The Impact of Structural Racism on Access to Healthy Foods

By Emma Vinella-Brusher, Angles Managing Editor

Access to good, nutritious food is essential to our ability to survive and thrive as human beings, but this is not a right afforded to all Americans. Despite being a nation of abundance, the U.S. is plagued by food insecurity and poor diet, though these impacts are disproportionally felt by lower-income families and communities of color. For example, an analysis by Walker et al. (2021) of responses to the 2011-2017 National Health Interview Surveys found that non-Hispanic Black Americans were 1.7 times more likely to be food insecure than their non-Hispanic white counterparts.[i] Food insecurity is also closely tied to obesity, the age-adjusted prevalence of which has been found to be 38.7% among Mexican Americans and 44.1% among non-Hispanic Black people, compared to 32.4% for non-Hispanic white people.[ii] Given these proven disparities in food access and dietary health, it is necessary to understand the racialized history of segregation and discrimination that led to disparate access to a healthy diet. By using the lens of Critical Race Theory, we are able to examine the structural and institutional systems that led to these disparities in Black communities relative to the rest of the United States.[1]

Critical Race Theory

The origin of Critical Race Theory (CRT) can be traced to the philosophical writings of Derrick Bell, a professor at the University of Washington Law School in the 1970s and early 1980s. Many legal scholars, lawyers, and activists at this time recognized that many of the advances of the civil rights era had stopped and even been reversed in some places. In response, scholars began developing alternative legal theories and frameworks to combat the racial inequality continuously experienced by Black Americans. CRT posits that racism is a fundamental part of American society, as it is a nation built by and for white elites, and that racial progress for minorities is only allowed only when seen as in the majority’s self-interest.[iii] This theory helps to explain how inequities in community design and access to resources are manifestations of the structural and systemic racism embedded within American society.

A Short History of Residential Segregation

The United States has had a long history of residential segregation, the impacts of which are still felt today. The 1896 Plessy v Ferguson court ruling and the era of “separate but equal” facilities and communities is thought to have ended with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education integration of schools, but in reality America’s relationship with segregation extends well beyond both cases.[iv] Academic Richard Rothstein emphasizes the “de jure” nature of segregation – segregation solidified by laws and public policies implemented by the 1933 New Deal, the 1949 Housing Act, the Public Works Administration, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, the U.S. Housing Authority and Housing and Home Finance Agency (now the Department of Housing and Urban Development), and other local municipal housing authorities.[v]

Exclusionary racial zoning ordinances across the U.S. reclassified residential areas as industrial if African American families moved in, rendered them ineligible for mortgages and therefore homeownership, and prohibited multi-unit housing, most common for these families, in central residential areas. All of these policies made wealth-building through property ownership nearly impossible for Black families and relegated them to “urban African American slums” located in under-resourced areas close to environmentally unsafe polluting industries and far from the exclusive white suburbs.[vi] This long history of segregation and discrimination has impacted the ability of Black communities to access a healthy diet.

The Impacts of Segregation and Racial Discrimination

Wealth and Social Capital

As mentioned, segregation has had a notable impact on the ability of Black families to build generational wealth and the access to power and resources this affords. A 2020 Brookings Institute report found that the net worth of a typical white family is nearly ten times greater than that of a Black family, and high- and middle-income white families are much wealthier than Black families even within the same income bracket.[vii] A lack of generational wealth has made it much harder to Black families to find affordable, quality, stable housing – the homeownership gap between white and Black households is up to 50% in cities such as Minneapolis and Albany and 25% in DC and LA, and Black renters experience 32% of all evictions in the U.S. despite making up 20% of the renter population.[viii], [ix] Eviction affects emotional, social, and physical well-being, and disrupts social capital when families are forced to relocate to entirely new communities and rebuild.

Diet Quality

Bowen, Elliott, and Hardison-Moody (2021) posit that food insecurity and poverty are strongly correlated and are both tied to the structural factors of segregation such as a lack of affordable housing and an inadequate social safety net.[x] Households with physical and financial assets, emergency savings, and stable housing, all more difficult for Black families to acquire due to this history, are less likely to experience food insecurity and poor diet quality and have far more social and economic resources to draw on when needed. Researchers have found that racism is linked to food insecurity due not only to socioeconomic impacts, but also the life-long adversity discrimination brings. Burke et al. conducted a 2016 study of 154 African American respondents, finding that a one-unit increase in the frequency of lifetime racial discrimination was associated with a 5% increase in the odds of being very low food secure. The odds increase was 15% if the discrimination occurred at a workplace or school, 16% if it felt stigmatizing or devaluing, and 39% if threatening or aggressive.[xi]

Geographic Patterns

The legacy of segregation and racial discrimination can also be seen in the geographic patterns of food insecurity. A 2019 Feeding America report found that while majority African American counties make up only 3% of U.S. counties, 92% of these have high food-insecurity rates compared to only 11% of all counties regardless of racial makeup.[xii] Bower et al. (2014) analyzed Census population and InfoUSA food store data and found that at all levels of poverty, predominantly Black census tracts have the fewest supermarkets and white tracts have the most, leading to unequal access to fresh, healthy foods.[xiii]  

Outside a McDonald’s in 1980. 
(Henbury/Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

Beyond a lack of nutritious foods, Black neighborhoods also have a high prevalence of fast food options due to these companies actively seeking out particular land use types. National fast food chains such as White Castle have been known to target urban African American neighborhoods by seeking name recognition and brand loyalty, and this is often made easier by the weak retail climate and surplus of low-wage labor fostered by segregation.[xiv] On the flip side, Black neighborhoods are also commonly stigmatized as culturally inferior regardless of socioeconomic profiles, and many retailers such as Starbucks desiring to attract urban professionals with disposable incomes often avoid opening in these communities. Areas with more wealth, political power, and connections are able to control fast food retailer siting and attract healthier food options through enacting desirable changes and preventing undesirable businesses from moving in.[xv] As a result, the services available in segregated urban areas are typically fewer in quantity, poorer in quality, and higher in price than those available in less segregated urban and suburban areas.[xvi]

The Value of a Critical Race Theory Perspective

Viewing food insecurity and diet quality through a Critical Race Theory lens is essential, as it is well documented that racial and ethnic minorities disproportionately live in places that lack the resources necessary to generate and sustain health. A 2008 analysis by Phyllis Jones et al. of data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System even found that simply being socially assigned as white significantly improved your health status, regardless of how oneself identifies.[xvii] As previously mentioned, American residential segregation and its modern-day impacts are an indicator of structural racism, which facilitates laws and policies that explicitly or implicitly advantage white Americans while disadvantaging Black Americans. CRT is vital for understanding and addressing the disparities in access to good food and healthy diet behaviors. Structural racism, as indicated by racial inequities in poverty, unemployment, and homeownership, has been associated with higher obesity rates, fewer supermarkets, and more fast food restaurants when controlling for socioeconomic status and other factors.[xviii] Disparities in access to fresh fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods are primarily caused by “ostensibly race-neutral policies espoused by the government that have had racialized consequences.”[xix] CRT enables us to examine how our institutions interact and create racialized outcomes that disadvantage Black communities such as food insecurity and obesity.

Conclusion & Interventions

The dietary health disparities we see today are the direct result of the American legacy of racial segregation and discrimination that has existed even before the founding of our nation. As summarized above, there is a wealth of literature regarding the health impacts of this legacy. Our history of segregation has led to racial disparities in the ability to build generational wealth and access the power and resources necessary to live a healthy life – households with more physical and financial assets, emergency savings, and stable housing, all harder for Black families to acquire than white ones, are less likely to experience dietary health concerns. Disparate homeownership and eviction rates have also resulted in a lack of stable housing and inadequate social safety net for many Black Americans, leading to a higher likelihood of both food insecurity and poor diet quality. The services and resources available in segregated urban areas are typically fewer in quantity, poorer in quality, and higher in price than those in less segregated areas, making “healthy” foods inaccessible to communities of color.

Given these racial disparities, Critical Race Theory is an essential lens to use to tackle the food insecurity crisis disproportionately plaguing our communities of color. Any anti-racist intervention to improve social support and address poor diet must center indigenous and racialized communities and tackle racism at all levels – internalized, interpersonal, and institutional. Community-level strategies to create a supportive culture around healthy foods should be centered around building community through events, mentorship and companionship, and goal setting. A built environment that provides public spaces and amenities for community-building is vital for enhancing social support and the ability to address poor diet, as well as the availability of local, convenient, healthy, affordable food options for communities across the U.S. We cannot solve the food insecurity crisis without an anti-racist approach to improving our policies, communities, and built environment.

[1] For the purposes of this piece, the terms “Black” and “African American” are used interchangeably based on the existing literature, although in reality these are two distinct identities that hold different meanings for different communities.

[i] Walker, R. J., Garacci, E., Dawson, A. Z., Williams, J. S., Ozieh, M., & Egede, L. E. (2021). Trends in food insecurity in the United States from 2011-2017: Disparities by age, sex, race/ethnicity, and incomePopulation Health Management24(4), 496–501.

[ii] Flegal, K. M., Carroll, M. D., Ogden, C. L., & Curtin, L. R. (2010). Prevalence and trends in obesity among US adults, 1999-2008. JAMA, 303(3), 235-241.

[iii]Demaske, C. (2009). The First Amendment Encyclopedia: Critical Race Theory. Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University.

[iv] The Library of Congress. (n.d.). A century of racial segregation, 1849-1950. Brown v. Board at Fifty: “With an Even Hand.”

[v] Rothstein, R. (2017). The color of law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America. New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Corporation.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] McIntosh, K., Moss, E., Nunn, R., & Shambaugh, J. (2020, February 27). Examining the Black-white wealth gap. Brookings.

[viii] McCargo, A., & Strochak, S. (2018, February 26). Mapping the black homeownership gap. The Urban Institute.

[ix] Hepburn, P., Louis, R., & Desmond, M. (2020). Racial and gender disparities among evicted Americans. Sociological Science, 7(27), 649-662.

[x] Bowen, S., Elliott, S., & Hardison-Moody, A. (2021). The structural roots of food insecurity: How racism is a fundamental cause of food insecurity. Sociology Compass, 15(7).

[xi] Burke, M., Jones, S., Frongillo, E., Fram, M., Blake, C., & Freedman, D. (2018). Severity of household food insecurity and lifetime racial discrimination among African-American households in South Carolina. Ethnicity & Health, 23(3), 276-292.

[xii] Feeding America. (2019). Map the meal gap: A report on county and congressional district food insecurity and county food cost in the United States in 2017.

[xiii] Bower, K., Thorpe Jr., R., Rohde, C., & Gaskin, D. (2014). The intersection of neighborhood racial segregation, poverty, and urbanicity and its impact on food store availability in the United States. Preventive Medicine, 58, 33-39.

[xiv] Kwate, N. O. (2008). Fried chicken and fresh apples: Racial segregation as a fundamental cause of fast food density in black neighborhoods. Health & Place, 14(1), 32-44.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Richardson, L. D., & Norris, M. (2010). Access to health and health care: How race and ethnicity matter. Mount Sinai Journal of Medicine, 77(2), 166-177.

[xvii] Jones, C. P., Truman, B. I., Elam-Evans, L. D., Jones, C. A., Jones, C. Y., Jiles, R., Rumisha, S. F., & Perry, G. S. (2008). Using “socially assigned race” to probe white advantages in health status. Ethnicity & Disease, 18(4), 496-504.

[xviii] Bell, C. N., Kerr, J., & Young, J. L. (2019). Associations between obesity, obesogenic environments, and structural racism vary by county-level racial composition. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16(5), 861.

[xix] New York Law School Racial Justice Project & American Civil Liberties Union. (2012). Unshared bounty: How structural racism contributes to the Creation and Persistence of Food Deserts.

Emma Vinella-Brusher is a second-year dual degree Master’s student in City and Regional Planning and Public Health interested in equity, mobility, and food security. Born and raised in Oakland, CA, she received her undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies from Carleton College before spending four years at the U.S. Department of Transportation in Cambridge, MA. In her free time, Emma enjoys running, bike rides, live music, and laughing at her own jokes.

Edited by Elijah Gullett

Featured image courtesy of Pexels

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