy. To honor this right, we need to fully fund the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and make it easier to use by allowing online purchasing and providing higher allowances. The Affordable Care Act—currently threatened by Republican elected officials—should be updated to allow doctors to prescribe vegetables and fruits, not just pills, as some organizations in New York state are already doing. Insurance companies need to cover this “medicine” as well.

Ultimately, we are working toward food sovereignty, where all people exercise the right to control our own food systems—including in cities. Passage of the Urban Agriculture Act of 2016, introduced by U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, would allow urban farmers to be counted in the Census of Agriculture and receive government support for the programs they run, such as community composting and school gardens. Further, food sovereignty can be aided by requiring that community food projects hire locally and have local residents on their decision-making boards.

Plant Your Seed: Catalyze your community to raise funds to help your local farmer provide affordable produce to the most vulnerable—refugees, incarcerated people, and those living in food deserts. Organizations such as the Corbin Hill Food Project and D-Town Farm have models for doing this, using sliding scale pay systems, doorstep delivery, and farmers markets near neighborhood schools.

4. Support Farmers of Color

Access to education and start-up funding remain barriers for aspiring farmers of color. Some federal programs have made progress, but need more funding to meet the scale of the challenge.

System Shift: To make small-scale sustainable farming a viable career, we need to pay farmers for stewarding the public trust.

In Costa Rica, the government pays responsible farmers for “ecosystem services” like protecting pollinators, sequestering carbon in the soil, and preserving waterways. The United States could create a similar program, perhaps funded through a tax on the large-scale farms that are driving climate change, extinction, and soil erosion. The USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which provides technical and financial support for farmers to implement conservation plans, is a start. The program has been getting better at reaching farmers of color, but it needs investment and expansion.

The USDA’s Socially Disadvantaged Farmers Grant (also known as the 2501 program) is another key program that’s designed to help farmers of color. But it needs to be made more accessible by increasing funding, easing the onerous application process and reporting requirements, and offering technical assistance to access the funds.

Education is another piece of the solution. To support aspiring farmers of color, we need to provide full scholarships to land grant universities and other agricultural degree programs. Currently, many of these programs are geographically inaccessible to people of color. To address this barrier, satellite “campuses” on urban and rural farms owned by black, Latino, and indigenous people can be developed. These training programs must explicitly address racism in the food system and provide support for healing from land-based trauma.

Plant Your Seed: Put your skills to work supporting a farmer or food business owner of color. Farmers often don’t have enough time to attend to the administrative aspects of their operation, like grant writing, web design, social media, marketing, legal research, and blogging. A partial directory of black-operated farms can be found at this Google doc maintained by the staff at Reach out to see if you can help.

The work to end racism in the food system is inexorably connected to efforts to dismantle racism in the economic, educational, criminal justice, health and democratic institutions in this country. You can learn more about structural racism in Rewriting Racial Rules: Building an Inclusive American Economy and in The U.S. Farm Bill: Corporate Power and Structural Racialization in the United States Food System.

Infographics by Lori Panico.


Graphic 1
1. USDA Census of Agriculture 

2. Size of FHA Loans, 1965, page 69

3. Farmland Value Guide, 2015

4. Median farm size, 2012, page 2 

5. Payouts from Pigford settlement

6. Whitest professions in the United States

Graphic 2
7. Percentage of Latino farmworkers and Latino farm managers, page 9 

8. Farmworker income levels, page 51 

9. Effect of increasing farmworker wages on grocery bills

10. Pesticide Poisoning in California, page 2 

11. Percent of Farmworkers with insurance

12. Occupational Injuries in Agriculture

Graphic 3
13. Food Security in America, 2015, page 22 

14. Communities with one or more supermarkets

15. Body-mass index of American adults, 2011-2014

16. American with diagnosed diabetes, 2010-2012

Graphic 4
17. Farmers who receive payments from the government, 2007, page 4 

18. Percent of grain and vegetable farmers operated by white farmers and farmers of color, 2012

19. Average number of months and acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), page 65 

20. Allocations of Environmental Quality Incentives Program funds (EQIP), by race, 2011-2013


Leah Penniman wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Leah is a farmer and educator at Soul Fire Farm in the Albany, New York, area.

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