Overcoming Food Apartheid

By Robert Brown, CCED Flint Office Director

Julian Agyeman, a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University, in a recent article reprinted in the magazine Fast Company (03-13-21), states that the “U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 54.4 million Americans live in low-income areas with poor access to healthy food. For city residents, this means they are more than half a mile from the nearest supermarket.”1 He maintains that urban planning practices for the past century have maintained the racial segregation that creates food deserts in black and brown neighborhoods of most urban areas in this country. Agyeman argues that these food deserts, “areas of limited access to reasonably priced, healthy, culturally relevant foods—places with a preponderance of stores selling ‘fast’ and ‘junk food’,” results from food apartheid. He notes that according to food justice scholar Ashante M. Reese, food apartheid is “intimately tied to policies and practices, current and historical, that come from a place of anti-Blackness.”  

This certainly resonates in Flint, where “larger grocery stores either refuse to move in to lower-income areas, shut existing outlets, or relocate to wealthier suburbs.” This supermarket redlining, as Agyeman terms it, creates access to less healthy food options at often higher prices.  

Michelle Wu, a member of Boston’s City Council, spearheaded an effort to create a Food Justice Agenda (https://www.michelleforboston.com/plans/food-justice). The agenda outlines five actions: 

  1. Invest in local food chain workers, ensuring that all food system jobs are good jobs.  

  1. Support small and independent restaurants, caterers, and food businesses, turning this current moment of crisis into an opportunity to build a more robust, resilient food economy that is representative of all our community’s diversity.  

  1. Expand residents’ access to fresh, nutritious, affordable, and culturally relevant foods, whether they shop at farmers’ markets, bodegas, or traditional supermarkets.  

  1. Leverage the power of public procurement to deliver good food for residents and create game-changing opportunities for diverse, locally-owned, and operated businesses, driving broader progressive change throughout our supply chains.  

  1. Activate a wide coalition of advocates and community members, forming new partnerships to secure food policy reforms at the city, state, and federal level. 

The Agenda notes that: “Food justice means racial justice, demanding a clear-eyed understanding of how white supremacy has shaped our food systems,” and “nutritious, affordable, and culturally relevant food is a universal human right.” 

CCED Flint and MSU researchers are also working to overcome the effects of food apartheid. The Flint Food System Leverage Points Project is a community-engaged research project with a goal of restructuring the food systems in the Flint metro area to reduce inefficiencies and support collective action that results in healthy and affordable food access for all and positive economic and social benefits for the community at large. We hypothesize that the food system in Flint currently exists in a sub-optimal, “emergency” state due to the presence of feedback loops which resist attempts to move the system towards a more desirable state. Making changes in the system in order to “tip” it into a more desirable state will require achieving the following objectives:  

  1. Identify the factors and vicious cycles that maintain the Flint metro food system in its current, sub-optimal state.  

  1. Identify the leverage points and virtuous cycles in the Flint metro food system that steer the system toward the more preferred state of: (a) increased access to healthy food; (b) better community health, nutrition, and economic outcomes; and (c) programmatic sustainability. 

  1. Identify the barriers/incentives for collective action and sustainable positive outcomes across food programs in the Flint metro food system. 

  1. Develop plans to use resources more efficiently and strategically to improve social or environmental returns on investment. 

  1. Identify the power brokers/decision makers that have the agency, social capital, and trust to break the reinforcing loops or promote more virtuous cycles.  

This is what we are undertaking in Flint. What are you doing in your community? 

For more information contact Robert Brown, Associate Director, Center for Community and Economic Development, brownr23@msu.edu  


  Hagyeman, J. (2021, March 13). 54 million Americans don’t have access to healthy food. That’s a design problem. Fast Company. Retrieved from:  

Back to Article list