Covid-19 and racial justice actions present it’s time for black meals sovereignty in Brooklyn

Sandy Nurse (via @ SandyforCouncil / Twitter)

Black and brown communities in Brooklyn are exposed to an excessive concentration of food deserts, where people do not have access to healthy, affordable grocery stores and other nutritious options. And the number of Americans suffering from food insecurity is not expected to increase until the coming months, with low-income blacks being hit hardest.

At the same time, the racial justice movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd and meshed with Covid-19 has drawn helpful attention to food justice and has given new impetus to what is often referred to as “food sovereignty.” Achieving food sovereignty looks like a community with the right and ability to control its own food and farming systems. This community has the power to implement sustainable, healthy, and culturally appropriate methods in every step of their food production and distribution process.

In Brooklyn, the growing movement for food sovereignty is not monolithic but is expressed in a multitude of individuals, grassroots organizations, and delivery models. These organizations raise thousands of dollars to feed black families, move organic waste and turn it into compost, open farm stalls with elementary school students, and change the way we think and talk about food justice.

Perhaps the reformulation of the “Food Desert” label is one of the first starting points. Karen Washington, a food justice attorney and black farmer, writes: “The word ‘desert’ [makes] we think of an empty, absolutely desolate place. But there is so much life, aliveness, and potential in these communities. She prefers the term “food apartheid” and believes it is more important to look at the basic hierarchies of race, class and geography within the food system.

These areas of food apartheid typically follow racial and socio-economic lines – in New York City, the spaces are most concentrated in the South Bronx, Harlem, and Brooklyn. These low-income color communities have poorer health outcomes in part because of food insecurity. If the only affordable options are high-calorie, low-nutrient foods, it’s not surprising that insecure people have higher rates of obesity, higher blood pressure, and even developmental delays. At the moment, this also means a wider spread and more serious cases of Covid-19. Nationally, the coronavirus kills blacks at 2.5 times the rate of white people. Statistics are similar for mostly black neighborhoods in Brooklyn – Brownsville had twice the infection rate for the city as a whole.

Food insecurity will increase by millions due to pandemic outages, predicts Feeding America, a national network of hundreds of food banks. People of color on low incomes are particularly at risk because of the professions they often find in the service or hospitality industries. “With so many public services shut down indefinitely, these workers are facing particularly dire circumstances,” says Feeding America.

Food apartheid does not come about by chance. Historians trace their origins back to the segregation of dwellings caused by the process of “redlining”. From the 1930s onwards, post-New Deal federal agencies including the Federal Housing Administration and the Federal Home Loan Bank Board spearheaded the creation of “residential security maps” by cities across the country to assess potential real estate investments. Racial prejudice and discrimination were anchored in this process. The maps were color-coded to show neighborhoods where investments were rated “safer”. New, affluent, white suburbs were colored green and given the highest “Type A” rating, while the older black districts closer to the city centers were colored red and marked “Type D”, undesirable for investment. Public and private developers followed the cards for decades, and money flowed into the suburbs and out of the cities. White families fled to the suburbs, leaving black families in urban areas.

Supermarkets followed the white run and proliferated in the suburbs, where there were bigger lots at cheaper prices, attractive regulations and supposedly less crime. But when the supermarkets in the cities closed, the city dwellers suffered. “African Americans, Latinos, and Indians who live in [low-income urban neighborhoods] Keep traveling, have fewer choices and pay more for groceries than their counterparts, ”reported the ACLU and New York Law School. “When minority families shop for groceries locally, they find a grocery store 2.5 times smaller than the average grocery store in a higher-income neighborhood, with more expensive groceries, less fresh produce and more processed food.”

The holes supermarkets have left have usually been hastily filled with “food swamps,” areas with an overabundance of unhealthy options, including fast food chains and bodegas. The nutritional consequences of a low-income person are doubled – not only are they depriving these groups of healthy foods, but also that the only affordable options are those that directly contribute to the disease. New York’s largest food swamp is in East New York, right next to Brownsville. As City Limits explains in detail, “There are 27 fast food chains in the zip code 11207 and another 14 in the zip code [neighboring] Zip code 11208. ”And in Brownsville there is only one supermarket for every 15 bodegas.

For Nancie Katz, executive director of Seeds in the Middle, a nonprofit advocating expanding access to food in Brooklyn, “eating healthy is a civil right. And there has been a systematic withdrawal from fresh fruits and vegetables [from] low income communities. “Seeds in the Middle’s main project is the Hip2B Healthy Market, a small market for products run by elementary school students in Brownsville to provide affordable nutrition to residents and other high school students. The young entrepreneurs sell grapes, carrots and other fruits and vegetables for 50 cents a serving. Since schools closed this spring, Seeds in the Middle has been working to open ten similar farm stalls in central Brooklyn, where they will accept EBT and SNAP payments.

For many proponents of food sovereignty, the movement fits right into the larger framework of the movement for racial justice. Sandy Nurse, an activist and city council candidate in central Brooklyn, believes land is the main connection point. “It’s reparation and land. Black people have been promised something, and never have that promise been made. And even when it was given to them, it was forcibly taken from them. ”

Even in 1865, land was considered so important to the creation of a just society that newly freed slaves advocated radical land distribution after the Civil War, promising them 40 acres and a mule. Blackland ownership has steadily evaporated since that false promise, as has blacks’ ability to control their own homes, reduce gentrification, and design healthy systems for food and agriculture. “If we don’t have the land, we can’t protect ourselves, we can’t feed ourselves,” says Nurse. While land repairs may not be imminent, Nurse has led numerous food justice projects.

Nurse founded BK ROT, the city’s first bicycle-powered, fossil-free transport and composting service for food waste. Staffed by young adults, the Bushwick-based organization transports organic waste from nearby small businesses and households and converts it into high quality compost. BK ROT has partnered with around 20 companies and estimates it has composted over 300,000 pounds of food waste since it opened in 2017, half of which has been donated to local farms. Since the coronavirus pandemic in Brooklyn, Nurse has been working with local groups to distribute food to households in need. She also teaches at NYC Farm School, an organization that trains local residents in urban farming techniques.

For Raina Kennedy, a food sovereignty organizer at the Brooklyn Movement Center, the primary role of food justice is to redefine a locally grounded and locally controlled food system. In this way, communities can finally design systems that meet their own needs. “It’s about having more ownership of every part of [the] Food chain, ”she says. “[It’s] to be able to tell where the food is coming from, where it is going and to be able to [say]No, we don’t want a McDonalds, a KFC or a Taco Bell on this street corner. We want a vegetable market. “

For Raina and others fighting for food sovereignty, the traditional, predominantly white, government and private company systems of black and brown people have repeatedly failed. “I think it’s very clear that we are the ones who have to do something because the government did this [said]You are on your own. “In response to the pandemic, they took on this cloak – The Central Brooklyn Food Co-Op, which works with the Movement Center, is the only black-run organization of its kind in New York City. It began in 2013 as a direct effort to expand access to healthy and affordable food for low- and middle-income black families, and in June, in partnership with other local food justice organizations, launched the #HoldDownBK campaign to raise $ 5,000 for the To raise food supplies for families in Black Brooklyn, the campaign raised over $ 40,000 by the end of the month.

The movement for food sovereignty is diverse, both conceptually and in execution. According to Sandy Nurse, the spill over is “a clear call to action to invest in our food system. in the [central Brooklyn] There is so much interest. There is such a legacy of farmers, especially black farmers, black women who manage land and grow food. It’s not like it’s a random concept, ”she muses. “There is a lot of vision and power in using food to drive many different kinds of changes that we finally need to make.”

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