Friday, January 18, 2013

Food Racism - What Genocide Looks Like in the 21st Century

Last week I was asked to screen Soul Food Junkies, a documentary that was to begin airing on PBS this week, at a local gathering of chefs, nutritionists and community activists. Soul Food Junkies deal with the unhealthy relationship we have with food, our addiction to it, and a number of preventable diseases we could avoid if we only ate at least a few greens every week. I myself love to eat fresh. I love vegetables, fruits, big salads, whole wheat. You know, the good stuff. I'm not here to argue the effects of genetic splicing and such, because that is another debate. In fact, it's a debate that some people in the United States can't even begin to wrap their minds around, and that's because they lack access to any fresh food whatsoever. These people live in communities where there is only 1 grocery store per every 10,000 people. In better off communities, that number is more like 3 grocery store per every 10,000. This prevents lower income people from having access to healthy foods, and they live in what we call a food desert.

While Soul Food Junkies deals with a number of health issues, one topic it touches on, and that deserves its own movie, is the racism of food. A number of the talking heads, and the narrator himself, bring up the fact that in the modern era, minorities, who make less money on the dollar to a white male and who tend to occupy lower income jobs as well as have a higher rate of unemployment, occupy these food deserts at disproportionate rates. 
Lack of access to healthy food leads to consumption of unhealthy foods at a higher rate. Fast foods, fried foods, become the main diet as opposed to the occasional indulgence. Worse than eating bad foods is the absence of eating any healthy foods. I myself once worked at a Title I school with low income kids who got their only fresh vegetables from our cafeteria. At home, they never saw actual, fresh veggies on their plates. What vegetables they got were soaked in cooking grease.

This isn't entirely on the parents when there is no easy access to grocery stores, especially in some lower income communities where transportation is done on foot or by bus. The insidious consequence, though, are the higher rates of destructive, preventable diseases that arise in these minority communities. An entire generation is being destroyed by diabetes and cancer, just from lack of access to quality food. It's genocide, the destruction of a people, but a genocide committed not quickly and with guns, but slowly and by preventing lack of access to food. People are being starved out, forced to low quality consumption. In fact it's no different from the situation of slaves over a century ago that were forced to eat the lowest quality foods that were left over from the masters table.
I'm not the only one who thinks of it as genocide, either. The documentary implies the same thing, and a number of the panelists screening the film that night made the same accusation. There's hope, however.

Mother Jones has had a series of quality articles food deserts and urban gardens. For instance, did you know that in Chicago, when local urban gardens have been planted for the community to participate in, that crime dropped significantly? As one of the panelists told me about his experience in California, "the kids went from slanging dope to slanging alfalfa seeds." We need to see more of these, as well as more supermarkets with quality foods. Even though supermarkets aren't immediate cures for bad food habits, which will require education of a population, they at least provide options that some people don't currently have. Heading into the future there's a tough struggle coming. Quality food must be made cheaper, so that families can better afford it. However, how that food is made and its impact on the environment is going to come up in the same breath. If $20 of fruits and vegetables can be made as cheap and long lasting as $20 of white bread and processed cheese, there may be some headway. Urban gardens provide at least one way of possibly providing this sort of access to the poor.

It's a tough question that will need to be tackled, but at least people are finding ways to tackle it, and I hope you'll think about this topic if you never have before. In the meantime, give Soul Food Junkies a watch, airing this month on Independent Lens on your publicly supported Public Broadcast System!

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