From Slavery to Food Desert

Food deserts developed as a result of two historical chains of events, the emancipation of slaves and industrialization, which occurred simultaneously: 

Through my research I found that slavery, which led to sharecropping, redlining, and segregation, financially and socially disenfranchised Black Americans, making it extremely difficult for Black Americans to own farms, forcing Black Americans to live in urban cities, and creating the Great Migration. Simultaneously, urbanization and capitalist competition led to the development of chain supermarkets, which put many small grocery stores out of business, forcing people to rely on mega supermarkets for food. Following World War Two and white flight, supermarkets left cities, leaving Black Americans and other people of color and low socioeconomic class living in urban cities without access to grocery stores; creating food deserts.

Slavery and Sharecropping:

“Slavery and exploitation formed the impetus for thriving food and agriculture systems in the United States; now, morphed to adapt to a post-industrial era, these systems continue to perpetuate inequality and oppression. The state and federal policies rooted in the mass exploitative cultivation of tobacco, sugar, alcohol, and cotton cause a ‘major disconnect between Black folks and good food, and similarly, our history,’”

– Stern
African Americans picking cotton, Georgia, 1907. Courtesy: Library of Congress

In order to understand how food deserts developed as a legacy of slavery, we must first understand that our food system itself was built on the systems of slavery and sharecropping. Slavery is intrinsically linked to the American food system; “it was slave labor on sugar plantations that enabled the more rapid development of capitalism in Europe and slave gardens that fed colonists, slaves and later slave owners, creating food-ways of the Americas.” Through forced labor Africans and Black Americans built the American food system, and today that same system fails Black Americans through the production, distribution, and consumption sectors of the food supply chain. When a system is built on inequality, that inequality becomes an intricate part of the system. The American food system provides a prime example of this. This is a system in which white landowners profited off the work of Black slaves, and gained financial and economic, and therefore political, power from exploited slave labor. Power is central to our food system in which white American have continued to accumulate power and wealth while Black Americans have been systematically denied power, starting with slavery and sharecropping when “Black people were forced into peonage, with millions sharecropping on other people’s land. Throughout our nation’s history, migrant workers, Black or Mexican, Filipino or Japanese, picked the fruits of the harvest, but rarely owned that which was produced by the sweat of their brow or the strength of their backs. Food was tied not just to sustenance, but to wealth and power.” From the beginning of America, food production  and land ownership yielded power both socially and financially.

Black Farmers and the Great Migration:

“From their beginning days in the United States, Black farmers were defined institutionally as being less worthy than white farmers, first through slavery, then via tenancy and sharecropping. Even today, Black farmers are viewed with indifference at best and contempt at worse by the mainstream agricultural establishment.” 

-Alkon

Following the emancipation of slavery, freed slaves were forced into economic and social systems that were set up against them. Black Americans were often denied the right to buy land, and instead were forced into “tenancy, sharecropping, and the crop-lien [which] were more than mere economic arrangements. They provided the basis of social control by elite whites over both Black and poor white producers.” This pattern of control starts in the production sector of the food system and is further amplified throughout the distribution and consumption sectors, in which white Americans repeatedly acquire wealth, power, and control at the expense of Black Americans. By denying Black Americans access to farm ownership, and forcing them to work the land rather than own it, whites prevented Black people from acquiring power in the production sector of the American food system. While “landowners were supposed to split the profits from the cotton fields with sharecroppers… bales would often disappear during the count, or the split might be altered on a whim.” Through food production white landowners established their power by profiting off the labor of Black workers, and denying them fair profits, further disenfranchising Black farmers, while also deciding what crops were planted and harvested, determining what food Americans of all races consumed through the food system, and making white food dominant and normative. 


Black farmers who were able to purchase farm land were forced to purchase land from former slave and plantation owners, which resulted in many “Black farmers liv[ing] in debt peonage, under the sway of cotton kings who were at once their landlords, their employers, and their primary merchants.” Black farmers were forcibly kept in a cycle of debt by white former plantation and slave owners who sold them the land at inflated prices, at high interest rates, and who had the power to control their profits by influencing consumers in the area. Black farmers could be kept in debt for years because “when farmers were deemed to be in debt–and they often were–the negative balance was then carried over to the next season. A man or woman who protested this arrangement did so at the risk of grave injury or death. Refusing to work meant arrest under vagrancy laws and forced labor under the state’s penal system.” White plantation owners turned landlords acquired their power and wealth directly through slavery, and used that same power and wealth to continue to exploit “free” Black Americans. Because white power prevented Blacks from owning farms through sharecropping and tenancy, and kept farmers in-debt when they were able to buy land, many Black Americans fled the south for northern industrialized cities. By preventing Black Americans from owning land, white landowners continued to acquire wealth and power, while denying wealth and powers to Black Americans, further disenfranchising Black Americans and preventing them from developing the power to cultivate their own food and play a role in the production sector of the American food system.  Because of this white power, and the terrorization against Black farmers, many Black Americans left the South not “simply seeking better wages and work or bright lights and big adventures. [but] fleeing the acquisitive warlords of the South. They were seeking the protection of the law.” This mass movement of Blacks from the rural south to the urban north is known as The Great Migration, and further removed Black Americans from the production sector of the American food system.

The Industrialization of Supermarkets and Whiteflight 

“as the residential character of urban neighborhoods changed during the 20th century, so did the amenities available in those neighborhoods. The low point for urban retailing was in the 1980s, when cities experienced a net loss of supermarkets even as, nationally, store openings exceeded closings. The trend toward fewer, bigger stores located outside cities has continued to the present. Some critics have referred to this disinclination of large chains to locate in cities as ‘supermarket redlining’”

Eisenhauer
A Super Giant supermarket, circa 1964 JOHN DOMINIS / GETTY

Until the 1950’s, people primarily did their grocery shopping at small, locally owned stores. While these stores faced difficulties in the earlier 20th century, such as during the Great Depression, it wasn’t until World War Two when “food shortages, combined with the departure of heads of family businesses to the war meant that many independent merchants went out of business.” At the same time as small locally owned grocery stores were going out of business, and being replaced by powerful mega supermarkets, Black Americans were moving into cities, and white Americans were leaving the cities for suburbs. At the same time as The Great Migration and white flight were taking place, technology was quickly developing, and mega Supermarkets were able to use technology to track what products, and how many products, people bought in order to better estimate the supply orders they needed to minimize wasted product. They also relied on self service, where customers selected their own groceries, and stocked stores with more than just food, including products such as household cleaners, cooking supplies, etc, making supermarkets a one stop shopping center. 

Supermarkets boomed at the same time as Black Americans were moving into American cities through The Great Migration, and white Americans were leaving cities for the suburbs. White wealth and power has developed through the exploitation of Black labor since the founding of the United States, and that power and wealth is what allowed white Americans to leave cities, and determined that supermarkets would follow. Food deserts demonstrate the power of the white dollar that was made off Black labor, and “the growth of a retail industry with the political and economic power to dominate food retailing (as well as food production and distribution) was highly dependent on the increased mobility of the upper- and middle-classes, the willingness of the government to relinquish a number of regulatory controls, and the development of technology which vastly improved both communication and information management for those who could afford it.” As white Americans gained increased mobility, Black Americans were subject to redlining, forced to buy homes on contract, and denied jobs, all of which decreased their mobility and spending ability, trapping them in debt in cities they had moved to in order to escape the same systems in the south. The increase of Black American’s in northern cities directly correlates with white American’s leaving cities, taking with them white wealth that accumulated from the exploitation of Black labor, leaving behind economically compromised cities. By “the 1970s nationwide economic ‘stagflation’ caused supermarket retail to flounder. Mergers and leveraged buyouts of competing chains hit less competitive, inner-city markets hard; between 1978 and 1984, Safeway alone closed more than 600 stores in these neighborhoods.” By closing city locations where populations were highly Black, and opening stores in white suburban areas instead, supermarket chains participated in supermarket redlining in the same way realtors did with housing.

By outcompeting small local stores decades earlier, and closing of city locations, mega supermarkets left city residents, who in the 1980’s were predominantly African American and other people of color, without access to food. Through this system of supermarket industrialization, Black Americans were failed and devalued by the distribution sector of the American food system, because of economic and political institutionalized racism that prevented them from acquiring generational wealth, leaving them with less to spend on groceries, which led to the abandonment of supermarkets in predominantly poor Black neighborhoods, creating food deserts. Studies on food deserts have found “four times as many grocery stores in predominantly white neighborhoods as predominantly Black ones, and other studies have noted that inner-city supermarkets have higher prices and a smaller selection of the fresh, wholegrain, nutritious foods,” demonstrating that the American food system has developed as a lasting legacy of slavery.

Comparing Black and white American food security

Sources:

https://thenextsystem.org/growing_justice_transcending_oppressive_history_of_our_food_system

Slocum, Rachel. Race in the study of food. Progress in Human Geography. 2011. (311).

Billings, David and Lila Cabbil. Food Justice: What’s Race Got to Do with It?. Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts 5, no. 1 2011. (109).

Alkon, Alison Hope, and Julian Agyeman, eds. Cultivating Food Justice : Race, Class, and Sustainability. Food, Health, and the Environment. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2011. (50, 53, 108, 152, 154-155).

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. We Were Eight Years in Power : An American Tragedy First ed. New York: One World. 2017. (166, 165).

Eisenhauer, Elizabeth. “In Poor Health: Supermarket Redlining and Urban Nutrition.” Geojournal 53 (2). 2001. (127).