As the summer presses onward, August has graced us with a premium of local, fresh produce at our farmer’s markets, grocery stores and farm stands throughout the region.
But amidst the summer pleasures of fresh produce, we are simultaneously experiencing a cultural reckoning spurred by the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Subsequently, a diversity of voices across the nation have come together to call for equality, equity and justice for Black, Indigineous, and People of Color (BIPOC) individuals and communities experiencing ongoing racism and oppression.
Part of this larger conversation and reflection is also happening in agricultural organizations, institutions and farming communities. One such organization helping facilitate this conversation in Michigan is the Center for Regional Food Systems (CRFS) at MSU who, in 2018, co-founded the Racial Equity in the Food System (REFS) workgroup.
CRFS Director Richard Pirog facilitates the workgroup, which is made up primarily of extension educators from colleges and universities across the country, non-profit leaders and United States Department of Agriculture representatives. Pirog explains that the goal of the workgroup is to “help food system educators and other people interested in equity issues in the food system to think about and help operationalize and implement equity in the work that they do.”
Working at the CRFS since 2011, Pirog has found that, “the local food movement and food system education is still pretty much a white domain. So part of our goal is to better understand the historical context and the nature of institutional racism both in the food system and within larger institutions and to go about addressing a shift in that narrative where the heart of the work — is how the work can be done through an equity lens.”
As part of that mission, the group aims to give educators the tools to understand the historical, geographical and cultural context of where they are working in the food system and their communities’ “food ways.”
One of the biggest successes of the CRFS has been their publication of “An Annotated Bibliography on Structural Racism Present in the U.S Food System,” now in it’s seventh edition. This resource is open to the public and has gathered hundreds of peer-reviewed scholarly articles, journals and publications that illuminate the history and context of racial disparity, inequality and prejudice in the food system.
To understand the equitable food movement and the need for reform, it’s crucial to have a working knowledge of how institutional and systemic racism, policy and discrimination have shaped our current food landscape. Pirog points out “it’s really important to start by getting a better sense of what has happened, and what those historical and current disparities are. Being an informed person, you can share that information with others, learn, and then be someone who can correct misperceptions. Knowing the facts is important.”
For instance, at the end of the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson revoked an order intended to give Black families agricultural land, laying the groundwork for the Jim Crow-era discriminatory policies that subverted Black farmers and forced them to start with next to nothing. Despite overt prejudice from white landowners and lenders, Black families and communities still managed to secure a footing in agriculture.
But in the last century, Black farmers have lost 80 percent of their land as a result of many factors, including the lack of access to federal farm programs through discrimination of the USDA, a historical lack of access to cooperative extension agents, unequal access to credit and crop insurance by public and private entities and mortgage redlining that barred families from building wealth.
It wasn’t until 1997, that a class-action lawsuit known as Pigford v. Glickman was filed against the USDA for their well-documented history of discriminatory practices and policies against Black farmers. As a result, the case has been the largest civil rights settlement to date.
But as Pirog points out, disparity in the food system goes beyond the disenfranchisement and exploitation of BIPOC farmers, “it’s across the whole food chain; from production, processing, distribution, retail and then food service and restaurants. Some of the lowest paying positions that would be considered part of the food system: farm workers and food service workers — tend to be, in general, very low paying jobs and the vast majority are done by women, people of color, and immigrants. They have very little economic power in the food system.”
But as Pirog acknowledges, there are no quick fixes, and these problems are part of a larger system. “We have to know what we need to change and to do that we need to know what the system is. We look for the smoking gun or a bad actor, but it’s systems that have made things easier for particularly whites, middle class, and people that have some level of disposable income and there are systems that have kept people in poverty — it’s not just one thing, people will have to think about whole systems.”
Pirog added that “pledges or banners for Black History Month are nice symbolic things but we have to get at the root of what’s causing the problem not just address symptoms.”
One way that Pirog says the average person can make a change is to be an informed consumer and understand where the disparities are in the food system.
For example, the Michigan Fair Food Project run by an organization called the Migrant Legal Aid is a champion of farm workers rights and fair compensation that is working towards getting retailers to make a pledge to buy from socially reputable farms and organizations. Lastly, Pirog says anyone can “engage with their local retailers and restaurants to embrace those purchases that really create justice in the supply chain so people can make a quality, living wage.”
To learn more about The Racial Equity in the Food Systems Workgroup and The Center for Regional Food Studies, visit https://www.canr.msu.edu/racial-equity-workgroup/index. The Annotated Bibliography is available at https://www.canr.msu.edu/foodsystems/uploads/files/Annotated-Bibliography-on-Structural-Racism-Seventh-Edition.pdf.