Massachusetts Food System Collaborative
Massachusetts Food System Collaborative

September 5, 2017

Equity, race, and the food system

by Jessica del Rosario, Collaborative Steering Committee member

In an effort to ensure that our work considers and engages all Massachusetts residents, particularly those who have traditionally been excluded or marginalized, the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative has been hosting discussions around the state to hear from individuals and organizations about their perspectives on equity, race, and the food system. These discussions are intended to help us learn about the work being done at the nexus of equity, race and the food system, identify how the Collaborative might support this work through its policy efforts and network approach, and expand our thinking about race and its impact on the food system to better inform our activities.

During the planning process that led to the Massachusetts Local Food Action Plan, equity was one of the three cross-cutting topics (environment and economy were the other two) that work groups considered as they identified recommendations for their specific sector.  The Food Access, Security and Health (FASH) work group defined an equitable food system as “one in which everyone has fair access to a nutritious diet that was grown, raised and processed in a way that supports the health and dignity of those throughout the supply chain.” We then further defined some of those terms for clarity:

Everyone means all residents regardless of race, gender, income, sexual preference, or other demographics or identifiers.

Fair means that each individual and community has access to what they need. This is different from equality, which means giving everyone the same thing, which can only be fair if everyone starts from the same place. Whether making policy changes, running programs, or providing resources, it is important to consider whether there are negative consequences for a vulnerable population, and whether the benefits of a policy or program can be reaped by those who need it most.

Access includes: physical accessibility; affordability; cultural appropriateness; and knowledge, skills, and resources to prepare food.

A nutritious diet refers to food products necessary to meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This includes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and low fat dairy, and provides an allowance for a small portion of sweet or fatty treats.

Support for health and dignity refers to the conditions for farm workers, processors, and others in the supply chain, from production through sales through waste management. Under an equitable system the work environment should not cause health hazards, employment should be available to all, and workers should be treated fairly. Furthermore, work in the food system should be valued through a living wage.

While this line of discussion allowed us to address equity in a broad context, there was little time during the planning process to explore the deeper and harder topics of race and racism and get clarity about its impact. With the Collaborative facilitating implementation of the Plan, we have moved from planning to doing – advocating for policy, participating in coalitions, building networks, and informing the dialogue.  This has made it imperative that we understand and are able to speak to the effects race and racism have had on our food system.  We are committed to ensuring the policies we advocate for benefit those intended by the Plan, that we avoid unintended consequences for vulnerable communities, and that a diverse set of actors is empowered with information and data to advocate for needed policies that are carefully crafted to ensure they benefit the intended people.

The recent conversations generated some ideas for projects, themes, and considerations for the Collaborative’s work. Examples include the potential supports people need as they enter the food economy as workers or business or land owners, and the re-introduction of a 21st century home economics curriculum into our schools to build upon the inspiring connections youth are making to the food system through some local, innovative programs.

I already knew that racial disparities in people’s health outcomes related to their ability to eat healthy foods. For example, in Massachusetts 1 in 4 adults is obese, but Black and Hispanic adults are 1.5 times more likely to be obese due to unequal access to healthy food and health care. Through this process I have learned that similar disparities exist in other areas of the food system, affecting who has or doesn’t have the opportunity to purchase land for farming, gain a loan to start a new food business, or access the market to sell products, for example. Economic barriers are only part of these equations – language barriers, issues of time and location, access to and understanding of the internet, even the complexity of application processes all have an impact on who gets to fully participate in and benefit from the food system.

Racism is part of our food system and institutions, and eradicating it requires our getting educated about how we got here. It also includes taking personal responsibility to acknowledge our own bias and to call it out when we see it in our systems and institutions.  One is never done in their learning and these conversations are not enough, but they have been a start on the Collaborative’s journey as we move from learning to doing. As we continue to identify policy opportunities and strengthen the network of actors working to better our food system, it is incumbent on all of us to engage those who are most vulnerable, and who historically have been left out of accessing opportunities for employment, education, financial security, food, and the other necessities that provide security for themselves and their families.


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