Systemic racism has permeated and defined how food systems have been created in the United States since the inception of our nation. Beginning with colonization and the theft of land from Indigenous peoples to the enslavement of African people to forcibly cultivate tobacco and cotton to the ongoing exploitation of immigrant labor, racism has been one of the most defining features of US food and agricultural systems. 

Racism continues to shape food systems today, along with food security and food access. Between 2012–2014, white people owned 98% and operated 94% of all farmlands in the US. Additionally, white people generated 98% of all farm-related income from land ownership. Black, Indigenous and people of color farmers are more likely to be tenants rather than land owners and generate less farm-related wealth per person than their white counterparts

Lack of access to healthy, affordable foods and disproportionately high rates of hunger in Black, Indigenous and people of color communities are further indicative of systemic racism in our food systems. In Minnesota, Black and Latino residents report food insecurity at more than double the rate of white residents. In 2019, American Indian 8th graders were three more likely than white students to report skipping meals in the last 30 days due to lack of money, and Black and Latino 8th graders were twice as likely to do so. According to Feeding America, one is six Latinos households in the US is food insecure and struggle with hunger

The voices of Black, Indigenous and people of color continue to be marginalized or omitted when it comes to decision-making about food systems, despite being the populations most impacted by food policies. This erasure perpetuates health inequities and limits opportunities for growth. Amplifying community voices and supporting greater participation and leadership in decision-making on policies related to healthy food access is critical to advancing health equity and racial justice.

In an effort to support BIPOC leaders and communities in creating equitable food systems and advancing food justice, the Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota awarded $325,000 in funding to four Black, Indigenous, East African and multiracial-led organizations as part of the Community Voice Funding Initiative. Community Voice funding is designed to amplify and support the voices of those from underrepresented communities to influence, inform, and create equitable change in Minnesota food systems.  

Appetite for Change, American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO), Central Minnesota Community Empowerment Organization and The Cultural Wellness Center are the recipients of Community Voice funding. These four organizations plan to utilize community engagement and participation in decision making related to healthy food access to address food security and advance health equity.

Youth from the Giinawiind Giginitaawigi’gomin (Together We Grow program) harvesting local Indigenous foods.

Communities hold the solutions to the challenges they face. “Time and time again we have seen that communities most impacted by health inequities are the best equipped to lead work to overcome the systemic barriers faced in accessing healthy food,” says Sarah Senseman, director of tobacco settlement operations and community funding at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. “Health inequities are not simply a biproduct of individual choices. They are the result of systemic racism, historical trauma and decades of inequality. By investing in community led solutions, we can create a healthier future,” Sarah says.

For Appetite for Change and American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO), creating equitable change in Minnesota’s food systems starts with reclaiming community relationships with the land and honoring culturally based food traditions. 

According to Nicole Powell, Community Cooks Program Manager at Appetite for Change, “Food justice can look like a community claiming its right to ownership of its food system—the right to grow, sell, access, and eat food that is fresh, nutritious, culturally-relevant, and grown with integrity for the wellbeing of the land, workers, and animals. We believe food justice leads to a strong local food system, a sustainable environment, and community healing.”

Appetite for Change is a community-led nonprofit organization that uses food as a tool to build health, wealth, and social change in North Minneapolis. With support from Blue Cross, Appetite for Change is working to address racial inequities in our food system through the Metro Food Justice Network. The Metro Food Justice Network is dedicated to reimagining a food network that is representative of the needs of the community as well as food justice leaders, advocates, and professionals in the Twin Cities metro region. “Decades of collective wisdom tell us our food system needs to change old patterns and dominant culture must release power, trusting in the leadership of people most affected by racism and oppression,” said Nicole Powell. 

AFC youth assisting with Community Cooks Meal Delivery Boxes, an effort between Appetite for Change and the Metro Food Justice Network. 

Ivy Vainio, Art, Culture & Communications Coordinator at AICHO and Katie Schmitz, AICHO’s Children’s Program Coordinator, are at the forefront of food sovereignty efforts in the Duluth urban American Indian community. Food sovereignty asserts the rights of Native communities to define their own diets, create food systems that are rooted in cultural values, and rebuild relationships between people and the land. Food sovereignty is vital in improving Indigenous health and addressing health inequities.

Berries harvest by youth in the Together We Grow program.

Ivy Vainio grew up on a small dairy farm in rural central Minnesota. “We worked hard on that farm. We milked cows by hand, bailed hay in the hottest heat of the summer, and had two large gardens. Without milk and food from the gardens, we would have gone without. There were many days when we didn’t have food at all. When those desperate days came, our church would do food drives for us where they would bring us store bought processed foods. I was so embarrassed when they’d come in the house with the donations. To me, food justice means that everyone regardless of socioeconomic status has access to healthy and nutritious foods. It is a foundational human right. It also means financially supporting small rural farmers and Indigenous/BIPOC farmers as equally as non-diverse farmers,” said Ivy.

Community Cooks Meal Box filled with an intentional mix of fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Recipes and food tips are included.

This summer, with support from the Center for Prevention’s Community Voice Initiative, AICHO expanded their food sovereignty work and launched the Giinawiind Giginitaawig’gomin (Together We Grow) Program. Together We Grow is a 16-month program for Native and BIPOC middle and high school youth from Duluth and surrounding areas. The program’s goals and activities include introducing youth to Indigenous cultural food practices, gardening, farming, cultural arts, and entrepreneurial skills. Young people in this program have the opportunity to reconnect to their cultural roots, learn from local Indigenous food producers, tend to garden plots, create products with what they grow, forage and sell their goods at local farmers’ markets.

“We are providing access to high quality, culturally specific foods to a broader range of community members. This allows more community members to vote with their food dollars for what they want to see in the food system. We are bringing greater awareness to the larger community about the sacredness of cultural foods, how cultural food practices connect us to the Earth, and how vital that connection is to community health,” said Katie Schmitz. “We need to redistribute resources to communities that have been left out of food production and subsidize land prices for Indigenous farmers and farmers of color so they can gain access to land and have a greater voice in the food system.”

Author Tashia Hart (Red Lake Anishinaabe) teaching youth about Indigenous foods.

For too long, systemic racism has defined and shaped our food systems. Now is the time to create a better future, one in which Black, Indigenous, Latino, refugee and immigrant communities have not only a voice, but autonomy and leadership over their community food systems. The Community Voice Funding Initiative is one small effort, and more funding opportunities are needed to create lasting change. We can work collectivity to advance just food systems, and ensure equitable access to healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food – especially for those with the least access.

About the Author: Sasha Houston Brown is a Senior Communications and Advocacy Consultant at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, Center for Prevention.