In the early 1990s the U.S. federal government began to describe communities lacking access to nutritional food as “food deserts” conjuring up an image of arid emptiness overlaid with fast food shops. The allusion implies that a lack of healthy food is a natural phenomenon, but there’s a better metaphor to illustrate the problem, scholars and activists now say: call it food apartheid.
“It speaks to this notion of segregation. That those that experienced food apartheid, for some reason, don’t have the same access or same resources to be able to have the same food as others,” says Pamela Broom, the former deputy director of the New Orleans Food and Farm Network.
This particular theoretical lens is vital to understanding America’s food justice problem. “I think it encapsulates everything,” says Amy Ndiaye of the impact gardening has in combatting food apartheid in her community. A high school senior at Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans, Ndiaye is a community gardening advocate.. “When we talk about apartheid, it talks about race, it talks about the land itself, it talks about space, it talks about economics, it has a lot of things wrapped into it because everything is intertwined within apartheid.”
Acknowledging such economic and social conditions better explains why, exactly, some communities experience widespread food insecurity while others do not. It also emphasized the power of food sovereignty, or a community’s right to define its own food system and health.
The term was originally co-opted from the coalition La Via Campesina, an international 200 million-person coalition of growers, fisher-folk, and land-workers who have come together as a “peasants” movement. Their movement, in part, seeks to demonstrate the value of their labor for nutritional food.
“People seemed to get really inspired early in the pandemic, when it was so hard to get to the grocery store,” says Anna Timmerman, an extension agent in Orleans Parish for Louisiana State University. For the larger general public, what the pandemic also highlighted, Timmerman continues, is just how bad food insecurity issues are in metro areas across the country.
To combat that, it requires a re-thinking of the problem at hand, food scholars and activists say. “I think it really continues to go right back to the very foundational and essential consideration of access to property or land, and the sufficient resources in order to be able to utilize that property or land to grow,” Broom says.
In the meantime, the best way for communities to combat the apartheid is to invest time and money into the garden bed. “I think home gardening is an act of resilience and resistance to the current food system,” says Sunny Baker, the co-director of the Mississippi Farm to School Network, an organization that connects local farmers with schools to bring their products into school cafeterias. “It’s how people survived before processed foods and the food system as it currently stands.”