“Food desert” is a commonly used but inadequate term coined by researchers to define areas where people have low incomes and low physical access to supermarkets. The term Food Apartheid more accurately describes the racist and oppressive systems that create inequitable food environments.
While the term “food desert” has become standard in food policy circles, it has some serious shortcomings. For one, a “desert” is a thriving natural ecosystem, while a “food desert” is a human-created environment rooted in systems of oppression. Additionally, using the term “desert” implies that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) and low-income communities are empty, desolate places, lacking in value. This terminology minimizes the harmful impacts of systemic racism and capitalism, and it dehumanizes people of color and people living in poverty. Research on Detroit by Yale professor Dr. Dorceta Taylor suggests that such framing is incorrect. A more asset-based approach to understanding food systems acknowledges the complexity, resilience, and self-determination within these communities and reveals an entirely different picture of problems and solutions.
Food justice is fundamentally about racial justice, because in the United States, race and racism not only structure everyday experiences but also influence the (under) development of neighborhoods and the implementation of policies that disproportionately disenfranchise Black communities... The desire to 'bring good food' to Black communities [as a primary solution]…reinforces the belief that these communities have little or no investment in creating their own place-making strategies toward food self-sufficiency.
- Ashante M Reese (2019) Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington, D. C.
This work's primary credit is due to the Black scholars and leaders whose work is quoted throughout this page. These leaders, most of whom are women, have spearheaded the complex and on-point analysis of food inequities as intertwined with other forms of systemic oppression.
Food Systems and Equity Consultant
The Table Underground
Yale Center for Business and the Environment CBEY
Yale School of the Environment Alum 2019
About 24 million Americans live under food apartheid, in which it’s difficult to impossible to access affordable, healthy food. This trend is not race-neutral. White neighborhoods have an average of four times as many supermarkets as predominantly Black communities.
- Leah Penniman, Farming While Black (USDA data)
In the US, structural racism and capitalism have led to enormous food system disparities. Some neighborhoods (typically white and wealthier) have access to abundant fresh, nutritious, and affordable food, while others (typically BIPOC and lower-income) do not. Scholars like Elizabeth Eisenhauer and Ashanté M. Reese have both extensively documented the ways in which the supermarket industry has played an active role in discriminating against communities of color and has often aligned with public policy and practices that systematically disadvantage BIPOC communities and re-enforce segregation, gentrification, and public disinvestment in Black and Brown communities.
llustration: - Daniel Chang Christensen
“Food Apartheid” is a term that offers a more accurate analysis of the full circumstances we call attention to when describing inequitable access to food. This term, coined by elder, farmer, and food justice leader Karen Washington, clearly identifies the racial and economic policies and practices that intentionally create communities lacking access to fresh, affordable, life-giving food. Food apartheid shifts the framing away from geographic and economic “access” and toward the root causes of food system injustices, like decades of racially biased housing policy, zoning codes, and lending practices, food industry consolidation, union-busting, and wage stagnation. Only by addressing these root causes — not just filling “food deserts” with chain supermarkets — will we achieve the basic human right of nourishing, affordable food for all people.
You say 'food apartheid' and you get to the root cause of some of the problems around the food system. It brings in hunger and poverty. It brings us to the more important question: What are some of the social inequalities that you see, and what are you doing to erase some of the injustices?
- Karen Washington, The Guardian
Term Comparison and Explanation
Defines the food access problem as one primarily of location and transportation
Implies that this is a natural phenomenon and absolves responsibility
Term created by primarily white researchers from outside of these communities
Implies that these communities are lacking and barren
Defines the food access problems as a result of intentional and systematic racial and economic oppression
Acknowledges this is a human-created problem that needs systemic solutions
Term created by Black leaders and gives agency to people within these communities to define the problem and solutions for themselves
It does not erase the self-determination and resiliency within communities that are low income and primarily Black, Brown, Indigenous, and People of Color.