A pile of food is seen after the owners of the Buya restaurant had to discard items from the restaurant's kitchen after having to close the establishment on July 10, 2020, in Miami, Florida. Jeff Grosser, a co-owner, said they have had to throw out about $8,000 worth of food and lay off 22 employees due to closure orders. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

More than 38 million people experience hunger or food insecurity in the U.S., yet one-third of all food produced for consumption goes to waste. In the absence of government support that fully addresses the food needs of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC), marginalized communities have had to create their own solutions and systems, whether that involves partnering with longstanding nonprofits or building new mutual aid projects and organizations. While these initiatives attempt to fill the gaps in the U.S. food system, the larger institutional problems of inequitable distribution and accessibility, false narratives around “food scarcity,” and a mindset that values profits over people remain considerable obstacles. And the onset of COVID-19 has only made things worse—1 in 10 people in the U.S. are struggling to afford food during the pandemic. 

In Oakland, Feed the Hood has been distributing free food since 2017. But when the pandemic hit, founder Candice Elder was faced with the challenge of readjusting the program’s operations around safety concerns, even as Oakland residents’ need for fresh food skyrocketed.

“[Before COVID-19] we served 3,000 people [on] average in one morning, every six-to-eight weeks,” Elder said. “The pandemic changed everything.” 

Feed the Hood had to assess how they could continue giving out food without endangering people. They had to look to new sources—like restaurants where people were no longer dining in—to collect food that would’ve been otherwise thrown away. They started providing door-to-door delivery to those in need. While Feed the Hood didn’t have to start completely from scratch, implementing the organization’s mission to address food insecurity became even more complicated because of the virus. Legislation bolstered some federal resources to address food insecurity, but racial disparities among households struggling with food insecurity still increased significantly throughout the pandemic—for example, the percentage of food-insecure Black households increased while the percentage of food-insecure white households slightly declined.  

”The pandemic just exacerbated underlying issues in communities of color,” Elder said.

A desert by design

The inequity of access to fresh food in the U.S. isn’t a natural occurrence like a desert; it’s the result of conscious investment in systems that value profit over ordinary people’s well-being and waste billions of pounds of food while millions are hungry. Control of the food system is consolidated in the hands of a few, which some connect to the oversaturation of less fresh and nutritious foods in certain communities, as well as the increasing cost of food and small family farms being swallowed up by multinational conglomerates. Additionally, those who cultivate, grow, serve, and deliver food are often food insecure themselves. 

Advocates note how the term “food desert” implies that the inability to access to healthy food is because of some inherent flaw in that community, and by extension the people who live there, rather than a result of institutional failure, corporate greed, market manipulation, and systemic neglect that fall heavily along economic and racial lines. This assumption powers the false narrative of artificial scarcity that has been woven by people in power, making it easier to blame individuals for their “bad choices” about food instead of asking hard questions about how distribution systems, infrastructure, and marginalization prevent access to fresh foods.

The reality is that multiple factors create barriers to accessing fresh food, such as an absence of reliable transportation options, the distance between home and grocery stores, and a scarcity of providers that offer fresh and affordable food. When people are overworked, underpaid, and time-poor amidst multiple responsibilities, it’s ease of access, not food quality, that has a huge influence on where people choose to get their food, Elder pointed out.

“You end up falling to what’s convenient,” Elder said. “It might be the snacks at the convenience store. It might be the fast food places that are in walking [distance] or a short bus ride from you.” 

Those misconceptions put the burden on volunteers and activists like Elder to support those who are food insecure because they see the direct impacts of hunger on their communities. Elder explained how greater food security can help stabilize struggling households and families, not only by alleviating hunger, but also by removing a source of stress. 

“If you’re hungry, you know it has huge impacts [on] your emotional, mental, and physical state,” Elder said. “[We make] sure that families have nourishment [so] that they can go back to work … and hopefully even see [improvement to] their mental and emotional state so that they can focus on other areas of their families.”

Practical and social barriers to greater food security

The addition of more grocery stores is a commonly proposed solution to “food deserts,” but those with hands-on experience say viewing food insecurity as a lack of grocery stores is too simplistic and ignores larger issues of affordability and how food is managed as a resource. That complexity is something Ruby Ferguson, who works at the Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD), is deeply familiar with. Ferguson also serves as the food equity lead with the City of Chicago government, where she has been cultivating a team of food leaders across the city to decrease food insecurity. Those efforts are more necessary than ever—during the pandemic, GCFD has distributed more food than in its 42-year history.

In Ferguson’s experience, food waste is an often overlooked contributor to food insecurity and needs to be part of the solution to alleviating hunger. That means figuring out how to support advocates and organizations working to reduce food waste, such as food recovery and rescue mutual aid groups and food pantries. Doing so can also create a deeper awareness of how our food systems work and who tends to be left out.

“Food waste is a privilege,” Ferguson said. “It speaks to our food system as a whole and the distribution of food … that certain communities are able to be kind of high food wasters while other communities don’t even have access to certain foods. I think they go hand in hand.”  

Another contributing factor to food insecurity is how difficult it can be to obtain federal support and resources to address hunger, something Ferguson saw for herself during her time as a Director of Nutrition at a community health center when she was named a Health Equity Champion by the National WIC association. She connected the number of Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) benefits and food stamp dollars that go to waste every year to the considerable inaccessibility of even applying for programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and WIC. Prior to the pandemic, there were several challenges to accessing federal food benefits, such as getting transportation to appointments or language barriers for immigrant communities. Applicants would have to go to a WIC clinic in person, making it harder to apply for both SNAP and WIC benefits at the same time. During the pandemic, many states made it possible to access benefits online, while others still required in-person visits, which led many to not participate in the program. Ultimately, while the number of people eligible for these benefits increased during the pandemic, many didn’t know they were eligible or how to apply, and resources for food went unused as a result. 

However, complicated logistics and rules aren’t the only barriers preventing people from accessing benefits that they’re entitled to. Ferguson pointed to how social stigmas and public hostility that people using SNAP or WIC benefits often encounter when shopping are burdens food insecure people are expected to bear. There are also rules about the kinds of food that SNAP or WIC benefits can be used for—prepared hot foods like rotisserie chicken are currently ineligible and additional restrictions have been proposed under the guise of preventing abuse of benefits and “encouraging healthy eating.” Miscommunications and misunderstandings can play a role in whether or not people decide it’s worth the effort to try applying, even though they’re struggling with hunger. 

“How do we market these programs in a way that makes them feel enticing for participants?” Ferguson asked. “How do we let people know that they’re actually eligible and how do we make it easier to engage with the program and really kind of think outside of the box?”

Encouraging the use of food benefits has been especially complicated for immigrant communities, who have also been particularly vulnerable to food insecurity before and during the pandemic. Peace, a Nigerian immigrant who lives in Washington, D.C., explained that despite being initially “scared” to apply for WIC, she and her children benefited so much from the program that she tried to get her friends who were also food insecure to apply. However, some said they were fearful of how it would impact their families in the future if they applied for assistance, especially if they hoped to bring more family members to join them in America.

“Some of them think that with [applying for benefits], the government can deny them,” Peace said. “They will think that oh, you are eating from the government so you can’t take care of your brother or sister.” 

Those fears weren’t pulled out of thin air—the Trump administration had previously expanded “public charge” rules—meaning that many immigrants were not accepted to come to the U.S. because it was considered likely that they would seek government assistance. WIC was not considered part of this, but misinformation still spread and some speculate that around 26 million people didn’t end up applying to nutrition and health programs like WIC as a result. 

Despite the misinformation, perceived risks, and her fears, it was important for Peace to access the program herself. 

“I don’t have options,” she said. “I had to try.” 

Re-envisioning food distribution and accessibility

Creating and implementing solutions to alleviate food insecurity and hunger require the input and direction of those who live in so-called “food deserts” about what it is they truly need. Activists and advocates have proposed multiple avenues to reducing hunger, such as distribution programs to people experiencing houselessness, collecting and distributing wasted food, being more clear about connecting food insecurity to systemic issues instead of individual choices, and understanding how factors like access to public transit are connected. Further, federal programs can take steps to make WIC and SNAP simpler and more accessible, and throw more financial support behind creating urban gardens and farms, recovering and redistributing wasted food, and supporting small food businesses often owned by people of color and immigrants. Most critically, avoiding the repetition and unquestioning acceptance of narratives that blame people living through food insecurity for what they are experiencing can smooth the road to adopting more effective policies and programs.   

Food justice leader Karen Washington emphasized the importance of viewing food insecurity as an intentional structural issue, rather than something that “just happens” or because of an individual’s “bad decisions.” The food system doesn’t just merely exist, it’s controlled—by powerful people, by big corporations—and both hunger and food waste are direct results of policies that prioritize profits over providing food to those who need it. In Washington’s view, it becomes clear there’s enough food to provide for everyone by recognizing the myth of artificial scarcity for what it is.

“The biggest lie that’s out there is that we don’t have enough food,” she said.

The deep problems in a food system driven by profit are exemplified by how many workers within food systems are hungry themselves. This isn’t about some neighborhoods needing more grocery stores, it’s about making lasting changes for BIPOC and others experiencing food insecurity to have greater food sovereignty and self-determination over their lives through the food they eat. It’s about valuing human lives over profit.

The onset of the pandemic has made this even more clear to Washington. As COVID-19 affected people’s ability to access food through traditional avenues, many reached out to her because they wanted to learn how to grow their own produce on their backyards and terraces, a small attempt at food sovereignty. The pandemic prompted widespread recognition of who is really “essential” and who keeps this country going in the midst of a pandemic. Many of them are part of the food system: the restaurant workers, farm workers, factory workers, street vendors, grocery store workers, and so many more. Not coincidentally, they are also those who work at greater risk of contracting the virus and spreading it among their own families and communities to further enrich and provide food for others, even as they face economic and food insecurity themselves.

“I coined the term food apartheid because I wanted to open people’s eyes and start having that hard conversation,” Washington said. “The food system doesn’t need to be fixed, it needs to change.”

Kinjo Kiema (she/her) is a Kenyan-American organizer and writer based in Washington DC. You can follow her on Twitter @captain_kinj.