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Molly Cottrill is the executive director of Heaven on Earth NOW Inc. Charles McGee, a retired U.S. Army command sergeant major, serves on the group’s board of directors. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.
In this time of racial reckoning, the likes of which our nation has not seen since the 1960s, one reconciliatory step is often overlooked: increasing the ability of people of color to obtain healthy food.
The novel coronavirus does not discriminate, but it sadly reflects and exacerbates centuries of systemic racism that created racial health disparities in our country. According to a recent study published in the journal PLOS Medicine, Black and Latinx people are twice as likely to contract the virus as their white counterparts. Part of the reason for this is a lack of access to nutritious food.
Of course, Black and Latinx people are not the only Americans affected, but they experience hunger and food insecurity at twice the rate as white folks — remarkably mirroring the disproportionate rate at which communities of color are affected by COVID-19.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated that across the country, more than 20 million people live in low-income areas that are “food deserts,” defined in this study as living more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store. In these areas, corner stores and fast food outlets are plentiful, leading residents to rely on foods high in saturated fat, salt and sugar.
Unhealthy diets have major consequences: significantly increased rates of cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and obesity — all comorbidities associated with COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths.
We believe that food is medicine. In many communities across the nation, access to healthy food can depend largely on one’s race and socioeconomic status. According to the National Academies of Sciences, African Americans have half the access to chain supermarkets as their white counterparts; Hispanics have one-third. This, and other factors, The Atlantic reported in 2018, contribute to a life expectancy that is 20 years lower in largely Black, poor neighborhoods than that in white, wealthier areas.
As community leaders with decades of experience serving at the intersection of racial justice and health equity, we could have predicted the devastating effects of a pandemic. Over the past 10 years, we have promoted healthy food drives and collections for underserved neighborhoods, many of which consist predominantly of people of color.
We see the same scenario play out year after year: People clear out their cupboards of expired foods and drop them in donation bins. Or they fill their shopping carts with junk food to donate — items they would not serve their own children. Most people mean well. Others feel that low-income recipients of food donations should be “happy with what they get.” This is a time to examine these blind spots in our thinking and do better.
We can serve people better — especially our communities of color — when we think before we donate. When people see Heaven on Earth NOW’s “Best Foods to Donate” list on our website, they’re surprised that nutrient-rich nonperishables are often the same price as less nutritious choices.
We have the power to improve health outcomes by addressing a root cause of racial health disparities. As we work to dismantle inequitable systems, we can recognize that the nutritional value matters in the food we give. Let’s offer healthy options when we donate to food drives.