August 21, 2019
Across the U.S., more than 40 million Americans live in households that struggle against hunger, with poverty and racial inequities often being root causes. FRAC recently spoke with Dr. Kofi Essel, Community Pediatrician, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, and Health Equity & Hunger Champion at Children’s National Health System and the George Washington School of Medicine & Health Sciences in Washington, D.C., about the importance of looking at and addressing hunger through a racial and economic lens.
To begin, can you briefly dive into the economic disparities that exist between racial and ethnic groups in America?
Those of us who work in health or the anti-hunger space know that there’s a relationship between race and economics that ultimately impacts food security. For example, nearly 1 in 2 Latino Americans and African Americans lives in a low-income (less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line, or FPL) household, while only 1 in 5 white, non-Hispanic Americans lives in a low-income household.
Similarly, while the median income (in 2017) for white, non-Hispanic American households is $68,000, it’s $50,000 for Latino households and $40,000 for African-American households. These disparities have been present in census reports dating back for decades.
The gap grows even greater when we look at wealth, a crucial part of any family’s safety net: white, non-Hispanic Americans have a median wealth of $170,000 – which is eight times the wealth of Latino households ($20,700) and ten times the wealth of African-American households ($17,600).
What has led to such damaging disparities? Can we place responsibility on specific policies?
These disparities are not the result of differences in work ethic, capabilities, intelligence, or strengths. They are the products of intentional, manmade social and economic systems and policies that systematized racism and created divisions, hierarchies, and injustices. The disparities are the outcome of systems created to benefit some groups more than others. It is common practice to dissociate oneself from personalized racist practices and norms, but we must ask ourselves how our behaviors and practices reinforce systems that perpetuate persistent and unjust divisions.
A notable example of systemized racism can be found in housing.
Real estate policies in the 1930s through the 1960s refused African Americans and those living in African-American neighborhoods the right to loans on terms comparable to those provided to white, non-Hispanic households. This ultimately prevented African Americans from purchasing homes. Think about this for a moment: African Americans were prevented from being able to set down roots. Imagine what that does to an individual. Imagine what that does to a community.
This tactic is called “redlining.” It systematically discouraged diversity in communities and drove out the institutions that provide stability in neighborhoods, such as banks, grocery stores, and schools. Most notably, redlining prevented African Americans from joining the middle class and experiencing upward mobility. This is critical because housing, and its associated wealth accumulation, is a very common and effective way to move up in America and reduce vulnerability to poverty and hunger.
When policies like redlining are put into practice, perpetuating racism and devastating the economic well-being of communities, what is the impact on food insecurity, especially within marginalized populations?
Since the government first measured food insecurity in the mid-1990s, the disparity in food insecurity between households of color and white, non-Hispanic households has remained stagnant: Latino and African-American households have consistently faced two to three times the rates of food insecurity. This persistent disparity is connected to policies like redlining.
When redlining broke communities, it exacerbated a cycle of poverty and food insecurity. Ultimately this led to greater disparities in education and even decreased availability of grocery stores. As a result, nutrient-poor and calorically dense foods fed – and continue to feed – some of our nation’s most vulnerable and marginalized communities.
Redlining is but one example of discriminatory practices that have led to seemingly insurmountable health disparities among many Americans. There are many, many more examples. We in the health and anti-hunger space cannot overlook the impact of discrimination, and we must aim to improve the plight of populations so greatly affected.
How specifically can those in the health and anti-hunger space work to better address the racial and economic factors that fuel rates of hunger and food insecurity?
First, let’s establish a collective dedication to racial equity. Racial equity focuses on equitable opportunities for communities of color, ultimately leading to equal outcomes with other racial groups. Giving everyone equal opportunities – rather than equitable opportunities – assumes a color-blind approach and does not account for everyone starting from completely different positions. Those who have faced unique life barriers because of discriminatory policies and systems must be given the opportunity to catch up and gain stability.
Additionally, let’s stay informed. We must develop a knowledge of historical and current racist practices that have affected incomes and food availability and access, and we must work to understand racism and discrimination in terms of systems, structures, and institutions – not just individuals. We can begin the process of staying more informed by asking certain questions: Why do grocery stores not want to come into certain neighborhoods? How does that impact access to healthy and nutritious foods needed to live an active and healthy lifestyle?
We should also recognize the strengths of the federal nutrition programs (and their limitations) in addressing hunger and disparities in poverty, food insecurity, health, and well-being.
At the 2019 National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference, I had the wonderful opportunity to lead a panel with Marlysa Gamblin and Allison Bovell-Ammon from Bread for the World and Children’s HealthWatch, respectively. We discussed the intersectionality of food security, racism, and discrimination – sensitive but essential topics. I want to acknowledge Marlysa and Allison’s work and uplift critical resources their organizations have developed, including Bread for the World’s Racial Wealth Gap Learning Simulation and Children’s HealthWatch’s “From Disparities to Discrimination: Getting at the Roots of Food Insecurity in America” report.
Learn more about the intersection of race, economics, and food insecurity at FRAC.org.
Click to Tweet: Want to effectively end hunger in America? @DrKofiEssel (@childrenshealth, @GWSMHS) says we must first take take on racial and economic root causes. Read more on #FRACChat: bit.ly/2Nnn77S @fractweets