Two weeks ago, I packed my bags and traveled to Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans to talk with students in their sociology department. Xavier is a historically black university founded in the early 1900s. Last month, the New York Times published an article about how Xavier sends more African American students to medical school than any other college in the country—and they have less than 2,500 undergraduate students.
Over the course of a day, I spoke to three sociology classes about race and inequity in our food system. Studies have shown that race is highly correlated with access to healthy, affordable food. Communities of color often have less access to grocery stores and higher access to convenience stores than predominately white communities. But even when healthy foods are available, they are often more expensive than the nearest supermarket price. However, New Orleans’ lack of a comprehensive public transportation system can make traveling to supermarkets challenging.
During several of the sociology classes, I asked students to get into small groups and write down what an equitable food system would look like—what necessary phrases or concepts would describe it. The students used words such as fresh, fair, affordable, abundant, convenient, ubiquitous, nutritious, and welcoming. They also said that these concepts should be available to all people—regardless of their background. Some students felt it shouldn’t be so hard to find affordable, healthy food in their community. One young woman told me that some food stores in the community explicitly state they don’t accept food assistance benefits (such as SNAP, formerly known as “food stamps”) on signs posted on the front windows—a practice that is discouraging to those seeking to provide food for themselves and their families.
You may be thinking: do students attending a historically black university in a city plagued with inequity really need to hear about it from a white woman working in our nation’s capital? Well, yes and no.
These students see the product of socioeconomic disparities in their city every day. They see it in housing, transportation, and the different types of food outlets available in certain neighborhoods. Some students lived through Hurricane Katrina, saw their city destroyed…and watched as only certain parts were rebuilt. They also see disparities that might not be visible, such as chronic disease and illness.
So no, I didn’t need to prove to them that disparities exist. What I did need to do, though, was explain that disparities resulting from food system inequities are not specific to New Orleans—they are issues that cities across the country experience every day. They are the result of a food system that was built on land redistribution, enslavement, and labor exploitation of certain racial and ethnic groups.
I presented to students the idea that these issues exist because of our flawed food system—and inequity exists across all phases: in the production of food, the distribution of food, and the consumption of food. However, changing that system requires defining what a new system would look like and it’s important to get perspectives from all different groups of people and communities, especially those whose voices have been ignored. Traveling to Xavier University, I wanted to hear what students had to say about their food system.
Food is a common denominator that connects us all, so why wouldn’t we seek input from everyone when determining how our food system works? Fortunately, at the Union of Concerned Scientists, we are working to make an evidence-based case for an equitable food system that promotes health and well-being for all of us.
I would like to extend a special thank you to Dr. Sandra Sulzer in the Department of Sociology for allowing me to teach in her classes; the students in the Introduction to Sociology and the Sociology of Family classes; the Department of Sociology for organizing my lecture, and the Department of Public Health for cross-promoting it.