October 18, 2022
Exploring the Links Between Discriminatory Land Policies, Black Farmers, Food Access, & Health Disparities: A Richmond Case Study
Health begins where we live, learn, work and play — and with what we eat. Yet not everyone has access to affordable, healthy food. In Virginia, unequal access to healthy food is often the result of discriminatory policies that impact control of resources and land ownership. These upstream decisions have contributed to Black communities being at higher risk for a range of negative health outcomes, including chronic illness. While there is a renewed vision at the federal level to end hunger, a number of grassroots efforts to address the role that food access plays in health outcomes have taken off across Virginia in the past few years, providing a blueprint to holistic community-led social change.
Barriers to Critical Resources
Historical and contemporary policies restricting access to both land and capital have contributed to both displacing and depriving people of critical resources, which has particularly limited Black communities’ access to healthy food sources. These policies have been instrumental in shaping urban and rural landscapes across the U.S., and the story is no different in Virginia. For example, during the 1930s in Richmond, every single Black neighborhood was characterized as a hazardous place for loans, (regardless of residents’ income), while white neighborhoods were favored for investment.
Targeted denial of access to financial support and disinvestment means that historically Black neighborhoods remain largely low-income and that the poverty rate for Black and Hispanic Americans has been 2 to 3 times higher than the rate of white Americans for the last 30 years. People of color have been more than twice as likely to experience poverty than white individuals for the last decade, with these disparities further exacerbated for women.
Impact of Discriminatory Policy on Virginia’s Black Farmers
Restrictions on land ownership also extend to Black farmers across Virginia. Today, only 4% of farmers in the commonwealth are Black while Black people comprise 20% of Virginia’s population — a legacy of discriminatory lending practices by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) that continue to disadvantage Black farmers. A century ago, census records show that over 230,000 Black farmers owned and operated 16 million acres of farmland across the U.S. This acreage has shrunk almost tenfold, to 2 million acres cultivated by less than 25,000 Black farmers across the country. Although former President Obama proposed an over $1 billion settlement in 2009 to redress the discrimination from the USDA, the result has been underwhelming.
Black farmers such as John Boyd Jr., a fourth-generation farmer from Baskerville, Virginia who led a 1999 class-action lawsuit against the USDA, continue to report that the payout has yet to be seen by many people it was supposed to aid. In addition, just last year, the Biden Administration’s American Rescue Plan incorporated $4 billion toward “socially disadvantaged farmers,” defined as nonwhite. The program began in May 2021, but distribution of funds was blocked by a Florida judge when it came to light that a white farmer was one of the dozen who received funds on the grounds of claiming racial discrimination. The continued dispossession of land and capital from Black farmers weakens Black community control over food and diminishes the ability for families to access healthy foods.
The Relationship Between Food and Health
The decreased access to healthy food due to discrimination against Black farmers has consequences for family and community health. In several studies, researchers found that communities with fewer sources of fresh produce were at higher risk of obesity and diabetes. Food insecurity has been independently implicated in the development of a number of chronic diseases that continue to overwhelm our healthcare system. Among these conditions include type 2 diabetes mellitus (DM), cardiovascular disease, and mood disorders. These problems are compounded by the broader discrimination facing Black families in education and employment opportunities, which leads to lower wages and higher poverty rates. Low-income earners are more than 2.6 times more likely to be food insecure than higher-income earners. Food access is also much more than an urban problem: while both poverty and access to food in rural areas impacts health outcomes, access to healthy food has a stronger affect.
While there have been a number of top-down efforts to redress the effects of systemic racism on access to healthy foods, a number of community-driven food justice initiatives have also blossomed across Virginia to address the issue. Some of the foremost efforts have come out of Richmond. These include the Food Justice Corridor headed by Art Burton and the construction of several community gardens across Virginia led by Duron Chavis. With a vision of community agency, projects such as these imagine and enact alternative food systems. In these alternative models, the major decision-makers are not corporations, and often underutilized plots of land are transformed into thriving sources of community nourishment. By connecting people with resources that work to alleviate inequities and building more equitable and community-driven food systems, these initiatives work to shift health inequities in a long-lasting fashion.
In the tradition of Fannie Lou Hamer’s Freedom Farm Cooperative from the 1970s in Mississippi, which was created as an agricultural cooperative to meet the needs of impoverished residents (and that included access to affordable housing), both Burton and Chavis recognize food access as one piece of a larger puzzle at the intersection of health and other social issues. Burton has also started working with the National Black Farmers Association Let’s Get Growing initiative, which trains members of Black churches in central Virginia in food cultivation techniques that can be shared with congregants. These efforts use urban agriculture grounded in community agency and ownership of resources as a tool to address the compounded effects of facing barriers to good health, land ownership, and wealth.
Access to capital is crucial to sustaining community-driven efforts, and targeted support is a way to supplement existing policy efforts that frequently face obstacles, as in the case of the planned federal government payout to Black farmers in 2009. A reparations map maintained by Soul Fire Farm offers a way to support Black-owned and community-led farms across the U.S.
Poverty, racism, and limited access to land ownership and nutritious foods have long contributed to poor health outcomes for communities of color across the commonwealth. Initiatives that work to redress these disparities through reimagining food systems and relationships to food are thriving across the state. Richmond offers valuable lessons on how to strengthen healthy food options from the grassroots level. Ultimately, investment in these community-led efforts is crucial to allocate land and money in a more equitable way.