Racial and Economic Injustice in Food Access in the United States

Access to nutritional food is a fundamental human right in the United States, but unfortunately the food system in the America only provides this access to a select sector of the population. Many low income families in racially mixed, urban areas do not have equal access to fresh, healthy food when compared to those in middle or upper class neighborhoods. Low income areas are more likely to have a McDonald’s and a Burger King, than a Whole Foods or even a proper grocery store. This denial of access has led to a number of problems in lower income areas both from a nutritional and economic stand point. Fortunately sociologists have been working on solutions to the food access injustices prevalent in American society.

In 2004 City Limits magazine reported that in New York City, the wealthiest residents have five times as many square feet of grocery-store space as do the city’s poorest (Griffith 2006). This means that poorer families living within the city limits are five times less likely to eat healthy food than their wealthier neighbors. This is backed up by A 2006 University of Michigan study that was conducted in New York, Maryland and North Carolina that found that “neighborhoods of color and racially mixed areas had half as many supermarkets as predominantly white neighborhoods and twice the number of smaller corner and bodega-like stores, which carry little fresh produce. Similarly, low-income neighborhoods were found to have half as many supermarkets as the wealthiest communities, but four times as many of the smaller stores. Low-income and nonwhite communities in general had fewer natural food stores and fresh produce markets(Griffith 2006).” This problem is compounded by the fact that low income areas have not only low access to supermarkets but also a greater density of fast food restaurants than other areas (Kwate 2008). Therefore it is much easier to get a Big Mac or a pack of Twinkies in most low income areas than it is to get fresh fruits and vegetables. Areas where this disparity in food access takes place are often referred to as “food deserts” and are almost always confined to low income urban areas with a mixed race or African American populace.

Studies indicate the food available in these food deserts can affect obesity rates as well as other related health concerns such as heart disease and diabetes (Kwate 2008). In 2013 The American Heart Association listed cardiovascular disease as the number one major cause of death for black males and females(Go et. al. 2013). The same study also indicated that the rates of high blood pressure (HBP) in black men and women were significantly higher than white men and women. Diabetes is also of major concern in black populations. This is especially true for black women where it is estimated that diabetes can be attributed to abdominal obesity in 39.9% of African American women, compared with 24.0% of white American women (Marshall 2005).

So far public discourse over health concerns have rarely placed emphasis on socioeconomic issues (Galli, Clift. 2012), but there are some exceptions. Bronx City Councilman Jim Rivera has called for legal hearings over whether or not New York City zoning laws could be used to restrict the concentration of fast food restaurants in low income areas (Griffith 2006). And in 1992 Washington State established the Farmers Market Nutrition Program to “provide fresh, unprepared, locally grown fruits and vegetables to families on public assistance” and to “expand the awareness, use of and sales at farmers’ markets.”(Griffith 2006).

Works Cited:

Griffith, M. W. (2006). How Harlem Eats. Nation, 283(7), 36-38.

Kwate, N.A. (2008). Fried chicken and fresh apples: Racial segregation as a fundamental cause of fast food density in black neighborhoods. Health and Place. Volume 14, Issue 1. March 2008, Pages 32–44

Go AS, Mozaffarian D, Roger VL, Benjamin EJ, Berry JD, Borden WB, Bravata DM, Dai S, Ford ES, Fox CS, Franco S, Fullerton HJ, Gillespie C, Hailpern SM, Heit JA, Howard VJ, Huffman MD, Kissela BM, Kittner SJ, Lackland DT, Lichtman JH, Lisabeth LD, Magid D, Marcus GM, Marelli A, Matchar DB, McGuire DK, Mohler ER, Moy CS, Mussoli-no ME, Nichol G, Paynter NP, Schreiner PJ, Sorlie PD, Stein J, Turan TN, Virani SS, Wong ND, Woo D, Turner MB; on behalf of the American Heart Association Statistics Committee and Stroke Statistics Subcommittee. Heart disease and stroke statistics—2013 update: a report from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2013; 127:e6-e245.

Marshall M.C. 2005. Diabetes in African Americans. Postgraduate Medical Journal. 2005 Dec;81(962):734-40.

Galli, A. M. and Clift, B. C. 2012. Food Justice. The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Globalization.


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