Solving Food Segregation in Minority Communities | Opinion

Diabetes and obesity (aka "diabesity") kill vastly more Black and Hispanic Americans than any other groups, yet this most deadly form of systemic racism isn't being discussed. This isn't just a cultural phenomenon; it is part of how U.S. cities were designed. Minority communities are less likely to live close to a green grocer or a supermarket selling healthy, quality foods, as a direct result of the segregation laws and redlining of housing areas in the 1930s.

When it comes to the food we eat, the Jim Crow era never ended. After COVID-19 and its links to diabesity and death, it must.

Those links are bidirectional. There is growing evidence to suggest that the presence of COVID can trigger diabetes. That link is even more dangerous after stay at home orders, sedentary lifestyles and stress eating leading to weight gain (a risk factor for diabetes) for many.

A WebMD study found that on average, people gained an average of eight pounds over the course of the pandemic, with 70 percent of respondents claiming that the reason was stressful eating, with a further 72 percent putting it down to lack of exercise.

There is an undeniable racial element to the increase in diabetes and obesity; in the U.S., it is Black adults who have the highest level of obesity at 49 percent, followed by Hispanic adults at 44 percent.

This isn't because Black and Hispanic Americans "aren't trying hard enough." It's because they continue to be forced to metaphorically "sit in the back of the bus" when it comes to accessing fresh foods. This form of systemic racism is known as living in "food deserts." The USDA defined a food desert as a place where at least a third of the population lives greater than one mile away from a supermarket for urban areas, or greater than 10 miles for those living in rural areas.

There are about 19 million people in America who have limited access to a grocery store. Research has found that food deserts are more prevalent in minority neighborhoods, with Black and Hispanic communities having fewer large supermarkets and small grocery stores than their white counterparts.

We need to tackle this problem head on. If we can make a life-saving vaccine for COVID-19 available to all Americans, we can do the same with life-saving fresh foods. Perhaps it's time we followed the food activist Karen Washington in calling this what it is: a "food apartheid."

The phrasing is provocative, but I believe it is justified. Unequal distribution of fresh food grocers had its roots in the segregation laws of the early 1930s. When soldiers returned from World War I, a house building infrastructure project ordained by the 1934 National Housing Act was implemented to cater for a growing middle class.

Groceries are on display
Groceries are on display. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

"Redlining" as a practice became mainstream, which was a means of identifying how desirable a neighborhood was. The categories were as follows: "Best, Still Desirable, Definitely Declining, Hazardous, and Negro Concentrations." This practice meant that insurance was much more expensive (or impossible) in redlined neighborhoods, which were almost always Black or Hispanic majority areas. This lack of insurance led to a lack of quality grocers and food options.

If you look at the redlining maps of the '30s, they can still give you a good indication of which areas are most impoverished today and therefore more likely to contain a food desert.

The most troubling part of this food apartheid is that it worsening despite a clear, noncontroversial and life-saving solution. We could start with subsidizing healthy foods. American tax dollars are already spent subsidizing the foods that create obesity; why not subsidize foods that eliminate it? If we can spend around $170 billion between 1995 and 2010 subsidizing foods like corn, soybeans, wheat and rice we can do the same for vegetables.

We know that according to top doctors at Harvard Medical School, these low-quality, processed foods can inflame the hypothalamus causing us to become fat; one study showed that it is those subsidized foods that are more likely to give us diabesity and unhealthy cholesterol levels. While these subsidies may make food cheaper, the U.S. has to spend over half a billion dollars on just obesity and diabetes related health care expenses per year.

If we started to subsidize fruit and vegetables instead of processed junk food, we could slash our health care costs, and bridge the nutrition race gap at the same time.

As well as subsidizing quality foods, we need to make sure those foods get to the communities that need them most. We should invest in, subsidize and support minority businesses with a goal of having at least one fresh food source that serves every 10,000 individuals within a certain radius.

As health care costs rise, these investments will easily pay for themselves in health care savings.

Solving the problem of "nutrition segregation" is a financial and moral imperative that we have the ability to fix.

Jonathan Bailor is the executive producer of the award-winning food documentary BETTER, a New York Times bestselling author, holder of 26 patents and founder/CEO of evidence-based wellness program SANESolution.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

Editor's Picks

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts