One person standing up for food justice can cause a domino effect.

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Designer: Alexis Lira

Historically, oppression and systemic injustices have been a collective experience among Black people living in the United States.

The United States was built on indigenous land on the backs of Black people. This is not new information. Yet, this inherited trauma is still influencing our present-day lives.

Simply put, what’s required to be well and thrive aren’t available for all Black people.

Foods that are commonly associated with Black American culture are often unfairly deemed as unhealthy.

Today’s fast-food versions of fried chicken and cured meats are a distant cousin of the delicacies that were enjoyed on special occasions throughout the old agricultural south.

Home cooks of the past were creative and seasoned greens with the ends of cured meats or slow cooked the less desirable cuts because this is what they had access to.

It’s no accident that today our neighborhoods are flooded with the fast and processed versions of soul food.

Why is this?

Racism feeds social injustices like lack of access to jobs, safe housing, personal safety, and quality education. These factors are fundamental determinants of health and well-being.

Across the country, Black communities are disproportionately underfunded, resulting in a significant gap. Racism affects nutrition as a social determinant of health that has a major influence on Black people’s access to healthy food.

There are major structural and systemic inequities, and the nutrition and health-related impact within the Black community has been devastating.

Black communities in both rural and urban areas are more likely to experience food insecurity.

Markets are also redlined — the practice of excluding entire geographic areas from receiving resources — resulting in decreased access to full-service grocery stores.

On the other hand, Black communities often have excessive access to dollar stores and liquor stores that provide nutrient-poor, inexpensive shelf-stable items. These are known as food swamps and food deserts.

Access to basic, essential needs varies widely. It’s greatly dependent on environmental factors, including employment opportunities, safe and affordable housing, education, healthcare, and support through local policies.

These issues, compounded with decreased availability and lower intake of nutrient-dense foods, increase the risk of noncommunicable diseases.

Without financial means to consistently purchase nutritious foods, food choices are driven by affordability. More often than not, this means they’re rich in added sugars, salts, and synthetic fats.

Historically, Black families haven’t had access to the same financial stability and resources as their white counterparts.

Other financial barriers include statistically lower household income and fewer opportunities for well-paying, livable-wage jobs.

Black communities often have limited access to financial literacy and savings, lower access to personal and business credit, and relatively lower generational wealth transfer.

There’s a major racial wealth gap detrimentally impacting the Black community.

Many schools within Black communities are underfunded, leaving the children who attend these schools with fewer educational opportunities. This leads to a significant achievement gap.

Educational institutions in under-resourced Black communities often lag behind wealthier, adequately funded areas.

This impacts the quality of school lunches and educational resources, such as supportive educational curriculums highlighting health and nutrition.

The quality of life within Black communities has been adversely impacted as a result of centuries of bias and hate. Structures need to be dismantled and rebuilt with equity at the forefront.

Funds need to be redistributed to support the most marginalized communities. Humane, quality healthcare needs to be provided to unburden communities that bear the brunt of metabolic diseases.

People in positions of power need to ask themselves how they can actively contribute to systemic change while dismantling racist practices. There are actionable and measurable steps that can be implemented to bridge these gaps.

Nutrition education

Community-based initiatives that meet community members where they’re at provide valuable knowledge related to health and nutrition. These strong community relationships support long-term change.

Redistribution of funds

The racial wealth gap in the United States continues to burden Black communities. It prevents them from breaking through the systemic barriers hindering wealth-building.

Reallocating funds from overfunded institutions, and instead investing in protecting and uplifting Black communities, could address this centuries-long financial oppression.

Put an end to food swamps

It’s important to be mindful of the ways we’re discussing and implementing food access in Black communities.

Increasing access to food should be done from a community-centered approach — meaning working with the community to increase nutritious options based on the cultural foodways of community members.

Changing the food landscape of a community is more than simply moving in a full-service grocery store. A holistic approach should include open discussions with Black community members to identify what they want and need.

For example, access to fresh produce may be addressed by holding local farmers markets or organizing Black-led CSA programs.

A dialogue approach enables autonomy, agency, and self-sustaining energy.

Biases are implicit, and we all have them.

All beliefs and behaviors are learned, whether they’re taught through family, friends, and education, or workplace, political affiliation, and social environments.

Society reinforces and perpetuates our implicit biases. Intentionality is required to acknowledge, address, and unlearn our biases, beliefs, and behaviors.

Commit to listening and learning

For non-Black people, recognizing implicit biases can be uncomfortable.

It’s necessary to come to terms with these biases and gain an understanding of how and why they developed, as well as how and why they serve non-Black communities while hurting Black communities.

There are a number of trainings and resources available specifically focused on implicit bias, race, racism, and social determinants of health.

Stop blaming Black communities

We collectively need to stop blaming Black communities for their health-related issues and understand that social determinants of health largely influence nutrition and health.

Through recognition of key drivers enabling health barriers, we can identify areas that require support and develop impactful ways to address them.

Champion Black-led groups

Support and champion Black-led and Black-servicing local groups and organizations focused on improving nutrition and health outcomes within Black communities.

Looking for organizations that have a mission that’s in line with your own interests and beliefs can be one way of finding groups to support.

Follow Black leaders

Follow and learn from what Black leaders are already doing to help the health and well-being of their communities.

Use social media for good, find and follow these leaders, and have their messages permeate your social feeds. Seek out leaders that resonate with you.

Expand and diversify your life experiences

Actively seek out spaces that share images, stories, and experiences of people from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. Listen and learn from their lived experiences.

While this may seem difficult in the time of COVID-19, consider alternative ways to respectfully experience cultures outside your everyday life.

This can include cooking an unfamiliar dish, reading a book or article on a relevant topic, or supporting the artists of that particular group.

Use your voice

Speak out — engage with your family and friends about the things you learn. We’re influenced by the people who matter to us most.

One person standing up for racial justice can cause a domino effect.

Systemic inequities, racist practices, and cumulative barriers maintain a persistent and widening gap for the Black community.

The generational impact of lacking access to safe, affordable, and nutritious foods, equitable housing, quality healthcare, and financial stability have a deep impact. Solutions focused on lasting change require close collaboration between government agencies and community leaders, with a willingness to restructure the current system.

For widespread evolution to occur, dismantling systemic racism and structural inequities must remain a priority and be elevated to the national agenda to garner the necessary public awareness, education, and support.

Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN of Brooklyn-based Maya Feller Nutrition is a registered dietitian nutritionist and nationally recognized nutrition expert. Maya believes in providing nutrition education from an anti-bias, patient-centered, culturally sensitive approach. Find her on Instagram.