With more than 40 million people in the country struggling with hunger, anti-hunger advocates in the United States have their work cut out for them. In 2017, nearly 12 percent of all US households were food insecure—meaning they didn’t have access to enough food for all household members to lead active, healthy lives. Food insecurity is stratified across racial lines, affecting less than 9 percent of white households in America, but nearly 22 percent of black households and 18 percent of Latinx households.
That racial disparity suggests that something more than poverty causes hunger. So what else is driving it? According to Dr. Mariana Chilton, a professor of public health at Drexel University who has worked for 18 years toward eradicating hunger and poverty, one answer is racism itself.
In a new report, “From Disparities to Discrimination: Getting at the Roots of Food Insecurity in America,” Chilton and co-authors from Children’s HealthWatch, a pediatric research organization, and the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at Drexel, examine the relationship between food insecurity in Philadelphia and racial and ethnic discrimination that people face in their daily lives. It found that people who experience discrimination are almost twice as likely as others to struggle with hunger.
“You cannot take on poverty and hunger without taking on historical and contemporary discrimination,” Chilton told The Nation. “If we are just fighting to strengthen SNAP [formerly food stamps], or for better jobs and higher wages—we’ll make little progress. We have to go deeper to the root causes.”
To get at the roots of the racial disparities Chilton’s team interviewed 669 mothers whose young children were patients at a hospital in Philadelphia. They used an Experiences of Discrimination questionnaire developed by Dr. Nancy Krieger, a professor of social epidemiology at Harvard, which defines discrimination as “experiences of being prevented from doing something, being hassled, or made to feel inferior due to race, ethnicity, or color.” Subjects were asked questions like: How many times have you experienced discrimination…at school? While getting hired or getting a job? At work? While getting housing? “What I like about this questionnaire is that it taps into all different types of systems: health care, public assistance, police, education, on the streets,” said Chilton. “It’s trying to get at systemic racism.”
About half of the people interviewed reported that they had experienced discrimination at least once in their lifetimes. Discrimination in school, hiring, at work, in public settings, and in interactions with law enforcement were all associated with household food insecurity. Experiences of discrimination in housing, public assistance, and medical care had adverse associations on children’s food insecurity. According to the report, “The magnitude of child food insecurity also appeared to increase as [the number of] caregivers’ experiences of discrimination increase.”
In addition to the data collected from interviews with mothers, the report examines the impacts of historic discrimination on food access. For example, housing discrimination has led to a concentration of affordable housing in high-poverty areas, while discriminatory policies like redlining or steering borrowers of color to subprime mortgages have denied wealth-building opportunities to generations of people of color. These policies impact people in terms of deteriorated quality of life; lack of access to good schools, jobs, grocery stores and transportation; exposure to adverse environmental conditions; even shortened life expectancy. And all of these factors make it harder for families to secure food.
The criminal-justice system is another nexus where race and food insecurity collide. In one study, 91 percent of formerly incarcerated people reported that they were food insecure shortly after release. Because of bias in the criminal justice system, a disproportionate number of people who experience hunger post-incarceration are likely to be black, For instance, blacks are imprisoned for drug offenses at almost six times the rate of whites, though they have similar drug-use rates. Children of color are also disproportionately impacted: The report coauthors note that having an incarcerated parent is associated with a young person’s development of depression, anxiety, PTSD, asthma, and other health struggles—and, not surprisingly, food insecurity.
As previous research has shown, the experience of racial or ethnic discrimination is traumatic, and the impacts of that trauma—“a burdened nervous system, organ damage, and sleeplessness,” said Chilton—find their way into a family’s ability to obtain adequate food. “If a person is anxious and depressed and has disordered sleep, they are less likely to be able to find and keep a job, or find a job that pays an adequate living,” said Chilton. “Sleep disorders affect one’s ability to focus or concentrate, to make plans for the future, and can further truncate [one’s] abilities to earn enough money for food.”
Chilton acknowledges that none of her data are proof that racism causes food insecurity; they only demonstrate an association between the two. However, her ongoing research now numbers 1,600 caregiver interviews and shows a remarkable correlation. “I’ve controlled for everything—employment, marital status, education level, whether someone is on public benefits. None of those things attenuate the strong relationship between racism and hunger, and [the correlation with] child hunger is especially high,” she said.
The report offers numerous policy solutions that the authors believe anti-hunger advocates should integrate into their work, including: strengthening and enforcing the Fair Housing Act, as well as consumer protections and anti-discrimination policies for bank loans and access to mortgages; training health professionals in implicit bias; ending the criminalization of minor offenses often used to police people of color, such as marijuana possession, loitering, and jaywalking; instituting full funding formulas in all states so schools have the resources they need; requiring school systems to consider alternatives to suspension and expulsion; ensuring that hiring practices focus on fair processes and equal pay for men and women; and supporting Black Lives Matter, which promotes the health and wellness of communities of color.
Jessica Bartholow, a poverty-and-hunger advocate with the Western Center on Law and Poverty, agrees that national hunger organizations need to bring a robust racial analysis to their work, particularly with regard to how racist and oppressive systems are impacting efforts to end hunger among people of color. “If you’re not asking how race impacts outcomes in 2019, then you missed something really important about this country,” she said. “We can have the best school-meal program in the world, but if black girls are getting pushed out of school due to racism, they’re not going to get that meal anyway.”
But she also raised a concern about capacity, citing a daunting agenda for anti-hunger organizations that includes background work on racial equity in partnership with poverty-law centers. Many of these groups are already overwhelmed by relentless political attacks on safety-net programs, such as during the recent legislative fight over the Farm Bill, which includes the SNAP program. Initially, conservatives wanted to block grant SNAP and add new, onerous work requirements, all of which would have denied millions of people food assistance. But in the end, “by putting up a huge fight,” Bartholow said advocates were able to prevent any significant changes to the program. She wondered what would have happened if that work had been “diluted” because people had to focus on other issues where they didn’t have the same expertise.
To Chilton, the research indicates that policy-makers trying to tackle hunger have to consider racism and discrimination in all of their decision-making writ large. For example, according to Chilton, Philadelphia has made great strides in reducing its prison population over the past two years and is using a racial-equity lens in its workforce strategy, but its approach to equity is too piecemeal. She pointed to Seattle, Boston, and St. Louis as cities that are working towards using a racial equity lens to examine all of their programming and budgeting proposals (albeit with mixed results). “We need Philadelphia and every city to do that as they determine funding for schools, housing, public health—everything,” she said.
Chilton and report coauthor Sherita Mouzon, a founding member of Witnesses to Hunger, presented the report’s findings to Philadelphia officials representing criminal-justice, education, workforce, and other agencies. Eva Gladstein, deputy managing director for Health and Human Services, attended the meeting and said that the Kenney administration agrees with Chilton’s goal. “The mayor has talked about equity and opportunity from day one and has embedded that principle within virtually all of our work,” she said. She said that all of the people at the top levels of the administration have been trained in implicit bias, and she pointed to the use of a racial-equity lens in a number of projects including the creation of new apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs for civil-service positions, a new transportation plan, and a gun-violence-prevention program.
According to Chilton, consistent use of a race-and-equity lens could open the door to new coalitions, tactics, energy, and, most importantly, better results in reducing poverty and hunger. “All efforts to address food insecurity and poverty should also seek to dismantle racism and discrimination,” the report concludes. “We ask colleagues, friends, policy makers, and community leaders to join us in calling out and eradicating the racism that drives hardship and poor health in our country.”