If I were sharing a classroom with you, I would step to the front and ask: “How many of you have ever been hungry in your life?” You would raise your hand, remembering that time that you were at practice late and forgot to eat dinner, or your mom packed a lunch for you that was a little too small for your adolescent body. Then I would ask: “How many of you have been hungry for days on end, or have ever had to live without eating three square meals a day?” Fewer of you would raise your hands. Maybe it would be only people of color, or children of immigrant families, or people who were raised by a single parent working a minimum wage job. Maybe it would be someone who was emancipated at 16 and had to work full time to afford rent while finishing high school. Maybe it would be your classmates who are single parents themselves. It might even be the children of farmers who don’t own the rights to the produce they grow but sell it to larger companies to ship cross country or use it to fatten animals. But the point is: food access is not the same across the board.
What do I mean by food access? I mean: how reliably can you regularly gain access to healthy, fresh, affordable food that is close to where you live? You’d think, wouldn’t you, that having access to fresh, healthy, affordable food that is within a reasonable geographic distance would be a right guaranteed to everyone in the United States of America? But the reality is far from that.
Have you ever heard of a food desert? The USDA defines it as “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options. The lack of access contributes to a poor diet and can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.” Have you ever lived in a food desert? Check out the USDA’s map here to see where the food deserts nearest you are. Food deserts exist in most major cities and in large swaths of rural areas, and are invisible. Watch this short film that follows a woman throughout her day getting her groceries and preparing a meal in Cleveland, Ohio. Watch this 46-minute film about food deserts in rural Virginia or the movie “Food Deserts” about hunger and access in Chicagoland.
So, there’s a lot of information there. It’s all about how some folks are denied easy access to food because of where they live and what’s available in their neighborhood, which often has something to do with race and class. That phenomenon has another name: environmental racism, defined by the US Legal Department as “Environmental racism refers to intentional or unintentional targeting of minority communities or the exclusion of minority groups from public and private boards, commissions, and regulatory bodies. It is the racial discrimination in the enactment or enforcement of any policy, practice, or regulation that negatively affects the environment of low-income and/or racially homogeneous communities at a disparate rate than affluent communities.”
These ideas are big, and they can be overwhelming. You might be asking, what can I do? I’m just one person! But there are many ways for you to learn more and get involved in food justice. Here are some ideas to try out this week:
Walk a labyrinth, concentrating on the way in on the inequality present where you live. On the way out, contemplate how you can be part of a solution by using your resources to live in solidarity of the belly.
Volunteer at a soup kitchen.
Host a screening of the films mentioned above, as well as take any of these steps listed on the Interfaith Power and Light’s Cool Harvest webpage.
Help with any mobile grocery markets or Meals on Wheels in your community.
Also, here is a series of questions from a retreat called “Becoming Bread for the World” at John Knox Presbyterian Church in Ohio. Use this poem as a meditation on food access and inequality. [Gunilla Norris, Becoming Bread. New York: Bell Tower, 1993.) in the Becoming Bread retreat materials from John Knox Presbyterian Church.]
In this place hunger is our guide.
What shall we find here to nourish us?
We have nothing of our own…
nothing but need.
- Think about how it feels to be hungry—hungry in your stomach and hungry in your soul. For what do you hunger?
- What food do you have access to because of where you live/where you shop/where you get your food? How might this be different for other people? What affects your access to these food resources?