Food Equity: How Structural Racism Reduces Sustaianbility in the Food System

July 26, 2016

Written By: Emma Rotner, UNHSI 2016 INFAS Sustainability Fellow

As climate change progresses, environmental degradation worsens, and the human population continues to grow, many people have voiced concerns regarding the sustainability of the food system. However, environmental conditions are not the only factors that are influencing the sustainability of the food system. Sustainability of the food system must be approached from a holistic viewpoint. This means addressing the environmental, economic, and social aspects of the food system that are currently unsustainable. In fact, environmental conditions aside, the United States has a great deal of injustices present throughout each level of its food system, which are making our food system unsustainable. Structural racism and social inequities that are present within our society have translated directly to each level of the food system and have created inequities within the food system from production, processing, distribution, consumption, and disposal.

Workers in fieldBeginning with the production side of the food system, approximately 75% of farmworkers in the U.S. are immigrants, both documented and undocumented, or migrant laborers. These farmworkers receive some of the lowest wages in our country and are very prone to work-related injuries due to the physically demanding labor of farming. Additionally, because a large percentage of farmworkers are migrant laborers or undocumented immigrants, these workers are unable to defend their rights in the way that American citizens are able to. As a result, these workers are subject to abuse, unjust treatment and unfair wages. Processing plants also mainly employ people of color and immigrants. These processing plants can cause adverse health effects and are also known for unjust treatment of its laborers. [1]  Within the production and processing of the food system, a majority of managers are white, whereas approximately 88% of the laborers are people of color. [2]

Food insecurity is a problem that is plaguing our country to the point where 1 in 7 Americans are struggling to get enough to eat and it is also one of the most glaring examples of racial inequities within the food system. In 2014, 48.1 million Americans were classified as food insecure, translating to 14% of households in the U.S.  [3]   What is even more troubling about these statistics is that people of color are far more likely to experience food insecurity. One in four African American households were classified as food insecure [4] and more than one in five Latino households are classified as food insecure, compared to one in ten white households. [5]   All of these statistics regarding hunger and food insecurity are extremely troubling. However, what is especially troubling is that Latino and African American households are twice as likely to be food insecure than their white counterparts. Additionally, landfills where waste from the food system is sent are much more likely to be located in a lower-income community of color. [6]  All of these disparities and examples of social injustices demonstrate how large of an impact structural racism and socioeconomic factors have on every level of our food system.

In order to have a more sustainable food system, we must also ensure that we are creating a more equitable food system. This is by no means an easy task considering that these inequities within our food systems are caused by institutional and structural inequities within our society. However, there are many examples of people and organizations working to address the adverse effects of this systemic issue. When addressing areas of inequities in the food system, it is important not to speak for the marginalized communities or groups or people, but instead to stand in solidarity with them.

Reforms to our immigration system and organizations that are working to empower farmworkers so that they can defend their rights can help improve the justice of our food production. [7] Food sovereignty is also identified as one of the most important components of improving food security and equity. In order to create a more equitable food system, we must ensure that we have a more inclusive food system where everyone’s voice can be heard.

For example, creating urban gardens has been a very successful way to increase the access of urban communities to fresh and healthy food while also greatly increasing the participation of these communities in their food. [8]  There have also been many initiatives across the country to ensure that low-income families who are SNAP and WIC participants can use these benefits at farmer’s markets in order to increase their access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food.  [9]   Colleges and universities can also play important roles within their communities at improving food equity. Because colleges and universities are typically coming from a place of privilege and have access to a large number of resources, they can be valuable allies for communities and community organizations who need assistance in their fight to improve food justice and sustainability.  [10]

The inequities discusses within this post are just a insight to the many injustices that occur within our food system on a daily basis and the examples of ways to address these inequities are an even smaller insight into how people, communities, organizations, and institutions are working to fight against these injustices. The most important take-away from this post should be to recognize that we live in a society where structural inequities directly impact who has access to fresh and healthy food and who has a voice within our food system. Each of us plays a role in the food system and our everyday actions and purchases have a much greater impact than those that we can directly see. It is crucial that we understand our role within the food system, how our purchases affect others, and how we can work to create a more equitable, sustainable, and just food system where everyone is equally represented and has equal access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Access to healthy food and justice within the food system should be a right, not something that is dictated by societal inequalities. 




Image Sources:


[1] The Center for Social Inclusion. "Structural Racism and Our Food." The Center for Social Inclusion.


[2] VanDeCruze, Denise, and Melinda Wiggins. "Poverty and Injustice in the Food System: Report for Oxfam America." 2008.

[3]  Feeding America, "The Impact of Hunger & Food Insecurity," Feeding America, 2016, , accessed July 14, 2016,

[4] "African American Poverty." Feeding America. 2016. Accessed July 14, 2016.

[5] "Latino Hunger." Feeding America. 2016. Accessed July 14, 2016.

[6] The Center for Social Inclusion. "Structural Racism and Our Food." The Center for Social Inclusion.

[7] "Immigration Reform & Farmworkers." Home.

[8] Bell, Beverly, Tory Field, and Deepa Panchang. "Uprooting Racism in the Food System: African Americans Organize." Other Worlds Are Possible. March 9, 2013.

[9] Farmer's Market Coalition. "SNAP and Farmers Markets." Food and Nutrition Service. Accessed July 18, 2016.

[10] "INFAS." Inter-Institutaional Network for Food Agriculture and Sustainability. Accessed July 18, 2016.

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