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Expert Perspective

Building Fair, Sustainable Food Systems that Nourish Our Health

Food systems

Angela Odoms-Young

Associate Professor and Director of the Food and Nutrition Education in Communities Program, Division of Nutritional Sciences, Cornell University

Kim Libman, PhD, MPH

Vice President of Policy, ChangeLab Solutions


October 23rd, 2023


What would our society look like if we redesigned our food system with racial equity in mind? So that it served every family, supported every worker, and ensured environmental sustainability, allowing all people to access the nutritious food they need to thrive?  

To answer this question, we need to understand the root causes of inequity within our food system, including how structural racism influences the ways our food is produced, marketed, distributed, and consumed. Structural racism continues to have far-reaching impacts on food security in the U.S., exacerbating economic inequities and health disparities experienced by people of color and their communities.

Racially oppressive policies, limiting access to both land and capital, have been instrumental in shaping rural and urban food environments. This has led to the loss and dispossession of millions of acres of farmland, a dearth of BIPOC-led farm initiatives and community gardens, and a workforce deprived of the full rights and privileges for meaningful participation in the food system. 

It’s a lack of grocery stores that provide affordable produce and other healthy foods and a surplus of fast food outlets and retailers that sell mainly cheap unhealthy products in communities of color. 

And it’s the restrictions and challenges that prevent people who are eligible for nutrition assistance programs from participating in them. For example, Black individuals and families are more likely than other racial groups to live in communities with structural barriers to enrolling in SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), such as unstable internet access. 

Each of these factors contributes to food insecurity, creating barriers that prevent many families and children from having enough of the foods they need to be healthy. 

“There’s a lack of understanding about how racism operates within the food system and impacts health. We must bring together people with lived experiences—from advocates and researchers to policymakers and food workers—to build shared solutions and a more equitable food system.”

Angela Odoms-Young

The Solution: Integrating Equity Into Our Food System Governance

We can reimagine and redesign our food landscape so that it contributes to the health and wellbeing of every member of our society. Emerging research from Cornell University and ChangeLab Solutions is beginning to shape shared solutions like these: 

  • Include people who have experienced inequity. People who have experienced the challenges of inequities are also those closest to the solutions. Creating meaningful change and feasible solutions will require bringing together community members, people of color, food workers, and people who have been most impacted by food injustice.  
  • Create space for interdisciplinary conversations. Including researchers with a wide array of expertise on racism, community engagement, health, and food policy is integral to reshaping our food systems and building a society that addresses and dismantles its inequities. Combining that expertise with that of impacted community members and decisionmakers will lead to more paths forward.  
  • Empower families who participate in nutrition assistance programs. For example, we should change administrative policies for WIC, SNAP, and school meals programs to engage participants. Their experiences can help formulate food packages, clarify accessibility, shape the quality of benefits, and establish standards for state and local agencies to solicit feedback. 
  • Address the root causes of inequity. For example reducing the racial wealth gap may be a key to addressing other inequities. Today, for each dollar of wealth held by White families, Indigenous families have about 8 cents, Black families have about 13 cents, and Latino families about 19 cents. This chasm can drive so many other barriers to health.

“For young people and those who care for them, achieving their full health potential requires access to everything they need to feel safe and well-nourished—from culturally affirming foods to safe schools and neighborhoods, as well as employment with dignity and a living wage. It requires a whole system approach so that families can participate in decision making that shapes their communities and live with joy and security.”

Kim Libman

Creating a new model for a food system that fully integrates racial equity and economic inclusion is not a simple task, but with hard work, it can be achieved—and the food system and policy landscape that our children participate in tomorrow will be a better one than the one we have today. 

About the Authors

Angela Odoms-Young
Associate Professor and Director of the Food and Nutrition Education in Communities Program, Division of Nutritional Sciences, Cornell University
Kim Libman, PhD, MPH
Vice President of Policy, ChangeLab Solutions

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