Food Deserts Are Deliberate, But Black Farmers Are Fighting Back

This story is part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems. It was originally published by Word in Black.

A farmer looks at his right side with his crop behind him

The days of legal segregation in the U.S. are past us, but Black folks continue to feel the health effects of racist policies that took place when it was law.

Practices such as “redlining” — where the federal government mass-produced housing subdivisions for white people in the 1930s and required that none of the homes be sold to Black people — continue to contribute to poor health outcomes in our communities.

During that time, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) refused to insure mortgages in and around Black neighborhoods, which were colored red on maps to indicate “risky” for lending. According to the FHA, property value declined wherever we lived — which is not true.

Now, decades after white people secured homes in the suburbs while we were pushed into urban housing projects, the health effects have become clear.

Black communities once deprived of lending and investment suffer from lower life expectancy, higher rates of chronic diseases, and worse COVID-19 outcomes.

“Food deserts,” or communities that lack access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables, are just one consequence of segregation. Compared to 31% of white people, only 8% of Black people live in a census tract with a supermarket.

The result: It’s hard for us to access fresh, affordable food. But a new crop of Black farmers is closing the gaps.


The Connection Between Segregation and Health Outcomes

Medical doctor and professor of equity in health and healthcare at Johns Hopkins University, Lisa A. Cooper, was shocked when she learned there was a connection between segregation and poor health outcomes in her Black patients.

“I was seeing [Black] people coming in with high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, cancers, at much younger ages than I would see white people,” she recalls.

A graphic that explains the number of options per 10,000 residents by county in 2016 and relative prevalente in counties with above-average Black populations

Cooper took a closer look at the lives of her patients and realized the neighborhoods they lived in were a part of the problem. On top of transportation issues making it hard to get back and forth to medical care, she noticed they struggled with “terrible life circumstances that would make it stressful for anybody to really be healthy.”

Cooper says these circumstances include people “not being able to afford their rent or their family members being incarcerated,” as well as “there being violence in their neighborhoods that kept them from being able to exercise.”

Cooper, a native of Liberia, dug into the history of segregation in the U.S. and realized the conditions of Black neighborhoods didn’t have anything to do with Black people — it has everything to do with policy.

“They didn’t just end up like that by happenstance. They ended up like that because there were policies that have been put in place like 40, 50 years ago and longer,” she says.

One-in-five Black residents — or about 8.3 million — lack easy access to fresh food, according to data from the McKinsey Global Institute and McKinsey Institute for Black Economic Mobility.

These Black communities also tend to have more convenience stores selling foods low in nutritional value versus farmers markets, restaurants, and grocery stores.

“What I’ve found to be the solutions are really in the people in communities that are impacted by this,” Cooper says about solving health inequalities caused by segregation.

Opening a Certified Naturally Grown Farm

Bobby Wilson, CEO of the Metro Atlanta Urban Farm, is one of many residents around the country who got tired of watching his predominantly-Black city struggle to access fresh food.

In 2009, he used his retirement funds to buy five acres just minutes from downtown Atlanta and started planting seeds.  

During the pandemic, when the local food system was impacted, and it was harder to utilize indoor stores, the farm fed 25,000 families with boxes of tomatoes, okra, greens, swiss chard, and other crops that were in season.  

“I like to think and feel that I am having one of the greatest impacts that one individual can have on marginalized and underserved communities across this country,” Wilson says.

Since Wilson has operated the certified naturally grown farm, Atlanta has seen growth in the city’s access to fresh food. As of 2020, 75% of city residents now live within a half-mile of fresh food, compared to 32% in 2015.

The farm is located on the north end of College Park, a town that’s 80% Black with a 29.5% poverty rate, and on the south end of East Point, which is 77.5% Black with a 23% poverty rate.

Wilson says some people in those communities don’t have cars and will walk to the farm “with their buggies and their baskets so that they can be loaded up in wagons so that they can take them back to their home.”

A supermarket accessibility map created by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) confirms several households in College Park and East Point lack vehicles and are more than one-half mile from a supermarket.

A graphic that shows a map nd low income and low access layers for 2019

The disparity of Black neighborhoods lacking supermarkets has been coined as “supermarket redlining,” when chain markets refuse to plant stores in impoverished communities or relocate existing stores to wealthier areas.

Sound familiar?  

“We see people commuting on the sidewalk on a regular basis going to this grocery store that’s on the north side of the farm. And so it’s the only grocery store within miles from the area of the farm,” Wilson says looking out the window of the home that sits on the land.

By understanding his community, Wilson and his supporters at the farm have been able to accomplish a lot. They’ve been recognized by politicians and agriculture organizations like the Natural Resource Conservation Service, an agency part of the USDA.

And while he’s had an “impact on those who have power and privilege,” Wilson says supporting those in need is most important.

“In my mind, that little lady that walks up here pushing her basket that needs food for her and her grandchildren — those are the people that I really want to have an impact on,” he says. “Those are the people that I really want to be able to make a difference in their lives.”

The Metro Atlanta Urban Farm is part of a network of Black-led farms, gardens, and organizations working to solve food inaccessibility in Black communities.

To name a few, Soul Fire Farm in Petersburg, New York, Soilful, and Dreaming Out Loud in Washington, D.C., Feed Our Soul in Los Angeles, and FreshLifeOrganic in Houston are committed to planting seeds in their regions.

“Food is the tool. Community organizing is what we really do,” Wilson says. “We use agriculture as the tool to get to the hearts and the souls of the people and to fight for injustice that is permeated within our society.”

Article Details

July 23, 2022 8:00 AM
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