Redlining, Food Apartheids and Black Food Justice

– Katie Petit and Riley De Jesus

The USDA defines a food desert as “a neighborhood that lacks healthy food sources.” While this term has been widely used to describe communities with lack of access to fresh foods and grocery stores, it is imperative that we contextualize what this language can mean to people living in communities defined as ‘food deserts.’

Contrary to the imagery that the term ‘food desert’ evokes, we know that these communities are not desolate or inherently lacking; there is abundant life, energy and potential to be found. Karen Washington coined the term ‘food apartheid’ to make the shift inward, exploring the root causes of food system inequities as being directly correlated with race, class and geography.

The fact of the matter: healthy, fresh foods are accessible in wealthy neighborhoods, while unhealthy foods are bountiful in poor neighborhoods. This is an intentional, policy disparity that leaves racialized individuals

A study concerning multiple communities found that wealthy neighborhoods had three times the number of grocery stores as low socioeconomic neighborhoods, while white neighborhoods had four times the number as African American neighborhoods. African Americans living in an area with access to one or more grocery stores are more likely to consume fruits and vegetables than those living in neighborhoods without. For each additional neighborhood grocery store, produce consumption increased by 32%  

The degree to which a neighborhood has access to healthy food sources can be measured by distance to a store, the number of stores in a given area, accessibility of these stores, means of transportation and income level of community members. Although these neighborhoods may have corner and convenience stores, the shelves are stocked with cheap, processed, nutritionally empty foods–foods high in sugar and fat–which increases the risk of chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and other diet-related issues.

So what shapes food apartheids?

Redlining, Jim Crowe, environmental racism, income inequality, anti-Black farming policies, saturation of convenience foods, lack of food sovereignty, colonialism, residential segregation, classism, lack of access to growing spaces influenced food apartheids.

The history of segregation continues to shape every aspect of people’s lives—including the food they have access to. 

Redlining maps were created with the intent of formalizing the division between white and Black citizens in a given city, based on principles of so-called desirability and race. In the U.S., redlining is defined as a discriminatory practice in which services (financial and otherwise) are withheld from individuals residing in neighborhoods deemed ‘hazardous’ to investment, with residents belonging largely to racial and ethnic minorities. The formalized practice of redlining began in 1934 with the passage of the National Housing Act, leading to the creation of race-based maps of more than 200 U.S. cities.

The development of food deserts in minority neighborhoods as well as purposeful construction of supermarkets impractically far away from targeted residents are direct results of the redlining.

Food disparities in U.S. cities have a collective effect on people’s health. Research has linked them to the disproportionately poor nutrition of Black and Latino Americans, even after adjustment for socioeconomic status. As much as urban planning has been part of the problem, it could now be part of the solution. Some cities have begun using planning tools to increase food equity.

Michelle Wu’s Food Justice Agenda notes that: food justice means racial justice, demanding a clear-eyed understanding of how white supremacy has shaped our food systems. Her campaign outlines clear policy goals:

  • Support independent food businesses to build a more resilient, diverse food economy.
  • Liveable wages for local food chain workers.
  • Expand residents’ access to fresh, nutritious, affordable, & culturally relevant foods.
  • Public procurement to deliver good food for residents and create opportunities for diverse, local businesses.
  • Coalition of community advocates to secure food policy reforms.

Some additional policy options:

  • Low interest loans for retail food places to operate in food apartheids and keep up with inflation price changes.
  • Tax cuts for food places operating in food apartheids.
  • Financial support, liveable wages and basic income for food workers.
  • Health insurance for food workers sponsored by government.
  • food subsidies for fresh, culturally relevant produce.
  • Support community-led food policy initiatives (policy councils, advisory boards).
  • Revise zoning laws to promote food equity.
  • Housing, transport, childcare and other direct social assistance.

Food justice means affirming that consistent access to nutritious, affordable, and culturally relevant food is a universal human right.

Reference List:
Agyeman, J. (2021, August 16). How urban planning and housing policy helped create ‘food apartheid’ in US cities. Retrieved February 18, 2022, from
Berryman, L. (2020, November 25). Redlining and Racism – the Real Roots of Food Deserts in our Communities. Retrieved February 18, 2022, from
Brown , R. (n.d.). Overcoming food apartheid – center for community and economic development – michigan State University. Overcoming Food Apartheid – Center for Community and Economic Development – Michigan State University. Retrieved February 18, 2022, from
Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. (2021, April 15). What is a food apartheid? Retrieved February 18, 2022, from
Move for Hunger. (2020, August 11). Redlining and Food Justice in America . Retrieved February 18, 2022, from
Pink, R. (2018, October 11). Birmingham’s ‘food deserts’ have been shaped by its redlined past. Retrieved February 18, 2022, from
Price, J. H., Khubchandani, J., McKinney, M., & Braun, R. (2013). Racial/ethnic disparities in chronic diseases of youths and access to health care in the United States. BioMed research international. Retrieved February 18, 2022, from,Racial%2Fethnic%20minorities%20are%201.5%20to%202.0%20times%20more%20likely,seem%20to%20be%20getting%20worse
Zhang, M., & Debarchana, G. (2016, February). Spatial supermarket redlining and neighborhood vulnerability: A case study of hartford, Connecticut. Retrieved February 18, 2022, from

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: