Food apartheid: the root of the problem with America’s groceries

Food justice activist Karen Washington wants us to move away from the term ‘food desert’, which doesn’t take into account the systemic racism permeating America’s food system

“When we say ‘food apartheid,’ the real conversation can begin.”
 ‘When we say ‘food apartheid,’ the real conversation can begin.’ Illustration: Daniel Chang Christensen

America’s sustainable food movement has been steadily growing, challenging consumers to truly consider where our food comes from, and inspiring people to farm, eat local, and rethink our approaches to food policy. But at the same time, the movement is predominantly white, and often neglects the needs and root problems of diverse communities.

Issues of economic inequality and systemic racism permeate our national food system. The movement’s primary focus has been on finding solutions to “food deserts” – defined as areas empty of good-quality, affordable fresh food – by working to ensure that affected neighborhoods have better access. But some advocates, and studies, have argued that the proximity of a well-stocked grocery store is not enough of a solution given this country’s elaborate food problems.

Farm subsidies in the United States go predominantly to white farmers, which has led a group of black farmers to sue the US government for discrimination. Food pantries, which distribute food directly to those in need, are stigmatized. Our subsidized food system, as the activist and community organizer Karen Washington points out in the interview that follows, “skews the cost and value of food”.

Washington has been battling for food justice for three decades. Before taking up the cause, she worked as a physical therapist, and saw many of her patients, predominantly people of color, suffering from diabetes, obesity, and hypertension. (More than one-third of American adults, and 48% of African American adults, are obese.) Treatment always involved medication and surgery as opposed to prevention, and Washington knew there had to be a better way. She moved to the Bronx, in New York, in the mid-1980s and became a vocal community gardener.

Since that time, Washington has won a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award, been invited to the Obama White House for her involvement with New York’s Botanical Garden, and been called “urban farming’s de facto godmother”. She’s also worked to transform the Bronx’s empty lots into spaces where food can grow, helped launch a farmers’ market, and, in relentlessly engaging her community, has remained focused on the intersections of food and issues like poverty, racism, a lack of healthcare, and joblessness.

– Anna Brones for Guernica

Karen Washington, a food justice advocate.
 Karen Washington, a food justice advocate.

Guernica: When did you begin growing food?

Karen Washington: Well, it all started with a tomato. I never liked it. It wasn’t red, it was pale pink, it had no taste. Until I started growing it myself, I didn’t even know it grew on a vine, let alone that it was red and brown and juicy. When I finally bit into someone’s fresh, garden-grown tomato, it just changed my world. It really gave me the ambition to want to grow food myself. Then, in 1988, I looked out my kitchen window to the empty lot across the way and saw a man with a pick and a shovel. I went out and I asked him what he was doing, and he said, “I’m thinking about starting a community garden.” I asked if I could help. We’re about to celebrate our 30th year [of working together].

Guernica: That’s amazing!

Karen Washington: It is amazing. My gardening got me into community organizing and activism. I noticed that when I went to visit friends who were white, their neighborhoods, their food system, their supermarkets were totally different compared to what I was seeing in my backyard. At my local supermarkets, things that should have been composted were wrapped up in cellophane and sold at a reduced price. We had a variety of food, but I wouldn’t call it fresh. It looked like it was secondhand, and people had no other options.


Guernica: We often use the expression “food desert” today. Does that term help us create infrastructure to ensure better access to food, or is it hindering our ability to do so?

Karen Washington: I was just in Pennsylvania and North Carolina talking about food deserts, and the topic of food justice and food sovereignty, and putting it out there that it means nothing to me. I asked people to define it, and, of course, they gave me their cookie-cutter definition: “Communities who have limited access to food.” That means nothing. Who in in my actual neighborhood has deemed that we live in a food desert? Number one, people will tell you that they do have food. Number two, people in the hood have never used that term. It’s an outsider term. “Desert” also makes us think of an empty, absolutely desolate place. But when we’re talking about these places, there is so much life and vibrancy and potential. Using that word runs the risk of preventing us from seeing all of those things.

What I would rather say instead of “food desert” is “food apartheid”, because “food apartheid” looks at the whole food system, along with race, geography, faith, and economics. You say “food apartheid” and you get to the root cause of some of the problems around the food system. It brings in hunger and poverty. It brings us to the more important question: What are some of the social inequalities that you see, and what are you doing to erase some of the injustices?


Guernica: You mentioned wanting to challenge people to look beyond their raised beds. What is the best way to ensure that people have access to food? Is it by focusing on food production or focusing on systemic racism and economics?

Karen Washington: All of the above. This idea that just because you give people the ability to grow their own food, and give up soda for water, that all of sudden it’s going to make these people’s conditions better? No. We have to talk about race, we have to talk about economics, because those are the things holding people back.

‘It all started with a tomato. When I finally bit into someone’s fresh, garden-grown tomato, it just changed my world.’
 ‘It all started with a tomato. When I finally bit into someone’s fresh, garden-grown tomato, it just changed my world.’ Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

I wake up dreaming that my neighborhood has been given capital, has been given opportunity, has been given finance, that we can own our stores and businesses. Why is it that outsiders always have to come into our neighborhood to open a business? Why don’t people with capital come into my neighborhood and think about investing in the people who already live here? Give them the capital, give them the means of financial literacy, teach them how to invest, teach them how to own homes, teach them how to own businesses. Give them that chance, instead of coming in and changing the dynamics and the complexion of our neighborhood.

People often interview me and they ask me questions like: what’s it like to live in a neighborhood with limited access to food? After a while, I shut it down. I say, “Why don’t you turn it around?” Because I want to hear what people in affluent neighborhoods are doing. What is their take on people who live in food deserts? What is the conversation that rich, white, privileged people have about poverty and hunger and what are they doing to make a change? Sit down at the table with a family member, a father, a mother, who owns a business, and ask them what they’re doing to ensure that their businesses are employing people who need jobs, or [ask if] they’re getting out of their comfort zone, not just writing a check, because it’s easy to write a check, but what are they doing to invest in neighborhoods that are less fortunate?

Karen Washington: It is a Band-Aid. I recently asked [the students in my gardening] classes, “What is the purpose of food pantries and food kitchens?” And of course they say, “To feed the poor,” and “to have access to food,” and so on. But the main function of these two approaches is [supposed to be] that they’re reserved for emergencies only. Instead, they’ve become a way of life.

How do we sit with the fact that 40 million people are in poverty? The system of giving out free food is not going to fix that. Even as a farmer, I have to deal with the fact that when I come down to the farmers’ market and sell my produce I have to educate people about the value and cost of food, because I am surrounded by a food system – a subsidized food system – that skews the cost and value of food. My carrots are $2. They are $2 because I am a for-profit farmer, and unlike the carrot for 99 cents that’s sold in cellophane at the supermarket down the street or the bunch of carrots that you got for free from the food pantry, this two-dollar carrot is feeding me, my family, and it means something.

Guernica: Would it be more advantageous for us to restructure the charity system?

Karen Washington: Yes! First of all, let’s think in terms of labeling and messaging. Food pantries are stigmatized. When you say “food pantries”, you’re talking about people who are poor, standing in line, getting their food as a handout. The organization West Side Campaign Against Hunger has a pantry that they have started to rebrand. They set up their organization like a supermarket, so customers are coming and they’re shopping like they would at a regular store. It’s not a food pantry where you’re giving out free plastic bags of food. They also offer job training, and a chef who teaches the clients if they want to learn how to prepare food.

Guernica: You launched the Black Urban Growers organization because you had traveled around and hadn’t seen anyone else who looked like you in the food movement, which I can imagine felt like a desolate, lonely place.

Karen Washington: That’s accurate. I recently went to the Organic Grower’s Conference, which is in its 25th year, and someone told me that it was the second year that they had speakers of color. The second year! I don’t know how many attendees they had, but I can tell you offhand it was less than maybe seven people of color. And these are food conferences. I ask people about the work that they do, and a lot of them say, “Yeah, we work on a community farm,” “We work in a community garden,” “You know, it’s full of vegetables and flowers,” and I say, “You know what? Even within the work that you do with flowers and vegetables, you see diversity. But when it comes to the movement, it’s not diverse.” How can you see beauty and diversity in the food system, and yet these workshops and conferences are all homogenized? There is no diversity, there’s no inclusion.

A Whole Foods Market in Oakland, California.
 A Whole Foods Market in Oakland, California. Photograph: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

People talk about food justice, but where are the farmers who look like me and who were brought here as slaves to do agriculture? When I asked that question, I was told, “Black people don’t want to farm, all they want to do is play basketball and play music.” When people tell me that, I know I am doing the right thing with this work.

For me and my friends, it has been inspirational. People come up to me at the end of the conference and say that they have never seen so many black farmers in a room. They have never had a conference that presented issues that pertained to the black experience.

Guernica: Why do you think food conferences don’t give people of color a platform?

Karen Washington: They’re not taking the time to go out of their comfort zones to reach people. That’s the bottom line. The reason I attend conferences is because people reach out and invite me. I’m going to write to Organic Growers and give them a list of people of color that they need to reach out to. Some of those people include: Leah Penniman, Malik Yakini, Lorrie Clevenger, Dr Gale Myers, Kirtrina Baxter, Keisha Cameron, Kelly Carlisle, and Chris Newsome. I asked people in the African American community if they were going to that conference and they said they weren’t invited. That’s the problem. People live in their silos.

I also have a problem with organizations in urban areas and communities of color that are white-led. You started an organization and you have been there for 10 or 15 years and your mission statement says that one day the people within the community will have leadership. They should have your job right now; why are you still there? I talk about power, and how power is a drug and power over people is a drug and it’s hard to give up. But once you start taking a job in a community, and particularly a community of color, once you are there as the emergency department, you should be thinking about how you are going to transition out.

Guernica: In the sense that a desert is an “empty” place, do you feel that the food movement has become a “desert”?

Karen Washington: At the conference, it’s also powerful to hear young people talk about reparations and going back to the land. The younger black farming community is growing. Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm is doing excellent work. Young people are understanding the power that they have and they are not waiting for us to fix it. Look at Black Lives Matter; they are very outspoken. They are unapologetic. They know what’s right. They know the oppression and segregation and the racism that have happened and continue to happen. They’re not drinking the Kool-Aid.

Karen Washington: Exactly. As we know, you lose diversity and it will truly end up a desert because you’ve never taken the time to nourish that seed, diversify that seed, and you kept doing the same thing over and over again. And you know what happens when you continue to grow in the same soil? It gets depleted of nutrients and becomes barren. That’s what’s going to happen to the food movement if we don’t think about planting seeds of diversity, of new young blood, into the food system.

Anna Brones is a writer, artist, publisher, and producer. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist, Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break, Paris Coffee Revolution, Hello, Bicycle, Best Served Wild: Real Food for Real Adventures, and Live Lagom: Balanced Living the Swedish Way. She’s also the founder and publisher of Comestible, a bi-annual zine about food, and her work has been featured in Saveur, T Magazine, and Eater, among others. Currently she is working on the Women’s Wisdom Project, a series featuring 100 papercut portraits of amazing women.

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