In a major metropolitan neighborhood, yet another grocery store has disappeared after giving the community a two-week notice. In the South Dallas neighborhood of Red Bird, whose population is predominantly African American and Latinx, the local Walmart has been an anchor for some 30 years. Now, the South Oak Cliff neighborhood has been deserted by the giant supermarket chain, leaving thousands of residents exposed and vulnerable, with few options for full-scale grocery stores that offer cultural and diet-specific food. All that's left is the empty building and the remnants of where the name used to be — almost as if to erase its existence. 

While there is a smaller chain grocer, Aldi, nearby, it has limited options, and Tennell Atkins, the Dallas city council member who serves this district, has cautioned that this area is in danger of becoming a food desert. It also leaves to question: how are people getting fed in a food desert?

The term “food desert” is a relatively new addition to our lexicon, yet the roots of the problem are not new. The American divide between who has access to food and who does not is an injustice that dates back to our colonial days. Food is political, and it’s been that way since 1619.

From the moment the first European colonists and enslaved Africans arrived 400 years ago on the shores of the New World, slave holders instituted an economic system where food was used as currency. It was a disparate system planted with seeds of white privilege and rooted in racism.

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When Africans were taken from their homeland — uprooted, kidnapped and forcibly placed on slave ships — they left behind their families, their freedoms and access to their cultural and diet-specific foods, save for the few grains that they were able to hide in their braided hair. Records show that a bartering deal of so-called “some 20. And odd Negroes” was negotiated in an emerging food commerce system: they were traded for crops so that white slaveholders could have access to food.  

400 years later, those seeds of injustice have grown into a nationwide food insecurity crisis, in which the same people who were deliberately left hungry then are still hungry now.

Bread For the World Institute, an organization that provides nonpartisan policy analysis on hunger and strategies to solve it, reports that African Americans have the highest poverty rate, and subsequently, are twice as likely to be more food insecure than any other demographic.  And according to Feeding America, one in six Latinx households suffer from food insecurity.

While these populations are not the only ones affected by poverty, one of the factors contributing to the higher percentage is identified as racial discrimination. This means that a growing rate of African Americans and Latinx in major metropolitan cities like Dallas are food insecure because they don’t have access to healthy foods. Indeed, 23 million Americans live in what some call “food deserts,” but what food justice activist Karen Washington — and I — choose to call food apartheid. A system, set up and maintained by a series of human choices, in which some people are permitted to live in a community with a supermarket nearby, and other people — mostly people of color — are not.

Take Dallas for instance. It is the eighth largest city in America and is a tale of two cities. Dallas boasts a landscape of being one of the richest in the nation, while simultaneously being one of the highest poverty-stricken cities. Of the city’s 1.2 million residents, some 450,000 live in the system of food apartheid. There are identified pockets of the city where supermarkets do not exist within a one-mile radius of neighborhoods. These pockets are not in predominantly white neighborhoods. The struggle is in wooing grocers to build in impoverished areas where tax breaks are not as lucrative as in economically-secure neighborhoods, and where the closing of grocery stores have created immediate needs that take years to solve. It’s political.

In the Highland Hills neighborhood of Dallas, where Paul Quinn College, a historically Black institution of higher learning is situated (which also operates an urban farm on its campus), the area is recovering from the effects of being grounded in food apartheid. Three years ago, thanks to funding in part from the City of Dallas Office of Economic Development, the arrival of a Save-A-Lot grocery ended years of the lack of fresh food for the 6,000 low-income residents who call that area home.  

Across town in another predominantly low-income area of Latinx, a Fiesta grocery store now anchors the intersection of that neighborhood, but years went by before the city stepped up to do something about the lack of a full-scale grocery store that could meet the cultural and diet-specific needs of that community. Meanwhile, in predominantly white neighborhoods stores like Whole Foods, Central Market and Sprouts are, well, sprouting up, adding to the options of full-scale grocery stores that are neatly planted in those communities. I guess that makes those areas a naturally occurring food oasis. Or does it?

The demographics of the affected neighborhoods all have one thing in common — they are predominantly populated by people of color. We must change the narrative about the language used to describe the loss of grocery stores in these non-white areas. Food insecurity stems from racism. Let’s see how the politics of the conversation changes when we call it by its rightful name – food apartheid, a system that disenfranchises people based on race, rather than food desert, a term that doesn’t fully grasp the economic and political power at work. Food desert arguably sounds like an area that is aging and dying, and that when the people dry up, the stores dry up.

But as long as there are financial incentives to systematize which area gets the “name brand” grocery stores versus which areas suffer for years without access to fresh food, then we don’t get to the roots of the problem that have held a weed-like chokehold on people of color for the last 400 years.

Yvette R. Blair-Lavallais is a minister and food justice activist in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area and a public voices fellow of The OpEd Project.