Guernica Magazine

Karen Washington: It’s Not a Food Desert, It’s Food Apartheid

The community activist pushes the food justice movement beyond raised beds, food pantries, new supermarkets, and white leadership. The post Karen Washington: It’s Not a Food Desert, It’s Food Apartheid appeared first on Guernica.

America’s sustainable food movement has been steadily growing, challenging consumers to truly consider where our food comes from, and inspiring people to farm, eat local, and rethink our approaches to food policy. But at the same time, the movement is predominantly white, and often neglects the needs and root problems of diverse communities.

Issues of economic inequality and systemic racism permeate our national food system. The movement’s primary focus has been on finding solutions to “food deserts”—defined as areas empty of good-quality, affordable fresh food—by working to ensure that affected neighborhoods have better access. But some advocates, and studies, have argued that the proximity of a well-stocked grocery store is not enough of a solution given this country’s elaborate food problems. Farm subsidies in the United States go predominantly to white farmers, which has led a group of black farmers to sue the US government for discrimination. Food pantries, which distribute food directly to those in need, are stigmatized. Our subsidized food system, as activist and community organizer Karen Washington points out in the interview that follows, “skews the cost and value of food.”

Washington has been battling for food justice for three decades. Before taking up the cause, she worked as a physical therapist, and saw many of her patients, predominantly people of color, suffering from diabetes, obesity, and hypertension. (More than one-third of American adults, and 48 percent of African American adults, are obese.) Treatment always involved medication and surgery as opposed to prevention, and Washington knew there had to be a better way. She moved to the Bronx, in New York, in the mid-1980s and became a vocal community gardener.

Since that time, Washington has won a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award, been invited to the Obama White House for her involvement with New York’s Botanical Garden, and been called “urban farming’s de facto godmother.” She’s also worked to transform the Bronx’s empty lots into spaces where food can grow, helped launch a farmers’ market, and, in relentlessly engaging her community, has remained focused on the intersections

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