My struggle for food justice is rooted in love for my son. I was pregnant in 2012 and had trouble balancing two jobs. I didn’t always have enough money to feed myself and my growing baby. Fortunately, I qualified for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for women, toddlers, and children (WIC), but the grocery store that was within walking distance often had no WIC-eligible items. That meant I either had to get on the city bus and go to a grocery store in a more affluent neighborhood, or have items on my voucher that I desperately needed. But somehow I did it every month. I was able to feed myself and my son with healthy, well-rounded meals. I am proud that I was able to give my son a good start in nutrition. Not everyone has this privilege.
My son was born about a week earlier than I expected. I remember breastfeeding him in a courthouse while waiting for a representative of the House of Ruth, an organization that helps women, children, and families overcome difficulties such as domestic violence and homelessness. When I fed my baby, I felt like I was holding the whole world on my shoulders like a marbled atlas and protecting my son from all threats to black children. My heart was so heavy when he was so old. A year before my son was born, Tray was killed by Martin. Being in a residential complex didn̵
We live in the separate city of Louisville, Kentucky. Louisville is becoming more diverse, but I still made a conscious decision to buy my two houses in the west end of the city, which is mostly black. Regardless of what outsiders think and what mainstream narratives say about violence, I feel much safer here than in a white or wealthy neighborhood. The problem, however, is that we’re stuck in a food desert.
There are several ways to define a food desert, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but it’s essentially a poor area with too few supermarkets or large grocery stores (the presence of such stores is the way the USDA accesses healthy people and healthy food tracks affordable food). Instead of a supermarket or large grocery store, most neighborhoods in the West End have a corner shop, liquor store, or grocery store, but they usually don’t have the capacity to process large quantities of food, and many don’t have technology to accept electronic benefits Transfer (EBT) or WIC. Life in a food desert is a subtle form of racism that pervades every facet of our lives. Long before COVID-19 threatened our safety, living in a food desert threatened our livelihood.
The most frequently cited figures on the subject say that 44,000 people in Louisville live in food deserts and 120,100 foods are unsafe, meaning that they do not have reliable access to adequate amounts of healthy food. More than once I took my son to a grocery store on the black side of town and accidentally bought long-expired milk. (Seeing armed police officers at the entrance to the store is just an insult to the injury. My son once asked me why they needed guns in a grocery store. It broke my heart.) USDA’s Food Access Research Atlas, The Food Deserts Mapped across the country, it is clear that many people in the West End of Louisville are at the interface between low income and below-average access to food. With nutrition so fundamental to health outcomes, it’s no surprise that the life expectancy of the predominantly black West End is up to 12.6 years shorter than in some predominantly white neighborhoods. According to a 2017 Louisville government report. Other factors certainly play a role here, but as the report notes, access to healthy food is a big factor.
As we have seen with COVID-19 and many other diseases that affect blacks disproportionately, a predominantly widespread social refrain is to blame black people for transferring these health consequences to ourselves. Instead, we need to hold systems and structures accountable for the racist ways they contribute to these health inequalities. Instead of blaming someone for french fries for breakfast, we need to reduce food apartheid and housing injustice, which often serve as obstacles to healthier options.