Race, Class and Food: Checking Your Privilege at the Checkout Line

Photo Courtesy of Robert Couse, Flickr Creative Commons

A growing food movement exists that urges people in developed countries to support sustainable eating by foregoing greasy cheeseburgers and eating fresh produce at local family farms instead, but how often do we look at the intersection of food, race and class when considering what people eat and do not eat?

Vegetarians and vegans often critique people who are overweight and/or frequent consumers of fast food restaurants for their unhealthy eating habits, but fail to acknowledge how skewed — and privileged — their own eating habits are.

In developed countries, namely in the United States, there is a divide between what food is accessible and affordable to members of different races and class statuses.

Low-income people and communities of color usually have the short end of the stick when it comes to going green and eating healthy since buying and preparing fresh produce is not often a feasible option for working class people who may not have the budget or hours in the week to prepare home-cooked meals.  

According to the Food Research and Action Center, approximately 49.1 million, or 16 percent, of Americans struggle to provide their families with enough food, let alone healthy, nourishing food. Moreover, 52.6 percent of that number are Latino or African-American.  

Even government assistance programs limit people's dietary options. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program provides benefits and helps millions of low-income Americans put food on the table — and even then, a family of four, on average, is only allotted about $649 for food per month, which is extremely limiting for purchasing fruits and vegetables.  

Earlier this week, a Republican state lawmaker in Missouri is said to be pushing for legislation that would limit what food stamp recipients can buy. The bill being proposed would ban food stamp recipients from buying steak and seafood.

When burgers cost just $0.99 at fast food chains and salads start at $4.99, it is no wonder that many low-income families and poor people opt out of eating healthy when it comes down to the choice of eating whatever is cheapest and available or not eating at all. Even local farmers' markets are not so local for urban neighborhoods where a majority of the African-American, Latino/Hispanic and Asian population do not have access to clean water, let alone a basic food basket.  

It was not until last year when I attended a workshop on food politics at the National Conference on Race & Ethnicity, or NCORE, that I realized food justice is racial justice. This means that you cannot claim to be an advocate on race issues without mentioning a lack of basic civil and political rights, such as food, among different races.

This workshop helped illustrate the intersection of race, class and food dynamics in America, going beyond the labor practices that disproportionately affect people of color.

According to foodispower.org, “A large percentage of factory farm workers are people of color including migrant workers from Mexico and other parts of Latin America,” where employers will often recruit undocumented workers since they are less likely to complain about the low wages and exploitative working conditions.  

Of course, you rarely hear about this issue from the very same people — usually white, upper class vegetarians and vegans — who urge others to eat healthy at any cost.

As a woman of color from an urban neighborhood, I have seen food injustice and systemic racism my entire life through my own lived experiences and those around me, but I was only able to put a name and social theory to it after I had developed the social consciousness to formally understand how it has affected me throughout my life.

I can finally understand why my family only ate fruit when it was in season, since it was cheapest, why I never knew that so many vegetarian or vegan people existed until college and why I never had access to a farmers' market until attending college in a predominately white community.

While the emphasis on going green is admirable, it tends to overlook differences in the identities of those who can actually participate in the sustainability movement. The capitalistic food industry is an abomination and this is a fight that many vegetarians and vegans know all too well, but they cannot expect poor people of color to choose to focus on this fight with all other issues that disproportionately affect them.

As with any social justice movement, food justice is an issue that needs more voices. The voices of those who are most affected by the systemic injustice need to be heard, but that can only happen when upper class white people realize their place and privilege in the movement. Instead of guilting others for their eating options and habits, they should instead, educate themselves about their own privilege.