Rewriting Black America’s Narrative of Food Insecurity

Rates of food insecurity in the Black community continue to soar but national organizations and Black farmers are working to end household hunger.

Imagine the feeling of your stomach cramping in the morning, the low energy you’re left with to get schoolwork done and trying to provide for your family, deciding between keeping the lights on or having food on the table.  

That is the experience of millions of Americans.  

Hunger and food insecurity have become so common people are oblivious to what it’s like to not have food or not have access to nutritious foods. Families across the country are forced to rely on bodegas, corner stores, and school meals as their regular intake of sustenance. And those in the Black community, in certain states, are regularly experiencing food insecurity.  

Christa Barfield grew up in Germantown, Philadelphia, an area she has considered home and where she continues to raise her two children. But for decades, Barfield never realized she lived in a food desert, an area where residents have few or no convenient options to access affordable and healthy foods.  

“Growing up with that my entire life and realizing that I can’t even get a beet in my own neighborhood, it really hit me that we need to have better food — we should have more access to vegetables,” Barfield says. 

It’s unreasonable to think food insecurity and deserts have one underlying problem — but the Census Bureau recently started conducting a monthly survey on food scarcity in households for every state in the U.S. The most recent report documented from June 29 – July 11, details the states with the worst access to food and underlying contributors.  

One of the leading contributors in recent years is the COVID-19 pandemic. Studies show Black folks experienced an increase in poverty rates, unemployment, and food insecurity. About 24% of people in the Black community experienced food insecurity in 2020, according to Feeding America, that is more than three times the rate for white households.  

But some are already working to increase food security in the Black community.  

Barfield worked as a full-time medical professional until January 2018 when she quit her job on a limb and went to Martinique. This trip is what she credits as the genesis of her food journey. While abroad she unintentionally learned about community support agriculture — essentially creating a farm by and for the community.  

In 2019, Barfield founded Farmer Jawn Agriculture in Philadelphia where she focuses on the reintroduction of farming into the lives of urban people through equity and education. 

“If I can take care of myself and my family while also taking care of my community while also making sure there are healthy options here — it’s a win win,” she says. 

Deliberately Setting the Community Back 

Bread for the World is one of many organizations working to end hunger and food insecurity in America. But Heather Taylor, managing director of the global Christian advocacy organization, says there are many contributing factors people need to pay attention to.  

The racial wealth gap well documented in the last few years shows the staggering gap between white, Black, Hispanic, and other racial groups — Black folks have the least generational wealth with a median wealth of $600. 

Taylor says voting rights, policies for fair housing, mass incarceration, and the war on drugs are just some of the disparities that impact Black households the most. Black folks did not recieve the same quality of public education, something Taylor says is long rooted in segregation and racism. 

All of these factors have set back the Black community from having the same access to food and generational wealth. Food deserts have also disproportionately been identified in Black communities.   

“In this economy where we see inflation skyrocketing, the cost of food, in particular, continues to go up,” Taylor says. “The food supply is being decreased because of the pandemic … because of the high cost of things.” 

Farming connects Black folks to their food 

Barfield started her farm with no prior experience, she says she had never even grown a houseplant before embarking on this journey. Her goal with the farm, she says, is to connect people in her community to organic, fresh, and locally grown food.  

Growing up in a “concrete jungle” does not mean you have to rely on the corner stores that do not offer any nutritional options. 

Many people in the Black community are oblivious to their nutritional needs, Barfield says. If healthy food is out of sight and out of mind, nobody will think about it — a mindset she is working to change.  

“For Black Americans we are so disconnected and stigmatized by soil. We don’t even think about where our food comes from,” she says. “We’re so traumatized by soil because of our ancestry as it relates to farming.” 

But she says it’s important to be involved in what we are consuming because it affects not only our bodies but our children and our lineage. As a former medical professional, she is all too familiar with the use of medication as a means of healing but now she advocates using food to combat diseases.  

Impacts of financial, food insecurity 

During the pandemic, the government expanded the child tax credit to more than 30 million families, but Congress failed to renew the program for the 2022 tax year. The child tax credit offered hundreds of dollars in payments to families depending on different qualifying factors, studies show the program reduced child poverty and hunger.  

Taylor says this has resulted in an increase in hunger and poverty — her organization is working to make the credit permanent for families with a no income threshold.  

“If it’s made permanent, then poverty among Black children would be cut by 52%,” she says.  

One in six children in the U.S experience hunger, roughly 12 million kids — many have often relied on public schools to get regular meals.  

Children who do not have access to regular meals, studies show, tend to perform poorly in school and suffer emotional, social, and cognitive setbacks in kindergarten and beyond.  

But it’s not just about having food.  

“We know that access to nutritious foods is essential,” Taylor says. “We are not only ensuring people have something to eat or just a plate on their table but were literally sewing into the lives and future of children … so that they have the ability to maximize their potential even throughout their adulthood.” 

A sentiment shared by Barfield. She says when she was working in the medical field, she never qualified for food stamps or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). Fridges full of food, something she saw others in the community who qualified for food stamps have, wasn’t often a reality for her family.  

“I am a person who works over 40 hours a week and I have to choose between things like paying my phone bill … and maybe we’ll have something light to eat to make sure we’re sustained, but not something super healthy,” Barfield says.  

Although corner stores and bodegas offer food options, many do not offer organic produce, vegetables, or fruits, a problem that has only exacerbated food deserts. These small food retailers have thrived due to lower overhead and more processed food which in turn maximizes profits. The community’s dependency on these stores increases the risk of developing health issues like heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.  

“I didn’t really think about the health disparities in my community because there’s no food access,” Barfield says. “We live as a community and we eat what we see, that’s why our corner stores do so well because it’s close and convenient.” 

Solutions — what can you do? 

Organizations like Bread for the World, Feeding America, and Jewish Family Service are working to provide nutritious foods for low-income and marginalized communities — but is it enough? 

“At the end of the day, the government has the capacity to address hunger at 10 times the rate of charities and congregations combined. If we are actively engaged in advocacy, it’s a game changer, we can impact millions,” Taylor says. “We can impact thousands of Black households.”  

In every city across the country there are empty lots that can easily be used for community gardens, Barfield says. Part of the environmental justice work she advocates for is to get government contracts from the city to start local farms right in the neighborhood. 

But Barfield knows she can’t do it alone.  

Part of her business model offers containers to grow your own food, with training on where and how to start. Rewriting the narrative of food insecurity in the Black community starts now Barfield says, with Black folks getting their hands in soil and training the next generation of children. 

“The amount of Black and brown children I’ve been able to connect with and put their hands in soil … brings me so much joy.” 

This article first appeared in Word in Black

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