Food systems in black inner cities: redlining, better city planning, and local quality food sourcing

Divine Maduakolam 

Recently I visited the city of Detroit to help a family member move in. They unfortunately face familiar issues that come with being a resident in a Black inner city – issues that highlight the disproportionate stressors on Black communities, specifically in inner cities. Today, we know Black lives are already disproportionately cut shorter than their non-Black counterparts. According to a NPR article dated May 2020 titled What Do Coronavirus Racial Disparities Look Like State By State?, “Nationally, African-American deaths from COVID-19 are nearly two times greater than would be expected based on their share of the population. In four states, the rate is three or more times greater.”  In the wake of protests, coronavirus, the death of George Floyd, and movements being created to amplify Black voices, I think there is a duty to all of American society to address systemic issues that oppress Black life.

Issues: Supermarket redlining and food insecurity 
An example of the systemic oppression against Black communities is food insecurity and food deserts. One hassle we faced while moving was finding a nearby place to go grocery shopping. While searching for a place to shop on the first night, we saw a local convenience store and limited alternatives.The nearest grocery store was thirty minutes away, according to our GPS, and that was by car. If you’ve lived in a low income, especially a majority Black city, you’ve realized that you either have to get groceries outside of your city or depend on local convenience stores and bodegas for basic goods. Despite being located in poor or low working class neighborhoods, these stores tend to charge more for groceries that are usually low in nutrient quality and scarce in quantity. According to a study published in 2018 by Jessica Crowe, Constance Lacy, and Yolanda Columbus in Urban Science, the price of milk at the local Family Dollar was double the price at the grocery chain Aldi. These stores not only charge more but have a dearth of nutrient-rich food, resulting in limited access to high quality, healthy, and affordable food within Black neighborhoods. A thirty minute drive for groceries was doable for us but what about individuals that don’t have a car, or don’t have the time to trek on the bus to the grocery store and bring back all their groceries for the month? What if they have limited mobility and can only shop local? Many low income city residents, especially those who depend on food assistance programs, have to strategize grocery trips – accounting for bus routes and schedules, planning when they receive government assistance, navigating personal and work schedules – resulting in “fewer trips [to minimize] cost of travel and time, but it led some to miss out on deals advertised during other weeks”. In short, the amount of food available to eat and opportunities to afford more quality foods are both limited. 

There is systemic oppression on food systems in Black inner cities that is described by Crowe, Lacy, and Columbus called “supermarket redlining.” This is when a major supermarket chain decides a neighborhood has too many risks for them to develop business in. Most of these “risks”  are based on stereotypes of gross income and race, much like the residential redlining of the early to mid 20th century. Supermarkets are not the only entities finding reasons to not invest in Black communities. City planners are not challenging these misconceptions and advocating for supermarket access.  

Solutions: City planning to better public health and sustainable development
City planners can help alleviate food insecurity in the Black community. Certainly city planners cannot turn a “blind eye” to racial or social biases of future investors when making decisions on a particular city’s development. City planners should be actively involved in changing racist institutions by advocating for all of the communities they serve. Examples of this would include demanding equitable access to the city’s investments and challenging the status quo, especially when it comes to investors who provide basic necessities like food and clean water.

Likewise, the city planners who work more closely with the residents of the city can better meet the specific needs of the community. There are many solutions to food insecurity in cities including “food pharmacies,” community gardens, and farmer’s markets, but you won’t know what works best for the community until you connect with the residents. Specialized plans that address residents’ specific needs and wants are a best practice for sustainable city development and success. For example, in the previously mentioned Urban Science study, one community demonstrated “interest for a community garden and home gardens, but [also] expressed a need for training and assistance with the upstart cost”. A city planner may take action to tackle this specific food insecurity issue by partnering with an organization or company sharing the desire to implement educational community gardening. They may also work with a local farmer to provide learning opportunities on a small plot of land designated for community gardening.  By finding innovative solutions to the city’s unique needs, the planner will create spaces that improve the welfare of the city and meet the needs of its citizens.

Another solution is to invest back into existing local markets. With the proper resources, local businesses and food outlets may provide a tailored solution to food insecurity. Crowe et al’s research stated that “ethnic markets can play a large role in providing residents with nutritious, affordable, and culturally acceptable food—thereby contributing to community food security”. Investing in local ethnic restaurants and convenience stores will help expand the resources the residents within that community need. Not only does that improve the health of a community’s residents by increasing access to quality food they want and need to eat, but it leverages the economy within Black inner city communities, making it more appealing for future investment.

Ensuring reasonable access to quality food outlets and partnering with local farmers is one way that we can ensure that fresh products are available to these communities. By partnering with local farmers, a shorter supply chain can provide greater quality products in inner city Black neighborhood markets, while avoiding the side effects of processed goods. Sustainability is about upholding life on this planet for generations to come, partnering movements, and their missions is essential for all life on this earth, especially marginalized populations.

It has become apparent that there is a threat to not only all life on this planet, through the hazards of climate change and pollution, but disproportionately to poorer communities and specifically Black lives. While this post focused on the experiences of Black people within the United States who are facing health issues or dying at a greater rate than their non-Black counterparts, the issue of disproportionate municipal resources exists worldwide.

Although food insecurity and changing food systems isn’t the only needed action to end this disheartening reality, it must be a part of the solution. Investing in local Black businesses improves the way in which they can better serve Black lives, and perhaps most importantly, listening to and addressing the issues local Black people face is the first step in creating unique solutions to solve problems. 

Environmentally sustainable practices like local farming, food sourcing, and community gardening, not only improves environmental health and reduces harmful animal practices, but benefits the local residents who lack access to quality healthy food the most. 

Sources: Urban Science, National Public Radio