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  • Writer's pictureRobin Rhine McDonald

Covid-19 isn't racist. Our food system is.

I heard a podcast recently that described Covid-19 as a racist virus. African Americans are significantly more likely to catch the virus than white people and are more likely to die from it than white people are.

The virus cannot detect which human is black and which is white.To suggest that there is something different or inferior about the biology of black people that causes this is only an echo of racist concepts that have justified the dehumanization of African Americans in the past.

Why, then, are we seeing black communities experiencing higher infection and death rates?

Let's take a look again at the those who are most at risk for severe illness from Covid-19.

  • Those over 65

  • Those with underlying heart conditions

  • Diabetics

  • Those who are obese

  • Those with lung disease

  • Those with kidney disease

Did you know that African Americans are 51% more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic white Americans? [1]

Did you know that if you are African American, you are more than 4 times as likely to have kidney failure? [2]

Or how about the fact that type 2 diabetes has doubled in African American children in the last decade? [3]

These are only a few of the disparities that exist between black Americans and white Americans.

Again, this begs the question - why??

Race aside, we've blamed people for their lack of health. We shame people who are overweight for not being thinner, for not having control, and for not being stronger willed.

We make assumptions and judgments about people who are overweight, thinking that they are lazy and brought their circumstances upon themselves. More often than not, these are the thoughts we have about ourselves as well.

My grandparents and my parents did not eat a healthy diet when I was growing up, nor have they for most of their lives. Growing up, I hated vegetables, drank non-organic skim milk and apple juice like water, and ate a consistent diet of mac n cheese, fried chicken dinners, pasta, and hamburger helper.

The top chronic diseases were represented among my grandparents: diabetes, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer's/dementia, and arthritis.

As I got older, my diet shifted minimally. When I tried losing weight in college, I focused more on calories than on nutrition, and ultimately, continued to consume a very nutrient depleted diet.

Had I not entered the nutrition field of study, how likely do you think it would be that I would end up with the same chronic diseases as my grandparents?

Quite likely.

I ate what I knew, and even when I tried to "get healthy" I fell prey to what I had read in magazines and media:

"Calories in, calories out."

"Exercise your way to your goal weight"

"5 exercises to get flat abs"

"Eat fat, get fat"

I didn't hear about how the yogurt covered raisins I was eating every night were spiking my blood sugar like crazy and slowly directing me toward a path that ends in diabetes.

I didn't learn about the inflammation that comes from the processed "diet" foods I was consuming.

I didn't know that organic or grass fed were actually labels that mattered more than being a higher price tag.

Now, if this is the system I was born into, in a privileged middle class home, what do you think the chances are that a low income family in the middle of food desert amidst a food swamp is going to end up overweight and with health complications?

What is a food desert and a food swamp?

A food desert is a place where there are little to no options for fresh produce or foods. A food swamp is an area with a high concentration of fast food options. These are both usually located in low income areas and go hand in hand.

Let's come back to the concept of racial injustice in the food system.

Judgments towards those who are unhealthy are only increased when the individual is a person of color. It is assumed that it is their fault for being in that place.

Black communities have almost twice as many fast-food restaurants as white neighborhoods. [4] When healthy food is unavailable and fast food is what's in the budget, it's no wonder why poor health plagues these minority groups.

Dr. Hyman says it well, "Shifting our perspective from 'blame the victim' to 'change the system' is essential for addressing the social injustice that drives our chronic disease epidemic, obesity, poverty, food insecurity, and our toxic nutritional landscape, where making good choices is nearly impossible for many. Food is a justice issue."

Food options are only part of the problem.

Ever wonder why healthy food is so expensive and why unhealthy food is cheaper? It's because the government subsidizes the production of corn, wheat, and soy. If you decipher the source of the numerous ingredients of processed foods, you'll find that most of the ingredients are derivatives of these three genetically modified, health undermining crops. Unfortunately, lobbyists from food companies have kept our food system from providing affordable healthy foods.

These same companies specifically target minority groups. From 2013-2017, food advertising on black targeted TV increased by 50 percent. Black teens viewed 119 percent more jun food related ads - mostly for soda and candy - than white teens. [5]

The documentary "Fed Up", a film revealing the pervasive issues of sugar and how it affects our youth, was not allowed to be shown at the King center in Atlanta. Dr. Martin Luther King's daughter, Bernice King, regrettably informed the filmmakers that Coca-Cola funds the King Center.

At Spelman College in Atlanta, 50 percent of the entering class of African American women had a chronic disease - type 2 diabetes, hypertension, or obesity. This college also has Coke machines and soda fountains all of the campus. Guess which company is one of the biggest donors to Spelman College? Yes. Coca-Cola. [6]

With limited access to healthy food, an abundance of unhealthy food, and targeted advertising it's quite clear that the black community is facing injustice through the food system. It also makes it a bit more clear why the black community is taking a bigger hit from Covid-19.

So what can you do??

1. Support black food justice initiatives

Find out what organizations are in your area. There is a movement of people seeking food justice for these communities. Check out:

2. Support the Black Church Food Security Network

Invest in this amazing movement here.

3. Do not support the companies that perpetuate the problem!

You can improve your own health and fight injustice by opting choosing not to drink soda, eat at fast food restaurants, or purchase ultra processed foods at the grocery store. We can demand better food with our dollar. Unfortunately, it seems the dollar is the language of these companies. Let's lay down our comfort for the health of all!

[6] Hyman, Mark. Food Fix. 232

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