'They're really trying to kill us': How the coronavirus crisis worsens food insecurity in Black communities

Nearly empty vegetable crates in a grocery store
Empty vegetable crates and shelves caused by panic buying. Usually upcoming natural disasters cause people to stock up on food. (Getty Images)

In this op-ed, Yahoo Life Beauty Director Dana Oliver explores how Black families like her own are affected by food insecurity during the coronavirus crisis and offers expert advice on overcoming inequity in racist food systems.

“The National Guard has closed off the highway”

Hearing those eight words from my partner after telling him that I planned to make a grocery store run to stock up on food to feed our family triggered anxiety like I had never experienced before.

Ninety-two days had come and gone since I started working from home, and it had been 12 days since the death of George Floyd. Between the pandemic and police brutality, I felt as though Black people were under attack from all sides. Now I was worried about the possibility of running out of fresh food as the parent of a 1-year-old.

Looting left my West Philadelphia neighborhood looking like a war zone with shattered glass and trash all over the sidewalks and streets. The local Aldi I frequent to grab cartons of berries and loaves of whole-wheat bread was boarded up. Whole Foods, Target and Walmart — which are all beyond walking distance and require tactful public transportation planning — were temporarily closed. Market delivery services were scarce, or worse, not available for days. And it seemed as though driving across the bridge to New Jersey was not an option because ... well, as a Black woman, I wasn’t going to risk potential interaction with police.

Shoppers wait in line outside a boarded-up grocery store
Shoppers wait in line outside a boarded-up grocery store in the Mount Airy neighborhood of Northwest Philadelphia. (Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

As I started to make a mental checklist of what nonperishable items were left in the cupboards and the number of days I had remaining until my toddler finished the last of his rice milk, it dawned on me that I may be forced to make a trip to our corner store. This wouldn’t be a problem if the food and beverage options that lined the shelves and refrigerated display cases weren’t primarily processed; high in sodium, sugar or saturated fat; and, most importantly, antithetical to my family’s plant-based diet.

With tears streaming down my face as I refreshed my Amazon Prime app for the seventh time, I thought, “They’re really trying to kill us.”

Food insecurity in Black communities existed long before the coronavirus outbreak on American soil.

The pandemic worsened access many Black families like mine have to healthy and nutritious foods. While I was privileged to secure a last-minute Whole Foods grocery delivery from way out in the suburbs, the fear of not having enough food still lingers.

The stores with healthier options are typically not in our communities. Tramaine Willingham

Tramaine Willingham, a Black mother who is a nursing student and birth doula who lives in Philadelphia with her husband and daughter, “felt a panic” at the start of quarantine because the markets were empty or closed.

“What used to be a relaxing and exciting trip to the grocery store with my family has turned into a solo trip,” she says. “Grocery shopping is now full of anxiety, long lines wrapped around blocks, face masks that I can’t breathe in — and what used to take 10 minutes now easily takes over an hour! I understand it’s to keep us safe, but it has definitely altered our routine and experience.”

Willingham is all too familiar with most grocery stores in Black communities being full of “preserved, processed” options. “Unhealthy produce and meats are always on sale, and healthier foods are expensive at mainstream markets,” she says. “The stores with healthier options are typically not in our communities.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Willingham shopped at Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, a vast enclosed public market with over 80 merchants serving up everything from fresh produce and seafood to savory spices and hot foods for pretty reasonable prices. But she hasn’t gone there for months because she’s been “intentional about shopping at one market every few weeks to avoid exposure.” Willingham adds, “I have at times felt pressured to shop at corner stores, however, the ones near me have closed for now.”

Gregory S. Jenkins, a Philadelphia native and professor of meteorology at Penn State University, has seen the inequity around food and Black families in Philadelphia manifest in many ways. “Generations of people have not had access to fresh food,” he says. “Even the whole skill set around cooking fresh vegetables has changed.”

A woman walks past advertised prices at a grocery store in Manhattan
A woman walks past advertised prices at a grocery store in Manhattan's Lower East Side neighborhood. (Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

Jenkins reflects on a time when his mother, aunts and uncles, who migrated to the north from South Carolina, were “used to finding fresh food even if they had to travel for it.”

Yet, the educator says about growing up in West Philadelphia, “There were always small shops where the window dressings would show fresh fruits and vegetables, but when you go inside you don’t really see that.”

Generations of people have not had access to fresh food. Gregory S. Jenkins

“Food inequity — and most of it is racial — lack of resources, segregation and just no care about the people in the neighborhood. If they’re valued, they should have access to foods that keep them alive,” he says.

Furthermore, Jenkins notes how this plays out in a negative way when we examine COVID-19 mortality.

The city of Philadelphia released data showing that the rate of Black patients dying of the coronavirus is more than 30 percent higher than the rate of white patients. Factor in long-standing health care disparities among minorities, or how African Americans are more likely to have diseases and illnesses that put us at a higher risk of getting COVID-19, and the inequalities are far greater.

“We definitely know that COVID mortality is tied to high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease,” says Jenkins. “Having access to fresh foods would make you less vulnerable to dying from COVID in the event that you got it, and just having balanced meals limits your risk of obesity.”

Filmmaker and entrepreneur John Lewis is producing a documentary ironically titled They’re Trying to Kill Us as a follow-up to the 2017 film What the Health, which focuses on food and social justice through the lens of hip-hop. The relationship between food, health and disease within his own family was a major inspiration.

Growing up in Ferguson, Mo., Lewis struggled with childhood obesity and reached 315 pounds. He eventually became more active and started playing basketball, which resulted in him losing weight. But Lewis admits his relationship with food wasn’t better. “I was still in discord,” he says.

We think that a lot of ailments and diseases are in our genes, but in reality a lot of the problems that we have are related directly to food. John Lewis

In 2006, Lewis became vegan after learning of his mother’s colon cancer diagnosis. He says, “Talking to the doctors and understanding that her colon cancer was related directly to too much animal protein, coupled with fried fatty foods, et cetera, I thought to myself, not only can I help my mother and my family, but I believe we all deserve a right to live a better way.”

Ultimately, Lewis wants viewers of They’re Trying to Kill Us to understand that we “have the capability of taking health into our own hands.” He explains, “We think that a lot of ailments and diseases are in our genes, but in reality, a lot of the problems that we have are related directly to food. We have the power to decide what we put in our mouths no matter what the advertising says and no matter what the government says. We do have an option to eat better, and it can taste good as well.”

In her research, Nina Banks, an associate professor of economics at Bucknell University, notes the leadership of Black women in eradicating racial disparities in access to healthy and fresh food, thus contributing to the larger environmental justice movement.

In an analysis titled “The Food Injustices of COVID-19 in Black Communities,” she writes: “The food justice movement gained momentum during the 1990s in urban communities in response to the growing awareness of the health effects of nutritionally inadequate diets on low-income communities of color. Both movements call attention to the effects of environmental racism on Black communities as a matter of social justice and public health and safety.”

Banks adds, “With the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic and ongoing governmental disregard for the welfare of these vulnerable communities, the health effects are likely to be catastrophic.”

One Black woman who has played a pivotal role in the movements Banks mentions is Leah Penniman. Her connection to earth sprouted as a teenager working on local projects in Boston and youth-led community gardens alongside her future husband. In her early 20s, Penniman lived in West Africa and says she was able to really immerse herself in the Black farming community there, as well as travel to the southeast U.S. and talk with Black farmers throughout the region.

She then went on to co-found Soul Fire Farm, a Black, Indigenous and people-of-color-centered community farm in upstate New York, and write Farming While Black, a concise guide covering the ins and outs of small-scale farming. Through her work, Penniman informs and inspires generations of people about the benefits of growing fresh food.

Thanks to a sliding pay scale that was enacted years before the pandemic, Black and brown people who lost their incomes and needed food delivered could rely on this rural farm. Penniman says, “A lot of folks have irrational fear of going into grocery stores, and there aren’t a lot of [them]. So we’re able to bring the food to one household, one doorstep at a time, at a price they can afford, even down to zero.”

Soul Fire Farm has a program to build community gardens in neighborhoods outside of its upstate New York location. Through this initiative, families with children and the elderly have made requests for assistance with building their own gardens. Pennimen says she’s seen at least 50 requests and counting in 2020.

When reflecting on the impact Black farmers have had on history, Penniman uses the civil rights movement as a key example. “It was land-owning Black farmers that provided all of the shelter, food, safe meeting places and arms protection for protesters during the Freedom Summer,” she says of the 1964 movement in which college students came to Mississippi to help register Black voters. “They couldn’t rent at the Sheraton or something like that.”

This is largely why Penniman advocates for “having our own institutions as the ground zero for any type of organizing.” She continues, “It’s about the food, but also the autonomous zones that are Black- and brown-owned that are controlled and able to support many aspects of the revolution.”

No person should experience food insecurity. Here is a shortlist of practical solutions and resources for food access to help get you through the COVID-19 pandemic:

Grow your own vegetables and fruits at home

Starting small is a really good idea, according to Penniman. “If you’ve never gardened or grown your own food, I recommend trying to just grow some greens in takeout containers in your window sill or have a container garden on your balcony or stoop,” she says.

Willingham was inspired to start a garden for her family after feeling an urge to panic buy. “I hated that feeling, and I decided to put on my big-girl pants and get back to my roots,” she says. “I come from a family of farmers, as many Black folks do, and I knew that if I put my mind to it, I would make it happen.” The mother is currently growing spinach, tomatoes, cucumbers, broccoli, blueberries, strawberries, green beans, calendula, onions, sweet potatoes as well as culinary and medicinal herbs.

“I find myself in disbelief that I am able to grow food from a seed. I’d like to think that if my ancestors were alive today, they’d be very proud,” says Willingham.

Join a community garden or mobilize with your neighbors to start one

Once you’ve learned how to “pay attention to your plant” and “scale it up,” Penniman suggests getting involved with a community garden. “Find a master gardener who is willing to really take you under their wing so you can build your confidence bit by bit,” she adds.

Jenkins has also grown vegetables and discovered ways to give them out to neighbors or nonprofits in Philadelphia that can get them to people in need.

While many community gardens in cities across the U.S. are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, there are other ways to get involved. Activists in New York have even gotten crafty upcycling old refrigerators, filling them with free and healthy foods and placing them on city sidewalks for easy access.

Shop and support Black-owned food co-ops, restaurants and businesses

As Penniman puts it: “Find someone near you, purchase from them, go to their volunteer days, donate to them. Just try to help our overall system of food sovereignty because we need Black farmers, food hubs and co-ops.”

Learn the basics of farming ... online!

As we are all spending more time safely at home, you can use any downtime to register for free digital trainings and workshops on farming.

Soul Fire Farm hosts a weekly online video show called “Ask a Sista Farmer,” and you can even access their archive of BIPOC farmers community skillshares.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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