More than 23 million Americans don’t have access to healthy, sustainable food. That includes many food workers who are putting their lives on the line to produce food during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This public health crisis has only shed more light on the systemic racism faced by food workers. Meatpacking workers, for example, have been victimized by the industry and the administration working together to force meat plants to stay open despite outbreaks, leaving workers to choose between getting sick or missing a paycheck. About 42,000 meatpacking workers, mostly Black, Latino, and immigrant, have been infected with COVID-19, and more than 200 have died.
Meanwhile, in the fields, migrant workers keep working through the pandemic, too, often without adequate access to basic protective equipment, handwashing stations, or health care. During historic heatwaves this summer, farmworkers worked through dehydration, and with little rest, food or sustenance, while providing food for the rest of the country. And when the western states erupted in wildfires and produced smoke so thick the sky turned red, farmworkers continued to work, using cellphones as flashlights.
The American food system is rooted in injustice. Remnants of the plantation paradigm of enslaved human labor form the foundation of food production in the United States. There are glaring disparities between those who own land and those who work it, and between those who can grow their own food and those who lack access to healthy, sustainable diets. These differences can mean life or death for Black and Latinx communities.
About 2.4 million farmworkers help produce the national supply of fruits and vegetables, and they are primarily Latinx, Black, and immigrant. They work long hours in harsh conditions for wages that aren’t livable. Farmworkers face some of the most dangerous working conditions in any industry, exposed to heat stress, toxic pesticides, and lack of access to clean water.
In return for putting their lives on the line to put food on our tables, they’re compensated the least, receive the least protection from job-related health risks and exploitation and are statistically most likely to suffer food insecurity.
Land ownership can be a powerful way to establish food security and give people sovereignty over their environmental health and well-being. Yet Black and Latinx Americans are more likely to work the fields than own them.
There are only 45,000 Black farm owners in the United States, compared with 3.2 million white farm owners. Black Americans make up just 1.3 percent of U.S. farmers, but 13 percent of the U.S. population. Not only is the division of land ownership inequitable, but so too are the earnings and worth of those holdings. Black farm owners typically earn 20 percent of what white farm owners earn. And white farmers are more than 10 times more likely than Black farmers to earn crop sales beyond $50,000.
The “bootstrap” mythology romanticizes successful farming as the mere result of hard work and sweat equity, but the success of farms has more to do with subsidies and financial privilege. Federal subsidies, loans, grants, surplus purchases, and other government funding often determine whether farmers can buy land and keep that land amid market fluctuations and natural disasters. And that money disproportionately flows to white over Black farmers.
One recent study notes that in the last century Black Americans lost 80 percent of their land from unfair loan and insurance distribution. Although this injustice was exposed decades ago, little has been done to level the field. Instead, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has treated Black farmers as adversaries, withholding a large portion of funds intended to compensate Black farmers for decades of financial discrimination.
In 1999, the USDA settled a lawsuit brought by Black farmers who were denied access to government loans, subsidies, disaster assistance, and other aid. It was the largest monetary award in a civil-rights class action settlement in U.S. history. Yet 90 percent of the 100,000 farmers who made complaints were denied funds, and the USDA provided only $650 million in payouts instead of $2.3 billion.
This system is rotten with white supremacy and exploitation. It must be dismantled and replaced with one that ensures safe, fair conditions for food workers and equitable access to healthy, sustainable food.
Yet, even as they’re surrounded by this toxic landscape, Black and Latinx communities across the country are replanting a food system rooted in farming independence and traditional cultures.
In Portland, the Black Food Sovereignty Collective is breaking systemic barriers of racism that lead to economic and food system inequities. Keep Growing Detroit promotes urban farming to supply local fruits and vegetables and helps Black farmers purchase land in the city. In Atlanta, Grow Where You Are is a collective of farms and gardens that works to eliminate harm to humans and nonhuman animals, reduce waste, and provide support to other new local farms. The project’s partner organization, Maitu Foods, has served thousands of plant-based school lunches to celebrate abundance, food, and living in harmony with the planet.
These initiatives and more are featured in the Food Justice Film Festival, presented by the Center for Biological Diversity late last month. The festival provided the public with an opportunity to learn more about the deep-seated injustices in our food system.
The story of the American food system has been whitewashed; the labor of people of color and the systemic, deeply painful injustices they face have been erased from it. Yet the food system is utterly dependent on the work they do.
To change the way we think about food, farming, and community and find a better path forward, we need to look at the work being done by Black, Latinx, and immigrant farmers, filmmakers, and food activists and listen to the stories of their traditions and knowledge.
Jennifer Molidor is a senior food campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity.