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Racial Equity and Food

By Risa Wilkerson on June 26th, 2019

A conversation with Jennifer Zuckerman of the World Food Policy Center

Healthy Places by Design has helped communities improve access to healthy food for nearly 15 years, understanding that the food system has a profound impact on public health. Those impacts often produce inequities (and perpetuate existing ones), so any systems-change approach to food must consider equity at the outset. The World Food Policy Center (WFPC), located in Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, is doing just that. I reached out to Jennifer Zuckerman, WFPC’s Director of Strategic Initiatives, to see what they have learned about equitable food systems.

Hi Jennifer. It’s great to talk with you. Let’s start with a little background on the WFPC’s work.

Hi Risa. Thanks for this conversation; this is a really important topic for us. The WFPC develops coordinated and inclusive food policy and practice to not only bridge the different areas of food policy—from agriculture, to health, to climate change—but also to look at people-first policy. In other words, how do you make sure policy and practice are people-centered, with the voices of those most affected by policies leading conversations for creating those policies? Our goal is to bridge key areas of the food system to improve human wellbeing, planetary health, and equity.

What’s one of the most surprising things you’ve learned from this work?

We are working with community rooted organizations and leaders in Durham, NC such as Camryn Smith with Communities in Partnership, Justin Robinson with Earthseed Collective, Kamal Bell with Sankofa Farms, Marion Johnson with Frontline Solutions, Vivette Jeffries Logan with Biwa Consulting, and a team of partners from FHI 360 including Gretchen Thompson, Natalie Eley, and Alexis Hoyt.

Through them, we have moved from a food planning focus to a food justice focus. Our work emphasizes the need for relationships, collective leadership, and understanding the history that has created inequities in order to avoid recreating those inequities moving forward. Vivette, in particular, helped us frame a decolonized approach to this work. This means that we seek to build new systems to address problems, since we cannot use the systems that created inequities as the means of ending those inequities.

You just held a Summit in Charlotte, NC to discuss economic mobility and food, with race equity as the core lens. Why this focus?

As we noted during the summit, you can’t really talk about food or economic mobility without talking about race, because structural racism drives inequities in both systems.

Communities of color face higher rates of food insecurity, higher rates of diet-related disease, and are vastly underrepresented in ownership of economic opportunity across the food supply chain from farming to food waste. There is a 13:1 difference between White wealth and Black wealth. We have to address these inequalities while improving the food system for all, or we will never achieve our highest potential. We held this event to spur new conversations, catalyze new relationships, and begin to drive the conversation toward efforts that build community ownership and wealth through food: aligning food sovereignty and economic mobility.

To frame the conversation, we took a historic approach, sharing the policies and practices that created the racial wealth gap and how those drive the inequities in income, housing, health, and food. The history of disinvestment from specific communities needs to be addressed, but we also need to understand how those policies and practices played out in order to prevent them from happening again.

Can you share examples?

Here’s two: Redlining and the GI Bill.

Redlining blocked homeownership for people of color while simultaneously creating new opportunities for White people to own homes. Home ownership is a critical factor to building wealth within families—and passing wealth through generations. Additionally, if you look at redlining maps in any city, those areas directly overlay with food deserts. And by the way—“food desert” is not an accurate term. Deserts are naturally occurring. The places we describe as “food deserts” have been created by processes that deliberately left people out, and are the result of generational disinvestment. A more accurate term being used today is “food apartheid.” This interview with Karen Washington gives a great overview of the difference.

That’s an important distinction; language matters. And the GI Bill?

The GI Bill offered housing, college, and business loans to veterans returning from World War II. But they were provided through traditional channels (e.g., banks that were enforcing redlining and Whites-only universities). Homeownership, land ownership, business ownership, and higher education all created a White middle class and excluded people of color from those opportunities. The resulting inequities were inevitable when that systematic exclusion was combined with institutional, systemic, and internalized oppression. Reversing that disinvestment and creating new systems is key to changing the outcomes.

So that's how we framed the Food Summit conversation. Food disparities have too often been discussed as an individual issue, or as a systems issue wherein we try to use the systems that created the problems to address the problems. Instead, we are seeking new conversations, rooted in understanding the past and in relationships that create community-led and institution-supported change.

I imagine that was uncomfortable, especially for people who haven’t yet explored historical racism.

These conversations aren’t comfortable, but they are critical. I recommend Robin DiAngelo’s book, White Fragility, to everyone. In it, she notes why White people need to learn how racism impacts our lives, and how we uphold it, in order to learn how we can interrupt it. And that this process is a life-long journey of listening, learning, and taking action toward a different future.

How did you center the conversation locally? 

Several people shared stories. One was Ricky Hall, of the West Charlotte Neighborhood Coalition. The West Charlotte corridor has had the most displacement and the most negative effects from “urban renewal.” Ricky is historically from that community and shared a beautiful narrative of his neighborhood’s founding members and the trauma that occurred as resources were directed elsewhere. His recommendation is not “do something for us” but "support what we are doing." He talked about how to have a community-led, institution-supported approach to this work, with authentic relationships. They created a community cooperative that is a garden/grocery store. It's all about ownership, power, benefit, and generating wealth.

How were stories like that received?

People were excited to talk about what could be done differently, and that there were diverse voices at the summit. I’m convinced that if we're not talking about how power and benefit, generational wealth, and business ownership intersect with race, then we aren’t having the right conversations. Here in Durham, we are working on access to finances for entrepreneurs of color, especially women. This is currently a huge barrier. We know from the global lessons of micro-lending that when you invest in women, they invest in the community. And this can create real, lasting change.

Where can we find more stories like this, as well as additional information about your work around equity in food systems?

We have a new podcast series at! I also participated in a 21-day equity in the food system challenge, coordinated by the New England Food System group. I’d highly recommend checking it out; it’s loaded with resources. In addition, the Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems recently released a report with U.S. food system metrics that practitioners and food movement organizations can use to measure progress toward a more equitable food system. The metrics are organized by themes: food access, food and farm business, food chain labor, and food movement. Their “notes of caution” (below) alone are worthy of checking out on the site.

These are good places to start.

Notes of Caution from the Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems report, Measuring Racial Equity in the Food System: Established and Suggested Metrics

Risa Wilkerson

Executive Director

Action-driven optimist, abundance thinker, and simplicity seeker.