Sandy Nurse (via @SandyforCouncil/Twitter)

Black and brown communities in Brooklyn face an inordinate concentration of food deserts, where people lack access to healthy, affordable grocery stores and other nutritious options. And the number of Americans who experience food insecurity is only expected to grow in the coming months, with low-income people of color to be hit hardest. 

At the same time, the movement for racial justice sparked by the murder of George Floyd, dovetailing with Covid-19, has brought helpful attention to food justice, and there’s been a renewed impetus for what is often referred to as “food sovereignty.” Achieving food sovereignty looks like a community with a right and ability to control its own food and agriculture systems. That community has the power to install sustainable, healthy and culturally appropriate methods through every step of its food production and distribution process. 

In Brooklyn, the growing food sovereignty movement isn’t monolithic, but is expressed through a variety of individuals, grassroots organizations and delivery models. These organizations are raising thousands of dollars to feed Black families, hauling organic waste and transforming it into compost, opening farm stands staffed by elementary schoolers, and changing the way we think and talk about food justice.

Perhaps reframing the label “food desert” is one of the first places to start. Karen Washington, a food justice advocate and Black farmer, writes, “The word ‘desert’ [makes] us think of an empty, absolutely desolate place. But there is so much life, vibrancy, and potential in these communities.” She prefers the term “food apartheid,” believing it’s more important to look at the foundational hierarchies of race, class and geography within the food system. 

These areas of food apartheid typically follow racial and socioeconomic lines – in New York City, the spaces are most concentrated in the South Bronx, Harlem and Brooklyn. Those lower-income communities of color have worse health outcomes in part because of food insecurity. When the only affordable options are high-calorie and low-nutrient foods, it’s not surprising food insecure people have higher rates of obesity, higher blood pressure and even developmental delays. Right now, it also means greater spread and more severe cases of Covid-19. Nationally, coronavirus kills Black people at 2.5 times the rate of white people. The statistics are similar in predominantly Black neighborhoods in Brooklyn – Brownsville has had twice the infection rate of the city as a whole. 

Food insecurity will grow by millions because of pandemic fallout, predicts Feeding America, a national network of hundreds of food banks. Low-income people of color will be especially vulnerable, because of the service-industry or hospitality jobs they frequently work. “With so many public-facing services closing indefinitely, these workers are facing particularly dire circumstances,” says Feeding America. 

Food apartheid doesn’t emerge randomly. Historians trace its origins to housing segregation spurred by the process of “redlining.” Beginning in the 1930s in the wake of the New Deal, federal agencies including the Federal Housing Administration and Federal Home Loan Bank Board directed the creation of “residential security maps” of cities across the nation to evaluate potential real estate investments. Racial biases and discrimination were entrenched in the process. The maps were color coded to indicate neighborhoods where investments were deemed “safer” – new, affluent, white suburbs were colored green and given the highest “Type A” rating, while the older, Black neighborhoods closer to the centers of cities were colored red and labeled “Type D,” undesirable for investment. Public and private developers followed the maps for decades, and money flowed into the suburbs and out of cities. White families fled to the suburbs, leaving Black families in urban areas. 

Supermarkets followed white flight and proliferated in the suburbs, where there were larger land plots at cheaper prices, attractive regulations, and reportedly less crime. But as the supermarkets closed in cities, urban residents suffered. “African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans living in [low-income urban neighborhoods] travel farther, have fewer choices, and pay more for food than their counterparts,” the ACLU and New York Law School have reported. “When minority families shop locally for groceries they find a grocery store that is 2.5 times smaller than the average grocery store in a higher income neighborhood with higher priced food, less fresh produce, and more processed food.” 

The holes left by supermarkets have typically been hastily filled by “food swamps,” areas with an overabundance of unhealthy options, including fast food chains and bodegas. The nutritional consequences of being a low-income person of color are doubled – not only are these groups deprived of healthy foods, but the only affordable options are ones that contribute directly to disease. New York City’s largest food swamp is in East New York, right next to Brownsville. As City Limits details, “there are 27 fast-food chains in its zip code 11207, and another 14 in its [neighboring] zip code area 11208.” And in Brownsville, there is only one supermarket for every 15 bodegas. 

For Nancie Katz, executive director of Seeds in the Middle, a non-profit that works to expand food access in Brooklyn, “healthy eating is a civil right. And there has been a systematic deprivation of fresh fruits and vegetables [from] low-income communities.” The signature project of Seeds in the Middle is its Hip2B Healthy Market, a small produce market operated by Brownsville elementary schoolers to provide affordable nutrition to local residents and other students. The young entrepreneurs sell grapes, carrots and other fruits and vegetables for 50 cents a serving. Since schools closed this spring, Seeds in the Middle is working to open ten similar farm stands across central Brooklyn, where they accept EBT and SNAP payment.

To many of those advocating for food sovereignty, the movement fits squarely within the larger framework of the racial justice movement. Sandy Nurse, an activist and candidate for City Council in central Brooklyn, believes that land is the key connection point. “It’s reparations and land. Black people were promised something, and that promise was never given to them. And even when it was given to them, it was taken from them violently.” 

Even in 1865, land was seen as so integral to creating a just society, that newly freed slaves advocated for radical land distribution following the Civil War, and were infamously promised 40 acres and a mule. Black land ownership has steadily evaporated since that false promise, and so has much of the ability of Black people to control their own housing, abate gentrification and design healthy systems of food and agriculture. “If we don’t have the land, we can’t protect ourselves, we can’t sustain ourselves,” says Nurse. While land reparations may not be on the immediate horizon, Nurse has been a leader on numerous food justice projects. 

Nurse founded BK ROT, the city’s first bike-powered, fossil-free food waste hauling and composting service. The Bushwick based-organization is staffed by young adults, and hauls organic waste from nearby small businesses and households and transforms it into high quality compost. BK ROT is partnered with about 20 businesses, and estimates that it has composted over 300,000 pounds of food waste since opening in 2017, half of which has been donated to local farms. Since the coronavirus pandemic hit Brooklyn, Nurse has been working with local groups to distribute food to households in need. She also teaches at the NYC Farm School, an organization that trains local residents in urban agriculture techniques. 

For Raina Kennedy, a food sovereignty organizer with the Brooklyn Movement Center, the key mission of food justice is to reimagine a food system that is locally grounded and locally controlled. That way, communities can finally design systems that fit their own needs. “It’s about having more ownership of each part of [the] food chain,” she says. “[It’s] being able to say where the food comes from, where it goes, and being able to [say], no, we don’t want a McDonalds and a KFC and a Taco Bell clustered into this street corner… we want a vegetable market.”

To Raina and others fighting for food sovereignty, the traditional, predominantly white systems of government and private enterprise have repeatedly failed Black and brown people. “I think it’s very clear that we are the ones who will have to do something, because the government has [said], you’re on your own.” In response to the pandemic, they’ve taken up that mantle –  The Central Brooklyn Food Co-Op, which works with the Movement Center, is the only Black-led organization of its kind in New York City. It began in 2013 as a direct effort to expand healthy and affordable food access for low to moderate income Black families. In June, in partnership with other local food justice organizations, it started the #HoldDownBK campaign, aiming to raise $5,000 to provide food for Black Brooklyn families. By the end of the month, the campaign raised over $40,000. 

The food sovereignty movement is diverse, both conceptually and in execution. According to Sandy Nurse, overarching it all is a “clear call to action to invest in our food system. In [central Brooklyn] there’s so much interest. There’s such a legacy of farmers, particularly Black farmers, Black women, stewarding land and growing food. It’s not like it’s a random concept,” she reflects. “There is a lot of vision and power around using food as a driver for many different types of change that we need to finally make.”