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Food Apartheid and the Relation to Factory Farming

Racial disparity in access to fresh healthy food is still a serious issue in the United States.

Food justice is more complex than supplying hungry people with food. A truly just system  relieves food insecurity along with hunger. Food insecurity is the lack of access to a consistent supply of nourishing foods. Communities facing this lack are often referred to as food deserts. However, the term “food desert” may gloss over the systemic racial and socio-economic oppressions that lead to disparities in food access. The alternative term “food apartheid,” from food justice scholar Ashanté M. Reese, more explicitly points to the systemic nature of discrimination that disproportionately affects certain food insecure communities. The term “apartheid” refers to a type of legal segregation based on race that existed in South Africa from 1948 to 1991. As Reese explains it, food apartheid is “intimately tied to policies and practices, current and historical, that come from a place of anti-Blackness.” In other words, while “deserts” give the impression they are naturally occuring, “apartheid” stresses the structural foundations and unjust policies that restrict communities of colors’ agency. The industry of factory farming is another structure that limits people’s agency in the food they consume, and actively sustains elements contributing to food apartheid, such as fast food restaurants. Drawing connections between these two oppressive structures illustrates how factory farming can dominantly restrict our agency in food production and choice.

Neighborhoods in the United States have historically been legally divided by race and class. In the 1940s, laws actively segregated communities through housing policies.Several were straightforward, like “redlining,” which legally excluded Black individuals from purchasing property on certain streets. Some were less overt but equally as pernicious, such as imposing mandatory property remodeling costs—placing a financial barrier as buyers of color had less wealth than their white counterparts. The Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) would create residential maps to evaluate areas by the environmental and landscape quality. Those deemed “hazardous” quality provided housing available for people of color whereas those of quality were deemed “best” reserved for white communities. Since these zones were deemed of lesser environmental quality, factories and refineries found little resistance to their arrival. The images below display the HOLC’s redlining map of Los Angeles in the 1940s and the 2010 census results, respectively.

(​Figure 1). The Racial Dot Map of Los Angeles demographics with borders of Los Angeles County regions. The Racial Dot Map was provided by Dustin Cable at the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia and the borders were provided from The Los Angeles’ Times “Mapping LA” neighborhood map. The racial demographics are from the 2010 United States Census. Orange signifies Hispanic/Latinx, green signifies Black/African American, blue signifies white, Non Hispanic, red signifies Asian, and brown is a catch all for categories such as mixed race and Indigenous Americans.
(Figure 2). Historic redlining map of the city of Los Angeles area from “Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America” project by Richmond University. The map is color coded with the grade given according to spatial racial demographics and environment.

The racial distribution today roughly correlates to the environmental grade assigned decades prior. The most significant change is the growth of environmental hazards such as refineries. Through the built environment, marginalized people are limited access to adequate social services, education, and financial opportunities that would have provided leverage to fight against corporations’ environmental hazards. Environmental hazards are not the only endangering aspect within low-income communities of color. Residents in marginalized communities were restricted from receiving crucial federal loans that would grant physical or economic mobility: moving or opening their own businesses was particularly difficult. In the 1960s, the growing fast food industry took advantage of the lack of businesses and saturated these cities with franchises. While white suburban communities owned automobiles for travel, urban people of color relied on public transportation or walking. This severely constricted where they could access alternative grocery stores and restaurants. Along with the cheap pricing, convenience, and the proximity to residents, fast food soon became the staple food establishment in inner cities. In Franchise (2020), Marcia Chatelain dissects the history of fast food companies infiltrating and saturating the urban food market for Black communities. The factory farming industry directly supports these establishments that benefit from the lack of agency in these communities. Foods that are widely available to the residents via grocery stores or fast food restaurants are cheap due to factory farming encouraging overproduction and diminutive regulation of food products, an argument that Julie Guthman defends in her book Weighing In (2011). 

Even those not afflicted by food apartheid that have less restricted access to alternative foods lack agency in the food production industry. For example, even if a resident has access to a healthy foods grocery store, they still don’t have a say in how that food is produced. Due to the oligarchy of industries in agriculture and farming, we as consumers have little to none agency in how foodstuffs are manufactured. Food apartheid is another barrier against consumers’ food agency, aside from factory farming, but specifically in the context of race. Agency in food is deeper than having certain foods available as an option; it involves the production and origin of all provisions. Ultimately, a common goal of food justice advocacy is undoing these structures and giving the means of food production in our hands.

Grocery stores that are centered around offering organic or sustainable foods have an intricate process to determine their locations. Chains such as Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods tend to be anchored in white, higher income neighborhoods to maximize their profits with a reliable consistent consumer demographic. However, the issue is not exclusively the dearth of organic grocery stores in low-income communities of color. If there was a Whole Foods in such a community, it still is inaccessible culturally. Aside from the inflated prices and transportation access, the products offered at these grocery stores are often perceived as “white people food,” or attempt to provide cultural foods that ends up being more offensive than appealing. Even if fresh produce and other ingredients were accessible and culturally relevant, many residents likely don’t have the expertise and skills to cook with them. In the effort to relieve food accessibility, farmers markets and grocery stores may sell produce and meat outside of the factory farming industry. However, residents often don’t possess the appropriate culinary knowledge. 

The consequences of a food apartheid cannot be relieved with the introduction of a new supermarket or food pantry. External attempts to shift community diets, for example with an unfamiliar  towards a “healthier” style are critiqued as reproducing systems of oppression that already limit residents’ food agency. Food apartheid centers on the cultivation of food justice, defined as “a state in which all people have access to sufficient, affordable, healthy, culturally appropriate food, and – very importantly – respect and self-determination in all phases of food production, exchange, and consumption.” Community food systems planning involves addressing four sectors: consumption, processing, distribution, and consumption to accomplish several equitable goals for communities. The first step of local planning is to perform a community food assessment reliant on the residents’ experiences and centered around the four sectors mentioned previously. The framework of community food security looks at “income, transportation, storage and cooking facilities, food prices, nutritious and culturally acceptable food choices, food safety and other environmental hazards, questions of ownership, production and processing methods, and the existence of and access to adequate, local, non-emergency food sources.” While healthier, “greener” foodstuffs can be provided and even made equally as accessible, there is another step: the end of factory farming and bringing the means of food production to those consuming it. Factory farming relates to food apartheid in that it further limits the community’s agency to food production, disproportionately harming communities of color. Factory farming supplies materials to fast food chains and nutritionally insufficient, processed foods for cheap. This gets distributed to urban areas and saturates communities of colors’ diets as it is the only type of product available and accessible. The agricultural industry often hides in the cruelties of food production through hegemonic avenues (legislation, advertising, government labels) to maintain dominance in the generation of our food. These avenues affect almost every consumer, however, consumers of color affected by food apartheid face disproportionate consequences and restrictions.

Cassandra Wood is a college intern at FFAC.