In the years since Black Lives Matter became a popular rallying cry amongst activists, politicians, students, and many others, another important realization has started to receive more attention — Black Health Matters. The Black population in the United States experiences long-standing health disparities, and even with modern medical technology and more knowledge regarding health best practices, many of these disparities persist. Often times, the culprit of and the solution to many Black health issues are one in the same — food. Access to healthy food remains elusive to many poor, marginalized communities. But community organizations led by young Black people are taking direct action to achieve food justice.
One of these groups is BLKHLTH, a platform created by four millennials to create a space where health information is centralized and accessible through content and community events.
“We see the mantra Black Health Matters as a reflection of the need to center Black people and the injustices they face related to health, similarly to the way BLM seeks to center Black people in the conversation around violence inflicted by the state,” Matthew McCurdy, co-founder of BLKHLTH tells Bustle.
“Food justice is racial justice. In order to give all people equal access to healthy, nutritious, and affordable food, we will have to dismantle racist systems and policies. The same racist mechanisms that create segregated neighborhoods and income inequality also cause food deserts to exist,” Paulah Wheeler, another co-founder of BLKHLTH, tells Bustle.
Food deserts, which are areas where at least 33 percent of the population doesn’t have access to a grocery store within one mile of their residence, cause food insecurity. And according to Kelly Bower, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, Black people are more likely to live in areas considered food deserts. "At equal levels of poverty, black census tracts had the fewest supermarkets," Bower notes in her published research. Wheeler explains the connection between the built environment and health outcomes. “When a family experiences food insecurity, that family is also experiencing chronic stress. The combination of stress and poor nutrition causes worsening health crises.”
Folks who live in food deserts and suffer from food insecurity often survive on heavily processed food or fast food, since that's what's available from a geographic and economic standpoint. At an event on Nov. 30, 2017, BLKHLTH spoke with community members in Southwest Atlanta about alternatives to foods full of fat and sugar. “I know I ate a lot of food with salt, sugar, and fat over Thanksgiving,” Mercilla Ryan-Harris, co-founder of BLKHLTH, shared with the crowd gathered to learn about plant-based eating. “I try to cook with limited amounts of salt and butter. A decision as simple as that can help lower cholesterol,” McCurdy tells Bustle. At the event, entitled “Soul Food Junkies,” Southwest Atlanta residents watched a documentary, listened to a diverse panel of speakers, sampled vegan food, and shared their own challenges with healthy eating.
“I used to not know what vegetables actually tasted like,” one attendee shared. “I realized I put too many unhealthy toppings on them. I had to give myself a chance to taste them [vegetables] by themselves and try them more than once if I didn’t like them the first time.”
And while education and community events play an important role in raising awareness about issues related to food justice, BLKHLTH acknowledges that institutional change is needed, too. “We can make food more accessible through community initiatives such as urban farms and mobile grocery stores. The biggest impact we can have on food accessibility, however, is through local, state, and national policies. Increasing the enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); major improvements in expansive, safe, and affordable public transportation; and incentives for grocery stores to open in poor and minority communities will all help make healthy and nutritious food more accessible for those who need it most,” Wheeler explains.
With the current state of politics, the expansion of federal programs that benefit poor people of color is unlikely. But that isn’t stopping regular people from helping others. Like BLKHLTH, there are many groups throughout the country that are helping improve health outcomes in marginalized communities. In Oakland, California, the People’s Breakfast pays homage to the Black Panthers by feeding people experiencing homelessness. (One of the Black Panthers' most well-known initiatives was the Free Breakfast for Children.) In Atlanta, Georgia, individuals are subverting city mandates that fine non-profits for feeding the homeless by sharing extra food with hungry people they pass on the street. There are organizations all across the country that use these and other techniques to create a more equitable food landscape in their communities.
“When resources are allocated to improve the health of those who are most disenfranchised, health outcomes improve for all people,” McCurdy tells Bustle. Food insecurity isn’t just a problem for the folks who are hungry; it weakens entire communities. Food justice can be a realized through thoughtful, intentional organizing by grassroots groups and local government.