Food & Sovereignty: Juneteenth 1865-2021
Now a federally official holiday, Juneteenth is about celebrating Freedom Day for ancestors of Africans enslaved in the U.S. prior to June 19th, 1865. Among so many other meaningful details for how Juneteenth is a jubilee for AOS (Ancestors of Slaves) folx almost 160 years later, we at Khala & Company gravitate to celebrations that honor special foods and drinks symbolic to Juneteenth. From Africa to Texas, strawberry drink to fried chicken & collard greens, the menu for Juneteenth grounds us in how vital spiritual and nutritional nourishment is to African American communities across the nation. As you might already know, June 19th is significant because it happened nearly 3 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and by decree of the General Order No. 3 delivered by Union Army General Gordon Granger to liberate the slaves of Texas. For this year's most-significant Juneteenth, as we amplify the excellence of Black Americans and their freedom from slavery, we would like to throw a spotlight on the importance of food sovereignty in this equation – how it can be used as a means to both overcome systemic oppression and offer solutions to environmental justice.
CW: there will be discussion of chronic health problems, historical and contemporary racism, a brief mention of slavery and lynching, as well as climate change. If you’re not up to reading about that today, that’s okay. Please come back when you are ready and have taken care of yourself.
Food deserts are generally classified as an area without access to healthy and affordable food options, within one mile for urban areas and ten miles for rural ones (7,1). This means that residents don’t have access to nutritious food such as fresh produce, but are instead limited to more processed offerings that are cheap, but unhealthy. According to the USDA, “In all but very dense urban areas, the higher the percentage of minority population, the more likely the area is to be a food desert” (7). Because of the historically-entrenched correlation between African-Americans and lower wage-earning potential post-slavery (and so many additional, ongoing socio-economic oppressions), food deserts largely impact low income areas whose residents are also often reliant on public transport (as anyone with a car payment knows, access to the road is costly). With greater access to processed foods, high in sugars and fats, as opposed to fresher options, residents are subject to all the health complications associated, such as obesity and cardiovascular disease (8).
Food deserts are uncomfortably common - 23.5 million out of 231 million Americans live in one (7).
THE GROCER'S AISLE AS A WEALTH GAP
According to the Food Empowerment Group (2021), predominantly white neighborhoods were found to contain on average four times as many grocery stores as predominantly Black ones, and grocery stores in African –American neighborhoods have been found to have fewer selection than their white counterparts (1). You can look anywhere in the U.S. to find examples, particularly cities with a history of segregation and redlining like Baltimore. Let's not point fingers far afield though; a stark example is in our own backyard here in Colorado.
The Country Club neighborhood in Denver is comprised of 95% white residents, and while there are no grocery stores within it, there are four grocery stores within a mile of its borders, three of which are big chains (4). There are many small local restaurants and specialty food shops, the majority of which are clustered close to the borders of the neighborhood itself (2,4). While there is some fast food nearby, the sheer volume of regular restaurants with a wide swathe of cuisine options means that residents of Country Club are not forced to choose fast food, by any means.
In Skyland, where 41% of residents are black and 53% are white, there are again no grocery stores. However, there are three convenience/liquor stores and one fast food restaurant within the borders of the neighborhood; go under a mile off any side, and there are three more convenience/liquor stores, four fast food restaurants (4). There are two small grocery stores, one of which sells largely packaged products, and two large chain groceries within the mile radius (4). While this means that the Skyland neighborhood is not technically a food desert, notice the clustering of restaurants as compared to Country Club; the majority are at the edge of the mile radius, whereas fast food options are much closer, and don’t require residents to travel through the entirety of a park to get to (4).
Nearly 25% of adult residents and a whopping 69.6% of children in Skyland were classified as low income without access to healthy food within one mile as of 2010 (5). This is an unheard of problem in the Country Club neighborhood; the same study found that all residents had access to healthy food within a mile, and with the variety of nutritious options available, it’s no wonder how that could be (6).
Lest you think we’ve been unfair in picking one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Denver and comparing it to a smaller, lower income one, we searched for the neighborhoods in Denver with the highest density of white residents and highest density of black residents respectively. Besides Skyland, there was Northeast Park Hill (NPH). NPH was not chosen because the difference in Black residents was negligible (37% in Skyland as compared to 38% in NPH), and because Skyland, like Country Club, borders a park/green space, whereas NPH borders a landfill.
Why do food deserts exist? Race and economics tied to the historical arc of AOS communities in the U.S.
FOOD INEQUITY’S HISTORICAL ARC
During slavery, a slaveholder had direct control over the diet and nutrition of the people they claimed ownership over, which often led to brutal conditions. After Abolition, white businesses refusing to service Black customers led Black entrepreneurs to build their own grocery stores in their neighborhoods. These entrepreneurs conducted business under the threat of being raided by white mobs, angry with the thought of a Black business competing with their own.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett was witness to one such event in 1892. Three of her friends, Tom Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Will Stewart started a grocery store together in Memphis, Tennessee. They quickly came up against resistance from the white owner of another grocery store, who claimed they were taking his customers. One night, the three friends were forced to guard their grocery store from attack by a white mob, and in defending their store, shot three white men. They never got a chance to face trial; a lynch mob came and took them from their cells and murdered them. Ida wrote about it in the newspaper, and traveled the South in order to make public the many other instances of lynching going on, putting her life on the line more than once to do so (9).
This is only one instance of aggression against Black entrepreneurs trying to nourish and support their community through the establishment of grocery stores. Additionally, there has been resistance to a Black person’s food autonomy at the agricultural producer-level as well - for more information about Black farmers, and the historical aggression and oppression they have endured, listen to the How to Save a Planet episode, “Soil: The Dirty Climate Solution”.
On the economic side of things, a chain grocery can claim low income is the reason they exclude certain neighborhoods, assessing the population to be too poor to buy their products and justify their operations (8). To remedy the situation, in the 2008 Farm Bill and to support Michelle Obama’s Get Moving campaign, incentives such as tax breaks were offered to chain groceries in an effort to get them to build stores with more equal distribution (8). The impact this has had is not clear yet.
Whatever the reason, race based or economic, it is clear that equal access to quality, nutritious food is not a given for Black neighborhoods in Colorado and nation-wide. What can be done then? What actions can an individual take to ensure that their neighbors and community have access to food that is healthy?
SOCIAL JUSTICE IS CLIMATE JUSTICE
Access to nutritious food, access to purchasing options, access to transportation - are all essential pieces of the puzzle here. This involves a system overhaul; ensuring all neighborhoods have grocery stores within walking distance (that provide affordable options for healthy ingredients, as well as a variety of options), is in and of itself a tall order. It requires nothing short of the involvement and best effort from everyone participating in that food system.
Big ask though it might be, considering how race and our food system are so deeply intertwined, solving racism in food distribution could help solve agricultures contributions to climate change. Consider this:
Food inspires empathy because we all cannot survive without it, and is perhaps the most vital part of any day. Food as a connector of humanity is a great way to think of it; we all want to be healthy, we all want to eat something not just nutritional but also tasty and life-giving. How can we guarantee everyone has that right?
In order to assure nutritious food is available to everyone, we need to rethink how our food system fits into not only neighborhoods but nature too. It has been proven after decades of pesticide use and monoculture that our current way of farming is unsustainable, and as mentioned before, wasteful. In order to make nutritious food available regardless of race, we need to rethink how we grow our food on masse, how we can distribute it equally, and with as little waste as possible. At every step where racism creates inequity and demands solutions, there is a chance to overhaul with climate-friendly options in mind, to be more in step with natural processes and growth. This Juneteenth, while celebrating the emancipation, freedom, and excellence of African Americans, take the time to consider how we will show up for future generations when it comes to food and sovereignty.
FOUR ACTIONS YOU CAN TAKE RIGHT NOW:
- START AT THE SOURCE - Support local urban gardens and gardeners. We love the work Ietef "DJ Cavem Moetavation" Vita is doing in Denver and beyond to support “Black gardening enthusiasts-turned-entrepreneurs across the country” according to this May 19th, 2021 story by NPR.
- BE A CIVIC “INFLUENCER”- Get incentives going to build grocery stores in your neighborhood if it’s experiencing food desertification, and / or get involved with city governance and local economic development that would help to ensure equal access to food. We are especially inspired by this story about how businesses can work with local communities to literally transition convenience stores to grocery stores through professional development & mentorship that seeks to close the racial & food equity gap.
- ADDRESS FOOD WASTE - According to Project Drawdown, “in places where income is low and infrastructure is weak, food loss is typically unintended and structural in nature” - this means that food is wasted when the transportation and storage of food is not well supported (p.42). What to do? As a consumer, hold grocery stores and chains more accountable for how they manage food distribution earlier in the supply chain by working more closely with producer organizations. As a citizen, support municipal efforts to keep roads and buildings repaired and updated to make transport easier. And once that food goes from grocery store shelves to your own, arrest the spoilage of food by storing it properly.
- BE INTENTIONAL AND COMMITTED - Donate your time when you can, donate food when you can, try to be aware & stay aware of food deserts and why they exist. If you don’t live in a neighborhood with this issue, be an ally / co-conspirator, understanding that you can never understand but can always help. Check in with Black Environmentalist | Social Justice Activist | Outdoor Enthusiast @KweenwerK on Instagram for information & motivation.
- CONNECT & CELEBRATE WITH FOOD: For Juneteenth menu learning & inspiration, check out https://www.blackfoodie.co/black-food-bloggers-celebrate-juneteenth-with-a-virtual-cookout-menu/
- https://foodispower.org/access-health/food-deserts/ stats around grocery stores (which are themselves sourced, so go get reading), definition of food desert
- City of Denver neighborhood demographic maps, including race, income, language, education Country Club
- City of Denver neighborhood demographic maps, including race, income, language, education Skyland
- Google maps
- https://denvermetrodata.org/neighborhood/skyland Skyland neighborhood data 2010-17
- https://denvermetrodata.org/neighborhood/country-club Country club neighborhood data
- https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/45014/30940_err140.pdf USDA info
- https://www.nps.gov/people/idabwells.htm life and times of Ida B Wells
- Drawdown: The most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming. 2017, Penguin Books.