Center Spread: Exploring Food Insecurity and an Exclusive Interview With Food Activist, Karen Washington

What Is Food Insecurity?

By Cayzlen Rodriguez, age 9

Food insecurity means not knowing if you can provide food for yourself or your family. This can be a temporary situation or long-term. Often people face other hardships linked to food insecurity, such as unemployment, lack of access to education, low-wage jobs or a lack of affordable housing.

Photo by Enrico Mantegazza on Unsplash

Not having access to enough food to sustain a healthy lifestyle is part of a cycle that can be difficult to overcome. All of the social issues that low-income people face must be addressed. A low-income household is very likely to experience food insecurity. According to the American Action Forum, “low-income households were 2.6 times more likely than the average American household to be food insecure.” 

Unexpected bills might mean choosing between eating and not eating. Choices like this can be very stressful, and a lack of nutrition from not eating enough can cause growth or learning problems for children. This can affect how well kids perform in school, which ultimately determines if they go to college or not.

Being food secure means that you have the ability to access enough food to live comfortably and healthily. Some people who are food insecure actually have access to plenty of food, but it is predominantly fatty, unhealthy junk food that is available. These types of foods have a high amount of calories and can cause diseases like diabetes.

How Climate Change Impacts World Food Supplies

By Maliyah Ledesma, age 10 and IndyKids staff

Climate change has been steadily worsening. Due to the rising temperatures, drought and floods caused by climate change, food insecurity is increasingly becoming a larger public health issue. A 2021 study by NASA has found that by the year 2030 many important crops like soybeans, corn and rice that support global food production will rapidly decline.

Photo by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash

Food production problems mostly occur in places where natural disasters often happen. This is because the conditions in these areas are the most impacted by climate change, which makes it difficult to sufficiently grow food. Climate change can make food shortages worse because it affects weather patterns. Worsening weather conditions make it difficult for corn, rice and soybeans to grow.

One in nine people around the world experience food shortage every day. Of these people, 80% live in areas which experience the most natural disasters, according to the United Nations’ World Food Programme.

Climate change also affects livestock because many of the crops that are under threat are also relied on by livestock. Rising temperatures can also affect animals by making them more vulnerable to diseases and heat stress.

At COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, participants discussed the importance of global food security in the face of climate change, noting the need to scale up support and resources to achieve sustainable, climate-resilient food systems.

“The intersection between climate and food is profound,” said Agnes Kalibata, special envoy for the U.N. Food Systems Summit. “If we do not address food systems-driven climate emissions, we simply cannot make our 1.5 C target; and if we don’t, food systems will suffer the most.”

How the Pandemic Made Food Insecurity Worse

By Melina Ferreyra, age 9 and IndyKids staff

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity has increased in the United States and around the world. In 2019, the rate of food insecurity in the United States was at its lowest point in 20 years. However, in 2020 the United Nations found that between 720 million and 811 million people worldwide experienced food insecurity. 

Within the first few weeks of the pandemic, tens of millions of people lost their jobs. The United States experienced a record high of 7 million unemployment insurance claims by the end of March 2020. When people lost their jobs, it made meals and groceries harder to afford. Feeding America reported that food banks in the United States experienced a huge spike in 2020, with 55% more people relying on them than before the pandemic. To add to this, issues over safety concerns while in-store shopping, limited hours and available produce, and rising prices also contributed to food insecurity.

Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash

Nearly 15% of households in the United States with children experienced food insecurity because of the pandemic, according to the World Economic Forum. Around the world, 370 million children have missed nearly half of their daily meals due to school closures. World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley said in a report, “For many, the nutritious meal they get in school is the only food they will receive all day.” Young children who experience food insecurity can face potentially damaging long-term implications. Reduced calorie intake and a lack of nutrition can affect their cognitive development.

The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened food insecurity for many adults and kids. While Feeding America reports that food banks handed out less food in 2021, the levels are still much higher than they were pre-pandemic. As eviction moratoriums and expanded unemployment benefits begin to expire around the United States and the new Omicron variant spreads, it is clear that long-term solutions must be found. “Hunger or food insecurity is completely preventable,” said Mass. state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, to the Greenfield Recorder. “The fact that people are food insecure is a failure of government.”

What Is a Food Desert, and Why Should We Stop Calling Them That?

By Lucia Mejia Cardenas, age 14

In the past, neighborhoods vulnerable to food insecurity have been called “food deserts.” The United States Department of Agriculture defined food deserts as communities where at least one-third of the population lives more than one mile from a grocery store, giving them limited access to healthy, nutrient-dense foods. However, there is an ongoing push, initiated by urban farmer and activist Karen Washington, to replace that term with “food apartheid.” 

The term “food desert” implies that food insecurity occurs as part of a natural ecosystem, when in reality food insecurity is a systemic problem, and comparing them to deserts erases responsibility. Comparatively, a food swamp is a location which is inundated with unhealthy fast-food options and few grocery stores. The term “food apartheid,” which replaces both of these terms, implies that these are a human-enforced issues. “Apartheid” was a social system separating white and Black and Brown people in South Africa between 1950 to the 1990s. The word apartheid means “apartness” in Afrikaans, a language spoken in South Africa. Food apartheid therefore means that access to healthy food is racially segregated.

Food apartheid become a prevalent issue in the 1960s, according to the National Resources Defense Council. During that time, white families began leaving the city to move into suburban areas, and anti-Black housing policies were implemented in order to keep non-white families out of the suburbs. Many supermarket chains followed that so-called white flight. This left Black, Brown and Indigenous communities in urban neighborhoods with limited access to large markets which provided a wide range of healthy and nutritious foods. 

Needless to say that food apartheid is linked to, as co-founder of Black Urban Growers Karen Washington put it in an interview with IndyKids, “economic and wealth injustice, housing injustice, and health injustice.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that in 2016 food insecurity was two times more prevalent in Black and Latinx families than Asian and white families. Food apartheid is especially prevalent within Native American communities. Partnership with Native Americans published data from 2017 showing that it is 400 percent more likely for Native Americans to suffer from food insecurity than any other community in the United States.

Activists like Karen Washington have been leading the fight for food system reform by showing how access to food is connected to social justice issues. She has been helping members of her community learn how to garden and advocate for reliable and equal access to healthy food. “You cannot continue to push people in a corner, take away their food, take away their land, take away their will to live, without revolt,” she said. “You just can’t.” 

An Interview with Karen Washington, political activist, community organizer fighting for food justice, co-owner and organic grower at Rise & Root Farm in New York.

Karen Washington

Lucia: You coined the term “food apartheid” to replace “food desert.” Could you explain what the difference is and why it’s important to differentiate those terms? 

Karen: The place where I live is a food desert, but we have an abundance of food. We have fast food, junk food and processed food, but we don’t have healthy food options. [“Food desert” is] just a label that’s used when people don’t have [easy] access to a grocery store. But it didn’t get to the heart of the matter, and it never answered the question about why we still have hunger and poverty. It’s based on racism, wealth inequality, where you live, the color of your skin, how much money you make. So I coined the term “food apartheid” because I wanted us to have a hard conversation about racism and why there’s such a differentiation of food in poor Brown and Black neighborhoods versus affluent white neighborhoods. Because where you live and how much money you make defines the quality of your food.

Lucia: If food insecurity isn’t addressed with a sense of urgency, what are the consequences that we might face?

Karen: In the last 18 months, COVID-19 has exacerbated the problems that we have. Clearly it’s time to really tackle [our] food system, or it will continue to get worse, until we [learn] how to get people out of poverty and provide people with nourishment and healthy food options. We have to make sure that we get the subsidized, charity-based food system out of our communities and start thinking about how to make sure that people in less fortunate neighborhoods get the healthy, quality food that they are entitled to. But we’re up against big business, [which is] making money off of people being poor and sick.

Lucia: Do you believe that communities and the people themselves can solve food insecurity, or does the final goal require help from government intervention?

Karen: The conversation has to start within the community. It has to be a grassroots movement. For so long, it’s been top-down. Outsiders, people with power and privilege, have been making decisions on how those who are less fortunate live and what type of food they have. The community has to say enough is enough and demand quality, fresh produce. But it’s going to be difficult when you have an industrialized food system that predicates itself on profits over people and the environment. [Because of] COVID, a lot of [people] lost their jobs, and never thought in their lifetime that they would be standing in line at a food pantry. It also shows how delicate our food supply system is. COVID has shone light on the precariousness of our food system. There was this insurgence of people wanting to grow their own food! I hope that the trend continues and that people understand the importance of eating fresh local produce.

Lucia: What is the role of youth in this movement?
Karen: The youth movement is important. They are hopefully going to steer this country in the right direction, because right now we are divided. Hopefully we have a generation of youth that starts to become more diverse and inclusive, that things start to change and the youth will look at our people the same as we look at our plants and animals, where we take pride in diversity.

1 thought on “Center Spread: Exploring Food Insecurity and an Exclusive Interview With Food Activist, Karen Washington”

  1. You actually make it seem really easy with your presentation but I find this matter to be really something that I think I might never understand. It sort of feels too complicated and extremely vast for me. I’m looking forward to your subsequent post, I’ll attempt to get the hang of it!

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