Environmental Racism & Our Food System

In recent newsletters, we touched on environmental racism and decolonizing environmentalism. Diversity and inclusion, or a lack thereof, can impact the way we approach environmentalism and sustainability, from how we understand problems to the way we make decisions and take action. In this issue, we discuss the intersections between environmental racism and our food system.

What is environmental racism?

Environmental racism refers to the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on Indigenous, Black, and communities of colour. Intertwined with the laws, structures, and practices that uphold systemic racism, it can take various forms:

A fraught food system

Our food system is a complex web of activities involving production, processing, transport, and consumption. Related topics include policy, sustainability, food security, impacts on health, and more.

Over time, our food system has become more industrialized – we increasingly rely on large operations like industrial farms, intensive animal farming, and factories to produce, package, and distribute our food. While these practices have enabled us to feed a growing population, we also see intersections with environmental racism, particularly in how the consequences of our system are felt.

Industrial agriculture and meat production facilities can release waste, pesticides, herbicides, and contaminants that contribute to soil, air, and water pollution. Many of these, similar to other industrial facilities, tend to be concentrated in BIPOC communities.

It can also impact those who work in the agricultural sector. In Canada, it’s not uncommon for temporary foreign workers, often also people of colour, to work on farms. Many farmworkers face exploitative and unsafe working conditions (handling agricultural chemicals without proper gear, injuries, etc.) while being paid low or even poverty-level wages. The poverty that can result also creates a higher risk for food insecurity.

Let’s talk about food

We all have a connection to food: physically we need food to survive; socially we share meals to connect as individuals and as communities. How food gets to our table – and even when it fails to – has its own story. Similar to environmental racism, our regulations, practices, and structures can impact everything from how we produce food to who can access it. This can also tie into food security.

Food security issues (or food insecurity) impact individuals, households, communities, regions, and entire nations. We can even face it on a global scale.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines food security as when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.

Some background…
In Canada, the most common reason for food insecurity – at least in urban and metropolitan areas – is insufficient or lack of income. Across provinces, about one in seven households (15.9%), were food insecure in 2021. Social and economic disadvantage play a significant role in who is food insecure and how severe it is.

Food insecurity and environmental racism can also intersect. We see examples in the North and remote areas of Canada, where many Indigenous communities face long-standing food security crises and exceedingly high rates of food insecurity. The reasons tend to be multifaceted, complex, and inextricably tied to a legacy of colonial dispossession. Climate change, along with a lack of protections for ecosystems and wildlife, can also exacerbate food insecurity problems at the community and household levels. Warming temperatures make it more difficult to hunt and fish; and imported grocery store items like produce, dairy, and meat tend to be expensive and inaccessible to many.

Whose food system are we protecting?

One of the most impactful ways that we can address issues within our food system is through policy reform – unfortunately, our policies have long fallen behind.

As far back as the 1980s, our predominant strategy to address food insecurity has been food banks. When created, they were meant as a temporary measure to help individuals and families weather economic recession and job loss. Over 30 years later, charitable food banks are still widely used across Canada and the US, serving as the primary way we address household food insecurity and fill gaps in social security systems. While food banks can offer temporary remedy, they are ill-positioned to tackle the reasons for household food insecurity.

Some approaches to food security expand by including principles like availability, accessibility, adequacy, acceptability, and agency. Others incorporate a focus on a right to food, sustainable food systems, and reconciliation and may even emphasize food justice and sovereignty. These principles and ideas can help us better understand food security as a matter of equity and, in turn, how food insecurity can be deeply tied to a legacy of systemic racism and inequality.

While efforts have been made in Canada to create a national food policy, and some cities have even adopted their own local food strategies, few policies if any tend to embed a right to food, address labour concerns, or tackle other issues beyond their core priorities.

Perspectives about food security can also impact what we prioritize or see as concerns, as well as how policies and programs are shaped.

  • According to the Hua Foundation, 50% of Chinatown cultural food assets (greengrocers, fishmongers, barbecue meat stores, butcher shops, Chinese dry good stores, bakeries, and restaurants) were lost between 2009 and 2016. These businesses and services are similar if not identical to the “food assets” described in the Vancouver Food Strategy (2013); and also help maintain and transmit culture while supporting the local food system. Despite this, the City has not taken steps to protect them alongside other food assets nor considered them assets until recently.
  • Some neighbourhoods are seen as lacking access to healthy, affordable food – but this can also be tied to perceptions or dominant ideas about “usual” methods of food access. “Food desert” is a common term used to describe low-income, often racialized, communities with limited food resources. This can be stigmatizing, misleading, and pull focus from underlying reasons that impact community food security.
  • The Nutrition North Canada subsidy program helps people from eligible communities in remote parts of the North purchase fruits, vegetables, and other groceries. It also has drawbacks: the program tends to prioritize foods common in Eurocentric diets; does not subsidize bottled water (despite many communities’ under boil water advisories); and up until this year, did not offer support for Indigenous or Inuit traditional hunting or harvesting. The subsidies also have limited impact on making expensive fresh foods affordable.

A lack of meaningful representation in decision-making processes can lead to policies and programs that highlight certain priorities while potentially perpetuating existing issues. Whether it’s policy to tackle environmental racism, food insecurity, or intersecting issues, diversity and inclusion and a shift to a justice­based approach can help ensure that we develop relevant and appropriate strategies to address equity issues.

Resources on Food Systems Issues