Food Apartheid Explained
March 22, 2022

Food apartheid is a term that describes how racism and political power affect our food systems both domestically and internationally. Apartheid refers to a system of racial segregation and discrimination imposed in South Africa from 1948 until the early 1990s. Similarly, the term food apartheid encourages a historical understanding of food systems and names the oppressive, unequal racialized systems of power that govern food consumption, production, and distribution. Coined by food activist Karen Washington, food apartheid “looks at the whole food system, along with race, geography, faith, and economics.” 

Food apartheid rejects the market-based framing of “food deserts” or “food swamps,” both of which misappropriate ecological language to describe human-designed systems. Food deserts are a popular framing of low-income, usually Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) communities with a dearth of healthy food options — typically measured by proximity to a grocery store or produce retailer. In a similar vein, food swamps describe the over-abundance of fast food outlets (over healthy food stores) in BIPOC communities. By using the language of naturally occurring ecosystems, these terms can imply that these unequal food systems are naturally occurring, while simultaneously narrowing the scope of food systems to market-based food solutions — supermarkets, grocery stores, and fast food.

Viewing food systems through the lens of food apartheid, by contrast, encourages analysis of how racism, class-based inequalities, and imperialism have created a global food system with a singular goal of increasing the wealth of agribusiness elites: all at the expense of the working people who eat, produce, and distribute food. This analysis begins at the level of consumption: the prevalence of “food deserts'' is directly correlated with red-lined urban areas, (see supermarket redlining), and contributes to higher levels of chronic diet-related diseases, such as hypertension, obesity, and diabetes. This is because both food deserts and food swamps are characterized by a lack of access to fresh produce and healthier foods. Instead, an overabundance of highly processed, shelf-stable food, most of which is derived from corn and soy based ingredients, dominates the store shelves. The process of red-lining also created a racialized urban policy which blocked BIPOC residents from accumulating wealth through home and land ownership, creating cycles of generational poverty which are only exacerbated by the detrimental health impacts of our unequal food systems. 

The analysis continues at the level of distribution: food system workers — from agricultural workers, to meat packers, to fast food chain cashiers — set the floor for workers’ rights and wages. Under the guise of “low-skill labor,” the value they create is expropriated and redistributed upward, most often to a white or Northern corporation which will resell the product at hundreds of times the value the worker received. At the level of production, monocultures of corn and soy destroy the quality of land — land originally stolen from Indigenous people. The massive use of fertilizers and pesticide runoff required on these monocultural landscapes further pollute waterways and destroy marine ecosystems. At the same time, fruit and vegetable production relies heavily on migrant farm workers who are not protected by standard labor laws. This is another legacy of New Deal era legislation which increased the quality of life for many rural whites at the expense of workers and farmers of color. 

At each of these levels of analysis we see a racialized system of exploitation that targets consumers, workers, and people — from the genocide of Indigenous people, to a century of land theft from Black farmers, to hazardous working conditions for migrant workers in the midst of COVID-19. It’s important to remember that many of these workers are the same consumers who can’t afford the fresh food they harvest for the rest of the country. The for-profit food system thrives on this cyclical exploitation — underpaid workers require cheap food, which provides the justification for increased production of cheap grains through monocultures, which in turn requires less infrastructure than storing fresh produce and can be easily distributed at bodegas or convenience stores. If consumers or workers develop diet-related diseases from this low-quality nutrition, they become fodder for the pharmaceutical industrial complex. The system of food apartheid is highly profitable for farm owners, industrial food processors, and supermarket giants; food apartheid is a valuable term because it encourages explicit investigation into patterns of racialized exploitation throughout all aspects of our food system, beyond the consumer-centric perspective of food deserts or food swamps. 

In addition to exposing the unequal systems underlying our food systems, a food apartheid framing leaves room for the creative solutions that emerge from communities living under this oppressive regime. Monica M. White, author of the celebrated book Freedom Farmers, writes about how Black farmers and food system leaders pioneered visionary responses to an oppressive system and provided models for reorganization through farmers’ markets, rooftop and community gardens, community fridges, food cooperatives, and mutual aid practices. Food apartheid is confronted by the struggle for food sovereignty, which demands that all people have access to healthy, culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sustainable means. The people who produce, consume, and distribute food must be placed at the heart of food systems and policy, rather than the self-serving demands of multinational corporations. Dismantling food apartheid requires reimagining and overhauling agricultural and economic policy so that human health, economic equality, environmental sustainability, and climate justice is prioritized over the endless pursuit of profit.